The Difference Between NFC and RFID

RFID and NFC are two closely related wireless communication technologies that are used globally for a vast number of applications such as access control, asset tracking and contactless payments. RFID was first patented in 1983 and is the precursor to NFC, so we will begin there.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

RFID enables a one way wireless communication, typically between an unpowered RFID tag and a powered RFID reader. RFID tags can be scanned at distances of up to 100 meters without a direct line of sight to the reader and as such RFID is used globally for asset tracking in warehousing, airport baggage handling, livestock identification and much more. RFID operates at a range of radio frequencies each with their own set standards and protocols.

RFID Frequency Band Scan Distance
120-150 kHz (Low Frequency, LF) Up to 10 cm
13.56 MHz (High Frequency, HF) Up to 1 m
433 MHz (Ultra High Frequency, UHF) 1-100 m
860-960 MHz (Ultralight High Frequency, UHF) Typically 1-12 m (tag dependent)
2450-5800 MHz (Microwave) 1-2 m (Active Tags)
3.1-10 GHz (Microwave) Up to 200 m (Active Tags)

Near Field Communication (NFC)

NFC operates at 13.56 MHz and is an extension of High Frequency (HF) RFID standards. NFC therefore shares many physical properties with RFID such as one way communication and the ability to communicate without a direct line of sight. There are however three key differences.

1. NFC is capable of two way communication and can therefore be used for more complex interactions such as card emulation and peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing.

2. NFC is limited to communication at close proximity, typically 5cm or less.

3. Only a single NFC tag can be scanned at one time.

These properties were developed primarily to enable secure mobile payments and it is for this reason NFC is limited to singular and close proximity interactions. An important by-product is that NFC is now available in the majority of mobile phones and this is perhaps the most important difference between NFC and RFID.

NFC-enabled phones offer both businesses and day-to-day users slick and intuitive communication between mobile phones and between a mobile phone and an NFC tag. Examples include file sharing via Android Beam, instant connection setups between electronic devices and the ability to link everyday objects such as posters to online content.

HF RFID NFC
Operating Frequency 13.56 MHz 13.56 MHz
Communication One way Two way
Standards ISO 14443, 15693, 18000 ISO 14443
Scan Distance Up to 1 m Up to 10 cm
Simultaneous Scan Yes No