What Is NFC on My Phone? Exploring Near Field Communication

What Is NFC on My Phone? Exploring Near Field Communication

It’s well known that mobile communication technology has come a very long way since the first cell phone call was made in 1973. Back in those days, mobile phones were physically enormous and weighed several pounds. The reception wasn’t particularly impressive, and the battery life left a lot to be desired. Needless to say, mobile phones weren’t exactly popular in the 70s and 80s.

In modern times, it’s the complete opposite, as more than 97% of Americans have a cell phone. The technology involved with cell phones has dramatically improved in the last few decades. 

What used to be viewed as a foolish luxury item that was more a burden than a blessing is now seen as an essential part of everyday life. Can you even imagine how different your day would be if you didn’t have a cell phone? 

The evolution of cell phone tech is happening faster and faster with each passing year:

One example of this phenomenon has been the rollout of near-field communication tech, or NFC for short. A phone without an NFC chip would be incompatible with apps that require its tech. Fortunately, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you have an NFC chip inside of your phone. You’ve probably used it many times without even knowing it. 

What Is NFC Tech?

Near-field communication (NFC) is a short-range wireless connectivity technology that allows for the easy exchange of information between two devices. It’s easiest to think of NFC as the next stage of evolution for radio frequency identification (RFID) tech.

You’ve almost certainly used RFID tech before. It’s what allows keyfobs or keycards to give you entry into work, the gym, or a hotel room. 

Both NFC and RFID tech operates on the same principle of inductive coupling. First, the antenna of a reading device passes an electrical current through a coil which generates a magnetic field.

When the antenna of a transmitting device enters this magnetic field, an electric current is created within the coil of its NFC tag. The stored data within the transmitting device is sent via radio waves to the reading device. No wires, physical contact, or internet connection is required. 

Why Is NFC Better Than RFID?

You might be wondering why NFC is replacing RFID. After all, if RFID isn’t broken, then why fix it?

The simple answer is that NFC is better than RFID because it offers much more security. In a world where personal data has become extremely valuable, anything that can offer you better protection is the way to go. Quite simply, NFC is much safer than RFID when it comes to short-range data transmission. 

There are four primary reasons why:

Shorter Distance

Ironically, the smaller magnetic field generated by NFC is one of its strengths. RFID tech is capable of connecting to sources a few hundred feet away. That can be very handy when it’s being used by work trucks to enter a gate.

However, it’s not ideal when you’re transmitting sensitive data. You wouldn’t want your banking account information to appear on the screen of every smartphone within a hundred-foot radius, would you? NFC limits the field size to under four feet, making it much easier for data transmission to be targeted. 

Enhanced Physical Security

The RFID chip inside of your credit card can be used by anyone. That means that if your credit card is stolen, the thief will have full access to your account. Using NFC tech on a smartphone provides an additional layer of security. 

The thief would have to steal your phone and unlock it first before they could make a payment. It’s much harder to guess a passcode, fake a fingerprint, or confuse facial recognition software than to remove cards from your wallet. Basically, contactless credit cards are a lot harder to steal.

Software Security Features

Smartphones that use NFC tech usually have built-in security features that can prevent an accidental data transmission. Placing your phone near another one won’t automatically trigger an information swap like an RFID chip would near an NFC reader. The software usually has strict requirements and ensures that you want the data transfer to happen before it starts. 

Bidirectional Capabilities

NFC tech enables your phone to function as both a transmitter and a reader. You can transfer information to another device just as easily as it can be transferred to yours. RFID tags can also achieve this goal, but the majority of them are one way.

For example, the RFID tag in your gym keyfob only transmits that your membership is active to the reader. It doesn’t receive any information back when you use it. 

Which Phones Have NFC Tech Capabilities?

NFC tech has been around for a bit, so virtually all smartphones come pre-equipped with it. Android became the first to install NFC tech on their phones when the Nexus S debuted way back in 2010.

It took Apple a few years to get on board with the tech, but it’s been a staple ever since the iPhone 6 hit the market in 2014. Since their release, both companies have used the tech for phones, laptops, Apple watches, tablets, fitness trackers, and pretty much everything else they release.

If the NFC icon isn’t up on your screen, open the Settings App to turn NFC on. iOS devices iPhone 7 and 8 will swipe up from the bottom of the screen, while X and above can access NFC settings by swiping down from the top right corner. 

