What's the difference between RFID and NFC?

card with built-in smart tag
For years, some credit cards have come with integrated RFID tags. Soon, you’ll see cards with built-in NFC tags, too.
Courtesy NFC Forum

When acronyms attack, people get confused. That's especially true when two acronyms stand for a couple of very similar wireless technologies. In this case, our geeky acronyms are NFC and RFID, two close cousins in a world filled with wireless wizardry.

NFC stands for near field communication, while RFID means radio frequency identification. Both employ radio signals for all sorts of tagging and tracking purposes, sometimes replacing bar codes. NFC is still an emerging technology; RFID, however, is currently in widespread use all over the world.


RFID tags contain an antenna and a memory chip that stores data. To see that data, you need an RFID reader. These tags and readers are used in a mind-blowing array of applications.

The tags are embedded into retail products to help stores keep tabs on inventory. Indeed, inventory and package tracking are two of the most common uses of RFID. But these tags can do much more. They're stuck under your dog's skin so that the dog catcher can identify Fido if he gets lost. The RFID highway toll tag in your car automatically identifies you to the toll reader, even at top speed, which bills you later. Some airlines use RFID tags to efficiently track and control large loads of baggage. And RFID appears in so-called smart passports and credit cards, as well as identification badges that let employees access secure areas.

RFID often works well at distances of many feet; otherwise, you'd have to veer your car dangerously close to a toll gate in order to make sure the reader accepted your payment. And RFID is a one-way communication system, in which data flows from tags to the reading equipment.

NFC technology is a newer, more finely honed version of RFID. It operates at a maximum range of about 4 inches (10 centimeters) and can be set up for one- or two-way communications.

Let's start with a one-way NFC data transfer. Using your NFC smartphone, you can tap NFC smart tags that might appear in everything from promotional movie posters and political flyers to museum tour placards. Smart tags are a lot like RFID tags; they're simply tuned to work with an NFC reader instead of an RFID one.

Near field communication's capabilities go far beyond being a short-range, RFID stand-in. On the next page, you see where NFC and RFID come to a fork in the road -- and say their goodbyes once and for all.


You Down With NFC (Yeah, You Know Me)

rolled nfc tags
NFC tags are getting cheaper by the day. They now come rolled in mass quantities that can be distributed in many places and products.
Courtesy NFC Forum

RFID is a one-trick tech: A reader detects and pulls information from a tag. That's about the extent of these systems. NFC is more complex.

As you just read, NFC duplicates RFID's feat by reading smart tags, thanks to its read/write operation mode. But in addition to read/write capabilities, NFC has two other modes, both of which involve dynamic, two-way communication: card emulation and P2P (peer-to-peer). That's where smartphones and other NFC-capable devices come into play.


By 2014, 50 percent of smartphones will have integrated NFC chips that basically turn your phone into a digital wallet. Touch your phone to an NFC checkout terminal, and the NFC chip automatically leaps into card emulation mode. In one tap, you'll pay for your groceries, redeem electronic coupons and collect loyalty points. It's called contactless payment. Your phone, in other words, replaces all of those credit, loyalty and gift cards, making payment and rewards redemption much quicker and more convenient.

NFC's not done yet. With its P2P mode, you can easily share information and pair all sorts of devices.

Let's assume that on your smartphone you have a whole collection of digital Black Friday coupons for a local superstore. You can share those discounts with your friend just by tapping her phone with yours.

And while you're waiting for the doors to open at midnight, you can stave off boredom by playing online games. Here's where NFC's pairing ability comes in handy. Instead of gaming with strangers around the world, you can tap your friend's phone and she can join the fray without any sort of complicated setup procedure.

That simple pairing function will work with far more than smartphones. You'll tap a notebook against a router to create instant, secure WiFi connections using zero passwords -- or touch a camera to an inkjet printer to start printing a photo.

Your doctor will affix an NFC health monitoring tag to your skin. That tag will send streams of data on your body's temperature, sugar levels and much more right to your smartphone, which then relays that data to your nurse.

RFID knows its role. It's mainly a critical tracking and inventory control technology. But RFID's little cousin NFC is still evolving. It'll be years before NFC grows fully into its skin, and when it does, it will likely be as ubiquitous and useful as its RFID kin.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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