Alliance Activities : Publications : What, Who, Why of Contactless Payments

The What, Who and Why of Contactless Payments


The mass market introduction of contactless technology is an important event for the payments industry. Contactless payments are already providing benefits to consumers and retailers alike, in terms of higher levels of control and convenience for consumers and higher throughput for retailers. And these benefits are just the tip of the iceberg.

This paper describes the key changes associated with the use of contactless payments in North America, including the additional value such payments can provide to issuers, acquirers/processors, independent sales organizations (ISOs), retailers, and consumers. This paper is also intended to facilitate communications among the various industry stakeholders by describing current market activities and standardizing definitions key to understanding contactless payments. All stakeholders benefit from a clear understanding of how contactless payments deliver new benefits while also leveraging the reliability and trustworthiness of current payment systems.

In 2005, the launch of contactless payments across North America began in earnest, with further growth in numbers of issuers, numbers of cards, and merchant locations. Leading banks are issuing millions of contactless credit and debit cards to consumers, and leading retailers are installing contactless readers that can accept contactless payment and are integrated with point-of-sale (POS) systems. The rate of deployment of contactless infrastructure is the highest ever observed for emerging payments products and technology in recent memory and speaks of a unique market momentum for the industry. As contactless payment adoption in the U.S. is growing, a clear understanding of its value propositions and relationship to the existing payment infrastructures is critical.

What Exactly Is Contactless Smart Chip Technology?

Contactless smart chip technology relies on a secure microcontroller or equivalent intelligence, internal memory, and a small antenna embedded in a device that communicates with a reader through a contactless radio frequency (RF) interface. This technology is used in a wide range of applications. From delivering fast, secure transactions as in transit fare payment cards to protecting personal information in government and corporate identification cards, electronic passports and visas, contactless smart chip technology is being leveraged to improve speed, convenience and security.

Contactless smart chips can securely manage, store, and provide access to data on the device in which they are embedded. They can perform internal functions (e.g., encryption) and interact intelligently with the contactless reader. Contactless smart chip technology is available in a variety of forms–plastic cards, watches, key fobs, documents, and other handheld devices, such as mobile phones. This technology is not related to “non-smart” RF chip technologies, such as the RFID tags used for inventory management/product tracking applications, which require minimal functionality.

“Contactless payments” [1] is one application of contactless smart chip technology. Contactless payments are simply payment transactions that require no physical connection between the consumer payment device and the physical POS terminal. In the United States, the term “contactless payments” refers to the use of payment products currently supported by American Express® (ExpressPay), MasterCard (MasterCard® PayPass™), and Visa Contactless. All three products are based on ISO/IEC 14443, the international standard for contactless smart chip technology. [2] Contactless payment devices are restricted to be read within 2 to 4 inches of a POS terminal vs. RFID tags which are designed to be read at large distances. In addition, contactless payment applications include other measures that are specifically designed to protect the security of the consumer’s information and the payment transaction.

Why Use Contactless Payments?

Just what are the advantages of contactless payments over other methods of payment–magnetic stripe cards and cash? Why are merchants moving to deploy this new form of payment? Why are consumers willing to change the way they pay? The answer is speed and convenience, as has been substantiated in the early implementations and in recent market research. Consumers no longer have to fumble with cash and change or worry about having enough cash for a purchase–they can place their contactless payment device in close proximity to a reader and go. In most cases, they do not even have to sign a receipt or enter a personal identification number (PIN).

As a result, merchants see sales volumes increase and transactions speed up. Chase has reported that time at the POS is reduced 30 to 40% and an American Express study found contactless transactions to be 63% faster than cash and 53% faster than using a traditional credit card. Research also shows that consumers generally spend more per transaction when they don’t use cash–with Chase reporting a 20 to 30% increase over cash purchases. Merchants also enjoy lower costs, as a result of fewer requirements to handle cash, improved operational efficiencies, and reduced maintenance required by contactless readers. In merchant segments where speed and convenience are key to merchandising and customer service, contactless payments also translate into improved customer acquisition and retention.

By issuing secure contactless payment devices, financial service providers are not only supplying consumers with a more convenient payment mechanism, they are also increasing transaction volumes by replacing cash. In addition, service providers can now differentiate themselves with innovative new form factors.

In the long term, contactless cards and tokens enable merchants and issuers to collaborate on lifestyle products that blend the features (e.g., security, convenience, special offers), packaging (e.g., cards, tokens, personal devices, mobile phones), and delivery of payment products into a variety of product types targeting different cardholder segments that have specific desires for their shopping experience.

What Current Market Activities Are Attracting Attention?

Over the past year, quite a buzz has surrounded the contactless payments market. Multiple card issuers have announced rollouts and follow-on issuance of contactless cards and devices in the United States. Since 2005, issuers have been rapidly expanding their market presence, with over 17 million cards issued [3]. Highlights of contactless payment deployment include the following:

The card issuers are not going it alone. Many of the nation’s top national and regional retailers have either enabled or are in the process of enabling their POS systems to accept contactless payment cards and key fobs. Over 35,000 merchant locations have been enabled to accept contactless payment devices.

