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What Are Contactless Credit Cards? And How Do I Get One?

Updated Jun 15, 2021 | Published Nov 29, 20186 min read

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At a glance

Contactless credit cards let you “tap” to pay — it’s quick and easy. The technology isn’t universal in the U.S., but several big-name American issuers currently offer contactless cards.

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Swipe, dip, or tap?

You might have to make the choice more frequently in the coming years.

That’s because contactless technology is expected to equip more than half of all new credit and debit card shipments by the end of the decade, reports The New York Times.

But how do these cards work? Are they safe? Here’s everything you need to know, plus our picks for the best contactless cards available (with more details below).

Our Favorite Contactless Credit Cards

Card & Rewards Annual Fee
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card

  • 1.5% cash back on all purchases
$0
Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card

  • 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats (through January 2023)
  • 3% cash back on:
    • Dining
    • Entertainment
    • Grocery stores
    • Streaming Services
  • 1% cash back on everything else
$0
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

  • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year, then 1%)
  • 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores
  • 1% cash back on everything else
$0 (Rates & Fees)
American Express® Gold Card

  • 4X points at restaurants
  • 4X points at Uber Eats
  • 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X)
  • 3X points on flights booked directly through airlines or amextravel.com
$250
(Rates & Fees)
Insider tip

Mastercard created a tool to let you search for merchants in your area that accept contactless payments. It also developed a similar tool, called ShopOpenings, which shows you businesses that are currently open for business along with whether or not they’re NFC-capable (which means able to take contactless payments).

What Are Contactless Credit Cards, and How Do They Work?

Contactless credit cards are plain old credit cards, for the most part, except that they allow you to pay by simply holding your card near the payment terminal, rather than swiping or inserting. They use a contactless technology called NFC (near field communication). Each card has a contactless NFC chip and radio frequency (RFID) antenna, which is why they’re sometimes called RFID credit cards or RFID chip credit cards, too.

When you’re shopping with a contactless card, you wave it over the card reader, and your card uses radio frequencies and a one-time code to complete the transaction. There’s no need to swipe, sign, or dip. You’ll still earn the same credit card rewards you normally would for the purchase.

Although there’s been lots of buzz about contactless credit cards, the technology isn’t new.

Mastercard, for example, introduced contactless cards back in 2003, and the Chicago transit system adopted contactless payments in 2011. The London Tube has been using them since 2014. Today, quite a few Visa and American Express cards are contactless, too. You’ll also find contactless cards from Chase, Capital One, Discover, and other issuers.

Over the past decade, contactless cards have steadily grown in popularity in Canada, Europe, and Australia — and are finally gaining ground in the United States. ABI Research, a market advisory firm, predicts that, by 2022, 2.3 billion contactless cards will be issued globally each year.

Image credit: Visa

The whole tap-and-go process takes a few seconds, making it infinitely faster than EMV chip cardsThat’s why contactless cards are perfect for speedy transactions, like in line at a coffee shop or on a city bus.

Insider tip

Digital credit cards or digital wallets, like Apple Pay, Google Pay (formerly Android Pay), or Samsung Pay, use the same technology as contactless credit cards for mobile payments. Before using your phone or wearable at checkout, you’ll need to download or set up the appropriate tap-and-pay service for your device.

Are Contactless Credit Cards Safe?

Though the NYT says contactless cards are “significantly more secure” than magnetic-strip cards, they still have some weaknesses you should be aware of.

The biggest issue comes in the form of RFID skimmers, who use their own NFC readers to steal details from contactless cards. This can occur on busy city streets or in crowded subways, when thieves can get close without drawing too much attention.

While there’s been much talk about this potential threat, some experts say it’s overblown. One told NPR most thieves would consider RFID skimming a waste of time, since it’s much easier to go online and buy “thousands” of credit card numbers at once.

If you’re concerned, you can purchase an RFID-blocking wallet or wrap your card in a piece of aluminum foil. 

The most important step, however, is to monitor your card’s activity like usual. The vast majority of credit cards, including tap credit cards, have a zero-liability guarantee. Just be sure to check your monthly statements and credit reports, and alert your issuer if you spot any unrecognized purchases.

Also take heart in the fact that most issuers set limits on contactless card transactions — usually around $50 to $100. After you hit that amount, you’ll need to sign for the purchase.

