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How Do I Use a Contactless Card?

Tap-to-pay technology makes it easy to use a contactless credit card at many stores. Here’s what you need to know to use this touchless way to buy goods and services.

By Randi Gollin | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

4 Min Read | September 22, 2020 in Cards



Contactless credit cards, digital wallets, and contactless-enabled devices speed up and streamline the checkout process.

Contactless payment options are considered highly secure.

Contactless payments are on the rise in the U.S., with shoppers viewing touch-free options as cleaner alternatives to cash and traditional chip cards.

It’s not your imagination: Everyone from the java fans queuing for cappuccinos at your favorite coffee shop to families ordering burgers at the local fast-food hangout have begun using contactless credit cards, smartphones equipped with digital wallets, and contactless-capable devices like tablets, smartwatches, and key fobs, to tap-and-pay – and go on their way.


Contactless credit cards are catching on because they’re:

  • Fast – Up to 10 times quicker than other ways of paying in-store.
  • Convenient – They streamline the checkout process.
  • Safe – Contactless technology makes them about as secure as credit cards can get.
  • Touch-free – They provide a cleaner alternative to cash and card readers at payment terminals.

For all these reasons, more people are using contactless payments and a growing number of retailers are accepting them. And they’re oftentimes used for small purchases – about 80% of contactless payments are for amounts less than $25, purchases that are usually paid in cash.1


Here’s a closer look at how they work.


How to Use a Contactless Credit Card or Digital Wallet

Contactless cards are easy to identify. The front of the credit card shows a small contactless logo resembling a radio wave or a sideways Wi-Fi symbol. The same logo should be visible on retailers’ contactless-capable payment readers.


When you’re ready to pay, simply wave or tap the contactless credit card or digital wallet, positioning it one or two inches from the contactless icon on the merchant’s payment reader.2 In a few seconds you’ll hear a beep, or see a checkmark or green light on your mobile device, indicating that your transaction is complete. When you use a contactless card for the first time, however, you may be asked to enter your PIN to initialize the contactless capability.


How Contactless Payment Technology Works

Contactless credit cards are equipped with tap-to-pay technology, meaning they have an EMV chip like most modern credit cards plus a contactless chip and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) antenna. So, they’re able to transmit encrypted data with a contactless-enabled reader at the time of purchase. Digital wallets come in devices like smartphones, wearables, and laptops, and are armed with the same near-field-communication (NFC) technology. 


Contactless cards will still work if a store doesn’t have contactless capability. You can just dip your card into the card reader and use it as a standard EMV-chip card.


Why Contactless Payments Are Considered Highly Secure

When it comes to credit card security, contactless credit cards are about as secure as you can get, partly because they’re encrypted. Contactless credit cards, digital wallets, and contactless-enabled digital devices send an encrypted one-time-only code – or “token” – to the retailer’s reader. That token does not include private information like your name and credit card number. The use of these tokens is why you may have heard the word “tokenization” in connection with contactless payment technology.


The need for the credit card or mobile device to be close to the reader further curtails the potential for bad actors to intercept the payment exchange. In addition, the next time you use your card it will transmit a totally different code – so any intercepted data would be unique to each transaction. 


Digital wallets have additional safety precautions. The physical credit card can remain tucked away while you wave your smartphone. Plus, they usually require additional user authorization in the form of a fingerprint ID or password.3

The Future of Contactless Payments

About 51% of Americans have at least begun to use contactless payments,4 and experts believe that they will continue to do so with even greater frequency over the next few years. Touchless transactions nationwide are projected to leap from $178 billion in 2020 to $1.5 trillion in 2024, perhaps helping to expedite a long-discussed move toward a “cashless society.”5 


Digital wallet growth is also rising. Researchers project that people will use digital devices significantly more often in the next few years for remote shopping, in-store transactions, and person-to-person (P2P) money transfers.6


The Takeaway

Contactless credit cards and digital wallets are growing in popularity in the U.S. Tap-to-pay technology makes touchless transactions fast, and they’re highly secure thanks to encryption and tokenization. Further, they offer a cleaner alternative to cash and high-touch readers at stores’ payment terminals. As more retailers install contactless-enabled readers, contactless payments are expected to continue growing.

Randi Gollin

Randi Gollin is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist who’s covered topics including travel, shopping, and dining for tech and media brands and digital publication.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.