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What Is NFC on My Phone? The Mysterious Feature Explained

Updated: May 17,2022

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Ever wondered what the “N” icon that seems to always be active in your smartphone’s tray represents? That’s NFC - a wireless contact payment system present on all newer smartphones (not to be confused with NFT, another thing whose purpose is often unclear).

If you want an answer to the question “What is NFC on my phone?” and find out how exactly this feature functions, you’ve come to the right place.

What Is NFC?

NFC stands for Near Field Communication and represents a wireless technology that allows instant and secure communication between NFC-ready devices. This technology has its roots in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tech. It functions through contactless proximity: You have to get two NFC-abled devices within four inches of one another for the data transfer to occur.

NFC technology has been around for a while now. Before it became a standard smartphone feature, NFC tech was commonly used in credit and debit cards. With it, you can conduct payments by just leaning your card against the reader, without the need for the card to be swiped at all.

NFC payments are not the only use of this technology. It’s used in practically all contactless solutions, like bus, hotel room, and company ID cards.

In recent years, smartphone manufacturers and tech giants like Google and Amazon kicked off the massive use of NFC. Immensely popular services like Samsung Pay, Google Pay, and Apple Pay use NFC to support Tap and Pay transactions.

The first smartphone to ship with the NFC feature launched over a decade ago - the Nexus S, an Android phone released in 2010. Apple wasn’t too far behind, as 2014’s iPhone 6 included NFC. All subsequent Android and iOS phones had the same functionality.

Smartwatches are also NFC devices, as are fitness trackers, and other modern wearables.

How Does NFC Work?

As previously mentioned, NFC isn’t exactly new. It represents an adaptation of RFID - a method of automatic identification and data capture commonly used for tracking inventory goods.

Both NFC and RFID rely on inductive coupling to function. This method involves the reader device generating a magnetic field. When a device with its own NFC tag enters the field, it induces an electric current within the tag. After that contact, the data is transferred from the NFC device to the reader.

Unlike Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, an NFC connection doesn’t require the involved devices to be paired in any way. The main difference between NFC and RFID is that NFC has a much shorter range: Only four inches. Whenever two NFC devices come within range, the connection is created.

NFC devices can act either as a passive NFC tag or a reader. This double functionality affords much-needed use flexibility and prevents accidental data transfers. Another safety feature some manufacturers go for is to require NFC devices to have physical contact (usually just a short tap) before the connection is created. Either way, no wiring or pairing is needed, but you’re protected from accidents.

NFC Chips

For any device to be NFC-ready, it must possess an NFC chip. As previously stated, these chips can act as either active components (readers) or passive (tags).

The NFC reader chip provides power and sends commands to the passive chip: It’s the controlling element in this communication system. NFC reader chips can both send and receive data, while passive ones can only do the latter, and can’t communicate with other passive NFC devices.

On the other hand, passive tags don’t require any power, but can be used to send instructions back to your phone. Smartphones carry reader chips, and when you use them to scan a passive tag, you can automatically change certain settings on your phone, like volume level, notifications, mobile network access, and so forth.

What Is the NFC on My Cell Phone Used For?

An NFC-enabled phone can be used for a variety of purposes. The most obvious one is, of course, to conduct quick mobile payments.

Mobile Payments

Typing in credit card information by hand or logging into PayPal and similar e-wallets to manually transfer funds is slowly becoming a thing of the past - at least when it comes to in-person transactions.

Services like Google Pay or Pomelo Pay (companies weren’t too original when naming them) all rely on NFC to conduct quick, contactless payments. No need to whip out your card at the store or grab verification codes from your email - you just tap the payment terminal with your phone, and you’re all set.

Conducting an NFC mobile payment is both easy and secure. When an NFC connection is created between two devices, the data will be instantly sent thanks to inductive coupling. Additionally, all data flows are encrypted, meaning no one can intercept those data streams and get a hold of your payment information. On top of that, the encryption is changed for each transaction through Perfect Forward Secrecy.

You can use your smartphone to both make and accept payments. If you’re running a retail store and don’t have money to spare for a full Point-of-Sale system, you can just accept payments via a smartphone app.

Data Transfers

“Ok,” you might be thinking, “but what is the NFC on my phone capable of doing, apart from mobile payments?” The answer is data transfers. Services like Android Beam allow you to quickly and conduct data transfers by touching the backs of two smartphones.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the Infrared transfers of old. Naturally, it’s significantly quicker; these data transfers also tend to be more secure than sending files via traditional routes.

Connect Devices

Another helpful feature NFC technology brings to the table is the ability to quickly connect to any external device. Through NFC pairing, you can instantly connect to printers - an otherwise lengthy process if Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity is wonky. Furthermore, smartphone music lovers can easily connect to external speakers with only one tap.

Wi-Fi Access

NFC connections can also be used to provide people access to your Wi-Fi network, without the hassle of reading an 8- or 10-character password from the back of your router and having the guest type it in. Instead, NFC tags allow quick configuration of various phone and other IoT-device settings.

Public Transport, Work, and University Access

Aside from making an NFC payment, you can use this tech to access public transport, or restricted areas, like university libraries or work offices. This can be done either through simple NFC tag cards, or straight through smartphones.

How To Turn NFC On and Off

Toggling your phone’s NFC on and off, as well as fine-tuning NFC settings, is a fairly straightforward process.

  1. Go to your phone’s Settings app.
  2. Click Connections
  3. Tap the NFC option to turn it on or off

In some cases, the Contactless Payments option is tied to the NFC toggle, and sometimes it’s separate, so make sure to check which is the case for your phone.

Alternatively, you can swipe down from the top of your screen and tap the NFC icon to turn it on as needed. The NFC functionality uses up a minuscule amount of battery power, but you might want to keep it off unless you’re using it for NFC mobile payments or other purposes, to prevent any accidental pairings.

FAQ

Should NFC be on or off?

NFC connectivity uses only a tiny amount of battery power and won’t cause any issues with other activities. Hence, you can freely keep it on at all times. However, if you want to avoid accidental pairings, it’s safer to keep it turned off.

What is the purpose of NFC in Android?

Be it on Android, iOS, or any other operating system, NFC is used to conduct mobile payments, data transfers, device pairings, and quick device configuration.

Do you really need NFC on your phone?

While you can use your phone to its full extent without the NFC feature, there’s no reason not to have it. Furthermore, nearly all smartphones today ship with NFC functionality pre-installed.

Is NFC safe to use on your phone?

Yes, NFC is pretty safe. Any mobile payments sent through it are encrypted. A lot of people get scared because they don’t immediately recognize what the feature is and the purpose it serves, leading to panicked questions like “What is NFC on my phone, and is it dangerous?” Thankfully, NFC is safe - safer than most other transfer methods, even.

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Damjan
ABOUT AUTHOR
Damjan

While Damjan started his career in humanities, his interests quickly moved on to the tech and IT world. VPNs, antiviruses, firewalls, password managers - cybersecurity is what he knows best. When Damjan’s not losing hair over the dwindling of our collective sense of tech safety, you’ll find him looking for solace in 100-hour-long RPGs and rage-inducing MOBAs.

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