Skip to main content

Trusted by 100,000+ organizations globally

Access control is one of the most critical components of physical security. If poorly managed, intruders and malicious actors can gain access to confidential assets, which can have detrimental effects on an organization. In fact, poor access management invites human-based intrusions and errors, which caused 82% of data breaches in 2022 according to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Report.

One common example of an access control reader solution you’ll see in offices and commercial properties are proximity card reader systems. But what is a proximity reader and how do proximity cards work? How can you use proximity reader access control technology to safeguard your facility?

In this article, we will discuss what proximity readers are, how an proximity access control system works, different types of door key card reader configurations and other considerations you must know before you install these devices in your facility.

What are proximity card readers?

Proximity card readers are an integral part of an access control system. These are touchless devices that read the credentials of a token or proximity card when it’s within the detection radius. 

So, what is a proximity card, and how does it differ from other access cards? A proximity card can be any form of card or key fob that holds the credential data of a user. Depending on how the proximity card reader system is configured, proximity cards may not need physical contact with the reader to unlock a door. Basically, as long as the card is within the detection range, the card reader system will scan it and grant access to authorized users. 

Proximity card readers have varying detection radiuses depending on the system used, but proximity cards usually just need to be either a couple of inches or up to a few feet away from the reader for access to be granted, depending on the location of the installation.

How do proximity badge and card readers work?

A proximity reader is one of the three components of a proximity access control system. It works with the other two components of the wider proximity card access control system: the proximity card itself and an access controller and software program used to control the network. 

The proximity badge contains user credentials and uses an embedded antenna with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology or a Near-Field Communication (NFC) tag to communicate with the prox reader.

The proximity reader, on the other hand, emits an electromagnetic field that covers a large radius around the reader. Once a card is within the detection radius, it will absorb some energy and convert it to electricity. This will turn on the card’s circuit, transmitting its data to the proximity reader access system. The reader will then transfer the data to the proximity card access controller, which will verify the identity of the user. If the card has approval from the system, the reader will release the lock and grant access to the user. If unauthorized access is detected, the entrance will remain locked.

Essentially, proximity card access control systems use electricity to function. So, the biggest question is, will it work if there’s a power interruption? Proximity reader access control systems may be able to function during power outages depending on the electric lock you use, and if you’ve installed a backup power option. When installing a proximity reader, first compare whether your entry uses fail-safe vs. fail-secure locks. Depending on the power source, your installer can recommend whether your proximity card reader systems need a backup or failover power source.

Types of proximity card readers

At first glance, proximity card readers may look similar. However, these smart card readers have different functionality depending on their power supply and connection. When comparing proximity access control solutions, you may see them also referred to as prox readers” and prox cards”, but the technology is the same. Below are the four different types of proximity reader access control systems

Wired proximity readers

This is the most commonly used proximity reader in commercial facilities. Wired proximity readers usually support some combination of RFID, Bluetooth or NFC formats and are compatible with almost any access control system because they communicate using a protocol called Wiegand. However, this compatibility feature can also be a physical security risk, given that the Wiegand protocol has been around since 1974, and has a lot of vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

But even though a wired proximity card reader using this protocol may be prone to hacking, there are ways to protect against exploits. One way to do so is to invest in a proximity card reader system that uses advanced end-to-end encryption with additional protection against tampering. 

Wireless proximity readers

As its name implies, wireless proximity readers are battery-operated, eliminating the need for complicated wiring. This type of reader is often used as part of hotel security systems and apartment complexes where it would be expensive to wire readers in every door. They are usually connected to a wireless repeater to communicate with the central control panel. While they offer installation convenience, they need to be constantly checked to ensure that the door badge readers still have enough battery to properly function

Standalone proximity readers

This type of proximity reader system is decentralized and does not connect to a control panel. Because of this, they don’t have a data connection and have limited functionality compared to the other types of readers. This means that they can’t be managed or programmed remotely and are often installed in a one-off type installation scenario. 

Instead of having a central system that controls the reader, standalone proximity readers require you to program a PIN code for each person on each reader you have. In other words, you have to manually set up each reader to test and activate a card. This type of proximity card readers can work for small facilities that don’t have a lot of entry points. 

