What Are NFC Tags and How Do You Use Them?

Near Field Communication, or NFC, has been mentioned a few times here on Android.Appstorm, including a few articles by yours truly. The topic really fascinates and excites me because of the endless possibilities it affords us. About a year ago I wrote an article entitled Near Field Communication and the Future of Mobile, where I outlined what’s in store for NFC-enabled cell phones, of which Android has a few.

However, NFC isn’t only for phones. There are devices called NFC tags, and they can really shake up the way we do things.

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As a quick refresher, NFC is the ability for 2 devices to send data to each other simply by touching. Right now, the word device implies a cell phone or tablet. You may have seen this commercial by Samsung where the data transfer is demonstrated in a real life situation.

However, there are little units called NFC Tags, which are becoming increasingly more popular. NFC Tags, sometimes referred to as smart tags, are embedded chips that can go in just about anything and transfer the data or instructions on them via NFC.

Sony Xperia Smarttags are one type of NFC tags.

These tags offer similar functionality to what you’d find on phones, but instead of 2-way communication, it’s only one way, from the tag to the receiving device.


In my Future of NFC editorial, I talked about a lot of possibilities for the uses of NFC — hotel keys, park tickets, plane tickets, and of course the most popular use currently, payments. With NFC tags, you can expand those uses outward to just about any information from photos to business cards, or even functions like setting an alarm or turning off a data connection. As a matter of fact, there are some companies already using NFC tags for those uses.

MOO.com Business Cards

MOO.com NFC Business Cards

MOO.com has offered some pretty cool deals over the years, including free business cards using you Facebook information — I still use these to exchange personal information. Recently I read about NFC by MOO, an initiative where they started to offer business cards with NFC tags in them. The idea is simple: hold your business card up to an NFC-enabled cell phone, and boom! Your contact information is automatically added to the recipient’s contact book.

There are a ton of benefits to this of course, including the fact that you only need to carry one card on you, the person is less likely to lose your information, and it saves in paper and the cost of getting cards printed in the long-term. I can definitely see this being one of the first wide-spread uses of NFC; it’s easy and you’re not sending sensitive data, so the security risk is virtually non-existant.


Samsung NFC Posters

Here’s another use I can see having a pretty high adoption rate. We’ve all likely seen ads and posters with QR Codes on them. You may have also seen the blog Pictures of People Scanning QR-codes, which satirically has no posts on it. See, QR Codes can be useful but are a bit clumsy. You need to have a barcode scanning app, you need to be in the right light, and you need to capture the QR Code properly. With NFC tags, you can get information off an ad just by holding your phone to it. Pictured above is an initiative by Samsung to offer free music and videos as a reward to people who bought the Galaxy S III, sending that information via NFC tags.

The examples listed above are just a small fraction of the uses for NFC tags. Imagine sending people a sample photo from your photography business or wedding, writing samples, your new song, or the link to a product you recommend. Image stores equipping everything they sell with NFC tags so that you can purchase an item from your phone and walk out of the store with it.

How Do I Use Them?

Have I hooked you?  Do you now have a great idea for NFC tags? Do you need to know where to buy them and how to use them? Well, you’re in luck.

You can currently purchase your own NFC tags. Our fearless editor Rita has some and is currently using them [Ed Note: I bought some generic tags off eBay and they work wonderfully], and mine are in the mail! The Sony Xperia Smart Tags pictured above are available for purchase, and Samsung has its own called  TecTiles. There are actually different NFC tag designs and brands out there, as a quick Google or Amazon search will show you!

