Simple questions: What is NFC and what does it do?

NFC is an acronym that is often used when referring to modern smartphones and tablets. What does it mean? Moreover, what does NFC do? Many people buy expensive smartphones, which all have NFC on them, but they have no idea what NFC is or how they can use this technology. If you would like to learn more about it, including how to tell whether you have NFC on your smartphone, read this guide:

What is NFC (Near Field Communication)?

NFC or Near Field Communication is a set of close-range, low-power wireless communication standards. It allows electronic devices to establish two-way radio communication with each other, using complementary technologies such as Bluetooth or WiFi. NFC works by touching two devices or by placing them close to each other, at distances that are less than 4 inches or 10 centimeters.

You have probably heard about RFID or Radio-Frequency Identification. The most popular use of RFID tags is in credit cards. If your credit card supports contactless payment, it is because it has an RFID tag in it and the information on it can be read by stores to charge you.

NFC is a technology similar to RFID, but with the crucial difference that while RFID chips can only be read. NFC also lets your device transmit and receive information from other NFC enabled devices. Therefore, while NFC and RFID are similar, they are not the same thing.

When you pair two NFC-enabled devices, NFC can automatically connect them using Bluetooth, and then start transferring information between them. Some devices, like the Samsung smartphones, can also use NFC to initiate a Direct WiFi connection between your devices automatically. Compared to Bluetooth, WiFi Direct is much faster.

When was NFC released and by whom?

Sony, Philips, and Nokia invented this technology. The first phone with NFC was Nokia 6131, and it was released in 2006. The first Android smartphone with NFC was the Nexus S, and it was released in 2010.

Hundreds of companies have now adopted this technology, and it is widely used in all kinds of devices like smartphones, tablets, PCs, portable speakers, and even cars. The evolution of this technology and its standard is managed by the NFC Forum - a non-profit industry association. This forum has more than 100 members, and it includes most of the prominent companies in the world of technology, including Intel, Microsoft and Google. All the major mobile manufacturers are also members.

What is the use of NFC on my smartphone (Android, iPhone, and so on)?

NFC has many uses, and the most common are the following:

  • Transfer contacts and web pages between your smartphones - NFC allows for instant transfer of contacts and web pages between smartphones with NFC. It is a quick way to transfer such data between two smartphones.
  • Contactless payments with your smartphone - you can use your NFC enabled a smartphone to perform quick payments, just like you would with a credit card. Both Google and Apple provide NFC payment solutions through their mobile Wallet apps. In these apps, you can store your credit card information and then make payments with your smartphone, instead of your credit card. The payment process is thus faster.
  • Pair your smartphone with other consumer electronic devices - NFC can be used to pair your iPhone or your Android smartphones with headsets, portable speakers, media players or game controllers that also have NFC.
  • Pair your smartphone with your car - NFC is also getting great adoption from car manufacturers because this technology can allow users to connect their smart devices to their car multimedia system quickly. Companies such as BMW or Mercedes have added NFC to their new car models.
  • Transfer files from or to your smartphone - NFC can be used to automatically complete the steps of enabling, pairing and establishing Bluetooth or Direct WiFi connections so that you can perform file transfers between two NFC-enabled smartphones, but also from your smartphone to your tablet, laptop or 2-in-1 device.

Where else is NFC used?

There are also other uses that are not widely used at this point but which are made available by some companies. One of the most interesting is that NFC can be used for access and security checks: you can use devices with NFC, such as your smartphone, to validate your identity and get access to your office building, for example. Several companies and universities are also using NFC-enabled devices as security badges. Also, there are companies like Iberia airlines in Spain which allows travelers to store their boarding passes on their NFC smartphones, or like the Scottish railway operator Rambus which lets you pay for your train tickets using smartphones with NFC.

Is NFC (Near Field Communication) safe?

The only major downside of this technology is that it does not provide any security or protection outside the fact that communication can be done only within a very close range (of a few inches or centimeters). NFC is vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, from eavesdropping to data modification. A complete list of vulnerabilities was documented on Wikipedia: NFC Vulnerabilities.

How to tell whether you have NFC (Near Field Communication) on your Android smartphone

Not all Android smartphones have NFC available, at least not the cheaper models. To tell whether you have NFC on your Android smartphone, first open the Settings. In Android 7 or older, look for a button called More. It is usually found in the Wireless & networks category, or somewhere beneath Bluetooth. Tap the More button. If you are using Android 8 Oreo, in the Settings app, look for Connected devices and tap on it. If you see an entry named NFC, then you have NFC on your smartphone. To enable it, tap on the NFC switch.

If you want to know more about how to enable and use NFC on your Android smartphone, this guide can help you: How to tell if you have NFC on your Android smartphone, and how to activate it.

How to tell whether you have NFC (Near Field Communication) on your iPhone

Most iPhones do not have NFC, or they cannot use all the benefits of NFC because Apple chose not to include all its features on its smartphones:

  • If you have an iPhone 5, 5s, 5c or previous, you do not have NFC;
  • If you have an iPhone 6, 6 Plus or iPhone SE, you have NFC but only for payments, using Apple Pay;
  • If you have an iPhone 7, iPhone 8 or iPhone X, you have NFC for payments, and with an NFC app, you can also read NFC tags, but only if you are using iOS 11 or newer.

None of the iPhones released until now (August 2018) can write NFC tags.

Do you use NFC (Near Field Communication)?

As you can see, NFC is a promising technology that can be used for many things. Its growing adoption in all kinds of mobile devices, especially on smartphones, will only increase its importance in the future. Are you using NFC to send data between your smartphones, for connecting to your portable speakers, or other tasks? Share your experience as well as any questions you might have about NFC, in the comments section below.