What is NFC and why is it in your phone?

NFC is now a household feature - but what can you do with it?

Are there any alternatives to NFC?

Yes – and there are plenty within it, too. One debate in the mobile and finance industry is between the 'mobile wallet' as represented by NFC, or the 'digital wallet'. Calling NFC 'a technology, not a strategy,' PayPal's Kerry Wong, MD for Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan, promotes the latter.

"The 'digital wallet' exists in the cloud, and it is not tethered to one specific device such as a mobile phone, but accessible from a variety of devices such as laptop, iPad, ultrabook or even Xbox," she says. Wong thinks that it's the ability to work easily, safely and on any device or platform that will win the day.

NFC is only one technology, with Bluetooth and RFID just as able to strike-up a conversation between two gadgets, but there are distinctions within NFC, too. In comes in both passive and active flavours, including P2P mode (exchanging information, such as business cards or contacts) and SecureElement NFC (where a machine recognises a NFC phone as a bankcard).

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How is NFC different to the new contactless bank cards?

It does away with plastic, but otherwise it's very similar to the chip-and-PIN killer. Most new Barclaycard, American Express, MasterCard PayPass and Visa Europe cards have NFC contactless tech within, and with 30 million already in circulation in the UK (look for the WiFi-like logo on the back) this is where the 'digital wallet' exists for now; in, err, your wallet.

Such cards can be used to make small purchases (typically under £15) in shops – and, since last week, on London buses.

"The foundations of the NFC ecosystem are now largely in place," says Gerry Kelliher, Europe Sales Operations Leader at Research in Motion. "Large scale initiatives like Visa's PayWave and Mastercard's PayPass mean that NFC terminals are appearing in thousands of UK high street shops."

If NFC identifies me, can I use my smartphone instead of a passport?

Not yet, but it should streamline travel. "While passports look as though they're here to stay, at least for international departures, we expect travellers will be able to pass through an airport without physical boarding passes very soon," says Kelliher.

Toulouse-Balgnac Airport has already successfully trialled NFC secure boarding passes with BlackBerry devices, which acted as their security pass for a dedicated, priority path through the airport. "Boarding passes based on QR codes have been around for some time, but NFC passes should be far more popular with airport operators.

Unlike QR codes, NFC codes loaded on to SIM cards can be used when the device is switched off," says Kelliher. "NFC passes are also far more secure than QR codes which can be easily duplicated, forwarded or altered.

Airports are certainly getting more tech savvy; Hong Kong International Airport now uses barcode imagers from UK-based data input company Access IS to read electronic boarding passes (sent by the airline as a unique barcode) on mobile phones.

NFC phones: which handsets have NFC?

A surprisingly huge number, largely because NFC has long been supported by the makers of Android handsets. Flagship phones like the Google Nexus 6, and mid-range handsets from the likes of Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Nokia, LG and Blackberry all include NFC.

The latter all feature BlackBerry Tag, a peer-to-peer feature in the BlackBerry 7.1 OS that allows users to share contact information, documents, URLs, photos and other multimedia content by tapping their BlackBerry smartphones together.

Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 OS supports NFC, too, so expect upcoming smartphones from Samsung, Nokia and HTC to be compatible.

Even Apple joined the party, introducing NFC functionality to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the form of Apple Pay.

  • Curious if your phone has NFC technology embedded under the surface? Check out this up-to-date full list

NFC is still in its trial phase, but it's got a big future. ABI Research predicts that 1.95 billion NFC-enabled devices will ship in 2017, largely in smartphones, though NFC will also enter the living room. WiFi routers will swap passwords for a simple 'tap' from any smartphone, tablet or games console, with 395 million consumer electronics devices to ship in 2017 – in other words, NFC will be in everything.