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How to Use a cardless ATM

As the perfect remedy for those that habitually misplace their debit cards, cardless ATMs are a truly convenient invention of modern technology. Just as their name implies, these automated teller machines offer all the functionality of traditional card-based transactions without needing cards.

While you'll typically need a smartphone to operate these ATMs, rather than a debit card, there's a benefit. You're far less likely to leave that in the pocket of your other jacket.

What is a cardless ATM?

The popularity and adoption of contactless transactions rose, unsurprisingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using existing technology, the contactless movement harnessed innovations like NFC (near-field communication) to allow touch-free (and germ-free) transactions. You've most likely noticed this invention in card swipe machines at retail checkout counters.

ATMs, meanwhile, have been quietly incorporating the same innovation for a while. Cardless ATMs allow users to simply hold an NFC-enabled phone in front of a panel to unlock the same abilities, including withdrawals.

How do cardless ATMs work?

There are three technologies that cardless ATMs use to operate. While these machines nearly always have the ability to read and use physical debit cards as well, they are programmed to accept at least one, and sometimes several, of these technologies too.

QR codes

QR, or "quick response" codes, have been used since 1994 — nearly 30 years — and are a safe, effective way to visually communicate information. They are typically square patterns of black dots or squares, designed to be quickly read by a machine.

To use QR codes with a cardless ATM, your banking app will usually provide a specialized QR code on the app. Once the QR code is showing on the phone screen, turn it toward the ATM in a specified area to allow an ATM camera to scan the code and verify your identity.

Demand-generated QR codes cannot be read or deciphered visually by humans. This built-in safety makes them very useful and particularly resistant to scammers and forging.

Verification codes

Verification codes, which may be used on their own or in conjunction with another of these technologies, are fairly straightforward. Essentially, they are alphanumeric codes used as a way to verify that you are actually holding your verifying device (e.g. your smartphone.) This ensures that a scammer isn't "spoofing," or digitally pretending to be you.

Once you agree to receive a verification code, it's typically delivered to your phone instantly, via your banking app or a text message. Once received, you either enter or verify the code on the screen of the ATM or your phone to proceed. Verification codes, unlike QR codes, are typically time-sensitive and will expire after a specified time, usually a few minutes.

Near-field communication (NFC)

Near-field communication is one of the most common technologies used in cardless ATMs, but it may also be used with other technologies like QR and verification codes. The most important part of using NFC is ensuring that there is a connection between the receiving device (e.g. a cardless ATM) and the transmitting device (e.g. a smartphone).

That means that certain "RFID protective" phone cases may need to be opened or removed before using NFC-enabled devices. While very handy for security, these accessories will likely block the necessary signal. Physical contact is not normally required between the transmitting and receiving devices, which helps contain germ spread. However, as the NFC name suggests, they will have to be within inches of one another to work well.


Most users are familiar with the idea of biometrics from its appearance in television and movies. In entertainment, retinal scanners are used to access bank vaults or briefcases that only open after a fingerprint scan. Biometrics may not be as dramatic and flashy as these depictions, but the idea behind it is very similar.

Essentially, an initial scan is taken, typically of a fingerprint, via sensors in a smartphone screen. This happens using safe electrical impulses to pinpoint the ridges and whorls of your unique fingerprint. Because your fingerprints remain the same throughout your life, that information can then be used to create a mathematical key.

Much like verification codes, cardless ATM interfaces that use biometrics will typically deliver a time-sensitive prompt for you to scan your fingerprint on your phone screen before the ATM will unlock for use. Biometrics may also be used in facial recognition and incorporate the same principles by measuring the distance between structures like your eyes and nose.

For the sake of a fast, efficient reading, it's recommended that you clean your phone screen and camera lens(es) thoroughly before using biometrics. Much like passwords, attempting and failing to unlock a phone or app with biometrics too many times in a row may leave you locked out.

How to initiate a cardless ATM withdrawal

If you're planning on using a cardless ATM for withdrawing money from a checking or savings account, one of the best ways to ensure a smooth experience beforehand is familiarizing yourself with the process. Use this checklist to be sure you're ready.

