Apple’s iPhone 6 will reportedly be getting something called near-field communication, or NFC. The feature, which is already available on many Android and Windows Phone handsets, allows owners to wirelessly pay for items at checkout counters and pair the phone with other devices, among other cool things.

In fact, recent reports claim that Apple has signed deals with American Express, Visa, and MasterCard, which will turn the iPhone into a so-called “virtual wallet.” That capability will likely run through NFC.

What follows is a short explainer on what NFC is, how it works, and why you should care about it. So put your learnin’ caps on, and let’s get started.

OK, what is NFC?
NFC is a form of wireless communication that allows the flow of information between two devices. The technology, according to the NFC Forum, comes in three flavors: tag reader and writer, device to device, and card emulation.

Tag reading lets companies place small, inexpensive NFC-enabled tags on things such as movie posters that people can scan with their smartphones to do things like watch trailers. You could also, for example, tap your phone on an NFC-enabled coupon tag in a store to get special offers.

Swiping a phone on an NFC tag

Device-to-device NFC communication lets your phone talk to another person’s phone so you can trade photos or videos. Device-to-device NFC can also be used to pair your phone with a wireless speaker or printer. And because NFC and Bluetooth are interoperable, you can use NFC to quickly pair your phone to a compatible Bluetooth device.

The biggest potential for NFC lies in card emulation. Using what’s called a secure element that randomly cycles security pins, you could use your NFC-equipped iPhone 6 to pay for your groceries by tapping the handset on a special pad at the checkout counter.

So why hasn’t Apple used NFC before?
Mobile wallets like Google Wallet and ISIS have been trying to jump-start the NFC payment craze for a while now, with little to no luck. Sure, it would be convenient to tap your phone to quickly pay for something and be on your way, but in order for that to happen, both your phone and the store you’re shopping in need to have NFC capabilities.

If your phone has NFC and the checkout counter doesn’t, then you can’t pay with your handset. It’s as simple as that.