QR codes are everywhere in the modern economy

You can now get train tickets, order food, and even get COVID tests with the little white and black QR code squares

Today's expression: Fill out
Explore more: Lesson #427
December 23, 2021:

QR codes have a variety of uses in the modern economy. They help us do everything from purchasing train tickets to getting COVID tests. The technology was actually invented in 1994, but they’ve come a long way since then. Last week in lesson 425, we talked about the origin and rise of QR codes, and today’s lesson discusses the many uses for them. Plus, learn “fill out.”

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The many uses of QR codes in the modern economy

Lesson summary

Hello again everyone, I’m Jeff, and you are listening to Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson 427, and JR has uploaded the full lesson to PlainEnglish.com/427.

Coming up today… You’re not dreaming: QR codes are indeed everywhere. In today’s lesson, we’ll talk about the many uses of QR codes, ranging from train tickets to restaurant menus to COVID tests. The English expression we’ll talk about is “fill out,” and JR has a song of the week. Let’s get going.

All the uses of QR codes

Imagine walking through a cemetery, admiring the headstones that announce who’s buried below your feet. Most gravestones have only a person’s name and the years they were born and died. Some have a few short words to summarize an entire life. Have you ever wondered about the lives of the people buried in a cemetery? Have you ever wanted to know, “What did this person do to deserve such a big headstone?” Or, “Here’s a whole family buried together; I wonder what their history is.”

In today’s modern cemeteries, you may not have to wonder any longer. That’s because gravestone makers in Japan, the United States, Uruguay, and other places are providing QR codes on headstones that link to tributes, biographies, and even—this is a true example—a list of the deceased’s academic publications.

Since the invention of QR codes in 1994, the confusing black-and-white square images have popped up in many parts of daily life—or even, as we learned, death! So here, in today’s lesson, we’ll talk through many of the places you’re seeing QR codes, and how they’re used.

Let’s start with the simplest application: opening a web page. As you learned last week, a QR code can contain any string of letters, text, and symbols—some strings are thousands of characters long. Even the most complicated URLs are only a few hundred characters long, so there’s no problem using QR codes to open web sites in a browser. Many web addresses can be opened with the smallest kind of QR codes, Micro QR’s.

Since the pandemic, we’ve seen QR codes on restaurant tables. We scan the code and open a menu. Gyms post their class schedule with QR codes instead of paper flyers. We also see QR codes on marketing posters. Scan the QR code, and you’ll be taken directly to a special website related to the poster or advertisement. (Codes can also be scanned from a screen, so you might see them on commercials on streaming services, too.)

Marketers like these because they can track the performance of each code. For example, if a company publishes five marketing posters, it can put a different QR code on each. Maybe the consumer goes to the same place, but the marketers know which poster is doing well because they can track each poster’s performance with custom URLs.

These are simple URLs. But QR codes are used for much more than just opening web pages. For example, when I traveled to Europe, I had to fill out an entry form to get into the United Kingdom. The entry form—both the printed version and PDF—contained a QR code with all the information on the form. In theory, the airline or border control could scan the code and immediately pull up all my personal data. I scanned this QR code on my phone; it didn’t produce a URL but a confusing string of coded text.

Luckily, that string of numbers and text didn’t make sense to me—and wouldn’t be useful to anyone who might find a discarded arrival form. But to anyone who has the key to the code, it contains the information needed to verify my arrival details. Plus, the COVID tests I got in Europe had QR codes on the test results; this would help authorities confirm that the paper test results I showed were legitimate.

When paired with a special application, QR codes can be used for payment. This is common in China, India, and other developing countries. The simplest way to use QR codes for payment goes like this: a merchant displays a general QR code that consumers can scan when they want to buy something. Then, the customer enters the payment amount and sends a payment. This is popular with Alipay in China; PayPal has recently adopted QR payments in this way.

There is another, more secure way to use QR codes for payments. Merchants can generate a one-time-use QR code for a specific transaction. So, let’s say you want to buy a coffee. The merchant generates a particular QR code just for you, just right then. You scan the code in a payment app, add a tip if necessary, and approve the payment. This connects with the payment methods already stored in a phone. This is safer than handing over your credit card because your payment details are shielded from the merchant. In the days of COVID, this is also more sanitary than using your fingers to tap on a point-of-sale screen.

QR codes are popular in transportation. In India, among other places, passengers get a QR code for their phones containing their ticket information. Ticket takers can then scan the QR code to verify the ticket. In a hybrid approach, a buyer gets a paper ticket with a QR code on it that can be scanned. This is a more secure—and more advanced—way of ticketing. It sure beats punching a hole in the ticket, which is what they do in the U.S.

QR codes have been used for contact tracing in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and other countries. When you enter a crowded place, like a bar or restaurant, you scan a QR code in a contact tracing app. It logs your presence in that place. If another person nearby tests positive for COVID, you’ll be notified and asked to take a test.

Speaking of COVID tests, the European Union’s digital COVID certificate tracks vaccination status, recovery status, and recent COVID testing all in one app, and, you guessed it, it’s all verifiable with a QR code. All around Europe, patrons are presenting QR codes at the doors to restaurants, bars, markets, and museums. The QR codes allow the proprietors to confirm the vaccination status of European citizens. When I was in Europe, I showed my paper vaccine proof and begged for forgiveness!

A couple of other uses. QR codes can help you log into streaming services on a television. This is key: there’s nothing I hate more about streaming services than having to type in a secure password using a remote control. Now, services open a unique QR code that lets me log in on my phone. (Good thing I have a password manager!)

QR codes on product labels can help consumers learn more about the nutritional content of food and its provenance. Retailers use QR codes for loyalty programs; just scan the code at checkout, and you can earn loyalty points for your purchase. QR codes are on your receipt, too. Just scan the code to fill out a survey and enter to win! QR codes can be displayed on parts and boxes during the manufacturing process, helping producers know more about each piece on the factory floor.

2-D barcodes are also making the mail faster and more accurate. I noticed a 2-D barcode on an envelope I received from a bank. It wasn’t a QR code, and my phone couldn’t read the information. But mail services, including the U.S. Postal Service and the Royal Mail, encourage bulk senders to use 2-D barcodes to help speed up delivery and improve accuracy. Mail services have used optical readers for a long time, but the 2-D barcodes contain more information, can be read faster, and can be read much more accurately than any other type of code.

QR codes on coins

Quick question. What do the following countries all have in common? The Netherlands, Russia, Ghana, and Nigeria? What do they have in common? They have all issued currency featuring QR codes. In the Netherlands, they use the euro currency. But in 2011, the Royal Dutch Mint produced special five-euro and ten-euro coins—official currency—with QR codes printed on them.

In Nigeria, they celebrated the 100th anniversary of their currency by releasing a banknote with a QR code. Both those codes just opened websites with information. It just shows you that QR codes are everywhere—maybe even in your pocket.

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