When you’re putting in an access control system, you’re presented with plenty of options, whether it’s which type of ID badge to choose, where to put access points, or how you want to authenticate cardholders. But when it comes time to choose between RFID and NFC card readers, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two technologies. But it isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges — each type of reader has its own benefits and drawbacks which can impact their performance in your facility. Read on to find out what, exactly, distinguishes RFID from NFC access control.

RFID Technology in Physical Security

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID technology makes use of electromagnetic waves to capture and read transmitted data; the information is electronically stored on a tag that is attached to an object or to the carrier, and that tag’s chip is activated to share its information when it’s near a reader. These tags can be detected from several feet away by the receiver, making them useful in access control for buildings with many cardholders.

RFID technology is popularly employed in access control systems to allow only the entry of authenticated and authorized personnel to secure spaces. Elsewhere, RFID technology is also applied in several other fields, such as supply chain inventory, gate control in parking garages, retail checkout lines and even race timing. RFID can be either active, in which 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.

RFID in Door Access Control Systems

The most common use of RFID in access control is in door entry systems for personnel. RFID-enabled tags are employed on a very basic level as the identification badges of the workers for any company or industry that uses access control systems. The RFID applications for personnel identification normally operates 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 also 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 to around one meter. The RFID reader decodes the unique stored information being emitted from the corresponding RFID badge 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

The access control software system is able to read the data taken from the signal received from each RFID reader and can both accept and deny their request to access a certain amenity based on access levels or specific permissions. Access panels, which are parent devices that control card readers and make grant and deny decisions, allow for easy integration with RFID readers. Access control panel hardware is needed to open the lock or door, which is only done when the proper access is granted to each authorized cardholder.

RFID-based technology is widely used in today’s market, and you’ve probably at least heard of it before this article. There are many companies that manufacture RFID tags and readers, so you’ll have a great deal of freedom in choosing the technology that’s right for your space. Manufacturers of ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID devices include Motorola, Impinj, Mojix and Alien Technology, among others.


‍Benefits of RFID

RFID chips are able to handle much more of a beating when compared to barcode technology, which keeps your employees from worrying about accidentally destroying their cards. There’s virtually no fear of wear and tear, as an RFID card would still be able to send its embedded information in most circumstances. RFID tags can also function in almost any kind of situation or weather, which is especially helpful for outdoor readers that are often exposed to rain, snow and extreme temperatures.

Drawbacks of RFID

It’s not all good news, though. There is a possibility that any person equipped with an RFID reader could access the information embedded on each card, which cannot discern between a friendly reader and a hostile one. There can be a distinct issue with uncertainty and unreliability when dealing with RFID cards and technology because any technology that can create a signal has the potential to be hacked. RFID readers usually have small range, but this limit can be increased by using signal boosters. RFID cards are also 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 taken. If someone has a handheld device such that it can read signals being broadcast, they can then clone this information to a new card using a transponder.

NFC Technology in Door Entry Systems

Near field communication (NFC) technology is a newer kind of RFID that acts in a similar way. NFC smart tags are most often activated by smartphones, which act both as receivers and transmitters of data. Unlike RFID, NFC works only in tiny distances, at a maximum of about four inches. NFC technology is being used in multiple applications in the modern world, especially in the cloud computing access control, physical access control, system security and property security. In access control, NFC technology is used to simplify access badges or keys. The fundamental principle of NFC technology in all applications remains the same, allowing data to be transmitted securely over short distances.

Similarly, a smart card can also be used to send information to NFC-enabled devices, such as tablets, mobiles and laptops, or allow them to access cloud-based networks and system resources over the internet. A cutting-edge form of NFC access control systems is managed through apps installed on smartphones, which act as the key or an information tag for an NFC-equipped reader. When the mobile device is swiped or tapped over an NFC reader, a communication channel is established, and data transactions take place to authenticate the authority of the user to access the secured area, resources or applications. If you’ve used Apple Pay, you’ve used NFC.

NFC in Access Control

In most cases, NFC technology employs one reader and one card or key. The card will be coded with the tag data, which contains the identifying information that will allow a connected access panel to authorize or deny access to the cardholder. That key is tapped over an NFC reader, which reads the information and verifies the person’s identity. This communication is not only limited to authentication, however. It can also record the access information, the exact time, the period of access and many other office safety metrics.

In this type of access control system, the smart card data is transmitted over the internet to a centralized location within your system for the purpose of granting of access into the necessary cloud computing resources. There are many different types of readers that 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 IT network as well.

NFC access control reader

NFC Software in Physical Security

NFC is a type of electronic correspondence that is based on the induction of electromagnetic fields developed between two antennas that use NFC technology. The communication between two devices takes place through a stack of communication protocols. Loop antennas are commonly used in the applications of near field communication, which generate magnetic fields when they are brought closer to each other. The normal range operational distance between two devices is just a few centimeters.

An air interface between two devices — known as smart cards and readers, is established at 13.56 MHz frequency, which is a reserved band for industrial, scientific and medical uses generally referred as ISM band. This band is free and does not involve complex licensing or other major regulation procedures. The range of data rate of air interface established between two NFC enabled devices normally lies between 106 kbps to 424 kbps. The GSMA group and NFC forum are two major bodies that define and regulate the NFC communication standards.

Benefits of NFC

Unlike RFID, NFC can be used in a variety of situations and allows you to use your smartphone as your access key. This is incredibly useful and can save a great deal of time, plus it also cuts down on plastic waste that can be bad for the environment. Using smartphones, too, prevents thieves from accessing secure facilities because they need to open the phone to be able to access the signal that will unlock the doors. In all likelihood, they will be unable to do this, making your office just a little bit safer. There is no chance of NFC losing its magnetism or being copied by outside forces. How to use phone NFC as an access card.

Drawbacks of NFC

While it might seem like the perfect technology, it still 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 doors as possible. Until this issue is fixed down the line, RFID still leads the pack in this capacity. 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 one correct answer, each space with an access control system could easily benefit from either RFID or NFC. Weighing each technology with your own requirements and desires is a must — choosing the best option can be difficult, but it’s imperative that you consider all of the benefits and drawbacks. 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 space. Because NFC technology is so ubiquitous and has low-maintenance energy requirements, it's the perfect medium to incorporate 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.