IP-connected proximity readers

Compared to the other proximity readers, these types of card readers are the most advanced. Connecting via ethernet or PoE, they can be easily integrated into your IT systems allowing you to have an automated, flexible security system. They are also more secure since they aren’t directly connected to an access controller. This means that the line can’t be intercepted by malicious actors trying to gain access to your facility.

However, IP-connected access readers must have high-level encryption and follow strict cybersecurity standards to ensure the security of your building. If your IP badge reader system is compromised, your whole facility could be at risk.

Discover Avigilon’s leading key card system

  • Seamless unification with Avigilon Unity Video provides visual context to alarms

  • Fail-safe design can withstand power and Internet outages to keep you up and running

  • Snap-in design makes installation quick and easy

  • Remote system management allows you to receive and view alerts from anywhere

Benefits of using proximity access control and badge readers

Why should you consider using a proximity card reader system in your facility? Here are some of their benefits: 

  • Better security: One major problem with traditional lock and key systems is the ability to easily clone a key and pick a lock. That’s why many facilities have stopped using this and started using keyless door entry systems such as proximity cards for access control. Airports, schools, hotels, retail stores and more are now using proximity card access systems because of the better protection, accountability and security they offer. 
  • Easy integration: If you have an existing security system, many proximity readers can be integrated with the entire system easily. 
  • Contactless access: Cards for proximity card systems don’t need physical contact with the reader to work. This reduces the time needed to open a door, making it convenient for you and your employees to enter and exit the facility. 
  • Help streamline business operations: A proximity badge reader can help strengthen your physical security. Since you can assign different levels of access to users, proximity card readers can create a more streamlined process for your commercial building or office spaces. 
  • Reliable with a lower chance of wear and tear: Because of how this system operates, there’s no physical contact between the card and the reader itself. This means that proximity card reader systems avoid the everyday damage a lock and key or other types of locks like PIN pads may encounter. 
  • Cost-effective: Proximity readers are generally affordable. They usually require little to no maintenance once installed, and have no moving parts that can be damaged easily.
  • Auditable activity: One of the key benefits of proximity card reader systems is that they produce data that can help businesses better monitor access activity in their buildings. With a traditional key, you don’t know who opened the door or when. But with proximity access card readers, every time somebody uses their proximity card, that information gets sent to an activity log viewable in the management software.

Security pitfalls of proximity access control and card readers

Like any security system, you need to ensure that your proximity access control is secure and reliable. Although proximity card readers are meant to strengthen your facility’s security, some of them use a technology that has been around for many decades. This means that they have known vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Surprisingly, these vulnerabilities can be easily found on the internet, making it easy for anyone with malicious intentions to take over your device. 

Here are some of the disadvantages of using a proximity card reader for entry:

  • Detection radius: The detection radius is the distance from which the reader can detect nearby proximity access cards. This radius plays a critical role in your proximity card reader system’s effectiveness and security. For instance, doors and turnstile gates should have a shorter read range to stop tailgating incidents from happening. But for parking garages, the radius should be a bit wider to ensure that all vehicle sizes can enter the facility without encountering problems. 
  • Vulnerable backend hardware: A proximity badge system is one of the most popular targets for criminals who want to steal sensitive data. While there are advanced proximity readers that offer a more secure backend, you’ll still run into security vulnerabilities because of backward compatibility, such as having a security system that runs on outdated legacy backend hardware. So, make sure you use a system with end-to-end encryption at every level of communication as an extra layer of protection against hardware hacking.
  • No backups or fail-safes: As mentioned, you need electricity for a proximity reader to function properly. In case of a power or internet outage, you need to have a backup power source to ensure that the access control proximity reader is up and running. If you don’t have one, you’ll either lock people out of the building or have all the door locks released. So, ensure that you have an alternative power source or backup battery to keep criminals from exploiting this vulnerability. 
  • Hackable local storage: Some proximity card readers save data locally, which can be easy for malicious actors to hack into. If criminals can hack into your local storage, they can gain access to your entire system and could compromise your facility. Make sure to implement strict security measures and encrypt your storage properly if you’ll use local storage for proximity card reader devices.
  • Key cards can be replicated: Since key cards and key fobs are widely used access methods for most organizations, some individuals have found a way to replicate them. This is especially true with those used with low-frequency HID proximity card and badge readers. So, make sure that you use a proximity card that has a digitally signed identifier that offers strong encryption and security, such as DESFire EV3 128-bit AES cryptographic proximity access cards. 
  • Lack of feature or credential support: While proximity card reader technology may be what you’re looking for right now, security is always changing. If future tenants or employees want to use more modern access methods, such as mobile credentials, you don’t want to face replacing the entire card reader system down the line. To avoid this headache, look for proximity card readers that have multi-technology support, meaning you’ll be able to use a wide range of credentials on the same reader.

