A History of Contactless Payments

A History of Contactless Payments

We are living through what many commentators call the 'Third Industrial Revolution'.

Everywhere we look, new technological innovations appear, proliferate, and change our daily lives.

Contactless payments are a great example of this. Cash, which has been in daily use for centuries, has been surpassed within decades by contactless cards.

And just as quickly as this happened, other contactless payment technology began to compete with cards.

Let's look at the highlights and trends that have led this dramatic change.

What are contactless payments?

Contactless payments (sometimes referred to as tap and go payments) are secure wireless financial transactions enabled by holding a payments-enabled device over a compatible payment terminal.

These devices can be cards, smartphones, smartwatches, or other wearable payment devices (including rings, bags, or more!).


This payment method often relies on other technology such as:

Contactless payment methods increase the convenience and speed of transactions for relatively low-value purchases.

They often save users from needing to enter a personal identification number (PIN) code, passwords or biometric verifications (such as fingerprint, iris, or facial scanning).

Card payments before contactless

Before contactless payments, purchasing with cards could be a slow and error-prone process at the point of sale (POS) terminal.

Originally, staff had to write down card numbers and imprint them on pressure-sensitive paper using printing presses.

This was particularly risky for credit card payments, as there was no way to verify if there were sufficient funds in the associated account.

A timeline of contactless payments



Contactless payments began with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology in the 1990s.

The first contactless payment was made in South Korea in 1995 with a prepaid travel card set up called a Upass card. This card was only available for use with the Seoul bus transport association.

Around the same time, Mobil introduced Speedpass in the United States. This prepaid key fob enabled customers to make fast and convenient payments for fuel at participating gas stations..


Significant strides in contactless payments took place in the 2000s.

FreedomPay launched one of the first mobile payment platforms in collaboration with Bank of America and McDonald's.

This milestone laid the groundwork for future mobile payments. It also started a trend of collaborations between financial institutions and merchants.

Simultaneously, Transport for London's Oyster Card revamped travel payments.

It streamlined journeys for millions of commuters by reducing the hassle of purchasing and validating tickets.

Barclaycard's OnePulse further disrupted the market by integrating Chip and PIN, a contactless payment system, and Oyster functionality into a single card.


The floodgates for digital payment systems opened in the 2010s.

Google Wallet, Android Pay, and Apple Pay emerged as pioneers. They all enabled users to make seamless and secure contactless payments with smartphones.

This liberated consumers from the need to carry physical payment cards around. So making transactions and a digital-first lifestyle became more convenient than ever before.

Recognising the growing demand for alternative contactless payment methods, Barclaycard introduced PayBand.

This wearable payment device was a simple plastic bracelet with contactless payment technology embedded inside it.

Contactless use growth in the UK

By 2013, annual, contactless payment card payments in the UK reached 1 billion GBP for the first time.

And by 2016, six in ten adults in the UK used contactless payments.

By 2018, this figure was eight in ten.

Contactless usage in Denmark

Nordic countries' were early adopters of contactless payments. Today, their usage is higher than almost anywhere.

For example, in Denmark, the average person used contactless 150 times a year in 2011.

By 2015, this figure had doubled to 300 times a year.

Early 2020s

The current decade has seen exponential adoption of contactless payments.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused some users and businesses to prefer to accept contactless payment for payments because of hygiene concerns.

And pre-pandemic trends also continued, despite a slight dip in growth in growth between 2021 - 22.

During this period the contactless payment limit also increased in many places.

In the UK, it rose from a 45 GBP transaction limit to 100 GBP in 2021. In Canada, the limit is about one third higher, at 250 CAD.

The integration of the contactless payment systems and functionality into wearable devices, including smartwatches, continues to expand.

According to data from Barclays, contactless payments accounted for a remarkable 91.2% of all eligible card transactions in the UK back in 2022.

Data also reveals there was a 50% surge in the value of contactless payments in the same year.

On average, each British user spent £3,327 GBP using contactless spending.

The future of contactless payments

The future of contactless payments is set for remarkable growth and innovation.

Mobile wallets like Apple Wallet look set to maintain a large market share. This could lead to physical credit and debit cards becoming rarer.

Experts predict that the contactless payments market will skyrocket to a staggering 18 billion USD by 2025.

New developments such as the "Just Walk Out" technology pioneered by Amazon Go stores offer a glimpse into a future where seamless transactions become the norm.

Retail giant JD.com in China has also implemented a similar system.

Biometric authentication holds great potential. Facial recognition and fingerprint scanning are becoming the norm for making payments.

As the contactless payment space evolves, innovation will continue to push the boundaries of convenience and security.


The history of contactless payments reflects a journey of constant innovation, convenience, and security.

Beginning in the 1990s with RFID technology, the field has evolved exponentially over the last thirty years.

Groundbreaking milestones were reached through collaborations between financial institutions and merchants, and the introduction of various mobile payment platforms.

In the 2010s, the arrival of digital wallets revolutionised the industry by liberating consumers from the need to carry physical cards.

By the early 2020s, a blend of health concerns and tech advances boosted the adoption of contactless payments, with wearables playing a significant role.

The future seems to herald an era where contactless payments dominate the financial landscape, with physical cards likely becoming less common.

Market predictions suggest an astounding growth, expected to reach 18 billion USD by 2025. New seamless payment methods look likely to become standard.

Meanwhile, biometric authentication technologies hold the potential to further enhance security.

As the contactless payment space continues to evolve, the boundaries of convenience and security are expected to be pushed even further.

As the Third Industrial Revolution continues, the transformation in contactless payments will no doubt remain an integral and highly visible part of it.