What is NFC and why should I use it?

NFC is something you may often hear mentioned with regard to new smartphones, but it’s something which few people have an understanding of, or even use. Yes, it’s an acronym, but not all acronyms have to be scary. NFC is both easy to understand and can be incredibly useful. Here’s all you need to know about what NFC is and why you should use it.

What is NFC?

NFC stands for Near Field Communication. Essentially, it’s a way for your phone to interact with something in close proximity. It operates within a radius of about 4 cm and provides a wireless connection between your device and another. This allows for two-way communication, with both devices involved being able to send and receive information. This NFC connection does not rely on Wi-Fi, 3G, LTE, or otherwise, and it does not cost anything to use.

How do I know if my Android smartphone has NFC?

It’s very simple. Just open Settings > More and see if there’s an NFC option hiding there. Most smartphones that have NFC place a small NFC logo on their rear panels, too.

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How does NFC work on Android?

NFC transmits or receives data via radio waves. It’s an established standard of wireless communication, so if devices stick to the NFC protocols, they can communicate with each other. It differs from Bluetooth in that it functions through electromagnetic induction. What this means is that there can be a passive device, such as a poster or sticker, requiring no power source of its own, that can transmit data when an active device, like your smartphone, comes into contact with it.

As an active NFC device, a smartphone can send and receive data over NFC. It encompasses the full range, three modes, of NFC:

  • Reader/writer (e.g., for reading tags in NFC posters)
  • Card emulation (e.g., for making payments)
  • Peer-to-peer (e.g., for file transfers)

What can I use NFC for?

Connecting with NFC tags

NFC tags are small physical “tags” or “stickers” containing NFC chips that can be programmed to provide any kind of information to your smartphone. Typically, an NFC tag contains links to a web address, but it can also be set to perform certain actions with your smartphone, like turn on the Wi-Fi, or turn down the ringer.

In the future, these tags could be embedded into just about anything. For example, an NFC tag could be used in a restaurant menu to make the most up-to-date version of it available immediately on your phone. All you would need to do is bring your smartphone into proximity with the physical menu, and you could potentially browse more detailed information of certain menu items, like nutritional values or ingredients. Where NFC presents an advantage over current QR technology is that there is no need for a “scanner app”: the information is available instantaneously.

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Making payments with NFC

What will possibly become the biggest use for NFC in the near (field) future is the Tap and Pay option it provides. NFC payments are already available in many stores across the US, and in the UK for purchases of £15 or less, using an app like Softcard or Google Wallet: all it involves is tapping your phone against an enabled terminal. Now that Apple has included an NFC antenna in the iPhone 6 to work in conjunction with its new Apple Pay feature (and now includes similar functionality in the Apple Watch), these type of cardless wireless payments are going to become more and more prevalent.

This function of the chip can also be used as a method of identification, e.g., when entering a members-only building, going to a gig, or getting on public transportation.


Using NFC for file transfer 

Through NFC connectivity you can also send certain files between devices using Android Beam. This also enables you to share links to applications, as well as music, a location on Google Maps and contacts. It also allows you to pair your smartphone with a smartwatch or compatible speaker.

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How to send files via NFC on Android

First you need to enable NFC and Android Beam on both devices (Settings > More), then all you need to do is go to the file you wish to send, say, a photo, and tap the devices together. That’s right, you don’t even need to select any “send via” options, just put the devices back to back, and when it asks to confirm the transfer hit “touch to beam”. You can also do this with the help of a dedicated app such as File Beam, and the result is a much simpler and faster way of sending files between two neighboring handsets.

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There you have it. NFC provides the quickest way to set up connections between electronic devices and provides the fastest solution for file transfer between handsets in close proximity.

Some problems with NFC on Android

  • Not all devices bear an NFC chip, but they are becoming more common
  • NFC chips are not all located in the same place, resulting in some exploratory rubbing between devices
  • Cross-compatibility between devices is not universal, especially when it comes to specific file types

Do you use NFC on your smartphone? What uses have you found for it?


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