What Is Near Field Communications, or NFC?

The short-range data transmission system for mobile devices and computers

NFC, or near field communications, is a technology built into most modern smartphones, laptop computers, and other consumer electronics. It facilitates the transfer of data such as credentials, documents, and photos between nearby devices without requiring an internet connection.

From RFID to NFC

NFC is an extension of RFID (radio frequency identification), a form of passive communications. A short-range radio field can activate an RFID chip, or tag, to issue a short radio signal, an interaction that allows the reader device to use the RFID signal to identify a person or object.

RFID technology is used in many of the security badges used by corporations and other entities. Such a badge is linked to a database, against which the reader can check the ID to verify if the user should have access or not. The technology has also become popular in video games thanks to toys-to-life games such as Disney Infinity and Nintendo Amiibo, which use action figures to store data.

Although RFID is useful for tasks such as identifying products in a warehouse, it is only a one-sided transmission system. NFC was developed to facilitate the same type of transmission between two devices. For instance, NFC makes it possible to improve security by having the scanner also update security clearances into a security badge.

Active vs. Passive NFC

RFID tags contain no power source, so they must rely on the radio frequency field of a scanner to activate and transmit data. NFC devices, on the other hand, have two settings: active and passive. In active mode, an NFC-enabled device generates a radio field, allowing for two-way communications. In passive mode, the NFC device must rely on an active device for its power.

Most consumer electronics devices automatically use the active modes, but some peripheral devices use the passive mode to interact with a computer. At least one device in an NFC communication must be active; otherwise, there will be no signal to transmit between the two.


One major benefit of NFC is the quick syncing of data between devices—for example, contact and calendar information between your smartphone and laptop. This type of sharing was implemented with HP's WebOS devices, such as the TouchPad, to share web pages and other data, but it actually used Bluetooth communications.

An increasingly common use for NFC is in digital payment apps—for example, Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay. The user puts a phone with NFC near an NFC-equipped vending machine, cash register, or another mobile device to authorize a payment. An NFC-equipped laptop can be set up to allow this same payment system to be used with an e-commerce website. Such a setup saves consumers the time and inconvenience of entering credit card details and helps ensure accuracy.

A shopper using Apple Pay at Target

Apple Inc.

NFC vs. Bluetooth

Why do we need NFC when Bluetooth already exists? First of all, Bluetooth devices must be paired to communicate, which adds an extra step to the process.

Another issue is range. NFC uses a short range that typically does not extend more than a few inches from the receiver. This keeps power consumption low and helps ensure security because a third-party scanner would have difficulty intercepting data. Bluetooth, while still short-range, can be used at ranges up to 30 feet. Transmitting over such a distance requires more power and increases the chance of being hacked.

Finally, Bluetooth transmits in the public, crowded 2.4GHz radio spectrum, which is shared with Wi-Fi, cordless phones, baby monitors, and more. If an area is saturated with these devices, transmission problems can occur. NFC uses a different radio frequency, so interference is not likely to be an issue.

Should You Get a Laptop With NFC?

If your current computer doesn't have built-in NFC support, the next one you buy probably will. That's not a reason to run out and buy a new computer right away, though: You can buy programmable NFC tags that add some NFC functionality to your devices.

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