Contactless 101: What you need to know about tap and go

June 17, 2024 | By Vicki Hyman

For a payment technology that’s been around for more than 20 years, it’s safe to say that contactless has officially arrived.

Tap and go — also known as contactless payments — accounted for more than two in every three in-person transactions globally on Mastercard’s network in 2023, up from one in three prior to the pandemic. That spike in adoption can be attributed to two major factors. First, shoppers and merchants were both seeking touch-free ways to transact amid COVID-19. Second, the launch of tap to ride on major mass transit systems around the world became a killer app for contactless and propelled usage.

/'kän-,takt-ləs/ • adjective

1. not requiring touch or interaction between people

2. relating to or being a technological system (as for making payments) where information is transmitted (as by near field communication) without physical contact


Contactless technology is also helping businesses of all sizes adapt to the digital economy, with the help of innovations like Tap on Phone, which turns a merchant’s smartphone into a digital cash register.

Many of us may take the concept of contactless for granted today because of how widely it’s been adopted, but it’s safe to say that this technology has sparked one of the biggest changes in consumer payments habits — perhaps in decades. Before contactless went mainstream, swiping your card at a terminal, or, later, dipping your card was the main way to pay.

Curious about contactless? Here’s everything you need to know about tap and go.

What are contactless payments?

Contactless payments are simple, fast, secure and touch-free ways to pay in person using a payment card, mobile wallet or payment-enabled wearable, like a smartwatch or fitness tracker. With tap and go, you simply tap or hold your card or device on the merchant’s payments reader to complete the transaction.

How does tap and go work?

Tap and go works quickly and seamlessly today thanks to an innovation dating back decades: radio frequency identification, or RFID, a technology that uses radio waves to transfer data. The idea was born during World War II as a way to detect whether approaching planes were friends or foes.

Today’s cards typically use a version of RFID called near-field communication, or NFC, which operates at a higher frequency and allows for faster data transfer, but only at close distances — a few inches. Payment cards, mobile wallets and other wearables contain a tiny antenna that relays the account information to the merchant terminal.

How do I know if my card is contactless?

You know your payment card is contactless if it has the contactless indicator — four curved lines — printed somewhere on it. Most cards issued today by major banks are contactless by default, while cards with magnetic stripes for swiping are slowly being phased out entirely.

Any mobile wallet is capable of making contactless payments.

How do I know where contactless payments are accepted?

Contactless payments are accepted where you see the contactless payments symbol — four curved lines with a circle around them and a hand holding a card — on the merchant’s electronic payment terminal, device or card reader or on signage near the front door or checkout. The payment terminal may also simply say “tap, swipe or insert card” to pay, indicating that contactless payments are available.

Though consumers are increasingly embracing tap and go, some merchants have been slower to implement contactless payments because they believe it will be costly to replace their point-of-sale hardware.

But there are low-cost alternatives: The same technology that turns your smartphone into a payment device can also turn a merchant’s smartphone into an acceptance device. With Tap on Phone, no additional hardware is required, only an app. Customers simply hold their contactless card or phone near the merchant’s phone to make the payment.

Tap on Phone, currently live in more than 100 markets around the world, was initially targeted to small businesses and micro-merchants — tens of millions of whom were cash only — and mobile businesses, like food trucks, but larger retailers are also embracing it to reduce lines at registers.

And as the technology advances and adoption grows, Tap on Phone has also sparked other innovations such as Tap on Own Device, where shoppers can tap their contactless card against their own smartphone to make a payment in store or online. Tap on Own Device unlocks new types of contactless interactions. They include adding a new card to a mobile device instead of scanning or manually typing in a card number, as well as verifying a card in possession when online shopping for a safer, streamlined experience.

How do I set up and tap and go?

Tap and go is automatic with a contactless-enabled payment card. With a smartphone, you must first add your card to your phone’s wallet app. Open the app and follow instructions for adding your card. Typically, that means inputting your name, card number, expiration date and security code. Again, newer innovations like Tap on Own Device will help speed up those processes in the future.

Once your bank verifies the information, which should take seconds, it will be added to your wallet. You can add multiple cards to your wallet but designate one as your default.   

How do I make a contactless payment?

You make a contactless payment by tapping the part of your card with the contactless indicator on or near the part of the merchant’s card reader or point-of-sale device emblazoned with the contactless symbol.

With a mobile wallet, you simply open the wallet app and tap the phone as you would the card. Tap technology doesn’t actually require a tap — you just have to hold your card or phone within an inch or two of the reader to make the payment.

If you accidentally tap more than once, you won’t be charged twice. And there’s minimal risk of prematurely paying for your purchase because the merchant terminal must be queued for the sale and your card or device must be within a couple of inches to make a payment.

Are contactless payments safe?

Contactless payments are safe. When you tap to pay, your card or device never leaves your hand, reducing the risk of loss and eliminating the need for physical contact, which was important during the pandemic.

When you pay with a contactless card, the embedded EMV chip encrypts your account information so your data can’t be stolen. When you pay with your smartphone, the card stored in your mobile wallet is also tokenized, meaning the number on your card has been replaced with a random number, so the merchant never sees or stores your actual account information, lowering the risk of your information being stolen in case of a data breach.

Contactless transactions with your phone are also secured by the biometrics required to authenticate yourself on your device — your fingerprint or Face ID — and cryptograms, or one-time codes that are generated for every transaction.

Vicki Hyman, director, communications, Mastercard