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Access Control Systems: The Complete Guide

Access Control System_ Buyers Guide

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access control prox reader

As an essential part of every business security system, access control allows authorized people to enter and exit facilities, while keeping intruders out. The best access control system for your space depends on a number of factors: it could range from a single keypad to a multi-layered enterprise network that spans multiple buildings. Whether you want to simply keep people out of your building after hours or want a comprehensive database of everyone who entered your business and at what time, there is an access control system for you.

But choosing the right door access system isn’t always easy, considering the wide variety of systems on the market, the range of features to choose from, and the technical details of your building. To learn more about buying access control systems, read on.

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What is a Door Access Control System?

The purpose of access control is to permit individuals who present credentials to show that they are authorized to enter the building: these credentials can be a key card, PIN number, mobile phone pass, or even a fingerprint or eye scan. Access control lets the right people in, while keeping unauthorized people out. Access control can be used at building entrance and exit points, parking areas, server rooms, store rooms, or any other areas that need to be protected from potential intrusion and theft. Not only does installing access control prevent burglars from stealing your cash and merchandise, but it provides a safe environment for employees, visitors, and customers.

How Does Access Control Work?

To better understand which access control system you should buy, it is helpful to know the basics of how access control systems work. Most access control installation includes a few basic components:

  • Server
  • Credentials
  • Reader
  • Control Panel
  • Door Locks
An Extensive Buyers Guide Access Control infographic


The access control server stores a database of all authorized credentials, as well as data about each time someone has entered or exited your facilities. Businesses may keep physical servers either onsite or in a secure location off site, or they may choose to store access data entirely in the cloud.


The credentials are what employees and visitors use to access the building. These may include keycards, PIN codes, key fobs, mobile app credentials, or biometric data such as fingerprint scans.


The reader comes into contact with the credentials (either directly or by proximity), scans the credentials, and converts this data into digital Wiegand numbers that are readable by the door controllers. Access control readers may include key card readers, PIN readers, mag stripes, RFID scanners, two-factor authentication readers, and biometric scanners. Learn more about the different types of access control readers here.

Control Panel

The control panels or controllers receive Wiegand ID information from the readers, then compare these numbers to the server’s database of authenticated users. If the credentials are valid, the control panel unlocks the doors — if not, the doors will remain locked, and the system will possibly raise alarms or send alerts.

Door Locks

Door locks receive signals from the door controller to open or stay locked, depending on the credentials presented. When credentials are approved, an electronic release is tripped, allowing people in or out.

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Types of Access Control

The control panels or controllers receive Wiegand ID information from the readers, then compare these numbers to the server’s database of authenticated users. If the credentials are valid, the control panel unlocks the doors — if not, the doors will remain locked, and the system will possibly raise alarms or send alerts.

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Key Cards

This is a popular form of credentials for commercial applications and identifying employees. Identification data is stored within the card, which unlocks the door when it comes into contact with the reader. Key cards may be attached to a lanyard or belt for easy storage and access. If they are stolen or lost, it is easy to deactivate them and create new ones.

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Magnetic Stripes

Magnetic stripes may be added to key cards, fobs, badges, and other credentials. Mag stripe credentials can be swiped in the reader to unlock doors. This option offers high flexibility, durability, and reusability.

access control prox reader

Proximity Cards

Proximity or “prox” cards use remote communication to unlock doors without ever coming into direct contact with the reader. Prox cards use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to communicate with readers via radio signals, providing quick, efficient, and contact-free entry.

Access Control System: An Extensive Buyers Guide

Automotive Cards

Automotive cards or tags are placed inside vehicles to grant access into parking areas, or through any vehicle gates in your business. As a type of prox card, these credentials remotely communicate with readers using RF, allowing drivers to efficiently enter a space without opening the window or getting out of the car.

biometric access control fingerprint

Biometric Systems

Biometric access control provides high-security identification, using physical data such as fingerprint scans, handprint scans, retinal eye scans, or voice identification. Due to the higher cost of biometric access control, it is most commonly used in spaces that require high levels of security, or where there is a risk of intruders stealing credentials. Biometrics may also be combined with PIN pads and keypads, providing a backup in case the scanner fails.