Contactless Payments and Contactless Credit Cards

If you’ve ever looked into contactless credit cards, you’ve probably heard the term “contactless payments,” too. The two ideas are inherently related, but it’s worth noting that contactless credit cards are only one form of contactless payment.

Contactless Payments: Definition & History

Contactless payments are essentially any type of payment that requires no physical contact — that means no swiping of a magnetic stripe, and no insertion of a chip.

This type of tech has actually been around for decades — a contactless bus payment card was implemented in Seoul in 1995, and Speedpass, which allowed customers to pay for gas with a contactless key fob loaded with money, was introduced by Mobil in the late ‘90s. Things have come a long way since then, though.

Contactless credit cards are one type of contactless payment, but contactless, tap-and-pay technology can also be embedded into devices like phones and watches. Many modern contactless technologies involve digital wallets, like Google Pay and Apple Pay.

Like the RFID antennae used by contactless credit cards, devices like smartphones use NFC technology that interacts with the payment terminal.

Which American Issuers Offer Contactless Cards?

To see if a card features contactless payment technology, look for a wave-like or field symbol on either the front or the back. That’s the contactless indicator.

You can also call your credit card issuer to see if contactless-enabled cards are available — sometimes banks will send an updated version if you ask.

Here are the stances of some major credit card issuers:

  • American Express says contactless is available on the “majority” of its personal cards, plus a selection of business cards.
  • Bank of America began a pilot program in mid 2019 where it sent contactless credit and debit cards to consumer cardholders in the New York, Boston, and San Francisco regions in an attempt to promote mass adoption.
  • Capital One offers an array of contactless credit cards (see below).
  • Chase will start sending out contactless cards in late 2018 and early 2019. You’ll receive one when applying for a new card or renewing an existing card.
  • Discover used to offer contactless cards, and, as of December 2019, has begun rolling them out again.

As for where contactless payment methods are accepted? More and more retail locations, including McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Walgreens, and Whole Foods. Just look for the contactless symbol on the point-of-sale terminal, or explore Mastercard’s searchable database of contactless merchants.

Insider tip

Don’t worry if a merchant doesn’t have a contactless payment system. Contactless cards are regular credit cards, just with more advanced technology. So you can use them anywhere your specific card’s accepted, including online or over the phone. And if you sign for the purchase, you won’t have the $50–$100 transaction limit you would when paying with a tap.

What Are the Best Contactless Credit Cards?

Because of the low transaction limits when going contactless, tapping and going works best for small purchases at places like gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants. You may not see the contactless logo on the images of these cards below, but they are available with contactless technology.

With that in mind, here are several credit cards that earn solid rewards in those categories — and that also feature contactless technology:

 

Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card
Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

  • Min. credit levelGood
  • Annual Fee$0
  • Regular APR15.49% - 25.49% Variable

Key Features & Terms

  • Annual fee: $0
  • Introductory bonus: One-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • Rewards: 1.5% cash back on all purchases
  • Perks: No foreign transaction fees
  • Purchase APR: 0% 15 months, then 15.49% - 25.49% Variable

Like the Chase Freedom Unlimited, this card offers 1.5% cash back on non-category purchases, although there aren’t any categories here. Unlike the Freedom Unlimited, it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, making it a good choice for international travel.

 

Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

  • Min. credit levelGood
  • Annual Fee$0
  • Regular APR15.49% - 25.49% Variable

The information related to Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected by Credit Card Insider and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product.

Spending Rewards
  • 8% cash back on tickets at Vivid Seats (through January 2023)
  • 3% cash back for:
    • Dining
    • Grocery stores
    • Streaming Services
    • Entertainment
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
Introductory Bonus
  • $200 cash bonus for spending $500 in the first 3 months

Key Features & Terms

  • Premium Access with OpenTable: Get exclusive OpenTable reservations to hot restaurants, in a limited selection of cities.
  • Mastercard Concierge (Mastercard World Elite only): Call any time to talk to a personal assistant, who can help you in all sorts of non-emergency tasks.
  • Shopping and travel protections: Cell Phone Protection, Extended Warranty, Price Protection, MasterRental Coverage, Master RoadAssist Service
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 15 months, then 15.49% - 25.49% Variable
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Annual fee: $0

With this foodie-focused card you’ll get a generous amount of cash back on your restaurant and grocery bills (and these expenses are perfect for contactless transactions!).

