Access Control Cards: What Are They & How They Work (2024)

Access control cards are more than just a means to open doors; they are a cornerstone of modern security.

In an era where protecting data and premises is paramount, these cards are vital to a comprehensive security strategy. They are not just pieces of plastic but keys to a safe and controlled environment.

Let us explore the functionality, benefits, and applications of access control cards in contemporary security environments.

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What are Access Control Cards?

Access cards are the backbone of most card access control systems, providing a secure and convenient way to manage entry into buildings and secure areas.

These cards, often the size of a credit card, hold essential data to grant or deny access. In offices and organizations across many cities, these cards have become ubiquitous in security technology.

Proximity cards are a popular type of access control card. They use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to communicate with a prox card reader, allowing contactless entry. It makes proximity access cards a convenient and fast option for door access control systems.

What Are Access Cards and How Does Each Type Work?

Not all prox cards are created equal. Some may feature a hico magnetic stripe, which provides additional security and storage capabilities.

For organizations requiring a high degree of customization, an ID card printer can create bespoke access cards. These can include a specific card number, user data, and adhesive tags for temporary or specific access needs.

The best access control solution for any organization depends on various factors, including the level of security required, the number of users, and the specific needs of the premises.

Access cards are not just about opening doors; they represent a commitment to maintaining a secure and efficient environment.

Card Access Control Systems: How Do They Work?

Access cards are integral to a card system. They contain data communicating with a reader to grant or restrict access. This quick and secure data stored in the system ensures that only authorized individuals can enter or communicate in certain areas, making it a more efficient and secure alternative to traditional locks.

In a card access control system, each access card is encoded with specific information, often in the form of a unique access card number or encrypted data.

How Do Access Cards Work?

When presented to a reader, the card’s data is cross-referenced against a database to verify the user’s credentials. If the credentials match an authorized user profile, the system triggers a mechanism, usually an electronic lock, to allow entry.

This process is more secure than traditional keys, which can be copied or lost. Still, it also offers the ability to record, communicate, and monitor access, providing valuable insights into the usage of the secured area.

Additionally, these systems can be easily updated to change access permissions, add new users, or deactivate lost cards, making them a dynamic and adaptable safety and security solution.

Different Types of Access Cards

Contactless Access Card

Contactless cards, such as proximity cards and HID proximity cards, operate using RFID or NFC technology [1]. They are designed to be read by a scanner without physical contact, typically just by being close to the reader to read the radio waves and be accessible.

This feature makes them highly convenient, as they can be kept in a wallet or attached to a key ring. Contactless cards are ideal for environments where speed and ease of access are priorities.

They benefit offices or facilities where employees frequently need to enter and exit.

Contactless Cards 

Magnetic Stripe Cards

Magnetic stripe cards, commonly known as swipe cards, store data on a magnetic stripe that is read by swiping the access card through a reader. They are a more traditional access card form often used in hotels and other establishments.

While magnetic cards are generally reliable, they can be more susceptible to wear and tear than contactless cards. In terms of usage, magnetic cards require physical contact with the reader, which can be less convenient than the tap-and-go nature of proximity cards.

However, they are cost-effective and can be easily reprogrammed for different users or access levels.

Hybrid Cards

Hybrid cards combine the best of both worlds: the contactless functionality of proximity cards and the traditional swipe mechanism of magnetic cards. These cards are versatile, making them suitable for systems requiring multiple security levels or access methods.

They are particularly beneficial in large corporate offices or educational campuses where multiple buildings might have different access control systems.

For the end user, carrying one hybrid access card is more convenient than juggling multiple ID cards, especially for existing employees or frequent visitors who need to unlock different areas within a facility.

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Biometric Access Cards

Biometric access cards combine traditional access card technology with biometric authentication methods, such as fingerprint recognition, iris scanning, or facial recognition. These cards store biometric data securely and use it to verify the identity of the cardholder.

It offers a high level of security and accuracy. It is used in environments where stringent identity verification is essential, such as government facilities, data centers, research laboratories, and high-security installations.

Smart Cards

Smart cards, also known as integrated circuit cards (ICC), contain a microprocessor chip embedded within the card. This chip can store and process data, enabling advanced security features like encryption and authentication.

They are used for a wide range of applications, including payment systems, public transportation, and healthcare identification. They offer enhanced security and versatility compared to traditional magnetic stripe cards and are commonly used in environments where robust authentication is required.

Other Access Control Technologies

Aside from proximity and magnetic stripe cards, emerging technologies like key fobs and adhesive tags are gaining traction.

Key fobs, often small and attachable to a key ring, use RFID or NFC technology for contactless access and are ideal for those who prefer something more compact than a card.

