What Are Access Cards and How Does Each Type Work?

It’s a necessity for every business to keep their buildings and materials inside secure. Of course, you can accomplish this with an old-fashioned lock and key, but that doesn’t come with the advantages of modern access card systems. For example, a regular lock and key doesn’t differentiate who is accessing the building, while an access card can grant or deny access. 

Access cards also make it simple for people to enter buildings, and they can double as photo identification, copy access, and more. What exactly are access cards and how do they work? Learn more here. 

What Are Access Cards and How Does Each Type Work?

What Are Access Cards?

Put simply, access cards are wireless cards (or other items; see other types of access control below) that grant or deny access to a door or entryway. Access cards are often used in school buildings, dorms, office buildings, government buildings, hospitals, and more. Their use applies to a wide variety of industries. 

Access cards are often the size of a credit card, and they may double as an ID badge. Commonly, people keep access cards on lanyards, badge clips, or wallets. 

How Do Access Cards Work?

Each access card designed to grant access to an entryway carries with it a unique card number or code that tells a card reader whether the person using the card should be granted access or not. When they present the card to the card reader, if they are allowed access, the door will unlock or open, and if they are not allowed access, it will not. 

Access cards provide a simple and efficient way to gain entry. They are also helpful for companies to keep track of who is entering the building and when. The technology and exact mechanism of action are different depending on what type of access card you have. 

How Do Access Cards Work?

How Different Types of Access Cards Work 

There are two main types of access cards: contactless cards and magnetic stripe cards. 

Contactless access cards are contactless and work when the access card gets near a card reader. Card readers for contactless cards use radio frequency identification (RFID) to emit an energy field. 

When the person using the card holds it up to the card reader, the card will cross the energy field. When this happens, a copper wire inside the card powers a chip (which is also inside the card) that carries a unique card number and any other necessary data. This information identifies the cardholder and grants (or denies) them access based on this information. 

The card reader does this by sending all of the information to the access control system. While there are many steps to grant or deny access, this process happens almost instantaneously. 

Magnetic stripe access cards are not contactless but are still pretty easy to use. The card has a visible magnetic stripe, typically on the back of the card. 

When the person using the card swipes the magnetic strip through the card reader, the reader can detect the magnetic field and then grants (or denies) access. 

Contactless Cards vs Magnetic Stripe Cards 

The two main types of access cards work very similarly, but each type has its own unique features, and there are subsets of each type as well. 

Contactless Cards 

Contactless cards are able to store more data than magnetic stripe cards. They’re also more durable and user-friendly. The cards themselves are often made of PVC or a composite material. Clamshell cards are made of two pieces of PVC together; this makes them stronger and thicker than regular PVC cards. Some card types can be printed on, which many companies take advantage of to print logos and staff photos. 

Contactless cards are available in low frequency at 125 kHz or higher frequency at 13.56 MHz. The higher frequency cards are often preferred because they can be encrypted. 

Additionally, contactless cards are available as proximity cards or smart cards. Proximity cards have lower memory and thus limited function. 

Smart cards have higher memory and are able to store more information. Because of this, they can be used for more than just access control. They are also commonly used for things like vending and secure printing. 

Contactless Cards 

Magnetic Stripe Cards

Though not as popular as contactless cards, magnetic stripe cards are still used today. They are available in two formats: low-coercivity (LoCo) and high-coercivity (HiCo). 

LoCo cards have a lower intensity magnetic field which means the data stored on them is erased easily with any outside magnetic field. Because of this, LoCo cards are often used for temporary use cases such as hotel room keys or gift cards. 

HiCo cards have a higher intensity magnetic field which means they are not erased very easily by outside magnetic fields. This type of magnetic stripe card lasts much longer, and they are more often used for access cards. 

Magnetic Stripe Cards

Other Types of Access Control

In addition to traditional access cards, there are a few other access control methods. In the same way that contactless cards work, key fobs and adhesive tags can be access tokens. Adhesive tags can be attached to any object that you want to act as an access card, such as a name tag or a wallet. Recently, even phones can act as access cards. 

Access cards are some of the most basic components of access control systems, yet they’re incredibly important. They grant employees and necessary personnel automatic access while simultaneously keeping out those who are not authorized. By knowing how each type of access card works, you can be well informed on how this technology works for your business.

Do you have a security project?

About Us

Safe and Sound Security is a modern security system installation and low voltage cabling company serving residential and commercial customers for over a decade.

Do you have a
security project?


Are you looking to install a

Commercial Access Control System?

Get in touch with a Commercial Access Control System specialist today!