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Waterfield Finn Access wallet review: RFID shielding FTW

Photography by Amelia Holowaty-Krales

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There are three aspects of technology I want to discuss today: the part that helps our daily lives by eliminating friction, the part that does the opposite by adding new inconveniences, and the derivative opportunity for boondoggle sellers to exploit our occasional technophobia. All of them relate to a cute little red wallet from Waterfield Designs, the pricey San Francisco outfit whose backpacks I liked in my review back in April. Waterfield’s Finn Access Wallet costs $69, so it’s also not cheap, but the things I like about it are universal and can be applied to simpler designs that don’t use premium full-grain cowhide for their exterior.

Firstly, the tech problem: when it comes to contactless payment cards, having more than one is one too many. The Oyster card I use to traverse the London transport network is based on contactless technology, so I just tap in and out at every station. That used to work just fine until banks started issuing contactless cards of their own, which would ever so helpfully also work in lieu of Oyster cards. But put both in the same wallet and you’ll encounter a familiar problem to many Londoners: card clash. As a result, for the past few years I’ve had to keep my travel and debit cards separate, with the Oyster floating about my pockets without a proper home.

RFID shielding protects you from inconvenience, not malicious hacking

The tech solution: RFID (radio-frequency identification) shielding. The smartest thing about the Finn Access wallet is the thin sheath blocking the wireless communications of cards within it but not those outside it. And because it has an external pocket, I can tuck my Oyster card — the thing I use most often for contactless payments — on the outside, keep my other cards on the inside, and never again worry about ticket machines getting confused. This may seem obvious and almost banal, but to a minimalist like me who favors converging things as much as possible, this convenience is worthwhile. I can imagine others doing the same with their everyday credit card (or RFID-based office access card) on the outside and all their other wireless-enabled plastic bits tucked inside the wallet.

In most cases, RFID blocking is just a swindle exploiting people’s inflated fears of mastermind hackers leeching money or info out of their wallets. Passports, driving licenses, and bank cards are increasingly built with embedded wireless chips, which under very particular circumstances can be exploited by malicious nogoodniks. But ask security experts about how real that threat is and they’ll tell you it’s practically immaterial. RFID shielding, I’ve come to find, protects you from inconvenience, not hostile hacking.

Companies like Waterfield trade on these fears, and you’ll find RFID blocking available as a $10 upgrade on the regular Finn wallet sans external pocket. I would very much advise against opting for that, but I have no qualms in recommending the Finn Access with that extra pocket. It’s the neatness of being able to separate your cards out that’s worth your time and money. And hey, the Finn Access is pretty good as a wallet too.

Provided you’re okay with the use of leather in consumer goods, you’ll be happy with the stuff that Waterfield uses. It’s a soft, thick leather that grows more supple with time and develops a handsome patina. Given the brutally uncaring way I use any wallet, the Finn Access has held up very well over two months of use. Everything is stitched together securely and the YKK zipper is pleasantly chunky and smooth in its action.

I like the Finn Access wallet because it feels tailored to my daily needs. Beyond separating out my wireless cards, it’s also very adept at carrying coins and small techie trinkets like SD cards and earphone cleaning tools. I usually pack it up with half a dozen business cards, some banknotes in euros and pounds, an ID card, a couple of debit cards, and yet more cards plus my Oyster on the outside. The wallet stretches to accommodate busier (or wealthier) times, and it shrinks back down when I don’t need to stuff it so full. In all cases, it’s perfectly at home in a front pocket, and its softness means I can carry my phone right next to it without worrying about undesired scratches on the screen.

Waterfield’s Finn Access wallet is fascinating to me because it’s a piece of technology that is made desirable solely by the shortcomings of other technology. Because you can’t switch contactless cards off, managing them becomes a problem we didn’t use to have. And thus, RFID shields, which are a dubious security measure, find their purpose once they’re implemented into a well designed piece like the Finn Access.