What is NFC and how do I program NFC tags?

A note from Pocketables in 2018: This article was posted in 2013. It’s pretty out of date but we’re leaving it. It can be summed up as: Most phones have NFC now, Download a free NFC programmerbuy some inexpensive tags, program them to do what you want (connect to WiFi, switch modes, make a phone call, etc). Have fun.

NFC Tags - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

There are almost 100 phones and tablets currently available worldwide that are equipped with NFC (check out the complete list at nfcworld.com). On that list, you will find a few of the phones that we have here at Pocketables, including the HTC EVO 4G LTE, the Samsung Galaxy S series, and my personal favorite, the Samsung Galaxy Note II. The list includes Android, Blackberry, and Windows devices – if you own an Apple device, you probably already know it doesn’t have NFC.

Before I can tell you how to use NFC tags, it would probably be a good idea to explain exactly what NFC is. This is how Wikipedia defines NFC:

Near field communication (NFC) is a set of standards for smartphones and similar devices to establish radio communication with each other by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity, usually no more than a few centimeters.  Present and anticipated applications include contactless transactions, data exchange, and simplified setup of more complex communications such as Wi-Fi. Communication is also possible between an NFC device and an unpowered NFC chip, called a “tag”.

So, NFC allows you to to take your NFC enabled device, touch it to another NFC device, and make it do something automatically. You are probably familiar with one of the most popular uses of NFC, Google Wallet, which stores your credit card information in an app on your phone. When paying for a purchase in a store equipped with an NFC reader attached to the cash register, you have the option to tap your phone to the reader to pay your bill. But Google Wallet is by no means the only way to utilize NFC.

That’s where programmable NFC tags come in. An NFC tag is a small sticker or key fob that has an unpowered NFC chip. Using an app, you can program the tag so that when you touch your phone to it, your phone will do what you programmed the tag to do.

Let me start with a basic example. Every night before I go to bed, I put my phone into “sleep mode.” This usually includes turning volumes down, changing my screen brightness, setting my alarm, and changing a few other settings. You might already do all of this automatically using Tasker just by plugging in your phone, but NFC might be more appealing to some people: the first NFC tag I programmed was a simple switch. The first time I tap the tag, it activates my night profile for me. The second time I tap the tag it would activate my day profile. The next tap would put it back into “night mode” again, and the cycle would continue. That’s a basic example of one use of an NFC tag.

What you need

There are three items that you need in order to start using NFC tags to do things automatically on your phone: an NFC enabled phone, like the EVO 4G LTE; programmable NFC tags; and an app to program the tags with. Let’s jump right into the NFC tags.

NFC tags

There are a lot of companies that sell NFC tags. The tags I bought are made by Samsung and are branded TecTiles. We’ve talked about Movaluate previously as another dealer of NFC tags, and a Google search for NFC tags will show you a whole lot of other places that make the tags. There are also a couple different types of tags you can choose from.

The first and cheapest type of tag is a sticker tag. These come in different sizes and colors and are made to stick to a variety of surfaces. If you plan on putting a sticker tag on a metal surface, you will want to make sure you buy a tag that is designed for that purpose, as most sticker tags will not work on a metal surface. You can expect to pay anywhere from one to three dollars or more per tag, depending on size, brand, and color.

The other popular form of NFC tag is the key fob tag. This is a tag that is housed in some sort of case and then has a key ring attached to it. These are useful for hanging on hooks, lanyards, handbags, wrist straps, or anywhere else where you might not want to put a sticker. You should expect to pay a little more for these tags than you would with the sticker tags.

When you look for an NFC tag to buy, you will see a capacity listed. This is the amount of data that can be stored on each tag. Most tags have around one kilobyte of storage available. While this doesn’t sound like a whole lot of space, most commands don’t take up much room – four different settings will only use about 100 bytes. Just make sure that when you do buy a tag, it is close to that one kilobyte range, and you should have no issues with space unless you plan on doing some really crazy things with your tags.

NFC tag programming app

Once you receive your tags, it’s on to the programming. To do this, you will need an app on your phone. The most popular one that I have found is called NFC Task Launcher. There are a bunch of others, including NFC Writer and NFC TagWriter. Find the one that you like the best, and go with it. Make yourself familiar with the app you chose, and then you need to decide what you want your tag to do.

For our example, I’m going to keep it very simple. The tag I want to create is going to be a switch that turns my ringer volume all the way up for the first tap, and turns my ringer volume all the way down for the second tap. I’m going to be using NFC Task Launcher to create this tag.

NFC Tag App - for some reason we don't have an alt tag hereWhen you open up NFC Task Launcher, you will see there are a bunch of example profiles already loaded. To create a custom tag, tap the plus sign in the top right corner and choose to create a new tag. Tap the add actions button, and you will see a popup with all the different categories you can choose from. Selecting a category will then let you see all the different settings under each category. You can choose as many of the different settings you want to use by ticking the check box by each one.

