You’re running late for work. At the subway station, just as you’re getting to the turnstile, you see the train coming. You swipe your transit card, ready to make a run for it, only to find it has insufficient funds. So you join the line at the ticketing machine and sulk as the train comes and goes.

For many, this little nightmare is all too familiar. But in the future, we won’t even need fare cards.

Payment systems that are 100 percent hands-free are coming, says Maarten Bron, director of innovations at UL Transaction Security. With these, he says, “You literally don’t have to do or touch or tap or swipe anything.” Instead, travelers will be recognized by their Bluetooth signal and charged a fare by cloud computing within the transit environment.

“If we look even further out into the future, you and I may no longer be talking about ‘checking in’ and ‘checking out’ [of the transit system]. We might be talking about ‘being in’ and ‘being out,’” says Bron. “Technology will be able to follow me through my journey in transit.”

We’re not there yet, but technology is already starting to make commutes quicker and more efficient. Around the world, in many systems — known as automated fare collection systems (AFCs) — you can pay by tapping a smart card to a card reader. These readers debit your card, which can be refilled at a machine or, in some cases, by scheduling automatic deposits at regular intervals or whenever your balance runs low. Some AFCs are sophisticated enough to calculate how much you owe when the transit system includes multiple fares.

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Users of London’s Oyster Travelcard with low balances even get “one more bus journey to get you home.” If you don’t have enough on your card for a bus ride, the system allows you to ride with a negative balance. You can make one more trip before you have to fill up your card to ride again.

In some cities, your transit card buys more than transit. In Hong Kong, says Bron, residents and visitors can use the Octopus Card to pay for not only Mass Transit Railway journeys but also purchases at various fast food restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and parking meters. In Seoul, South Korea, the T-money card is accepted by mass transit, convenience stores and even popular attractions like the Lotte World amusement park.

With the rise in popularity of the mobile wallet, some mass transit authorities are enabling passengers to pay with their smartphone. Salt Lake City, for example, allows people to pay for public transport by accessing their ski passes on their mobile devices, says Bron. New York City, too, is expected to roll out smartphone ticketing for mass transit in the next one to three years, Bron says.

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Ann Babe writes about travel and culture, social problems and solutions and emerging technologies. She has contributed to BBC, VICE, Roads & Kingdoms, Techonomy, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and more.