Contactless Payments Demystified

on Nov25
contactless payments
Written by
James Davis
Written by James Davis
Senior Technical Writer at United Thinkers
Author of the Paylosophy blog, a veteran writer, and a stock analyst with extensive knowledge and experience in the financial services industry that allows me to cover the latest payment industry news, developments, and insights. Read more
contactless payments
Reviewed by
Kathrine Pensatori
Product Specialist at United Thinkers
Product specialist with more than 10 years of experience in the Payment Processing Industry. I help payment facilitators and PSPs solve their various payment processing issues. Read more

There is a certain confusion regarding such concepts as EMV contactless payments and magnetic stripe contactless payments (sometimes called proximity payments). Both these concepts denote contactless payments (also called near-field contact or NFC payments), allowing to process card data once the card is placed within the magnetic field of the terminal. Similar NFC technologies are used in both cases.

General info on contactless payments

Contactless technology originally started emerging in the United States with MasterCard PayPass, Visa payWave. Initially, contactless payment technology was an extension of ordinary card-swipe technology. When a card touches the payment terminal, slightly altered track data is communicated to the terminal.

Contactless magnetic stripe payments have approximately the same security level as ordinary card swipes. The only difference is the construction of the card itself, which has to include the necessary components for NFC.

Examples of magnetic stripe contactless payment systems include Google Wallet and Apple Pay. In these systems card data (replaced by a token due to security and PCI compliance considerations) is injected into a mobile device. At some point during processing, the token, which is read off the phone, is detokenized through Apple/Google servers and converted into the actual account number for subsequent processing.

EMV (in contrast to magnetic stripe) contactless payment is an EMV transaction, during which a group of EMV tags is communicated to the terminal (similarly to the case of EMV contact transactions).

Limitations of EMV contactless payments

Due to the nature of contactless payments, there are certain limitations, which distinguish contactless payments from contact payments. These limitations are related to security and technology related issues. Let us take a closer look at the specified limitations.

Amount limitation

EMV contactless cards and payments are often used in scenarios, which require swift completion of the transaction. Consequently, contactless payments are often conducted without verification of either signatures or PINs (although both options are possible in contactless transactions). That is why, when application parameters for EMV are configured, a maximum amount of a contactless transaction is established (according to the needs of the business).

No issuer script processing

In some instances issuer may want to send some information back to the chip on the card (a common feature in the contact EMV). While EMV contactless standard does make provision for the second “tap” (or touch), it is often assumed that there is going to be just one tap. Consequently, in most cases, it will be impossible to send the issuer script back to the card as part of contactless transaction.

Automated application selection

We should remind that an ordinary magnetic stripe contains only the information about the card, its expiration date, and the cardholder’s name, which can be read by the terminal and used at some further stage of the process. In contrast to a magnetic stripe, an EMV chip contains special applications. Through these applications the card interacts with the payment terminal (in contrast to magnetic stripe card). In some cases there might be several specialized applications, recorded on a chip (for instance, applications for debit networks, for Visa processing in the US, or for processing of Visa International). Depending on transaction type and merchant type, the terminal chooses the most suitable application, the application is activated and used for information exchange between the terminal and the card. In some cases there can be several applications suitable for specific situations. In case of contact EMV the selection can be made by the cardholder. However, in contactless situation the selection very often happens automatically by default.

Some applications can be intended for card payments at petrol stations, while others can be intended for card usage in specific countries of the world. Common debit application IDs (AIDs) are intended for working through PIN-less debit networks. MasterCard brand AIDs are intended for international payment processing (for cases when a debit network cannot be accessed).

In case of contact payment the cardholder can select an application, which is most suitable for him. In case of a contactless card payment the cardholder might not have such an opportunity. As application selection is performed automatically, it becomes of great importance for merchant to properly configure automated selection process to choose the application, which is most suitable for a particular business context in terms of eventual processing cost.


Contactless technology provides convenient means of payment, allowing cardholders and merchants to save time. However, this technology often complicates the process of certification. As a result, before you decide, whether you want to accept contactless payment cards or not, you have to verify whether the limitations of the technology will have any negative consequences for your business, and whether it will be problematic to invest time and efforts, needed for implementation of contactless technology in addition to contact payment processing. Also remember, that for some businesses (and, possibly, for your business as well) it might be appropriate to completely switch to contactless payments and give up contact EMV payments, and there are numerous models of terminals that can only accept contactless payments, and they are cheaper than terminals which can do both; if you switch to contactless payments only, certification process will, again, become simpler for you.

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