When putting in an access control system, today’s market will present you with plenty of options. From which type of ID badge to choose, to where to put access points, to how you want to authenticate cardholders, there are certainly a lot of choices to be made. 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. t isn’t exactly comparing apples to oranges—each type of reader has its own benefits and drawbacks. 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. Information is electronically stored on a tag attached to an object or to the carrier, and that tag’s chip is activated when it’s near a reader, enabling it to share the access information it holds. 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. These tags can be detected from several feet away by the receiver, making them useful in access control for buildings with a high number of cardholders.

RFID technology is popularly employed in access control systems to allow only authenticated and authorized personnel to enter secure spaces. RFID technology is a favored choice for several uses aside from office management, such as supply chain inventory, parking garage gate control, retail checkout lines, and even race timing.

RFID Access Control: Overview

The most common use of RFID in access control is indoor entry systems for personnel. In this case, RFID-enabled tags are usually employed on a very basic level as identification badges for workers, providing a simple solution for any company or industry that uses access control systems. 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 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 for Access Control

The access control software system reads the data taken from signals 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 parent devices that control card readers and make these 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 this sort of technology before reading 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. 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 able to handle much more of a beating compared to barcode technology, which keeps your employees from worrying about accidentally damaging their cards. There’s virtually no fear of wear and tear; in most circumstances, an RFID card would still be able to send its embedded information. 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.

Drawbacks of RFID in Access

It’s not all good news, though. There are distinct issues 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. For starters, 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. While RFID readers usually have a small range, this limit can be increased by using signal boosters. 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 Technology in Door Entry Systems

Near field communication (NFC) technology is a newer kind of RFID that acts in a similar way as the original. 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 numerous applications in the modern world, especially in cloud computing access control, physical access control, system security, and property security. In access control, NFC technology is used to simplify the concept of access badges or keys. The fundamental principle of NFC technology in all applications remains the same as that of 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 access control systems are managed through apps installed on smartphones, which act as the key or information tag for an NFC-equipped reader. When the mobile device is swiped or tapped over the 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.

Mobile Access Control by Kisi

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Mobile Access Control by Kisi

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 allows 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 detailed access information, including the exact time access is granted, how long access was granted for, 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 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

NFC is a type of electronic correspondence based on the induction of electromagnetic fields developed between two antennas using 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; these 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 like smart cards and readers is established at 13.56 MHz frequency, which is a reserved band for industrial, scientific, and medical use 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 NFC communication standards.

Benefits of NFC Access Control

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 as it can save a great deal of time and money, plus it cuts down on plastic waste. Using smartphones also prevents thieves from accessing secure facilities, because the phone needs to be unlocked to be able to access the signal that will grant access to a facility. In all likelihood, an intruder will be unable to do this, making your office just a little bit safer. Additionally, there is no chance of NFC losing its magnetism or being copied by outside forces. Drawbacks of NFC

While it might seem like the perfect technology, 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. Therefore, 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, any 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 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. 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.