NFC 101

3 minute read

What is NFC?

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a short-range wireless communication standard similar to BLE or Wi-Fi, but works over short range typically 10cm or less. NFC is a radio frequency (RF) signal initiated by an active NFC device such as a smartphone or reader, and another active or passive device such as an NFC tag to transfer data. All NFC tags consist of an antenna coil and a small chip that is bonded to the antenna. When a mobile phone is within range of an NFC tag, its antenna becomes energized and powers the chip, which stores data. This antenna plus chip combo can be embedded inside a variety of form factors: circular/square stickers, business cards, access control cards, keychains, bank cards and even e-passports. Typically, the larger the antenna the longer the read range. The chip memory size ranges from 144 bytes, large enough to store a URL, to 36 kilobytes to store a person’s photo on an e-passport.

Example of passive tag reading vs peer-to-peer

Passive tag reading vs active peer-to-peer communication

Which phones have NFC?

Most of the new Android, Windows and Blackberry smartphones come with NFC as a built-in feature. NFC World keeps a comprehensive and up-to-date list of the NFC-capabls devices available on the market. To start using NFC on your phone, insure that NFC is enabled on your device. To scan a tag bring the device a few centimeters away from the tag. Apple has included NFC since the iPhone 6, but for now it can only be used for Apple Pay.

Applications of NFC

There are thousands of applications that use NFC, however, the following are the most popular:


Several banking institutions around the word have been issuing debit and credit cards with NFC that can be used to tap and pay at the POS. This has shortened the transaction processing time to a few seconds. Google introduced Host Card Emulation (HCE) in Android 4.4, which enabled NFC devices to be used for contactless payments. With HCE, any app on an Android 4.4 device or higher can emulate an NFC card by having users tap to initiate transactions. Visit this link to find out more about HCE. In 2014Q3, Apple announced support for NFC enabled transactions as part of their Apple Pay program.


There are numerous municipalities around the globe that use NFC cards and readers to charge for public transit fair. With HCE mobile devices can also be used, in-lieu of cards, to tap and pay for transit fair.

Access Control

Many hotels are replacing the magnetic stripe readers with NFC readers for room access. Phones can also be programmed to access to emulate room keys.


NFC cards or bracelets can be used for ticketless entry, pay for items at event, interact with exhibits and exchange contact information.

Pairing Devices

NFC simple setup makes it ideal for to pair different devices over more complex communication interfaces such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. A good example is Android Beam, which initiates the pairing using NFC to establish Bluetooth connection between two devices.

What is the difference between NFC and RFID?

NFC is a cousin of RFID. One way to think about it is that RFID is a wireless barcode, and NFC is a wireless smartcard. NFC is designed to be a secure form of data exchange and works on short range. RFID is used for identification and works over long range.

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