For our example, just tap the sounds & volume category, and then the ring volume check box, and tap next. Then set the volume slider all the way to max and tap OK. You’ll then want to slide the screen to the left to get to the settings for task two. Tap the add a task button, and then add a new task. You can then repeat the previous instructions to add a ring volume action, but instead of setting the volume setting to max, set it to zero. You are now ready to write the commands to the NFC tag.

When you are done with all the settings you want to configure, tap the save & write button in the top right corner. You have a couple options you can select before writing the tag. You can choose to include the tag name, and you can choose to make the tag read-only. Make your choices, then tap the tag to program it. You now have a programmed NFC tag!

One note about making the tag read-only: This will lock the tag to any further changes. Only do this if you never want to make any changes to the tag again. The only time I would actually do this is if I planned on putting the tag somewhere that other people would have access to it. If it is in a public place, there is the possibility that someone else could reprogram the tag to do something harmful to your phone.

Conclusion

You should now have enough information to get started programming your own NFC tags. Once you start, I’m sure you will find lots of uses for them. This is by no means an extensive guide, but rather just enough information to get you started with NFC.

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Bryan Faulkner

Bryan Faulkner is a former associate editor at Pocketables. He loves to find new ways to use his tablets while working as the Tech Director at his local church. Mixing sound from the iPad is his newest obsession. He currently has a pair of HP TouchPads, an iPad 2, a decommissioned HTC EVO 4G, and a Samsung Galaxy Note II to tinker with.

Avatar of Bryan Faulkner

26 thoughts on “What is NFC and how do I program NFC tags?

  • Avatar of Andreas Ødegård
    February 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm
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    NFC was the holy grail for me with Tasker automation, and the one thing I wished my S II had. Then i realized that like voice control, it’s not really any faster than just placing buttons where you need them. Having a custom UI accessible directly on the lock screen is to me better than NFC, since it’s just as quick but doesn’t require stickers all over the place.

    Reply
  • Avatar of nathan
    February 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm
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    I put a tag in my wallet so when I forget to turn on auto brightness when I go outside I just tap my phone on my pants pocket and the screen is at a brightness that I can see controls on the phone/is actually usable now.

    There also great for friends visiting your house who want to connect to your wifi. Instead of going through the effort of telling them the password and them typing it in their phone (I use a 30 character password), they just tap their phones and in half a second they’re connected.

    Reply
    • Avatar of Bryan Faulkner
      February 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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      Now those are a couple of neat ideas I never would have thought of. I personally don’t see a use for the brightness one, but the WiFi one is very cool. I like that one a lot.

      Reply
      • Avatar of Paul King
        September 24, 2018 at 8:36 am
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        Probably easier to remember. I use a very long password simply because it’s a phrase and I don’t want to tell people “uppercase u 7 hashtag lowercase p exclamation mark 39xpx” (7 year estimated crack) when a password like “Look over there at that squirrel” will take until the sun burns out to crack and cause fewer headaches.

        Using estimators here: https://www.betterbuys.com/estimating-password-cracking-times/ and here https://howsecureismypassword.net/

        Uses 17 character pass phrase that supposedly would take 10 billion years to crack but I can tell anyone and they remember it for years. While 30 may be a long password it’s basically “look! that squirrel over there” it’s easily memorable and would take forever to crack.

        Reply
  • Avatar of Nik
    February 10, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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    I have been trying to write sticker tags to “check in” for a few businesses… I want the tag to open the native Facebook app rather than the Web browser (which if you haven’t logged into fb already, will force you to log in… Useless compared to the fb app)… So far the only option that works is the Samsung TecTiles app… But if a patron doesn’t have that app, it forces the patron to install that first… I was in Rome, Italy and it looked like people just tapped their phones on a business tag on the front door and it was doing “something”…

    Reply
    • Avatar of Bryan Faulkner
      February 10, 2013 at 7:26 pm
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      From what I’ve read the problem with Facebook checkins and NFC has to do with the Facebook app. It doesn’t support the ability to checkin from an outside source, that’s why the function just launches in a web browser.

      And the reason why the Samsung app works is because you have to give it permission to access your Facebook first. If you don’t give it permission, it won’t work, which as you already said means the user has to have the app already.

      Hopefully Facebook fixes this soon with their app. I know this feature works with Foursquare and Twitter without any issues.

      Reply
  • Avatar of Steve Gaudreau
    February 11, 2013 at 8:13 am
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    I got that nfc tag from movaluate.com thanks to your website tip. Now is this tag they sent programmable? I’ve been sitting on it til the time came when you wrote this very article.