Adhesive tags, which can be stuck onto items like phones or wallets, offer a portable and convenient solution for temporary access needs, such as for visitors or contractors.

Differentiating Access Cards

FeatureRFID ProtocolsNFC Standards
TechnologyRadio Frequency Identification (RFID)Near Field Communication (NFC)
RangeVaries (from a few centimeters to several meters)Typically short range (up to 10 centimeters)
CommunicationUnidirectional (reader to tag)Bidirectional (reader to tag and vice versa)
ApplicationsAccess control, inventory tracking, payment systems, etc.Contactless payments, mobile access control
FrequencyVarious frequencies (low-frequency, high-frequency, ultra-high-frequency)13.56 MHz
Data Transfer RateTypically slower (varies depending on protocol and frequency)Up to 424 kbps
SecuritySecurity features vary depending on protocol and implementationBuilt-in security features including encryption and authentication
CompatibilityCompatibility varies depending on protocol and standardsNFC-enabled devices are becoming ubiquitous
CostCost varies depending on protocol, frequency, and featuresGenerally cost-effective due to widespread adoption
UsageCommonly used in various industries for tracking, identification, and access controlCommonly used in smartphones, contactless payment cards, access control systems

Contactless vs Magnetic Stripe Access Cards

Several factors come into play when choosing between contactless and magnetic stripe cards. Contactless cards, such as RFID cards, proximity cards, and smart cards, offer greater convenience and speed.

They typically have a more extended read range, using radio waves to communicate with access card readers, which makes them ideal for high-traffic areas. HID cards operating at 125 kHz are a typical example, known for their reliability and ease of use.

Magnetic stripe cards [2], on the other hand, are cost-effective and widely used. They are great for environments where the cost is a concern, and the convenience of contactless technology is not a priority.

Magnetic Stripe Cards

However, these cards can wear out faster due to physical contact with readers, and their security can be slightly lower than RFID cards.

The choice between contactless and magnetic cards should be based on specific needs like convenience, safety, printing requirements, and the nature of the facility.

For instance, a high-security area might benefit more from the added security of proximity cards, while a small business might prefer the affordability of magnetic cards.

Hybrid cards offer a comprehensive solution for organizations with complex needs, catering to a broad range of control access scenarios.

How To Choose the Right Access Control Card

  1. Assess the Security Level Required: The card choice should align with your facility’s security needs. For high-security areas, a proximity or smart card might be more appropriate as they offer advanced security features like encryption and can grant access more securely. For less sensitive areas, a simple magnetic stripe card might suffice.
  2. Consider the Environment: Pay attention to the physical environment where the access card will be used plays a vital role in the selection process. For example, in harsh environments, clamshell cards can help enhance your access system.
  3. System Compatibility: Ensure the chosen access card is compatible with your existing access system. A hybrid access card could be versatile if your system supports multiple technologies. For systems with a specific facility code or technology requirement, like RFID or 125 kHz proximity cards, ensure the access card you choose matches these specifications.
  4. User Convenience: Consider the convenience for the end user. A contactless card that allows for quick entry might be ideal for a building with a high volume of foot traffic. Using unique card numbers might offer a better solution for smaller setups or where individual access needs to be closely monitored.
  5. Future-Proofing Your Choice: With technology constantly evolving, selecting an access card that can adapt to future changes is wise. A smart card that can integrate with new technologies can be a forward-thinking choice.


What is the purpose of an access card?

An access card, such as a proximity or key fob, provides secure and controlled access to a building or specific areas.

These cards are programmed to allow or restrict entry and lock and unlock doors, ensuring that only authorized personnel, like existing employees or approved visitors, can access specific locations.

Are all access cards RFID?

Not all access cards use RFID technology. While many modern access systems, like prox cards, utilize RFID for contactless entry, other types, like magnetic stripe cards, do not use RFID technology.

You can use phones to lock and unlock entrance gates and remotely access them in different locations.

How do I identify my access card type?

To identify your access card type, look for physical features such as a magnetic stripe or the thickness and design typical of clamshell cards.

If the new card is a proximity access card, it might have specific branding like ‘HID’ and usually doesn’t have a magnetic stripe. You can also consult with your security system provider for precise identification.


Selecting the right type of access card is crucial in maintaining secure and efficient access control in any organization. Understanding the differences between proximity cards, key fobs, and other access cards can significantly impact the security and convenience of your system.

Safe and Sound Security provides tailored security solutions catering to your organization’s needs. Contact us today for a free consultation or quote.

Our team of experts is ready to help you find the perfect fit for your security needs, ensuring your premises are safe and accessible to all authorized personnel.

Don’t wait to secure your space – contact us now for expert guidance and solutions.

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