Near-field communication (NFC) is a feature that allows one NFC-enabled device to connect with another from a short distance. It is faster and more accurate than Bluetooth and is used in payment cards, security and transport passes, smartphones, and other devices that require data sharing for access.

NFC mobile payments are considered a more secure alternative for making financial transactions than credit or debit cards, as they require user authentication (such as a fingerprint or face scan). However, making NFC payments using contactless technology has also become ubiquitous over the past few years.

NFC is a key step in the advancement of data sharing. Data sharing allows computer networks to connect and communicate with one another, and many technologists predict that NFC will play an important role in the development of artificial intelligence.

But before all that, we are going to look at what NFC does on your phone and how you can use it.

NFC stands for near-field communication. It is a wireless communication protocol that allows two devices to connect over a short distance of four centimetres or less.

Your phone's NFC reader can be used for making payments, sharing files, accessing vehicles, charging other devices, getting you into buildings, and much more.

We will explore this in greater detail later, but let's first find out which phones have NFC.

All new iPhone and Android smartphones are equipped with NFC technology.

Every iPhone since the iPhone 6 has NFC, and every Android device running the Android 4.0 operating system has NFC. If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple Pay. You can use Google Pay or Samsung Pay if you have an Android.

Android phones using Android 4.4 to Android 9.0 operating systems can also use the Android Beam NFC feature for message and file exchange. Android phones using the Android 10.0 operating system onwards no longer have Android Beam. Instead, they have Nearby Share, which does not operate using NFC technology.

When using your NFC on your phone for things such as Apple Pay, you should not need to activate NFC; it should do so automatically.

If your NFC does not seem to be working, or if you want to activate it for other purposes, such as file share, you can activate it manually.

On an iPhone, open up Settings and select the Control Center tab. Find the NFC Tag Reader and tap the green plus button to turn it on.

To activate the Android Beam NFC feature on an Android, go to your phone Settings. Find Connections and then go to NFC and Payment and select NFC. Then you should see Android Beam and tap it to activate.

NFC operates on the principle of inductive coupling.

This process requires the reader device to generate a small magnetic field by running an electrical current through a coil. The reader then induces an electrical current within a second device - known as 'the tag.' This moment is called the 'handshake,' It is the point at which the devices are connected through inductive coupling.

Once the connection is made, the tag wirelessly transmits the relevant stored data to the reader device.

NFC technology was developed from radio-frequency identification technology (RFID). RFID was first created in the 1940s but became commonly used in the 1980s with identity cards or hotel key cards that operated using a magnetic strip.

It wasn't until 2014 that contactless payments became widely used in the UK, and Apple and Google Pay were launched.

NFC has many benefits over its antecedents and alternatives. The main advantages include the following:

  • Discretion and reduced radio emissions. Fewer radio emissions are required for NFC connections, which makes your device more discreet. For example, when you turn on your Bluetooth scanner, you can pick up signals from devices that are some distance from you and your device. This means that your device can similarly be found, which can invite malicious or unwanted connections.
  • Quick and efficient device pairing. We all know the feeling of trying to connect your phone to a Bluetooth speaker and not picking up a connection. NFC is a much more efficient pairing tool that only connects devices in proximity and can quickly form stable connections.
  • Transaction security. The need for devices to be close to each other increases transaction security. For things like mobile payments, the requirement for a fingerprint or face scan also adds a level of authentication that dramatically improves the security of the transaction.
  • Less power consumption. NFC is only active when it is activated. This is in distinction to Bluetooth or other communication and connection signals, which drain the battery, as they are always active and searching for other signals. The tap connecting two NFC-enabled devices essentially wakes the NFC technology up and activates it when needed rather than permanently on. This means that you use far less battery power.

So now we know a bit more about what NFC is and how it works, let's take a closer look at what it can be used for on your phone.

Mobile payments

Mobile payments are an increasingly popular payment method that signifies another leap toward a cashless world. Mobile payments are secure and convenient. Unlike contactless cards, most mobile payment methods ask you to confirm the payment with a fingerprint or face scan before processing it. This means that only you can make payments using your phone.

There are currently five major NFC payment apps available in the UK: Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Barclays Contactless Mobile, and Fitbit Pay.

As of the summer of 2021, 17.3 million adults in the UK had registered for mobile payment apps. Research suggests that there will be approximately 1.6 billion NFC-enabled devices worldwide by 2024.

Sharing between Android devices

Android Beam allows Android users to share files and content. However, the feature was discontinued from all Android phones with the Android 10.0 operating system, though it can still be used with earlier systems.

Android Beam was replaced in 2020 with Nearby Share, which performs a similar function but works using Bluetooth and WiFi rather than NFC.

Identity and access tokens

You can connect your phone to ID cards, transport passes, car keys, key cards, and even your passport (though only some people are eligible). Your phone then uses NFC to provide you access. Again, this is a more secure option as it requires verification, and it means you don't have to carry several cards and passes with you at once, as they are all stored on your phone.

Social networking and games

NFC on your phone can be used for social networking, such as sending messages, sharing files, and sharing contacts.

It can also be used in gaming and allows direct digital interaction with the game. For example, you can connect your phone to games on other consoles, allowing you to create a unique character that can only be activated by you.

Wireless charging

You can use your phone's NFC capabilities to charge another NFC device. This feature is only available on certain devices and is much slower than charging a device with a regular charger or using Qi wireless charging.

Other functions

There are many other tap-and-go functions that mobile NFC is capable of. You can connect your device to speakers to play music, track your health and fitness levels, log in to other computers, and activate motorbikes.

NFC technology is currently overhauling transportation payments. Where once we used cash and coins, we then moved to passes and cards, and now, increasingly, we use our phones. But what else could NFC be used for in the future? Surely its uses can go way beyond simplifying payment processes?

Well, terrifyingly enough, you can now get NFC chips implanted into your hand. This means you can make payments and transfer data without needing your phone.

You can also implant NFC chips into coasters or tables, which means that guests in your home can instantly connect to the house WiFi or smart systems by touching their phone to the right place.

The wireless charging feature of NFC devices will only get more advanced. It is easy to envision a time when most tech devices can wirelessly charge one another without needing a battery pack or cables.

And, with the recent announcement from Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk that human trials for Neuralink (a microchip implanted in the brain) will be underway by next year, how long will it be until NFC technology, or similar, will be able to transfer data to directly humans?

This may sound very sci-fi heavy, but NFC is an important step in the development of data sharing, which is a crucial component to rapid advancements in technology and artificial intelligence.

NFC is a communication feature that allows two enabled devices to share data and information from short distances. Once the devices have connected, the data-sharing process is quick and works much faster than alternatives such as Bluetooth. NFC is frequently used for mobile payments but can also be used for multiple other purposes.

Although the precursors of NFC have been around for decades, NFC is an exciting form of technology that could radically innovate the world of data sharing and communication. So next time you make a payment on your phone, consider that this might be an early step towards a much more advanced future in which communication between computer systems and humans could become almost instantaneous!