There are tons of options when picking an access control system for your business. Which type of ID badge to choose; where to put access points; how to authenticate cardholders—there are certainly a lot of choices to be made.

There is one decision that can seem especially tedious: The difference between RFID and NFC readers.

Is choosing one over the other that big of a difference? Well, it isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges—each type of reader has its own benefits and drawbacks.

We'll help you better understand the differences between RFID and NFC as it relates to access control.

RFID tech in physical security

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID technology uses electromagnetic waves to capture and read transmitted data. RFID tags, like the one on modern credit cards, hold electronic data.

In the case of access control, these RFID tags hold the credential information that, when placed near a compatible reader, will transmit the info to unlock the door.

RFID can be either active, where it has its own power source and a high range, or passive, in which it is powered by a reader and works at shorter distances. These tags can be detected from several feet away by the receiver, making them especially useful for access control in buildings with a high number of cardholders.

RFID Access Control: Overview

RFID is an extremely popular solution for indoor access control systems.

In this case, RFID-enabled tags are usually attached to employees' ID cards, or they are given special access cards for their office. This provides a simple solution for any company to deploy an access control solution that allows for unique credentials.

How RFID tags work for door access

The RFID applications for personnel identification normally operate at quite a low frequency, almost 140 kHz, for badge detection. The information of a cardholder, object, or reader is electronically stored in the RFID cards or tags, which can contain only small pieces of information such as identification numbers, prices, or codes.

Door readers use this same technology: Each RFID reader is equipped with a small antenna, which sends its own radio waves with the purpose of detecting any RFID tag or card within its range.

This range can vary for each reader depending upon the frequency of the radio waves it emits, anywhere from about 10 centimeters (~4") to around one meter (~1'). The RFID reader decodes the info from the RFID tag and sends the signal to its host software, which either grants or denies access to the user.

RFID keycard reader
Kisi encrypted keycard and reader. Learn more about the different unlock methods supported by Kisi.

RFID software for access control

The access control software system does all the heavy lifting by managing access approvals. Signals are received from each RFID reader, enabling readers to accept and deny requests to access certain amenities based on access levels or specific permissions.

Access panels, which are the parent devices that control card readers and manage the access requests, allow for easy integration with RFID readers. Access control panel hardware is needed to open the lock or door, which only happens on approved access requests.

RFID technology is widely used in today’s market. Because of this, readers that accept RFID credentials often work with RFID-enabled cards from many manufacturers. Trusted manufacturers of ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID devices include Motorola, Impinj, Mojix and Alien Technology, among others.

Benefits of RFID access control

RFID chips are a very durable product, especially when compared to old barcode-based access. This means less time and money spent on replacement cards from regular wear and tear.

RFID tags can also function in almost any kind of weather, which is especially helpful for outdoor readers exposed to rain, snow, and extreme temperatures.

Also, because of their popularity, RFID tags are an extremely reliable format for security and compatibility purposes.

Drawbacks of RFID access control

RFID isn't a perfect solution access control solution, though.

There are distinct security issues with RFID cards and technology. Any technology that can create a signal has the potential to be hacked.

Any technology that can create a signal has the potential to be hacked.

For starters, there is a possibility that any person equipped with an RFID reader could access the information embedded on each card. An RFID tag doesn't choose when it's actively transmitting the electronic data it holds, and it can't discern between a legitimate and an illegitimate reader.

Additionally, RFID cards are prone to electromagnetic interference, which can come from other RFID cards or any other magnetized device. This means that they can easily be jammed or lose their ability to transmit information, making them potentially cumbersome after a while.

These cards are also easily cloned if their information is stolen. For example, if someone has a handheld device that can read the signals being broadcast, they can then clone this information to a new card using a transponder.

NFC tech for door entry systems

Near field communication (NFC) technology is an evolution based on RFID that has many similarities and a few key differences.

NFC smart tags are synonymous with smartphones, which act both as receivers and transmitters of data.

Unlike RFID, NFC works only in extremely close proximity, at a maximum of about four inches. NFC technology is used in numerous applications in the modern world, especially in cloud computing access control, physical access control, system security, and property security.

