What is NFC?

What if there were a safe, secure way to use your smartphone to pay for things? What if two devices could talk just by sitting next to each other? Here’s the secret: if you have the right devices, they already can.

The tech you’ve never heard of

The technology is called NFC. You’re to be forgiven if you haven’t heard of it, even if you use it every day. Pretty much every phone has it these days, although you’re more likely to hear terms like Apple Pay or Samsung Pay instead of NFC. NFC, or near-field communication, is a special kind of communication that’s designed to be very hard to hack because it only works within about six inches. In order to get the signal, a hacker would have to be close enough to see, even if he was using very complex equipment. It’s about as secure as Bluetooth but it’s designed to let two devices communicate without people doing anything.

NFC would let you pull pictures off your phone to a media sharing device if you put the phone on top, and it would let you pay for a soda or a subway ride just by waving your phone at the machine. It’s a very neat technology although it’s rarely used to its full potential.

The way it’s used

NFC is used on iOS devices for two very specific things. It’s used for Apple Pay, where signals are sent securely between the phone and a reader. It’s also used for AirDrop, the service where you can send information, pictures and content to other iOS devices. Beyond that it’s not used. NFC is completely locked down on iOS devices and other apps can’t use it. That’s a shame, but that’s Apple’s take on security. Remove the options that could get you in trouble, and you won’t get in trouble. If you like that, you’re probably still in the iPhone ecosystem. If you don’t you probably moved to Android long ago.

Androids with NFC have a lot of options. The technology can be used for mobile payments, of course. It can also be used to communicate with devices like cameras. Because it’s a secure, super-low-power technology, it’s better even than Bluetooth for connecting to certain kinds of devices.

In fact one of the neat things about NFC is that the amount of power needed to make the transmission is so low that one of the devices can be totally unpowered and can respond using the power of the radio signal. In that way, it’s like the RFID tags that keep stores from losing inventory. That means you could put a chip on anything, like a candy bar or a dress, and get more information from it just by waving your phone at it. This could make it easier for all the devices in your home to be connected inexpensively.

NFC or Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is the more popular choice.  A lot of things like keyboards and headphones use Bluetooth. NFC doesn’t work for that sort of relatively long distance communication. On the other hand NFC is much more secure than Bluetooth. It makes a lot of sense for mobile payments. Bluetooth is pretty hard to hack but when it comes down to it, you probably don’t care if someone were to listen to your music. You might care if they listen to your conversations, and if you do, you should probably use a wired headset instead.

Believe it or not, NFC is already here. Every iPhone has it, and most high-end Android phones too. Look for the little “N” logo (the one at the top of this article) somewhere on your phone or on connected devices like Sony’s line of NFC cameras. Chances are you have this technology now, you just need some reason to use it.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.