Mobile Access Control System: An Extensive Buyers Guide

Mobile Access

Some modern systems on the market offer mobile apps that pair with your access control system, letting you distribute smartphone passes to all authorized employees and visitors. People simply hold their phone credentials up to the reader to gain entry. This solution offers convenience and a lower chance of lost credentials in today’s mobile world.

two factor authentication door lock security systemsystem

Two Factor Authentication

Two access control types can be combined to provide an extra layer of security to your business, or to provide a backup option in case one method fails. Many access control systems enable combinations of keycards, PIN codes, and even fingerprint scanners. This is a great option for high-security buildings or rooms within a business.

Standalone Access Control vs Integrated Access Control Systems

When choosing between access control systems, it is important to consider whether you want a standalone system or an integrated system. These two options offer different levels of flexibility, scalability, and unification in your commercial security system.

Standalone Access Control

Standalone systems are the more traditional choice of access control. Standalone systems use a single control box to manage door locks for a single building or entrance, and are not connected to a network, meaning they do not communicate with other components of your security system. These systems are powered by batteries or connected directly to power, and use keycards or keypads to grant access.

standalone access control diagram

Since standalone access control is not easy to scale up in size when businesses grow, it is most commonly used in smaller businesses that will not need to add entry points or larger entrances in the future. They also lack flexibility in changing access rules or updating software, requiring businesses to program each rule manually. However, standalone systems offer quicker and easier installation, and generally do not require wiring thanks to battery power.

Standalone systems cannot communicate with other access control systems, meaning you must manage, monitor, update, and program each one separately. This makes standalone systems an inconvenient choice for larger businesses with multiple systems. To reduce redundancy, storage requirements, and time spent managing the system, larger businesses should opt for integrated access control.

Some common applications for standalone access control include:

  • Interior rooms
  • Auto repair shops
  • Single-floor offices
  • Doctor’s offices
  • Retail shops

Integrated Access Control

Integrated access control communicates with other components of your security system to create an efficient and secure network around your business. Integrating your access control with the rest of your security system lets you unify your business security across all rooms and locations, save time and money on managing individual systems, and easily customize your access control for more personalized security. This makes integrated access control a popular choice for today’s commercial spaces.

integrated access control system

Some components that are commonly integrated with access control are:

  • Video surveillance
  • Intruder alarms
  • Biometric components
  • Intercoms
  • Mobile apps
  • Visitor management software
  • Elevator control
  • Fire detection systems
  • Time and attendance software
  • HR

Today’s integrated access control systems often come with cloud-based platforms, which let you monitor and manage your system from a mobile device or web browser. This is especially convenient for larger businesses with multiple locations spread over long distances, as administrators can easily log in to their online platform and remotely manage all access control systems. Admins can access all access control logs and data in this platform, making it easy to see all information in one place.

Integrated access control improves system responsiveness, makes tracking activity easy, and streamlines operations by allowing all separate security components in your business to work together. This reduces the amount of hardware and software you have to install. The ability to communicate with other systems also strengthens your business safety: If a credential fails, security cameras, alarms, and other systems can be activated.

For large businesses and companies with hundreds or thousands of employees, integrated access control is the best choice, as it allows you to add new users, checkpoints, locations, and more at the drop of a hat. You can also integrate access systems with HR to control terminations, suspensions, departmental changes, and other changes in access rights.

IP Access Control

IP (internet protocol) access control systems connect directly to your building’s LAN or WAN, letting it communicate with the rest of your security system over the network. This gives IP systems greater flexibility, scalability, and convenience, as it lets you view and manage your security system online. If you want to distribute smartphone credentials, use mobile security management, or store data in the cloud, you will need IP access control.

how ip access control works infograhic

IP access systems are becoming the new normal as more and more businesses switch over from traditional systems. IP systems offer much higher convenience for business operators and security staff, since the system does all the work of gathering and storing data in one easily accessible place. IP systems are also easy to customize, upgrade, and scale to your business needs. These access control systems are often combined with IP security cameras for greater visibility and system intelligence.