It’s important to note that NFC-enabled devices aren’t a guarantee. Buying a smartphone in the Western world makes it extremely likely, but not every phone has NFC tech installed.

In most cases, cheaper devices (such as burner phones) don’t usually come with NFC tech capabilities. Another factor is the location where you buy the phone. For example, smartphones and smartwatches in India typically don’t have NFC capabilities as the infrastructure for NFC tech isn’t well established yet. 

How Can You Use NFC Tech? 

Chances are that you’ve already used NFC tech before, whether you knew it or not. In fact, the NFC scanner on your phone is very likely active as you’re reading this article.

It’s nothing to worry about, though, as NFC chips don’t do anything without your permission. They can create a field and “communicate” with other NFC chips, but they won’t initiate data transfers until you specifically tell them to. 

The practical use of NFC tech took a little while to catch on. Originally, there were a few apps, such as Android Beam and Fast Share (later renamed Nearby Share), that intended to transfer data between two devices. You could easily send pictures and videos to another phone without having to connect any cables. Most newer Android devices can support NFC. 

The problem was it took a little while for the transfer to be completed (it’s much faster now), and both phones need to be held in such close proximity that the wireless aspect wasn’t much of a feature. All that would change when the concept of mobile payments started to explode in popularity. 

Mobile NFC Payments

Mobile payments are easily the most important feature of NFC tech. Apps like Google Pay and Apple Pay took a few years to get settled but eventually took off and never looked back. In 2022, the total number of worldwide mobile device transactions reached $1.7 trillion. The vast majority of these apps used NFC tech to enable data transfers. If you’ve ever made or received money via one of these apps, then you’ve used NFC tech before. 

Contactless payments have been around for a while, as RFID chips originally made it possible. The lackadaisical security of RFID chips inside of cards made banks, credit card companies, and merchants hesitant.

As we discussed earlier, fraud is much easier to commit using an RFID chip. The rise of NFC tech for mobile apps led to an equal increase in the transfer cap for purchases. You can now spend significantly more money using an NFC-enabled app than an RFID-enabled chip. 

Transferring Data

The entire point of NFC tech is to easily transfer data. The original apps mentioned above weren’t exactly topping the charts on downloads. 

As the transfer speeds have dramatically declined, there are tons of apps out there that you can use. The Google Play Store and Apple Store feature a variety of options that can transfer text files, photos, and videos in the blink of an eye. 

Bluetooth Pairing

Most people use wearables like wireless headphones, speakers, or earbuds these days as they’re much more convenient than wires. NFC tech isn’t the reason why Bluetooth exists, as it has been around since before NFC tech debuted.

However, it does appear that it’s significantly improved the experience. The shorter magnetic field allows for a more powerful and focused pairing. You won’t be trying to connect your headphones to the neighbor's TV set anymore. The smaller range leads to a faster pairing, a stronger connection, and requires less battery to maintain. 

Public Transport

Buying a bus or train pass used to mean carrying around a keycard with an RFID chip installed. Losing or having it stolen meant that someone else could now use the transport you purchased.

NFC tech has enabled you to buy such passes and use your phone as the keycard instead. You don’t have to keep track of multiple keycards to get to work anymore. Simply installing an app and placing your phone near the reader is all it takes to catch a ride now. 

Quick Review: NFC vs. RFID

Using NFC tech has greatly sped up the transfer of data. Instead of typing out complicated passwords, you can give someone access to your Wi-Fi network by placing your two phones closer together. That’s just one example of the hundreds (if not thousands) of practical uses for NFC tech-enabled data transfers. 

Not only has it sped up data transfers, but it’s made them more secure. The smaller magnetic field generated by NFC is much more targeted than RFID readers. You can rest assured knowing that your mobile payment transfer was only picked up by the appropriate reader. You should take data protection very seriously and switch to NFC options to enhance your personal security. 

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Mobile Payments App Revenue and Usage Statistics (2023) | Business of Apps

Inductive coupling | RFID Journal

Near Field Communication (NFC) Definition | Investopedia

Google Planning NFC Roll-Out For May 26 | TechCrunch

Mobile Fact Sheet | Pew Research

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