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What is NFC and how does it work? Absolutely everything you need to know

NFC, or Near Field Communication to use its full title, is a popular way of transmitting information over short distances between two different devices. This is most commonly found in smartphones and now some smartwatches too.

NFC is used for contactless payments, quick syncing of devices, gaming and plenty more besides. Since it’s effectively a wireless communications pathway and identity storage platform, the uses for it are myriad. But how does it actually work? What phones and gadgets is it found in? And what’s the difference between NFC and Bluetooth? We tackle all of the biggest questions right here so you can be an NFC nerd in no time.

What does NFC mean?

As previously mentioned, NFC stands for Near Field Communication. 'Near' really is the operative word here as we’re talking about the two communicating devices being within a distance of 4cm of each other.

What can NFC do?

A great example of NFC in real-life use is contactless payments. Despite the word contactless, this is always more of a tap-to-pay scenario, to make sure a connection is actually established.

Lots of banks now offer cards that can be tapped against a reader to complete payment and even the most remote shops and pubs are starting to accept that method. The more recent wave of contactless payments actually come via smartphones and even smartwatches, for payment made without a wallet or purse in sight.

Two of the most popular methods of smartphone contactless payments are Apple Pay (for the iPhone and Apple Watch) and Android Pay.

NFC can do loads more than pay for things, however. Speaker and headphone companies are now offering devices with NFC built-in. This allows you to tap your phone against the speaker or headphones to automatically activate the pairing process, so the two are synced together via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Cars are even embracing NFC now, with Jaguar Land Rover offering an Activity Key bracelet that allows the wearer to unlock the car without a 'proper' key. Since it’s waterproof, the idea is you can go surfing or swimming without burying your keys in the sand and hoping they’re still there on your return.

Some phones let you tap against another mobile, to share information using NFC. This can be handy for sharing contact information, or transferring files over.

Another use of NFC is for advertising and art, with plenty of examples of campaigns where a person could tap their phone to a particular point and be taken straight to a website for more information.

How does NFC work?

Let’s get a little geeky here, to explain how NFC actually works.

NFC uses electromagnetic induction between two loop antennas to exchange information between two separate devices. Each device has a loop antenna and the information is passed between the two when they come within close proximity.

NFC works as a card platform as discussed, letting smartphones tap to pay. It also works as a reader and writer letting devices read tags. Finally it can work peer-to-peer, meaning two devices can communicate with each other directly.

The key to NFC being so useful is that it is a passive technology. That means it doesn’t use power, which is why you can have cards programmed to use it, minus any kind of battery tech. These work by ‘awakening’ when they're sent a signal from the terminal. NFC on your smartphone may use a little power as it searches for nearby devices, but on its own NFC can be completely inert.

Which Android phones have NFC?

Once there was a time when only certain Android phones packed in the tech. Nowadays though you’ll be hard pressed to find a phone without NFC, even in budget models.

If you have an Android phone made in the last few years by Samsung, LG, Google, HTC, OnePlus, Huawei, Honor or Lenovo, it’s a pretty safe bet it’ll come packing NFC. You can always check the tech specs online to be sure, of course.

Does my iPhone have NFC?

Yes, all iPhones come packing NFC now. Of course, if you have an older model, you might not have the tech built in - every handset from the iPhone 6 onwards has NFC, while the others lacked it.

So, you guessed it, that means you need an iPhone 6 or later to use Apple Pay with contactless payments. The Apple Watch also comes with NFC, so you can use that to buy things with Apple Pay too. This also allows you to use tap to pay with older iPhones like the 5, via the NFC in the Watch.

How can I turn on NFC on my phone or tablet?

Most devices, be they Apple or Android, have a communications section in the Settings menu. Navigate from here to find the NFC option, which can then be turned on or off with a poke.

Many Android phones have a quick menu with toggle buttons that also allows you to turn NFC on and off quickly.

NFC can drain a bit of power if it's constantly searching for other devices to connect to, so it’s best left off unless you need it. Another reason for deactivating NFC is security, as thieves have been using card payment machines to tap pockets on trains and take money without the owners even realising. Cheeky.

NFC vs Bluetooth, what's the difference?

NFC only works at super close range (up to 4cm), while Bluetooth is simply short range at between 10 and 100 metres. Although Bluetooth 5 offers a hefty 400 metre range on devices packing that standard.

While NFC devices are able to store information, Bluetooth is simply a way for devices to communicate. Also, while NFC is simply electromagnetic coils transmitting data, Bluetooth uses radio waves to send all kinds of information.

Bluetooth can send a lot more information than NFC in a short space of time, so it’s a much quicker tech - in fact, NFC operates at about a quarter of the speed. However, Bluetooth does require a lot more power to do so.

So while NFC can be used to activate something basic like a payment, Bluetooth can send complex information like music from a phone to a speaker, without any serious loss in quality.

Early adopters of NFC

The Oyster card, used to travel on London's buses and trains, was one of the first mainstream services to make use of NFC. Barclays wasn't far behind, offering contactless technology embedded into their credit and debit cards to pay for goods on the go.

Two of the first mobile phones to feature the tech included Google’s Nexus S flagship handset, as well as the Nokia 6131.

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