IP systems are known to be faster and more reliable than non-IP systems, which makes them great for consistently handling and transferring large amounts of data. The speed of IP controllers is only limited by the speed of your network. IP systems’ ability to handle a lot of information at once, combined with their scalability across locations, makes them ideal for large enterprise businesses.

IP access control benefits:

  • Eliminates the need for an onsite server and IT team
  • Lets you view, manage, and update security from anywhere
  • Get 24/7 audit logs available online
  • Supports multiple cards and readers
  • Combine with access control software for more flexibility and control
  • Unifies your security system into one platform
  • Supports smartphone credentials
  • Easily expand the system if needed
  • Programmable schedules and reports
  • Centralized lockdown in case of threats

Networked IP systems are ideal for large businesses with multiple locations, or any business that wants to upgrade to a streamlined, contemporary way of letting people in and out. Keep in mind that if your location does not have an internet connection, it will not be possible to install an IP access control system in the area. Also, if your network experiences a lot of traffic or interruptions, this could affect the speed and reliability of any IP access control system you install.

Access Control Egress Types

When most people think of door access control, they think about who’s coming into the building — but who exits the building is another important consideration when choosing an access system.

Free Exit Systems

Free exit systems allow anyone in the building to easily exit, without showing any credentials. This is a good option for most applications, as it allows employees, visitors, and customers to leave without hassle. These systems may use a button, crash bar, or motion activated sensor. Free exit systems can be combined with other access control methods, including security attendants, and customized for specific applications such as parking areas, high-rise buildings, manufacturing plants, storage units, gated communities, apartments, and more.

Controlled Exit Systems

Exit control systems require authorized credentials to permit exit to people in the building. These systems often use magnetic locks to unlock, remain locked, and/or trigger alarms, depending on whether authentic credentials are presented. Any employees or visitors in a building must enter a code or present credentials — these are generally the same credentials used to get into the building. These access control systems must be set up to allow everyone to exit if there is a system or power failure. Controlled exit systems are often used by hospitals, to keep children and babies in the proper areas, as well as by airports, in quarantine facilities, customs clearing areas, and other high-security areas.

A few different types of controlled egress devices include:

push-to-exit button

Push-To-Exit Buttons:

These “request to exit” systems include a button near the door, which anyone exiting the building can press to release the lock. These systems offer high versatility: They can be used on gates, fire doors, and any other commercial and industrial exit points.

An Extensive Buyers Guide delayed egress lock system

Delayed Egress:

Delayed egress devices start a timer to delay exit to a building. These devices may have voice prompts that count down to the time the door will unlock — for example, from 15 seconds. Delayed exit systems are commonly used in offices, retail spaces, retirement centers, and hospitals. During a fire alarm or power failure, these may operate as free exits.

Access Control System: An Extensive Buyers Guide for Emergency Break Glass

Emergency Exits:

Emergency Release systems include glass-break systems that require people to break the glass to exit, or pull-down handles.

Lock Hardware

We’ve discussed different kinds of access control systems — but what about lock hardware? Considering which lock type to install in your business is an important step to achieving the most powerful and efficient access control for your space.

Magnetic Locks

Magnetic locks use electromagnetic mechanisms and armature plates to create a strong and reliable solution that is ideal for a diverse range of settings. They can be triggered remotely using a mobile device or security checkpoint, and offer high efficiency, and durability. Magnetic locks also provide easy installation, since they do not include interconnecting parts. These locks require a constant source of power in order to stay locked, meaning areas where this is not possible should avoid this method.

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Electric Strikes

Electric strikes are mechanically-operated parts that release doors whenever the system is activated. These systems are popular in emergency exits. Electric strikes can be activated by pressing a panic bar or button from inside the building, or by an electric controller outside the building. They may also pair with other access control devices, including key cards and readers, PIN pads, and more. Fences, rolling gates, and swing gates often need magnetic locks with electric strikes.

