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Contactless payment

What is a contactless payment card?

Contactless payments have become so popular that now one in three card payments is contactless. Here, we explain how contactless works and how to keep your payments secure…

By Lucy Hancock

Published: 02 February 2021

Waiter taking contactless card payment

What is a contactless payment?

A contactless payment means paying for something by tapping or waving your contactless device (usually a card or smartphone) over a reader, which then accepts the payment. Contactless payments can also be known as tap-and-go by some banks and retailers.

They allow you to make low-value payments quickly, rather than entering your PIN.

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What contactless devices are there?

How does contactless work?

Contactless payment cards have a chip inside them that emits radio waves. An antenna is built into the plastic to secure the connection with a contactless reader. This is known as radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

To pay for something with a contactless credit card, you hold the card near a payment terminal (known as an RFID reader) and it picks up the signal, communicates with the card and processes the payment.

The payment terminal will say if the payment was successful or not. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and you’ll need to use your PIN instead.

How do I make contactless payments?

You can make contactless payments with a number of devices. The most common are debit or credit cards and mobile phones, however you can also use:

  • Fitness trackers
  • Watches
  • Wristbands 
  • Key fobs
  • Stickers

As well as making payments, the technology might also be used for opening doors or even as a security pass. You can recognise contactless devices by the logo, which is made up of four bold lines making a wave symbol.

Where can I use contactless payments?

Contactless payments have become more common, so you should be able to pay using this method in most retailers. This includes various shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, and even automated services like vending machines.

Some places also allow contactless to be used on public transport – for example, in London you can use your phone or contactless card for buses, tubes and trams.

34% of debit card transactions in the UK are contactless

Data provided by UK Finance, based on credit and debit card transactions in October 2020

What are the pros and cons of contactless payment?

Contactless payments are a convenient alternative to cash and Chip and PIN for a number of reasons:

  • Contactless payments mean you won’t have to spend time entering your PIN. Using your phone lets you pay for items without rooting around your purse or wallet
  • Contactless payments have extra security measures in place, like limiting the number of transactions you can make before needing to enter your PIN. Some contactless service providers have imposed a limit on the size of transactions you can make (usually up to £45.) If your transaction costs more than that, you’ll usually be asked to pay using Chip and PIN

There are risks that can come with contactless payments. Cons of contactless payments include:

  • If your card is lost or stolen, someone might be able to make contactless payments. This means it’s even more important to report your card as stolen to your provider as soon as you notice it’s missing
Contactless credit cards

Do I need to do anything to activate contactless payments on my card?

When you receive your contactless card in the post, you’ll need to call your bank to activate it as you would any other bank card.

There’ll usually be a sticker on the front of your new card, with a telephone number of the activation line. Some banks also allow you to activate your card on a paying-in or cash machine in-branch.

Then, you’ll just need to make a normal chip and PIN payment and from there, your contactless card should automatically work.

How secure are contactless payments?

Contactless payments are generally as safe and secure as making a payment with your PIN.

Contactless cards and terminals are embedded with anti-fraud technology that’s transferred between terminals. This means the information transferred between terminals is secure and difficult to intercept.

How likely is it that I’ll be charged twice for one transaction?

Being charged twice for one transaction when paying with contactless is highly unlikely. This is because once you’ve placed your card or smartphone on the card reader, the transaction is complete.

Payment terminals have been designed to prevent you paying for the same thing twice, so the chances of you getting charged double are highly unlikely.

Some terminals will ask you to only present one card if it can detect two, while others might cancel the transaction entirely to avoid overcharging.

Could I make a transaction just by passing a payment terminal unknowingly?

It’s very unlikely that you’ll make a transaction just by passing a payment terminal unknowingly. Contactless payments only work within a short space (between 2cm and 10cm away from a payment terminal.) So, it’s unlikely you’ll pay for someone else’s shopping by accident!

What is ‘card clash’?

Sometimes on the Underground, card clash can happen. This is where an incomplete journey is made using multiple cards.

A good example of this is if you place your wallet on the yellow Oyster terminal, a payment can then be logged from a contactless card you did not intend to use.

If you were to then dock out with your Oyster card, you’ll be charged two maximum fares, as you haven’t touched in and out with the same payment method.

Am I protected if there is fraud or theft on my card?

The chip on your contactless card can protect you against fraudulent activity. The chip uses a sophisticated system of unique codes and electronic signatures every time a payment is made, which reduces the likeliness that your card details can be cloned or intercepted.

Your bank will get in touch with you if they spot any suspicious activity on your account. You’ll also be asked from time-to-time to input your PIN after making a series of contactless payments, to improve your account’s security.

What protection do I have if my card is stolen in the post?

If your card hasn’t arrived within 10 days of ordering it, it’s important that you get in touch with your bank. That way, you can check if it’s been stolen or lost, and discuss alternative options like cancelling your card and getting it sent to your nearest branch.

Don’t worry – any fraudulent activity will be covered by the Payment Services Regulations.

What should I do if the contactless card doesn’t work?

If your contactless card doesn’t work, you should contact your card provider and request a replacement.

If you’re trying to pay for something and your contactless doesn’t work, just insert your card and enter your PIN for the transaction to go through.

85 million contactless debit cards have been issued in the UK, as well as 52 million contactless credit cards

Data provided by UK Finance, based on credit and debit card transactions in October 2020

How does it show up on my bank statement?

When you make a contactless payment, your transaction will show on your bank or credit card statement with the universal contactless wave symbol next to it.

It’s wise to keep an eye on your payment history, just as you would with chip and PIN transactions and bank transfers. If you notice anything suspicious or unfamiliar, make sure you contact your bank.

Do I have to use contactless?

With a contactless card, you can choose whether you want to use the contactless option or chip and PIN. Payment terminals will offer the choice to pay with contactless, and if you prefer to insert your card and enter your PIN, you can do.

Can I opt out of having a contactless card?

If you’d prefer to opt out of having a contactless card, it’s best to contact your bank. Whether you can opt out of having a contactless card will depend on who you bank with. If you aren’t offered the option to opt out of contactless by your bank, it may be worth comparing credit cards, to find a provider that better suits your preferences.

Choosing a credit card

If you want to know more about credit cards and security, read our guide to getting your first credit card and our guide to credit card protection.

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To find out which cards you'll be accepted for without affecting your credit score, try our quick and easy eligibility checker.

You’ll see your personalised chance of approval for all credit cards, so you can easily compare your options.

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