A salon technician prepares your nails as she normally would during a manicure (cuticles pushed back, nails filed). She then buffs your nails to help the gel polish adhere and dries the color under a UV light for a few minutes after each coat. This technique results in a hard, dry finish -- you can reach for your wallet immediately after application, sans smudging or chipping. You can remove the color with pure acetone polish remover, found at most drugstores.
Gel-manicured nails stay pretty and chip proof for much longer than a regular or home manicure -- at least two weeks. That makes gel manicures a good option when preparing for vacations and big events, especially if you can't get to the salon on the day of.
Gel manicures are becoming more and more common, so they are available at many salons. Just ask wherever you normally get your nails done. Some salons list them on the menu as gel manicures, while others offer branded versions (same procedure, different name) such as Opi's Axxium Soak-Off Gel Lacquers. You can expect to pay about $20 over the price of a traditional manicure, which seems like a lot -- but becomes more economical when you think about how long it lasts.
an At-home alternative
To get a similar (though not as long-lasting) look at home, try Sally Hansen's Salon Effects Real Nail Polish Strips ($9.99 at Walgreens), which come in 24 fashionable shades and last up to 10 days. Simply peel and stick the polish (which looks like colored tape or small stickers) onto each nail for a shiny, just-polished look.