Fail-Safe vs Fail-Secure Locks

Door locks are available in fail-safe or fail-secure models. With fail-safe locks, the door automatically unlocks if power is lost — this makes them good choices for emergency exits. Fail-secure locks do not unlock if power is lost: They are often used in high-security applications, such as store rooms and data rooms. Fail-safe locks may be legally required by fire and life safety code in your application, as these are less likely to trap people inside the building if evacuation becomes necessary. Furthermore, safety code often requires any emergency exits equipped with panic buttons or crash bars to not have any other type of locking device. Check with your security provider to find out the safest option for you, and which regulations apply to your space.

Which Access Control Is Best For Your Business Types?

Which access control system is best for your unique space? Businesses in different industries often require different security systems depending on regulations, bandwidth, which people need to enter the space, and the specific areas that need to be protected. Taking the type of your business and its facilities into account will help you choose the most secure and cost-effective access control system for your application.

Construction Sites

Construction sites often have heavy equipment and valuable materials that need to be protected from thieves, especially after-hours. These spaces often lack power and internet connection, which could make wired systems or IP systems impractical. Standalone battery-powered locks are often a good option for job sites. If you want enhanced security in your site to ensure no intrusions or thefts happen, pairing intelligent motion-sensitive cameras with access control can be a good option. Smart security cameras can distinguish between intruders coming into your site and other normal outdoor motions, such as trees blowing in the wind.

Storage Facilities

For many storage units, such as those rented out by individuals, a simple key card system or PIN code is sufficient. But for businesses storing more risky or valuable content, such as financial records, computer servers, regulated substances, and hazardous materials, a stronger access control method such as biometric identification may be necessary.

Financial Institutions

Financial institutions such as banks will require high-level access control to protect important areas such as vaults and storage rooms. To keep doors locked overnight, financial businesses can install scheduled access control, which can be programmed to keep all doors closed during a scheduled window. Biometric systems and two-factor authentication are also popular choices for protecting vulnerable areas in a financial business. You may also combine different types of access control to protect your space from multiple angles.

Single-Door Buildings

Small applications with one entrance can usually be protected with a keypad or card system. It is important to make sure no cards or codes are shared with unauthorized people who could attempt entry with the credentials.

Industrial Facilities

Industrial buildings such as warehouses and manufacturing plants often have gates that can require magnetic or proximity access cards. For any vehicle gates, prox cards and automotive tags are good choices to keep an efficient flow of vehicles coming and going. Cloud-based access control systems can be ideal for businesses with multiple industrial sites, as this will simplify security management across every location.

High-Security Applications

Any high-security building where controlling access of people to different areas will want to invest in a sophisticated access control system. These businesses may include hospitals, post offices, banks, and any other application storing valuable goods or data. Combining multiple types of access control can be a good step to take, as it allows for multiple-factor authentication, and makes it easier to manage levels of access to different rooms for different individuals. For maximum security spaces, biometric identification offers a foolproof solution.

High-Rise Apartments and Offices

High-rise buildings can benefit from access control systems that pair with elevator control, allowing only authorized people to access the elevator. You can control which individuals can access each floor for heightened security. Systems that use key cards are common in these applications, while prox cards or mobile app credentials can offer convenient entry and an efficient flow of people. Any parking areas may use the same credentials as the building entrance, allowing greater convenience for employees and residents.

Wired or Wireless Access Control?

Wired Access Control

Wired access control systems are connected to a central power source providing a constant supply. These systems typically use electric strikes and magnetized door locks. Wired card readers connect directly to your control panel, making it easier to make changes to access roles, security preferences, and lockdown features. Wired systems give businesses quick and uninterrupted connection, giving them a reputation for higher reliability than many wireless systems. Wired access control can link an entire building security system, as long as your business has the time and money to install cables throughout the building. Wired systems can be impractical in elevator control systems.

