New iPhones Let You Use NFC Even When They're Dead

Apple added support for student ID cards in iOS 12, so you can use your iPhone to get into the dorms, pay for food in the cafeteria and scan into football games. But what if your phone dies and you didn’t bring your physical card?

Your iPhone can still be used as an ID, thanks to a new feature called Express Cards, exclusive to iPhone XS, XS Max and XR.

Credit: Apple

(Image credit: Apple)

TechRadar discovered the details of the feature buried in Apple’s iOS 12 security guide: “If iOS isn't running because iPhone needs to be charged, there may still be enough power in the battery to support Express Card transactions.”

There are a few caveats. You can only use cards that have been stored in the iOS Wallet app and designated as Express Cards. And the feature only works with the limited (but growing) number of universities whose student ID cards are supported in iOS 12 in the U.S.

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In China and Japan, Express Cards work with the NFC transit cards used in those countries’ public transportation systems. And it won’t work indefinitely: You have five hours after your iPhone dies to use the cards.

How it works

When your phone dies, you can press the side button, which will show you the low battery icon and a notification about Express Cards. If you hold your iPhone near an NFC terminal, you’ll feel haptic feedback to alert you that the Express Card has been scanned. You won’t see anything on-screen.

Express Cards won’t work if you turn off your phone to conserve battery — it has to die on its own. The feature doesn’t support debit or credit cards stored in Apple Pay, because you have to authenticate those payments with Touch ID or Face ID (and those obviously won’t work if your phone is dead).

Check out our full review of iOS 12, available to install now, which is packed with neat, under-the-radar features like Express Cards. And if you’re looking to upgrade to a new phone (perhaps because your current device won’t run iOS 12), check out our review of the iPhone XS and XS Max.

Caitlin is a Senior editor for Gizmodo. She has also worked on Tom's Guide, Macworld, PCWorld and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When she's not testing out the latest devices, you can find her running around the streets of Los Angeles, putting in morning miles or searching for the best tacos.