Bring your own credentials with NFC

NFC access control is used to simplify the concept of badges, keys, or fobs. The fundamental principle of NFC technology in all applications remains the same as RFID: To allow data to be transmitted securely over short distances. Similarly to RFID, a smart card can also be used to send information to NFC-enabled devices, such as tablets, mobile phones, and laptops, or allow them to access cloud-based networks and system resources over the internet.

Cutting-edge NFC door access control systems are managed through apps installed on smartphones, which act as the key or credential for an NFC-equipped reader.

When the mobile device is help near the NFC reader, a communication channel is established and data transactions take place, authenticating the permissions of the user to access the secured area, resources, or applications. If you’ve used Apple Pay, you’ve used NFC.

Touchless Access Control by Kisi

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Touchless Access Control by Kisi

NFC access control

In most cases, NFC technology employs one reader and a card or phone. The card will be coded with the tag data, which contains the credential information that allows a connected access panel to identify the user within its system and authorize or deny access to the cardholder.

How NFC door unlocks work

The key is held near an NFC reader, which reads the information and verifies the person’s identity within the connected software. This communication is not only limited to authentication, however.

NFC access control can also record detailed access information, including:

  • Precise access time
  • Specific access point used
  • Length of time access was granted

In NFC access control systems, the smart card data is transmitted over the internet to a centralized location within your system to grant access to the necessary cloud computing resources or protected locations.

There are many different types of readers, all of which are extensively used in different access control applications. Among those models, IP-based access control readers are some of the most popular, secure, and reliable access control devices available on the market. These readers can be easily integrated into an existing IT network, as well.

NFC access control reader

NFC software in physical security

Modern access control software is able to record and organize the information transmitted via NFC to create more insightful access control logs.

NFC door access relays the information mentioned before, including time, any user information, and the length of the event. All of this information can be compiled and organized to create informative reports that improve security and streamline audits.

Benefits of NFC access control

NFC has many of the benefits of RFID, with key differences that make it ideal from a usability and security standpoint. The reduced activation range makes duping or hacking credentials much more difficult, and the ability to use your smartphone as your access key is great from a user perspective.

NFC smartphone credentials

The availability of smartphone-based NFC credentials also cuts down on the overhead costs of activating and maintaining an access control solution. Instead of provisioning new keycards for every new hire and old or lost card, users can simply bring their own device to use as a credential.

Smartphone credentials increase your security posture as well. Smartphones require some version of an unlock to occur before they will activate NFC data transmission. Where RFID can be triggered remotely by a reader, NFC data transfers must be prompted device-side.

Simplify door access deployment with NFC

Because NFC technology is so ubiquitous and has low-maintenance energy requirements, it's the perfect medium for incorporating cloud-based access control on a large scale without redesigning and re-configuring an entire location. This key feature saves administrators and building owners time, energy, and money in the long run while minimizing the administrative manpower needed to run an effective access control system.

NFC also doesn't lose effectiveness due to signal or magnetic interference.

So NFC is clearly the better door access tech, right? Well, it's important to keep in mind that NFC cannot work for smart cards and readers that are more than a few inches apart.

If you run a busy, high-volume space, this can be a challenge when you just want to get as many people through the door as possible. In this case, RFID can be the preferable option.

To overcome such limits, Kisi offers features like remote unlocks and scheduled unlocks, which allow admins to grant or revoke access in situations where the usual NFC reader authentication would be inefficient.

Kisi mobile app and NFC Door Reader

Wrapping Up

While there is no right or wrong answer to the RFID vs NFC debate, any space with an access control system could easily benefit from either RFID or NFC.

Choosing the best option can be difficult, but it’s imperative that you consider all of the benefits and drawbacks in the context of your organization’s needs. Whether you care about security, ease of use, or accessibility, choosing between RFID and NFC access control systems is hard, but necessary.

Kisi has tapped into and optimized NFC technology for Android smartphones (and the corresponding Bluetooth features used in iPhones), eliminating the need for physical keys and streamlining the administrative processes associated with granting multiple people access to a location.

In a classic "best of both worlds" scenario, Kisi is also compatible with RFID protocols, letting you choose the option that works best for you now with the possibility to change later. Or you can even have a mixed-use solution depending on time or user.