Beginner's guide to: Contactless cards

What exactly is a contactless card?

These are debit, credit or prepaid cards that you can touch against a pad to quickly pay for items, using similar technology to London's Oyster travel cards. Barclays has announced that all its new debit cards will have contactless technology built in as of March, and expects all its debit cards to be compatible by 2011.

Are they safe?

Contactless cards don't require your PIN (personal identification number) to complete the transaction, which could make consumers nervous. However, the cards are currently restricted for use on transactions of £10 or less, so if anyone does find or steal your card, the damage they can cause is limited. And you won't be liable for any fraudulent transactions as long as you inform your bank as soon as possible that your card is missing. Occasionally, the PIN will be requested to confirm the cardholder is still in possession of the card.

Who offers these cards?

Prepaid contactless cards have been around for a while, especially in universities, schools and hospitals, to give users quick and easy access to vending machines, fast food, parking, etc, without fishing around for change. But the payment method is quickly becoming mainstream, and Barclays, HSBC, Egg, Halifax Bank of Scotland, and the Royal Bank of Scotland all now offer contactless card plans.

Where can I use them?

Because the transactions are small, shops with contactless technology are often food companies and newsagents. More than 8,000 retailers accept contactless payments, including high street chains such as Pret A Manger, Coffee Republic, EAT, Books Etc, Krispy Kreme, Threshers and a number of independent stores. However, the number of places you can use contactless cards is still relatively limited, especially outside London – though the technology is expected to grow. Look for a ripple symbol on signs, as well as for the electronic pad.