    Reply
    • Avatar of Bryan Faulkner
      February 11, 2013 at 8:27 am
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      I never got the tag I signed up for from Movaluate but the initial article said that you could.

      Movaluate says: “Share the tag with friends or reuse the tag as it is 100% fully customizable and you could use it to your liking. Don’t worry, we won’t be mad.”

      Reply
      • Avatar of John Freml
        February 11, 2013 at 8:52 am
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        It took a long time, but I eventually got mine. Give it a bit of time!

        Reply
      • Avatar of JRDemaskus
        February 11, 2013 at 9:57 am
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        Mine came just a couple weeks ago.
        It is waiting till I get a NFC device.
        I want NFC to toggle wifi when I get home or leave, toggle airplane mode when I go into work or take breaks, and toggle Bluetooth in or out of the car to stream audio.

        Reply
      • Avatar of Aaron Orquia
        February 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm
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        Mine just got here today, so I think they’re still shipping them out. However, I haven’t been able to get it to work with my Nexus 4 yet, so I might have a dud.

        Reply
        • Avatar of JRDemaskus
          February 12, 2013 at 8:53 am
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          I tried mine on my wife’s Nokia 820 last night. It worked.

          Reply
  • Avatar of JRDemaskus
    February 11, 2013 at 9:58 am
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    What is the battery drain using NFC vs. GPS and Tasker?

    Reply
    • Avatar of Bryan Faulkner
      February 11, 2013 at 11:27 am
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      I would think that battery drain would depend greatly on what exactly you are using it for. I know that I didn’t notice any battery drain difference between having NFC turned on or turned off.

      I would think that if you had Tasker always searching for a bunch of variables that it could easily eat away at your battery. Keep it simple and you probably wouldn’t even notice it.

      Reply
  • Avatar of Steve Gaudreau
    February 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm
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    Nfc is always on. Unless you deactivated it.

    Reply
    • Avatar of JRDemaskus
      February 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm
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      Right.
      But what draws more, GPS or NFC?
      Either one has to be on all the time.

      Reply
      • Avatar of JRDemaskus
        February 12, 2013 at 8:51 am
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        From what I put together from a Google search…
        GPS is idle, until called for by an app, or location requests. I didn’t get how often those location requests come.
        NFC, is also idle until called for, like being placed near a tag. But what I couldn’t find is…
        Is the reader always looking for a tag, or is the reader tripped by proximity, and then starts reading?
        Either way, they said battery use was nominal.
        Peace

        Reply
  • Avatar of stringfellow
    February 12, 2013 at 11:27 am
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    Brian: Sorry this is not directly on topic but Google Wallet (which utilizes NFC) does not seem available for the Note2? Could you verify? Had it on my HTC Evo LTE(less) and used it when possible.

    Reply
    • Avatar of Bryan Faulkner
      February 12, 2013 at 2:05 pm
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      Yes and No to Google Wallet on the Note II. You can’t download it from the Play Store and have it work, but there is a way to get it working if you are rooted and want to do the work. I haven’t done it because I don’t think I would use it much and it is a very involved process. You can check the thread out from XDA:

      http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2031127

      Reply
      • Avatar of stringfellow
        February 12, 2013 at 7:35 pm
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        Thanks for the direction Bryan. Probably won’t root, not just for Wallet. Phone serves its purpose (and then some) as is. Wonder why Samsung and Wallet don’t want to play nicely?

        Reply
  • Avatar of Jody Hackett
    March 13, 2013 at 9:57 am
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    just received my new LG cell in the mail and it came with this tag labled car…so what do I do with that? I thought intially it was a device this disabled txting for security…lol…this was before I goggled what tbey are for….still kinda clueless. help it is a littlr foil like looking things

    Reply
  • Avatar of Adib
    May 25, 2013 at 10:41 pm
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    NFC is very interesting where we would have the ability to tweak based on what we want. But im wondering, how can we implement the NFC reader to a smaller type of device
    Eg.
    A torchlight size NFC reader that would have 2 simple LED light indicator? Maybe red and green, whenever it scans, it would light up the LED based on requirements.
    And for NFC reader, does single AA size battery will support its power?

    Reply
  • Avatar of AdmiralSirJohn
    November 9, 2013 at 7:01 am
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    Sadly, movulate has suspended their freebie offer.

    Does anyone know where I could get a free tag to play around with?

    Ultimately, I’d like to set it up to trigger a “bedside mode” on my HTC Evo 4G LTE, similar to what I had with my old Blackberry (silence notifications, auto-launch SleepBot [wonderful app, that] and dim the screen).

    I know Amazon has them for as little as $1.50, but even that seems a bit much for just one…

    Reply
  • Avatar of Mostafa
    November 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm
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    Dear Bryan,
    Thank you very much for your article,

    But I have a question, Is that possible to NFC readers read the RFID tags or not ?

    best regards

    Reply

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