What industries should use proximity card readers?

Any facility and organization, big or small, can benefit from proximity card readers. Since they can be a cost-effective way to secure a building, most industries and businesses use them as part of their overall physical security. Below are some of the industries that can greatly benefit from proximity card access control systems: 

  • Hotels
  • Corporate buildings
  • Multi-tenant residential
  • Parking structures
  • Airports
  • Government facilities
  • Correction facilities
  • Schools
  • Stadiums
  • Logistics

Factors to consider when choosing a proximity card reader

Physical security is a serious matter. That’s why when choosing a proximity reader, you need to carefully evaluate what your facility needs before settling for one. It’s usually best to talk to a security expert to ensure that your proximity card system and the reader you’ll choose are compatible. At the same time, you also need to list the features you want for your proximity access control system before you install one. If you’re unsure what to look for in a reader, below are some factors you need to consider: 

Wiring architecture

If you have an existing system and are looking to upgrade to a new proximity reader, you need to ensure that it’s compatible with your current wiring architecture. Ripping and replacing your old wiring for new hardware can take a lot of time and may cost a lot of money. Some proximity readers use a standard wiring architecture, which can make installation quick and easy if your facility uses a standard one too. However, others use a different architecture, so be sure to check if the proximity reader system you want is compatible with the existing infrastructure.

If your facility can’t handle a lot of wiring, it might be best to stick with a wireless proximity card reader instead. But keep in mind that this type of door card reader requires more upkeep because of the way it is powered, so only choose this type of system if you can maintain it properly. 

Door lock mechanism

Proximity card readers use electric locks to secure entrances. Whatever type of commercial door lock you choose, you need to ensure that you have backup power to support them to continue securing your facility. At the same time, not all proximity readers are compatible with all door locks. It’s best to consult with a security expert before you decide what door lock mechanism you’ll use to get the most out of your proximity reader access control system.

Installation location

The space where you’re planning to install a proximity card reader can dictate what type of reader you should have. Some readers may not fit a narrow doorway, while small proximity readers may be too inconspicuous for a large parking garage. On top of that, you also need to check the detection radius of the reader. For instance, having a reader with a wider read range for a small entryway can pose a security risk for your facility. At the same time, having a shorter read range for a larger entrance can cause inconveniences like lockouts. 

If you’re concerned with style and aesthetics, some readers can look bulky and out of place. A well-designed proximity reader still needs to function reliably, however. Consider whether you’ll want the proximity readers to be mounted flush with the wall, or if you’ll need special housing for proximity reader systems installed outdoors.


Before you start shopping around, you need to have a budget in mind to ensure you won’t go over what you can afford. There are many factors that can affect the cost of a proximity access control card reader system, such as how many proximity readers you need for your facility, what infrastructure you have in place and the type of system and credentials you’d like to implement. On top of that, you should also consider ongoing costs. For example, key cards can be expensive to maintain, especially since you’ll need to order replacement cards frequently. 

If you want to keep the cost low, you need to choose a product that’s designed to be future-proof. Some readers can accommodate different access methods such as using mobile credentials instead of cards and badges, which can limit maintenance costs. At the same time, you need to ensure that you can integrate it with other physical security systems in order to streamline management and security operations for your business.

Should you install a proximity card access control reader system?

For commercial spaces that need convenient and contactless access control, a proximity reader system can be a good investment. This can provide you the security and protection you need for spaces like your office, lobby, parking garage and other areas that need access control. But before you decide on what system to install, you need to evaluate the needs of your facility and make sure that the proximity card reader access control system you choose can fulfill all those requirements.

Have questions? We can help

Our video security experts can help you implement the right security system for your business.