Wireless Access Control

Wireless access control systems generally have a shorter range than wired systems, but they do not require expensive or destructive cabling. For spaces without the infrastructure to run cables through walls, wireless access control can be the best option. Though wireless security systems are often associated with lower reliability, many modern systems offer just as reliable a connection as their wired counterparts — and they offer quicker and easier installation and setup.

Gate Access Control

Not every entrance in need of access control is a door: Spaces including gated communities, HOA neighborhoods, gated parking areas, and more need high-quality gate access control to limit who can access important spaces.

gate intercom services

For pedestrian gates, systems such as key cards and keypads are often used. Prox cards and mobile app credentials are popular choices too, which add more convenience and elegance to gate entrance in your business.

For vehicle gates, RFID access control is a great choice, offering the convenience of a prox card. Automotive cards and tags use radio waves to identify each vehicle and compare it to your database of approved and flagged visitors.

Intercom systems can be a great addition to gate access control, as it allows staff in your business to verify the identity of everyone coming in before they reach the building. This is why it is also helpful to combine gate access control with security cameras, as it gives you a comprehensive view of what is going on outside your facilities.

Automatic gate openers and closers from Liftmaster and Doorking are another great addition to your gate access control, as they offer convenient, powerful, and hands-free gate opening. Wireless gate openers such as Liftmaster are a popular choice for many of today’s businesses, as they can connect door openers and access control panels using WiFi and their own wireless technology. This gives you convenient and dependable security for gates and overhead-style lift doors, without running expensive cables through walls or under driveways.

Access Control Software

Access control software adds flexibility, customization, and a host of features to your commercial access control system. Available with IP systems, access control software unites your security network and enables you to make changes across the entire system with the click of a mouse — tap on your smartphone or tablet.

Brivo access control

When buying access control software, it is essential to make sure the software is compatible with the operating system of your door access control, and any other security components you might want to integrate into it. The OS your system is running will make a difference in which systems you will be able to use.

Access Control Software Features:

Access Logs

View access logs of everyone who has entered and exited your business, along with time stamps and the identity of the employee or visitor. When paired with security cameras, access control software systems can display time-stamped photos along with all entry events, making it easy to find any specific incident you are looking for.

Manage Remotely

Easily manage access permissions from your web browser or mobile device. With access control software, the online platform lets authorized users grant or deny access rights to anyone in the system with just a click. It is also possible to monitor the entry and exit data of each individual coming into your business.

Permission List

Compile a complete database of all authorized and blacklisted guests. When authorized individuals enter, the system will recognize them and unlock the door. On the other hand, any time someone who has been flagged tries to enter your business, the doors will lock, an alarm will sound, and/or an alert will be sent to relative operators and security staff.

Scheduled Locking

Set scheduled locking and unlocking to keep your doors closed to all visitors during specific time frames. Scheduled locking and unlocking may apply to an entire building, multiple buildings, or rooms within a building. This gives you ultimate flexibility and control over access into your business.

Gather Data

Track information about individuals who have entered and left your business, as well as viewing metrics for traffic into the building. You can view the actions of an employee or visitor, such as how long they stayed and when they left, or view access logs for each specific room. This helps gather actionable business information, provides information about who was onsite during an event, and gives you tighter control over business security.

Access Control Software: Managed, Discretionary, Rule-Based, Or Role-Based?

When buying access control software, there are four basic configurations to choose from:

  • Managed Access Control
  • Role Based Access Control
  • Discretionary Access Control
  • Rule Based Access Control

Managed Access Control

Managed access control is a combination of live security personnel and access control technology. These systems provide an ideal balance of security, because any time an alarm is tripped, security staff will be there to verify whether or not it is a false alarm, and act accordingly. Combining security guards with access control systems is a good choice for many businesses — especially ones that already have security guards — as it combines the benefits of a human presence with the consistency of technology.

Role Based Access Control

Role-based access control lets business operators manage the access rights of each individual in the system, including employees, visitors, and customers. These individuals have “roles,” or groups that determine which entrances they can access, and when. Role based systems allow a high level of specificity when deciding who can enter your business, which benefits businesses that have employees with varying levels of access to different spaces. Employee and visitor roles may overlap or contain multiple locations, which makes role based access control a good choice for businesses that want to manage access based on groups of people.