So how exactly do you use them? Well, this will be slightly different with each tag, but among most of them the process seems to be:

  1. Download an Android App for the tags you buy, example: NFC Task Launcher
  2. Configure the tag’s action on the app
  3. Hold the tag to the phone so it gets programed
  4. Start using the tag.
Once you have them programmed, you can do anything from including a URL to disabling/enabling WiFi, setting an alarm, adding contact details, embedding Check-In information for a location, and more.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt in my mind that once NFC is widely adopted, it’s going to change the way we do things. It’s easy to use and makes sending information much more convenient. Using NFC tags, we can easily transfer contact information, ads, files, or even pseudo-automate certain tasks like turning bluetooth on when we get into our car or setting an alarm when we put our phone on the night stand. The best part about them is they are cheap (around $14 for a pack of 5) and really easy to set-up. So my only question is: what are you going to use them for?

  • Mark r

    I really want to love these tags, but it’s a challenge. I bought some textiles, and set them up next to my bed for turning off radios and entering silent mode. I have one in the car for opening the navigation app etc. The thing is that sometimes it takes a few seconds for the nfc action to begin, I’m not always sure it worked, and I need to turn my screen on first. It’s nearly not worth the hassle unless of course you take into account the coolness factor.

    • http://bit.ly/khouryrt Rita El Khoury

      Yes, the implementation is still a bit shaggy. I’ve been facing the same issue, and I guess it’s mostly the phone’s fault and not the tags themselves.

    • sipho

      Can I get an exact direction 2 use from phone 2 phone and also from phone 2 my laptop?

  • http://dave.mcalister.org.uk dpmcalister

    I got a set with my Sony Xperia T. I’ve not actually used the tags yet, but I have set it so that when I plug my phone into a charger between 10pm and 7am it opens a bedside clock app. Likewise, when I plug in my headphones it automatically starts my mp3 player (and stops playback when I take them out).

    Still looking for decent uses for the tags though 😉

  • http://www.socialbooth.co.uk Graeme

    I run a photobooth here in the UK and all photos are uploaded live from the booth to the website. I give everyone a card which has a QRCode on it for them to scan but i recently introduced a little table top stand with instructions on how to use NFC and where to place their phone to get the URL.

    People loved the idea but to some it had to be explained often so its not quite mainstream enough to take off just yet. i won’t give up on them just yet though :)

    • http://android.appstorm.net/author/jcasabona/ Joe Casabona

      Ah that sounds so cool- and a neat way to use NFC. Unfortunately (and I hate to say this, esp. on Android.Appstorm) NFC probably won’t be mainstream until it’s adopted by a certain overly litigious tech company’s flagship product.

      • David Belyea

        But they won’t call it NFC, it’ll be Close Contact Communication (or iConnection, iCon for short), and it will be revolutionary and something they developed.

    • http://bit.ly/khouryrt Rita El Khoury

      That’s neat. I am planning on installing a couple of mine under a sticker in my pharmacy – 1 for the pharmacy’s phone number and contacts details, the other for a quick Check In.

  • matty

    I have been using these with my GNexus7 for in car apps, at my desk and to turn on the alarm in the evening etc.
    They are grill, I need to get some larger capacity ones to be able to play further.
    TIP: To turn off NFC have an instruction to enable air plane mode then another to enable WiFi/GPS etc as needed.
    I look forward to some good uses for them.

  • Paolo Altobas

    I like the idea of putting these on the doorposts: A modern mezuzah.

  • Scott

    I don’t have any tags yet, but did download the launcher and have been researching it. If I can get one to work right I’m hoping to see if my local grocery store will make one with a store map and other useful info. I already use tasker to launch their coupons and my shopping list when I get to the store, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

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  • Steve

    I expect these tags to be totally invaluable in future enterprises the automation and information will be the need for speed and conveyance without hardware plugins. The only down side, is the crack pot hackers making malware URLs, on the bright side I found another use for the tags on your pets collar!
    Lots and lots of ideas to come for uses.

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  • Patrick

    I have been playing around with these tags for a while and while fun, it is difficult to come up with uses that actually are easier with the tags than doing it manually. For example, as someone mentioned above, your phone has to be unlocked/screen-on for the tag to be read. So to put your phone in silent mode isn’t as simple as touching your phone to a tag. You first have to unlock the phone, probably entering in a security code, then at that point it probably takes not more time to simple manually put the phone in silent mode. A tag wouldn’t save you a lot of time.