Top retailers who are accepting contactless payments at all of their store locations in the United States include:

Many medium-sized and smaller merchants are being assisted by acquirers and ISOs so that they can begin accepting contactless payments shortly. Plus, a long list of well-recognized retailers are accepting contactless payments at some or all their store locations in cities or regions where issuers have focused contactless payment device issuance. The list includes:

Another form of retailing, major sports stadiums and entertainment venues, are being enabled to accept contactless payments. Sports fans and event attendees can obtain contactless cards and key fobs with their favorite sports logo. Bank of America is issuing PayPass-enabled branded affinity cards for multiple Major League Baseball and National Football League teams that let fans speed through concession lines. At some stadiums, certain lines are dedicated to this new form of payment.

A number of pilots have also been launched that feature more innovation in the use of contactless payments.

From new form factors, such as phones and watches, to new credit and debit card acceptance locations, such as vending machines, contactless payment technology is fueling innovation in the payments industry.

Are Contactless Payment Cards and Transactions Secure?

Contactless payment, as implemented by American Express, MasterCard and Visa, is secure. The financial payments networks used to process contactless payments are the same networks that process millions of magnetic stripe transactions securely today.

The financial payments industry has designed multiple layers of security throughout the traditional credit and debit payment systems to protect all parties involved in a payment transaction. Most of these protective measures are independent of the technology used to transfer the consumer payment account information from the payment card or device to the merchant POS terminal and are used for both magnetic stripe and contactless transactions. For example, online authorization, risk management and fraud detection systems are used to detect potential fraudulent activity for any credit or debit card payment transaction. Plus, the liability policies which protect consumers for traditional consumer credit and debit accounts also apply to American Express, MasterCard and Visa contactless transactions.

For contactless payments, the financial industry also uses added security technology, both on the contactless device as well as in the processing network and system, to prevent fraud. While implementations differ among issuers, examples of security measures that are being used include the following.

In addition, cardholders control both the transaction and the card throughout the transaction. Cardholders do not have to surrender either a card or their account information to a third party during a contactless transaction and contactless payment devices are designed to operate at very short ranges–less than 2 to 4 inches–so that the consumer needs to make a deliberate effort to initiate the payment transaction.

What Does It All Mean?

Even at this early stage, the evidence shows that contactless payments have the strong potential for rapid adoption in the U.S. Contactless payments offer a new, safe way to pay that not only provides benefits to consumers, merchants, and issuers, but also opens the door to new form factors and related value-added applications. Contactless payments allow creativity and differentiation to flourish on the foundation of the mature card industry.

Contactless payments are the most important card payment innovation in the last decade, with early adoption on the part of many major card issuers and top-brand merchants, and investments by and cooperation with the card associations. Significant numbers of contactless cards are being issued, the number of accepting merchant locations is increasing rapidly, and consumer usage is steadily increasing.

Contactless payments are safe, secure, and convenient. Although based on chip-level RF technology, contactless payment technology is fundamentally different from RFID and is built from the ground up on requirements for high security. Contactless payment devices use sophisticated smart chip technology with built-in intelligence and multiple safeguards specifically designed to protect against fraud. Built on the current payment infrastructure, contactless payments leverage layered security systems and deliver clear value propositions to all stakeholders. Consumers enjoy the convenience, merchants realize faster checkout times and increased throughput, and issuers achieve increased activation rates and usage.

Over the coming year, significant growth is expected in the adoption and use of contactless payments in the U.S. Other market innovations made possible by the use of smart chip technology, such as loyalty, rewards, and other value-added offerings, are already emerging alongside contactless payments. A new era of payment has begun in the United States.


[1] This paper deliberately omits other RF-based payment approaches such as toll transponders or proprietary solutions such as ExxonMobil SpeedPass. It also omits mobile/wireless payments based on Near Field Communication (NFC) technology.

[2] In countries where payment cards are migrating to contact smart card technology, contactless payment implementation requires a dual-interface smart card allowing payment in both contact and contactless modes.

[3] Card Technology, August 2006

[4] CIO Today, July 3, 2006

[5] Keybank speeds up cafeteria lines with Sharp contactless POS system,” Contactless News, July 17, 2006

[6] Cardline, September 26, 2006

[7] Cardline, September 2006


About the Smart Card Alliance Payments Council

The Payments Council is one of several Smart Card Alliance technology and industry councils. The Payments Council was formed to focus on facilitating the adoption of chip-enabled payments and payment applications in the U.S. through education programs for consumers, merchants, issuers, acquirers/processors, government regulators, mobile telecommunications providers and payments service providers. The group is bringing together payments industry stakeholders, including payments industry leaders, merchants and suppliers, and is working on projects related to implementing EMV, contactless payments, NFC-enabled payments and applications, mobile payments, and chip-enabled e-commerce. The Council’s primary goal is to inform and educate the market about the value of chip-enabled payments in improving the security of the payments infrastructure and in enhancing the value of payments and payment-related applications for industry stakeholders. Council participation is open to any Smart Card Alliance member who wishes to contribute to the Council projects.