What’s NFC and why should you care?

by Whats NFC and why should you care? Daniel Gniazdo

Near Field Communication, or NFC for short, has gone from being obscure tech mumbo jumbo that only gadget freaks cared about to an increasingly useful feature in many modern smartphones. So what is NFC, and what can you do with it?

Person using NFC payment on smartphone

Photo credit: HLundgaard

More likely than not, you’ve heard someone use the term “NFC” before. Even more likely, the smartphone some of you are reading this article on has an NFC chip inside. See for yourself. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

But if you’re like most people, you still have no clue what NFC really is and what in the world you can use it for. Let’s change that.

What is NFC?

NFC is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to let devices exchange small amounts of data over a very short distance. We’re talking max 10 centimeters (4 inches).

So it’s sort of like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi but with a much shorter range, right? Yup, except NFC establishes connection almost instantaneously and requires no cumbersome setup process whatsoever. You literally just tap the two NFC devices together or wave them close to each other. That’s it. They’re connected.

NFC also needs a lot less power than either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, which means NFC chips can be used without a major battery source in things like, say, wall posters. You’d just have to wave your phone in front of a poster to read what’s on its NFC chip. (You may look like a weirdo to onlookers, but that’s a whole other story.)

NFC has evolved from an older wireless protocol called Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), which functions as an electronic identifier and has many commercial uses. While RFID chips only transmit a signal in one direction, NFC chips can both receive and send data.

Here’s a TL;DR video primer about NFC for those who are in a hurry:

The three NFC modes

Presently, NFC has three modes of operating:

  1. Peer-to-peer: This is when two NFC devices share data back and forth, so that you and your friend can quickly send cat memes to each other.
  2. Read/write: This is when one active device picks up info from a passive one. Refer to the wall poster example above.
  3. Card emulation: This turns your NFC device into a contactless card so you can pay for your groceries or your bus ride by simply holding it up to a compatible NFC reader.

What can I use NFC for?

Lots of things, actually. NFC tech is still mostly in its infancy, so we’ll probably see many practical applications in the future. Here are just a few examples:

  • Wireless wallet: Easily pay for purchases, from concert tickets to public transport to occult voodoo dolls, if that’s your thing. To enable this, Android NFC phones use Google Wallet, iPhone 6 uses Apple Pay, and Windows phones are rumored to start using NFC in combination with Microsoft Payments. In the not-too-distant future, credit cards will be a thing of the past.
  • Wireless keys: Open your car door by simply waving an encrypted NFC key in front of it. Or your house door. Or the safe where you keep your stuffed toys collection.
  • Instant file sharing: Quickly share pictures and other files with your friends when you’re too lazy to send a WhatsApp message. Android phones already use NFC-based Android Beam to do just that.
  • Bluetooth pairing: Pair your NFC smartphone with a Bluetooth headset by just tapping them together. More on this later.
  • Getting information: Download stuff from an information stand or an advertising banner by swiping your phone close to it. This could easily replace today’s QR codes.

If you have a bit of a tinkerer gene, you can even come up with your own creative uses for NFC. You just need an Android NFC phone and an NFC tag that you can buy quite cheaply. You then get to program the NFC tag to make your smartphone do things like changing screen brightness, shutting off Wi-Fi connection, starting a specific app, and much more.

Take a look at some neat examples of how this can work:

What’s the point of NFC in Bluetooth headsets?

You’ve probably heard of Bluetooth headsets with NFC. That may sound confusing. Don’t Bluetooth headsets already use – you know – Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone?

They do, and if you’ve ever owned a Bluetooth headset, you’re probably familiar with the many steps involved in pairing it with your phone. You put your headset in “pairing mode,” turn on Bluetooth on your smartphone, tell it to scan for new devices, pick your new Bluetooth headset from the list, maybe enter a passkey, then cross your fingers and pray for it all to work.

That’s where NFC comes in: It acts as a little helper in the tedious pairing process. If both your smartphone and your Bluetooth headset have NFC, pairing them is no more complicated than tapping them together for a second. Here’s a quick demo:

Does my phone have NFC?

At this point, I’m sure you’re super excited about NFC and are asking one single question: “Is there NFC on my smartphone?”

If you have an Android phone that’s less than two years old, the answer is almost certainly “yes.” If you have iPhone 6/6s (or iPhone 6/6s Plus), the answer is also “yes.” Sadly, Apple’s NFC is currently limited only to using Apple Pay. If you’re ever in doubt, you can always consult this comprehensive list of all NFC phones.

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Many of Jabra’s newest headsets and Bluetooth speakers have NFC for instant pairing.