Charge your phone

Before heading out to use a cardless ATM, make sure your phone is adequately charged or that you have a car charger available. If you're in a situation where battery life is dwindling and you can't charge, don't worry! Just turn down the screen brightness and shut down any apps you aren't actively using.

You might also try putting your phone in airplane mode if you don't need to make or receive calls. Be aware you'll have to switch it back and turn screen brightness back up for readability when you arrive at the ATM.

Make sure you have the financial app on your phone

Between updates, mergers, and individuals that may use physical branches and desktop computer access more than app-based access, this isn't always a given. Search your Google Play store or Apple App store (depending on your smartphone type) to ensure you have your bank's app downloaded and ready.

Know your login information

Your login name and password will be important in the process, both at the ATM and for accessing your bank's app. Make sure you know it by heart, because it can be frustrating verifying or changing your password on the go, particularly if you're in a hurry to withdraw your money.

Ensure the app is up to date

This is another easy to-do list item to miss, as many people assume an app will automatically update itself. If you access your banking app on the Google Play or Apple App store and there's an "update" button visible, you'll need to click it to make sure the app is working properly. Attempting to use old versions of an app may prevent you from accessing your account or the ATM.

Make sure the ATM is set up for cardless transactions

If you're planning ahead, you can typically check the available services of an ATM by looking on the attached bank's website or app. Doing this research ahead of time, if possible, will prevent frustration at having to visit multiple ATMs to access your money.

Know your ATM withdrawal limit

If you plan on withdrawing a large amount of money to pay for something like a down payment on a car, it helps to verify your withdrawal limits. While cardless transaction limits will typically mirror those you have set on your debit card, this isn't always true.

Make sure you're able to withdraw the amount of money you need to before attempting your cardless transaction at the ATM. If you aren't sure, this information is usually found in your banking app, or by calling your banking institution.

Know how much is really in your account

If you've very recently made a deposit, be aware that the "clearing" date for your deposit can vary based on whether you used cash or a check and when the deposit was made.

Checks are typically held for several business days after a deposit, which may affect your available balance. Similarly, cash or checks deposited after a certain day or time cutoff, which will vary from bank to bank, will affect the availability of your funds.

Pros and cons of using a cardless ATM

Now for the big question: Is using a cardless ATM worth the prep and learning process? For certain users, absolutely. This style of ATM offers fast, efficient access to money on the go, using the one item almost everyone is guaranteed to remember when leaving the house.

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't a few drawbacks to this innovation. As with all financial and banking decisions, you'll need to decide for yourself if the balance of convenience and effort fits your day-to-day lifestyle. For some users who aren't comfortable with apps and login procedures, it may feel a little overwhelming.

Still not sure? Remember too that going cardless isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. In other words, you can use your debit card for some transactions and cardless ATMs for others, with no disruption to either option.

Pros to using cardless ATMs

A cardless ATM is very fast to use and minimizes tactile contact. This is an important consideration in a world where people are more germ-conscious than ever before.

It also offers a great deal of security as well. It goes beyond a simple PIN number (which some devices and programs can crack) into two-factor authentications, such as biometrics and verification codes.

It also allows users to travel light, minimizing what they'll need to carry in their pocket, purse, or wallet when they're on the go. If a debit card is misplaced, stolen, or damaged, it can help here too. An ATM with cardless functionality ensures users can still access their accounts while waiting on a card replacement.

Cons to using cardless ATMs

Screen brightness, battery life, and even wireless signal can all affect how well cardless technology really works. Accessories like phone cases and RFID-blocking folios can disrupt or prevent NFC signals from transmitting properly, forcing users to remove their cases to proceed.

If a user forgets their app password, it can trigger a frustrating lockout situation. They may need to call in or verify their identity to use cardless transactions at an ATM. Additionally, just like ATMs will occasionally be unable to take deposits or perform certain account functions, cardless ATM transactions may not always be reliable. For example, the cardless feature may be turned off or not working if there's a problem with an ATM.

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