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Contactless payment cards

Tom Martin
Written by Tom Martin, Content editor

Edited by Marianne Curphey, Finance Writer, 25 September 2020

Contactless cards and contactless payments are becoming the normal way to pay for small purchases, but what is it and is it safe?
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Contactless payment

Contactless cards have been around since 1997, but first appeared on the UK high street from 2008. Most debit and credit cards now offer contactless payments as standard. It's now possible to make contactless payments with a smartphone and smartwatches too.

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What is contactless payment?

Contactless payment is a fast way of using your credit, debit or payment card to pay for transactions. It was designed to be a quicker payment method than chip and PIN (personal identification number) payments or swiping and signing.

While contactless payment cards have been in circulation for quite a few years, it's still important to know how to use a contactless card for the first time.

To pay you tap your card on a shop's payment reader, without having to enter your PIN. You can pay for transactions up to £45(previously £30) with contactless payments.

Not just cards - Apple Pay and contactless phone payments

Apple Pay was introduced in the US and Apple Pay UK launch in 2015. The system pioneered on Apple's iPhones enables you to make contactless payments via a digital wallet in your phone.

You register your existing debit or credit card with the app, and select which one you want to pay with. You place your phone next to the reader and authorise the payment your with the fingerprint recognition feature.

Learn more about Apple Pay contactless payment in our dedicated guide. This is also available via Google Play, for smartphones.

How does contactless payment work?

Contactless payment cards work like any other plastic payment card in principle, relaying information to and from your bank when you spend with them, they just do it quicker, without you having to enter a PIN.

Contactless cards have an embedded antenna in the plastic, which when the card is placed on a contactless payment reader, securely transmits information about the purchase information to and from the contactless reader.

How do I use my contactless card for the first time?

Contactless payment is intended to be used for small value quick transactions, like buying coffees, groceries and drinks without needing to enter your pin, or carry cash.

When using contactless for the first time, when you tap your contactless payment card you will be asked to enter your PIN. After this you will only have to enter it again occasionally to verify your identity.

Once you tap your card on the payment terminal and you will have completed the transaction in a matter of seconds.

If you have more than one contactless card in your wallet make sure to not just place your wallet on the reader as this may cause 'card clash' (where the wrong card is charged or payment is refused). To avoid this make sure to individually place your contactless card on the reader.

Where can I use contactless payment?

You can use your contactless payment card at any reader displaying the contactless payment symbol. If you're unsure whether you can pay ask the merchant, if you can't use contactless payments, you can still pay via the chip and PIN method.

Contactless symbol with hand

It's also possible to pay for all Transport for London journeys with a contactless card instead of an Oyster Card, allowing you to avoid queuing to buy top-ups or tickets.

If you make multiple tube or bus journeys in one day, the amount you will have to pay will be capped at no more than the cost of a daily travel card. There's also a cap for Monday to Sunday spending, at the same price of a travel card for the zones you have travelled in.

How safe is contactless payment?

A common misconception is you could accidentally pay for something you didn't want to by walking near a payment reader, but this is highly unlikely.

It's also equally unlikely fraudsters are able to take payments from cards in purses, pockets and wallets with a secret illegal card reader.

Contactless payment is as safe as any spending you do with a credit or debit card. Arguably safer as you don't have to expose your PIN in public anywhere, nor do you ever hand your card over to anyone else.

Also, as with any credit or debit card there are still risks of card fraud, but your card provider should offer you protection over this and freeze the card if any suspicious payments are being made.

If your card is lost or stolen you should contact you bank immediately and freeze it, regardless of whether your card is contactless or not. Most banks and card providers have a 24/7 emergency number to phone.

The biggest risk is if your card is stolen someone could spend up to a preset limit on it before being asked to enter a PIN. However, they could only spend up to £45 per transaction, so if you phone your bank immediately you should have time to freeze the card before any spending is done.

How can I get a contactless payment card

Most banks and card providers now offer contactless payment cards as standard with all their new-issue cards. If you would like to upgrade your old card to a contactless one, you should be able to request one from your provider.

Compare credit cards with Uswitch

Find a credit card with contactless payments.

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