How to Scan QR Codes on Your Phone

iPhone and Android users, we're talking to you

Scanning QR code on phone
Illustration by Lifewire (Phones: Shutterstock)

QR codes or Quick Response codes are two-dimensional barcodes that were used initially by automakers in Japan. Workers used QR codes to track vehicles during the manufacturing process. Now QR codes are used in a variety of ways including sharing deals and website links, and for advertising. You've probably seen a QR code out in public even if you've never used one.

When you scan a QR code, it might open a link to a website or social media account, display a YouTube video, show a coupon, or contact details. It's a good practice to only scan QR codes from companies that you trust because of security concerns. A hacker could link a QR code to a malicious website that looks legit but instead phishes your personal information when you try to log in. A good practice is to the check the URL before inputting your credentials, something you should already be doing anyway.

To scan a QR code, you need a smartphone with a camera and, in some cases, a mobile app. An iPhone running iOS 11 (or later) comes with a built-in QR reader in its camera, and some Android phones also have native functionality. Other smartphones may require that you download a mobile app; we recommend a few options below.

Ways to Use QR Codes

QR code at a store

Advertising is probably the most common use of QR codes. Brands can add a QR code to a billboard or magazine, for example, that sends users to its website or a coupon or landing page. For the user, this takes away the hassle of typing in a long URL, or jotting it down on paper. The advertiser benefits from real-time results in which the user immediately visits their website rather than waiting until they get home, or worse, forgetting about it altogether.

Another use is through virtual stores, such as Homeplus, a Korean retailer. A virtual store is a large touch screen located in a public place, such as subway stations or plazas where shoppers can scan items with their smartphones and get the items delivered at a chosen time and location. Each piece has a unique QR code and works with the Homeplus app, which stores payment and shipping information.

QR codes are often used to transfer cryptocurrency, including Bitcoin. Some cemeteries around the world have started adding QR codes to tombstones to make it easier for visitors to locate the gravesite.

How to Scan a QR Code With an iPhone Running iOS 11

QR code ios 11

Apple's iOS 11 included many enhancements including the addition of a QR reader into the smartphone's camera. To scan a QR code with an iPhone camera:

  1. Launch the Camera app
  2. Frame the QR code
  3. Look for the notification banner at the top of the screen
  4. Tap the notification to trigger the code's action

Smartphones running iOS 10 or earlier can scan many types of QR codes using the Wallet app, which stores event tickets, boarding passes, coupons, and loyalty cards. The Wallet app can't read every QR code, though; only items it recognizes as passes, like the examples above. For a one-stop QR reader, you'll need a third-party app. 

Best iPhone QR Code Reader App

iPhone QR reader

The free Quick Scan – QR Code Reader is a full-featured app that can read QR codes out in the world and from images in your photo roll. It can also add contacts to your address book, open links, and map locations, and add events to your calendar app. You can save codes for future reference, and the app has unlimited storage. All you have to do is open the app and point to the QR code you'd like to scan. If the code is a URL, you'll get a notification that you can tap.

How to Scan a QR Code With an Android Phone

QR code scan on android

As is typical with Android, the answer is complicated. If your device has Google Now on Tap, you can use the stock camera or a third party camera to scan a QR code in a few steps. Now on Tap is available on most phones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or up.

  1. Launch your camera
  2. Point it at the QR code
  3. Press and hold the home button
  4. Tap to trigger the code's action

On stock Android devices, such as the Pixel line, Now on Tap has been replaced by the Google Assistant, and this feature no longer works. If a phone doesn't have Now on Tap, you'll need to download a third-party app. 

Best Android QR Code Reader App

Android QR code reader
Android screenshot

The QR Code Reader (free; by TWMobile) can scan QR codes, including Wi-Fi QR codes, which enable users to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot without inputting a password. To scan a QR code, just launch the app and point your smartphone at the code; you'll then either see the code's information or get a prompt to open a URL.