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What is a Contactless Debit Card?

Contactless payments not only speed up transactions at stores, but they employ the latest technologies to keep your financial data safe. 

person paying for their coffee shop order with a contactless debit card

You’ve probably seen the logo—four curved lines, like a sideways Wi-Fi symbol—on your own credit or debit cards or on the card reader at the store when you check out. The use of contactless payment methods has exploded in recent years because of the pandemic. In fact, according to Forbes Advisor, “overall usage of contactless payments in the country has risen 150% since March 2019.” Even the treasurer of Illinois is pushing for local governments to accept contactless payment options through its new ePay system.

Contactless payments not only speed up transactions at stores, but they employ the latest technologies to keep your financial data safe. If you are wondering how you can use your own contactless debit or credit card, or would like to find out more about how contactless payments can not only make your life easier, but your money more secure, keep reading!

What is contactless payment?

Contactless payment options have been around since the 1990s; the earliest versions included a bus in Seoul, Korea in 1995, and ExxonMobil’s Speedpass in 1998, where you could pay for your gas instantly with a small device clipped to your keychain. While other parts of the world have been using contactless credit cards for a while now (like Australia, whose stores embraced the system in 2011), the U.S. has lagged behind—until recently.

Contactless payment is simply a way of making purchases without swiping or inserting credit and debit cards into readers, handing over a check, or exchanging cash. These methods are done using special technology that allows your payment information to be transferred from your card or smart device, to the business’s payment terminal. 

How It Works

Contactless payment systems (including contactless cards and digital wallets on smart devices) communicate using radio-frequency identification (RFID), sending radio waves to transfer data instead of relying on the card’s magnetic strip being swiped or chip being inserted in a chip reader. Most cards (and smart devices) use Near-Field Communication (NFC), a newer form of RFID that works better over shorter distances (about four centimeters) and offers more advanced security.

When you use a contactless payment method, you hold your card or device over the reader for a few seconds, and the radio waves share your bank account or credit card details with the merchant’s payment reader. When the transaction is complete you might hear a beep from the reader or see a green light. The transactions are always encrypted, so you can rest assured your information is safe and secure. Sometimes, for larger payments, a signature or PIN might be required as an added security measure.

Contactless Credit Cards vs. Digital Wallets

There are two main forms of contactless payments—credit or debit cards, and digital wallets connected to your smartphone or device (like an Apple Watch). If your credit card displays the contactless payment symbol (those four curved lines), you already have this ability. However, if your current cards don’t, your next ones probably will, as, according to Forbes Advisor, “Most major American credit card issuers are now sending contactless cards by default.”

If you want to go contactless right away, that doesn’t mean you have to apply for a new credit card. You can also use your smart device for contactless digital payments. We recommend these top trusted digital wallets, which can be connected to your First National Bank and Trust debit card.

What are the benefits of contactless payment?

Contactless payments have become the norm in many countries around the world, and for good reason—they improve the payment experience for both business and customer. While the U.S. is slightly behind the curve, contactless transactions will soon be mainstream here as well. Here’s why:
  • Easy to get, and simple to use. Many cards are already contactless, and all will be soon. Instead of fumbling at the card reader to insert cards in various locations or navigate on screen instructions, you simply tap and go with contactless payment.
  • Cuts down transaction times. Because it’s a one-step system, you won’t have to enter PINs or sign receipts, and it takes only seconds for your card to be read.
  • Less touching. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, we all know the value of limiting the number of surfaces we touch to stop the spread of germs. Even though the system is sometimes called “tap to pay,” not even your card has to touch anything. Simply hold your card or smart device close to the card reader and you’re good to go.
  • Better for overseas travel. Contactless payment methods have become so common overseas—particularly in Europe and Australia—that using a contactless credit card may be the only way you can pay some vendors.
  • More secure. With the use of special encryption, contactless payment is much more secure than the magnetic strip technology of older credit cards. We’ll get into this more below!

How safe are contactless payments?

There is a lot of fear that, because account information is being “transmitted,” thieves could somehow collect your card numbers and use them to make their own purchases. Fortunately, this is far from true. In fact, NFC technology is significantly more secure than cards with magnetic strips, which are vulnerable to skimmers that can catch your details and clone your cards. The reason contactless payment doesn’t leave your account vulnerable to similar theft is one word: tokenization.

When your account information is transmitted from your smart device or contactless card, it is encrypted from end to end and tokenized, or replaced with nonsensitive data—“tokens”. FIS Global, a company that provides these secure payment services to businesses, explains how this works: “The tokenization of payments is the effort to replace sensitive data, such as credit card numbers and PINs, with a unique identifier that can only be authenticated, decrypted, and translated by the token provider.” 

But what if someone has a card reader—would they be able to get close enough to steal your information in a public space or at checkout? They would not only have to be extremely close (within a few centimeters), but they would also have to be a legitimate business to do so. As Suresh Palliparambil, CEO of Purewrist, explains, "Any terminal that is capable of reading the credit card information needs to be registered with some merchant account.” Because of the way in which payment information is both encrypted and tokenized, the information is virtually impossible to be stolen or cloned.

If you are using a digital wallet—the other major form of contactless payment—you might be concerned that if you lose your device, or if the device is stolen, thieves can access your accounts. However, with digital wallets, you are in fact more protected than if your actual wallet was stolen. This is because phones (and the wallets themselves) are usually locked with a special passcode, fingerprint, or facial recognition. If the thief can’t unlock your phone, they can’t have access to your financial information. With that said, you should always be sure that your device is secured with a lock screen that isn’t easy to get around, and any loss or theft of cards or devices with mobile wallets is immediately reported to your bank. As the Identity Theft Resource Center advises, “Keeping a device secure by using screen locks and device passwords/biometrics is vitally important, along with the ability to remotely disable a smart device if it’s lost or stolen.” Lastly, make sure that your phone is trackable, so that if it does disappear you can locate it easily. The same can’t be said for a lost or stolen wallet!

For more tips on keeping your accounts and assets secure in the digital world, visit our guide: Cyber Security & Protecting Your Financial Data.

Where do I get a contactless debit card?

Because contactless credit and debit cards are rapidly becoming the norm in the U.S., it’s possible that you already have one in your wallet. In fact, more than half of people in the U.S. already use some form of contactless payment.

If you are looking to join them, consider what First National Bank and Trust has to offer. With our Debit Mastercard® with Rewards, you can make contactless payments worldwide wherever Mastercard® is accepted, earning reward points with every purchase. Not only do you have the security of an encrypted payment method, but you will also enjoy Mastercard’s Zero Liability Protection. And if your card is ever lost or stolen, you can even use our card management feature online and within our mobile app to enable or disable your own card instantly, for added security. To get your new First National Bank and Trust contactless debit card, open a checking account today to enjoy these benefits and more!