Accidental Apple Pay triggers: When iPhone and NFC don't get along

On Wednesday, I spent a lovely afternoon with my aunt, uncle, and gentleman friend at Fenway Park in Boston to see the Red Sox. (Unfortunately, they ended a two-game winning streak by losing quite definitively 10-5 to the Nationals, but it made my Montreal-born aunt pretty happy.)

But we came close to not making it through the gates, thanks to an iPhone quirk with NFC and Apple Pay.

Apple Pay, NFC, and iPhone mishaps

On your phone, Apple Pay works by automatically detecting a compatible NFC reader and bringing up the payment screen. If the NFC reader isn't actually a payment terminal, you'll still get the screen, but any attempt to pay will provide you with an error: As there's no connection to your banks, you won't be able to authorize with Touch ID.

That keeps your data (and your money) safe, but that automatic screen can cause other issues — as I discovered at the ball park.

I had our game tickets as a PDF on my phone in Dropbox, but when I went to scan them, Apple Pay popped up. The ticket reader also happened to be an NFC terminal. Eeek.

I tried several times to trick my phone into not pulling up Apple Pay — turning on Do Not Disturb and Airplane Mode, trying to dismiss the screen — but no luck. Eventually, the ticket-taker pulled out a hand scanner and was able to process our passes, but for a few moments, I was worried we'd be out of luck without a visit to the ticket office and paper reprints.

The ball park isn't the first interaction I've had with accidental NFC triggers, either. I've been at several restaurants whose pagers have NFC chips within them — get them too close to your phone while you sit and wait for your table, and you'll have an Apple Pay screen waiting for you to dismiss.

This is far from an "end of the world" problem, of course. But it's funny to me that a gesture Apple intended to make paying for things easy — just wave your phone over the terminal! — unintentionally makes other actions more difficult.

Watch what happens

It's also why I'm excited for Apple Pay and ticket scanning on the Watch: To trigger Apple's payment service on the Watch, you have to double-press the side button, then wave your wrist over the NFC device in question.

In part, this is done because there's no way to confirm you want to buy something on the Watch, like the iPhone's Touch ID authentication. But it also avoids NFC misfires, bringing up the Apple Pay screen only when you desire it loaded.

I'm not necessarily saying that the solution here is for the iPhone to have a dedicated Apple Pay button — that seems unnecessary and may clog up Apple's workflow. But would it be too hard to have a "Dismiss" software button in the top right corner, in case Apple Pay is triggered accidentally? Or keep NFC from working when Airplane mode is enabled?

Apple likely has plenty of bigger, more important problems to tackle, but it seems like a simple fix. Until then, I'm going to have to hunt down a printer the next time I head out to a Red Sox game.

Note: I've filed this quirk as a bug with Apple. It can be found at rdar://20570121.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

21 Comments
  • I have this issue with our local library. I can't figure out what it is I walk by, but something is triggering Pay on my iPhone 6+. They at the library are as clueless as I am as to what does this. It happens randomly sometimes and leaves the iPhone with the screen on until I notice. This could become a serious battery draining issue.
  • Copy machines? I know a lot of newer machines are getting more payment options. Could totally see that, As my MIL Works for a company that installs the card readers on copy machines at universities and libraries.
  • Could be the copier, or it could be a secure door. We have those where I work, although ours use RFID.
  • I too pulled out my phone when leaving the local library not long ago and got an Apple Pay screen. It went away after a few steps but I'm not sure exactly what triggered it.
  • The same happens in every library I go to. It's the security gates at the entrance that trigger it.
  • I finally identified what triggers Pay on my iPhone, it is the self-checkout terminal which is near the entrance, not the entrance itself. Other libraries and places might trigger it differently because their technology in a certain area might be different.
  • I'm surprised there's no way to shut it off in the Settings. Or at least put it in an "Airplane" type mode.
  • We don't have Apple Pay in the UK yet but this does sound like a nightmare as all our transport uses NFC too. I would expect there'd be a setting to not have Apple Pay pop up on its own? Like you can choose for your boarding pass in Passbook not to pop up just because you're at the airport? (Pet hate!!)
  • Yeah, I think the Apple Watch will help with this issue somewhat, but . . . there needs to be a way to circumvent Apple Pay in instances like this.
  • I wonder if iOS could be modified so that it checks with the NFC device to first see if it's actually a payment terminal that supports Apple Pay before it pops it up on the screen.
  • Yikes ... I haven't noticed that issue yet, but that is a serious bug. I suppose as a drastic workaround, you could remove your credit cards from Apple Pay, and then re-add them later. A very inelegant solution, but should work as a last resort.
  • How about airports? Scanning your boarding pass at the security checkpoint? If I accidentally touch the machine apple pay pops up and thinks I'm trying to pay. I have to very carefully hold it so it scans. Those unhappy TSA don't even crack a smile and get frustrated I'm taking so long.
  • Yup, when I had a wallet case and would use my transit pass (uses NFC) for fare, Apple Pay would automatically enable. However, my main issue now with NFC is that it takes a bit (up to 10 sec) for it to activate and use. Sometimes, I just end up pulling out my card. I would assume this is more of a software as this wasn't the case on iOS 8.1 (currently on iOS 8.1.2).
  • I hope Apple can quickly get this fixed. The only positive takeaway is cessation of gushing Apple Pay stories by Rene. Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • I'm surprised Apple hasn't given an option to a) close it, or
    b) disable automatic nfc search Sent from the iMore App
  • Strange, unlike Bluetooth, NFC is supposed to have an activation range of about only a centimetre. It must be the sensitivity of an NFC reader somewhere otherwise everyone in a shopping check out queue would be having problems ...
  • Add to that ski lifts that have NFC enabled gates to manage the line
  • Didn't know this was a problem. I'm happy this hasn't happened to me yet. It seem better if they would change it to passbook only. Sent from the iMore App
  • Had this issue boarding an SAS flight in Copenhagen last week. Passbook kept flipping over to Apple Pay. Interestingly, I also had screenshots of the boRding passes. Even without being in passbook, simply bringing the phone with the photo to the scanner caused the phone to flip to Apple Pay. Gate agent said he'd never seen that before (I think Apple Pay is rare in Scandinavia?) and had to enter seat #s manually.
  • This is happening to me at work! Every time I walk through the badge reader. Totes ridicks!
  • I'd like to use this at work. My badge uses RFID at the entry portals. Too bad I couldn't just add my badge to Applepay the same way as a credit card, then I could use my iPhone.