Discretionary Access Control

Discretionary access control provides flexible access to individuals, which focuses on restricting certain access rights to specific individuals. This is less group based than role-based access control, instead focusing on which areas each specific person can and cannot access. Access rights are left up to the discretion of the relevant business operators, who can decide to modify the rights of employees, guests, and customers at will.

Rule Based Access Control

Rule-based access control, also known as automated provisioning, operates based on pre-set “rules” applied to individuals in the system. These rules may limit the entrances someone can access, the time of day or dates they can access them, and other specifications related to people’s roles within the business. Rule based systems compare a person’s access rights to their credentials, and grant access if this information matches.

How Much Do Access Control Systems Cost?

As a business operator, you must consider your financial resources when deciding on the right access control system. More advanced systems with more features will carry a higher price tag, but they often pay off in terms of theft prevented and safety secured for employees and visitors. Professional access control providers can help you find the best system to balance your security needs and budget.

Low-end access control hardware for a small business starts around $50, with the price increasing depending on the number of users, the features offered, and the quality of the system. Large businesses that want high-end systems should expect to pay $1000+ per door.

Small Business

Access Control System
$ 50+ Door
  • Low-end hardware
  • Limited number of users
  • Limited features


Access Control System
$ 1,000+ Door
  • High-end hardware
  • Large number of users
  • More features

Access control software ranges in price based on business size, number of features, and whether web and mobile management is an option. Many access systems charge a fee based on the number of IDs included. If you have an IP access control system that stores data in the cloud, license and storage fees will often be involved.

An access control system’s cost can be largely determined by installation and maintenance, meaning it is essential to find a security dealer and installer who offers a great price and superior service.

Also learn more about the most common questions surrounding access control

Best Access Control Systems for Businesses

Here are a few of the best access control manufacturers currently on the market.

Brivo OnAir


As a leading SaaS company, Brivo Systems offers trusted, feature-rich access control software, which provides a scalable and unified security management platform for businesses. Brivo combines video security and access control into a web-accessible system, providing layers of security and convenience. The Brivo mobile credential program, Brivo Mobile Pass, lets users enter buildings with just their smartphones.

  • Create entrance schedules
  • Monitor real-time events
  • Intuitive browser-based interface
  • Integrates with third-party security hardware and visitor management systems
  • Convenient mobile passes
openpath dealer and installer


Openpath access control modernizes business security with a completely cloud-based solution and mobile phone credentials. Thanks to its open API, Openpath offers wide integration, which is ideal for businesses with existing security systems, or businesses that want to combine third-party hardware with their access control system. Openpath offers cutting-edge and scalable touchless door access, as well as keycards and badge options.

  • Simple and easy-to-use interface
  • Readers recognize smartphones even when they’re in your pocket
  • Patented triple unlock feature
  • View real-time video surveillance footage and entry logs
Kisi installer


Kisi access control is designed for efficiency, functionality, and convenience, offering smooth cloud-based entry and security management capabilities. Mobile credentials are available on the Kisi app, which is continuously updating, expanding, and adding new features to keep your business safe. Kisi is a great option for businesses looking for an elegant and simplified access control solution.

  • Temporarily authorize individuals to take on admin responsibilities
  • Easy cloud-based rule setting and entry log review
  • 24/7 audit trails with time stamps
  • Temporary mobile keys and passes
  • Remotely unlock doors from the app or a web browser
Buy SALTO Security System


SALTO electronic access control gives you easy-to-use next-generation access control, establishing efficiency and simplified management across your entire system. SALTO uses battery-powered hardware to eliminate unnecessary wiring. With high-quality smart cards and readers, electronic locks, access control software, mobile credentials, and more, SALTO takes modern access control to the next level.

  • Sophisticated RFID technology
  • SVN, wireless, and mobile capabilities
  • Flexible access plans that you can change at will
  • Track natural movements of user groups across your business
Access Control System_ Buyers Guide


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