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How to Scan a QR Code With Your Smartphone or Tablet

The camera on your Apple or Android device can read it automatically

spinner image a person uses a smartphone to scan a menu

As companies and government offices look for ways to save on paper and labor costs, you’ll find more and more leaflets and signs with QR codes.

QR codes, short for quick response, have been around for nearly 30 years. Japanese company Denso Wave, formerly a part of Toyota Motor Corp., developed the idea in 1994 while looking for a way to squeeze more information about auto parts inventories into the space available on existing barcodes, like the ones you see on grocery items.

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You probably noticed QR codes early in the pandemic as restaurants jettisoned paper menus because of fears of COVID-19 contamination. Half of full-service restaurants had added digital menus accessed through QR codes by the end of 2020, according to a National Restaurant Association survey. 

The next year, as more people began visiting businesses again and service industries faced labor shortages, many retailers pitched their customers to apply for jobs with QR code signs and flyers. QR codes give you an instant link to a specific web page, a boon if you want to get to a spot within a website rather than its more general home page.

When you encounter a QR code, you’ll have to pull up your smartphone or tablet camera to find out more information. But you don’t — and shouldn’t — take a picture.

spinner image an example of a phone reading a q r code to bring up a website for leaf collection
When you use your smartphone’s camera to scan a QR code, a link to a website will pop up on the screen. Tap on the link to go to the website and see additional information.​
Courtesy of George Petras

1. Point your camera at the code. It doesn’t matter whether you're holding your phone vertically or horizontally, and your phone can even read the code upside down if it isn't facing you.

2. When your camera scans the QR code, you’ll see an icon or web address on your screen near the code. Tap it.

3. You’ll go to the associated website via your phone’s web browser, which should launch automatically.

If your smartphone or tablet’s operating system is up to date, you should be able to read a QR code and navigate to its website without additional software. Although free QR reader apps are available in the Apple and Google Play app stores, you won’t need them, and some could expose you to malware. Apple built a QR reader into iOS 11 in 2017, and Google followed with its Android 9 operating system, also known as Android Pie, in 2018. 

Before you scan, be aware of where the QR code is coming from and whether it looks as if it’s been tampered with. The web address you see as you hover over the code should be something expected, such as a company’s website for job information or a restaurant’s site for a menu.

As QR codes have become more familiar to people of all ages, scammers have stepped in to take advantage of that, according to the FBI. Their alterations or completely faked QR codes can lead you to fraudulent websites and potential identity theft. Be especially wary if you’re asked to make a financial transaction using a QR code.

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