    However, there are still some good uses for these tags. While having the tag be a shortcut to launching an app is often mentioned, one overlooked aspect of this is this can help clean up your “desktop” on the phone. If you have apps that you use regularly enough (say once a day or a few times a week) that you want them to be easy to access but they are also only used for very specific purposes, places or times, often those icons sit on your screen taking up valuable space. By using a tag you can leave the icon off the main screen and leave them buried out of site. Exercise tag (stick it on your gym bag or running shoes), shopping tag (on your canvas reusable shopping bag), automobile OBD-II Trouble Code reader app (stick it on the bluetooth reader), etc. Now you can free up your main screen(s) of those app icons if they are normally only used once in a while.

    Here’s one. Texting while driving. Sometime against the law in some states. Have kids? Are you often having to pick them up at friends houses and text them the “I’m here” text? Are they also slow moving so you want them to get the text while you are still a block away so you are not texting from the driveway then waiting 5 minutes for them to get out? Tag in the car that one tap automatically sends the “I’m here” text to your kid. No need to take your eyes off the road.

    • http://www.Shop4NFC.com Algar

      Patrick those are some good use cases for NFC Tags.

      About the screen lock, it’s a security measure that the manufacturers have to adhere by. As Steve mentioned it’s possible to program a tag to launch a malware URL, and then have your phone launch it while it’s still locked (and you’re totally unaware)! So that’s a big no-no. One could imagine the possible use cases should someone with malicious intent really wants to mess with your phone.

      By the way, there are custom APKs and ROMS that are able to have your NFC be enabled while your phone is locked. It’s a trade-off between convenience and security. I would also there would be more battery drain on the device if NFC is still enabled while the device is locked (24/7)

    • Heidi

      For me, I often forget/can’t be bothered to log water as I drink it. With the NFC Tag and the FitTap app with Fitbit, I can now log what water I drink and how much just by passing my phone over a tag. I have 3 water tags; 1 for 32oz water, 1 for 20 oz water and 1 for 16 oz water (the three different size water containers I drink out of).

      • http://www.symbian-guru.com khouryrt

        Ah yes, that’s one cool use of NFC tags, and I mentioned the app while reviewing Fitbit a few weeks ago. I have to say I’m even more lazy, I have NFC tags and I have Fitbit, but I can’t get myself to program anything to make use of it. Maybe I should add a tag to log my regular 1h swim, hmmm :)

  • trish

    Patrick, I might have to try them just for the texting idea! Love that as i am always texting
    ‘here’ when already at school etc and then waiting…

  • Peter

    I use them a lot with my PS3 to notify friends I am getting online. No more manually texting them. Just putting phone on table and done. Since last weekend I had to buy tags for some friends when they saw it. Got the tags from eBay and work fine with my Galaxy S3. http://stores.ebay.com/NFC-Tag-Store were pretty cheap and good quality from what I know (not very technical, if it works it works)

  • http://www.thumbtag.net Thumbtag

    For businesses that would like to use tags in place of paper coupons, fliers and real estate listings, check out Thumbtag (www.thumbtag.net). Each tag comes with it’s own online page where the coupon (for example) is displayed, along with that company’s contact info. And the tags are printed with a QR code so all the non-NFC folks can get the same information!

  • فردوس افغان

    I am new in developing of NFC application. I have design a desktop application that support NFC devices, like detect NFC reader, (Read/Write) the tag. I search but all the applications are build for mobile devices. would please give me some suggestion and references that how to start even the coding for NFC application in desktop computers. Thank in advance
    With Best Regards,


  • CKP

    Hi, for some application I want to make my one phone as NFC tag and other phone as NFC reader .. I need to create a diffrent NFC tags using my phone bulit in NFC chip .. So my question is , Is it possible emulate phone as a NFC tag .. ? generally we use phone as NFC reader , but for my application I need to use it as Tag ….

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