 

Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
Apply Now

securely on the issuer's website

  • Min. credit levelGood
  • Annual Fee$0
  • Regular APR13.99% - 23.99% Variable

Rates & Fees

American Express is a Credit Card Insider advertiser.

Spending Rewards
  • 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (earned as a statement credit; up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%)
  • 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
Introductory Bonus
  • 20% back for Amazon purchases in the first 6 months, up to $150 back; $100 back for spending $2,000 in the first 6 months (earned as a statement credit)

Key Features & Terms

  • Amex Offers: Earn extra cash back at a variety of merchants.
  • Complimentary ShopRunner membership: Register with ShopRunner for free two-day shipping and returns at select online retailers.
  • Entertainment Access: Exclusive tickets to events, concerts, sports, and shows
  • Travel protections: Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance, Global Assist Hotline
  • Purchase APR: 0% for 15 months, then 13.99% - 23.99% Variable
  • Annual fee: $0

Enrollment required for select benefits; terms and limitations apply.

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express (Rates & Fees)

This card hits on the right contactless categories: U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations, although you’re limited to U.S. merchants. An upgraded offering is the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express (Review), which earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year, then 1%) and on select U.S. streaming services, as well as 3% on U.S. gas station purchases and transit. So, depending on how much you spend in those categories, the rewards might offset the annual fee (Rates & Fees).

 

American Express® Gold Card
  • Min. credit levelGood
  • Annual Fee$250
  • Regular APRSee Pay Over Time APR

Rates & Fees

American Express is a Credit Card Insider advertiser.

Spending Rewards
  • 4X Membership Rewards points per dollar at:
    • Restaurants
    • U.S. Supermarkets (up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X)
  • 3X Membership Rewards points per dollar on:
    • Flights booked directly with airlines
    • Flights booked through amextravel.com
  • 1X Membership Rewards point per dollar for every other purchase
Introductory Bonus
  • 60,000 bonus points for spending $4,000 in the first 6 months

Key Features & Terms

  • $120 annual dining credit: Earn up to $10 in statement credits per month for purchases at eligible restaurants and food delivery services.
  • Point transfer: To airline and hotel loyalty programs, like JetBlue, Southwest, Marriott, and Hyatt
  • Up to $120 in Uber Cash: Add the Gold Card to the Uber App to get up to $10 in Uber Cash per month; U.S. Eats orders and rides only.
  • Uber Eats Pass: Get unlimited $0 delivery fees and 5% off orders at eligible restaurants for 12 months; must enroll by 12/31/21. Taxes and service fees may apply and do not count toward the order minimum. Eats Pass will start auto-billing 12 months from enrollment, at then-current monthly rate. Learn more.
  • The Hotel Collection: Provides up to $100 in credits for every eligible hotel stay of two nights or more, along with other perks.
  • Amex Offers: Find discounts and extra point opportunities at a changing selection of merchants (offers are limited; enrollment required).
  • ShopRunner membership: ShopRunner provides free two-day shipping and returns at participating online retailers.
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Annual fee: $250

Enrollment required for select benefits; terms and limitations apply.

American Express® Gold Card (Rates & Fees)

With strong rewards at restaurants, U.S. supermarkets, and flights, as well as several perks, this card is a good choice for travelers. You’ll also get a $120 annual dining credit at select restaurants, of $10 per month.

Are Contactless Cards the Future?

The last time contactless cards entered the American market, they didn’t make much of a splash.

But this time — with more and more merchants hopping on board, and more consumers embracing digital payment methods — we’d guess they’re going to stick around.

So get ready to tap, pay, and head off on your merry way.

Ready to find the perfect new credit card, contactless or not? Check out our picks for the Best Credit Cards in a variety of categories.

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For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, please click here.

For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, please click here.

Written by

Susan Shain

Susan is a freelance writer who specializes in turning complex financial topics into engaging and accessible articles. She's been writing about personal finance for six years, and was previously the senior writer at The Penny Hoarder and a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Her personal finance writing has also appeared in publications like MarketWatch and Lifehacker.

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