NatWest tests NFC iPhone case and app in mobile payments trial

With the iPhone still resolutely free of near-field communication, banks are looking at unusual ways of testing mobile payments involving the Apple device.

With Apple shunning NFC for the iPhone — at least so far — banks and credit card companies are coming up with new ways of getting mobile payments into the hands of customers.

Touch Pay app
NatWest's TouchPay app requires an iPhone 4 or 4S to wear a special NFC-enabled case. Image: NatWest

UK bank NatWest is testing out mobile payments with 1,000 customers by integrating an NFC (near-field communication) chip into a cover for the iPhone 4 and 4S. (iPhone 5 users won't be able to get involved with the trial as the covers are too small for the device's taller body.)

To use the service, customers put their iPhone into the NFC-enabled case and download the TouchPay app from the Apple App Store. Once the activation process is complete, customers can use their smartphone for transactions of £20 without entering their PIN and can track their spending through the TouchPay application.

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Users have two payment settings to choose from: automatic, where from time to time they will be asked to enter a passcode to ensure the phone is still in their possession, or manual, where a passcode is needed before each transaction.

The banks said more than 9,000 customers had registered to take part in the trial, which will last four months, in the three days after it was announced. 

RBS, which owns NatWest, said the TouchPay app will be made available to all RBS and NatWest customers who have iPhones "in the near future".

Battle for the mobile payments crown

The TouchPay app is just one of the experiments that are taking place as mobile operators, handset manufacturers and credit card companies jockey for position in the mobile payments space. Barclaycard, for example, is testing out a mini credit card that customers can stick to the back of their phones (or indeed anything else).

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While the iPhone may not currently be NFC enabled, other handset makers have embraced the technology: the Samsung Galaxy S3 has integrated NFC and the device was used in a recent test of Visa's payWave mobile payments app at the London 2012 Olympics .

However, Apple's Passbook app for iOS is seen by many as a strong mobile payments contender in the future . Although Passbook has got off to a slow start, analysts are predicting that — if a future iPhone does have an NFC chip — it could develop into a major force in mobile payments.