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As technology has advanced, smart access cards and smart card readers have become an integral part of everyday life. From bank cards for financial transactions to identification badges to allow entry to a campus, workplace or government building, smart access cards and readers are all around us, even though you may not notice them at first. 

Here you will learn about both traditional and contactless models and how and why these devices and systems are crucial in a robust smart card access control system. You will also learn how smart card reader systems work, as well as their benefits and drawbacks.

What is a smart card reader for access control?

Smart card readers are a major component of physical access control. Within a modern access control solution, there is a high likelihood of coming across a smart card reader. When it comes to security, a smart card reader works alongside electric locks and control panels to grant access to a specific location for certain authorized individuals who possess specific credentials.

For example, you will probably find a smart card reader at the entrance of an office building. The job of a smart reader is to allow office workers with the correct keycard onto the premises and stop unauthorized individuals from entering.

How do smart card readers work?

There are two types of smart card readers for access control — contact card readers and contactless card readers. The smart card technologies used for these types of systems consist of either a visible microchip for contact readers or an embedded antenna for contactless readers. Information and data, such as permission levels and unique identifiers, are stored on the card’s chip to grant access to the cardholder at the point of use. When inserted or presented at a smart card reader, the data from the built-in chip is transferred to the receiving computer via the reader.

A contact smart card reader will require physical access to the reader; the card needs to be manually inserted into the reader to recognize it. While this is most commonly seen on credit cards and for retail applications, contact smart card reader systems can also be used for access control and timekeeping at commercial offices or buildings. However, contact smart card readers are becoming less popular with the evolution of contactless card access technology. This is because contactless card readers offer the added benefit of faster, convenient access with just a tap or swipe of a card.

A contactless smart card reader is the more common choice moving into 2023. Contactless cards utilize a type of technology called radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID technology allows the card to be used without physically inserting into a card reader. An example of this would be an ID badge containing a microchip that can be tapped on a smart card reader positioned at an entryway to unlock a door.

Best practices and uses cases for smart card reader access systems

One of the reasons smart card reader systems are so prevalent is that they have a wide range of applications. Whenever you have a high number of people needing access to a building, smart card access control systems are a viable option. While door security is one of the most common places to see smart card access control, there are several other commercial use cases where this technology is useful: 

  • Controlling access for parking lots and garages 
  • Requiring authorization for elevators 
  • Using smart card reading software for enrollment 
  • Allowing access to printers and other in-office devices 

A successful smart card reader system deployment starts with understanding the latest smart card technologies. When configuring a smart card access system for your business, it’s important to choose smart access cards with the latest encryption technology to protect your data. Also consider whether a contactless smart card reader is a better option for your space to keep the flow of traffic moving through your building or parking lot.

Good physical security policies and management are also key here. Ensure your security teams are able to easily adjust permissions for individual cards using the smart reader software, and that all employees are trained to immediately report lost or stolen cards so they can be deactivated. 

What to look for in smart card software for access control

Ideally, you should be able to monitor and access data analytics through smart card software that compiles access control information from your system’s smart access cards and smart card readers. These analytics can help you track activity and general access, giving you more insight into your business and allowing you to improve processes. Precise monitoring can also improve security, as you will know if someone has gained unauthorized access to the system and be able to act on this immediately.

Another modern feature to look out for is the ability to manage access control through smart card readers remotely. Remote management will not only help to improve overall security but also enable you to manage your operations any time of day, from anywhere. Using a cloud-based system and technology is one of the best ways to do this.

Benefits of smart card access control systems

There are a lot of benefits to smart card systems for both facility managers and smart card users. They can be flexible, secure, convenient and easy to use, which is why smart card readers are used by many businesses. 


A big benefit to smart access cards is that they are flexible and multi-use. Most smart access cards can be used at multiple locations. Unlike passcodes and keys, a single smart card can provide access at many points, making them valuable and variable tools. One ID badge could grant the user access to several locations, which is an excellent benefit of this type of access control.


Smart card technology is also convenient, quick and easy to use. It typically adds convenience for customers by shortening the time spent at an access system, such as at an entrance gate. Today, most people understand the concept of a smart reader, so it takes little time or effort to introduce people to this technology.

Tighter security

Security plays a significant role in why businesses choose to leverage smart card software and readers, as they offer a reliable way of protecting data and access from unauthorized users. Smart access cards can provide a higher level of security than a regular password or traditional key system.

Say, for example, that an employee forgets to use their traditional key to lock a door to a room within an office space that contains sensitive data before they head home for the evening. This could lead to a data breach or information being accessed by an unauthorized user, with no way of knowing who last accessed the area. Similarly, if the employee wrote the password code to a room secured by a keypad on a sticky note and left it on their desk, that could easily fall into the wrong hands.

However, if a smart card access control system were in place, only authorized users could enter the room with their smart card. Using modern electromagnetic locking hardware, when the door closes, the room is automatically secured. A smart card is arguably less likely to be lost or misplaced than a piece of paper and does not have the same risk of being hacked as a PIN code.

It is also more difficult to clone or copy smart access cards than it is a set of traditional keys, increasing user and data protection.

Improve internal processes

Smart card reader software also has the ability to keep time and attendance records. This can ensure that individuals are kept safe in the event of an emergency by using smart card software to monitor access to specific locations. Smart card access systems can also be integrated with other security systems, such as video security and visitor management, to help streamline management across the entire organization.

Drawbacks of smart card access control systems

While smart access cards and smart card reading software have many benefits, they also have some drawbacks. The most obvious drawback is that smart access cards can still be lost or stolen. In the event of a lost or stolen card, they can usually be quickly and remotely disabled through the smart card software system.

Since smart access cards do not always come with a mode of authentication, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), anyone can use them, leading to data or information being placed at risk.

Contactless smart card readers are not entirely hands-free either. For example, if someone has their hands full, they may still struggle to get their contactless card out of a wallet or pocket. An improvement for this would be to adopt Bluetooth smart card readers, so the user only needs to have their card on their person and be near the reader, rather than presenting the card itself at the reader.

Even though a benefit to smart access cards is their multi-use ability, there is still room for improvement. Newer and more modernized technology, such as mobile credentials, means that physical credentials are sometimes no longer needed.

Alternatives to smart card reader systems

While smart access cards are efficient, they, like any technology, may eventually become outdated as society finds new ways to live and technology becomes more advanced. Today or in the future, you may want to upgrade your current access control from a smart card system to a more modern one. Or, if smart card access control systems do not fit your building or facility, you might be looking for an alternative door entry solution. Here are some future-forward access control solutions you could adopt into your business or building that may be better tailored to your needs.

  • Mobile credentials — One of the most popular modern access control solutions uses mobile credentials, which allow users to access a number of different systems or locations by just using an app on their mobile device. Mobile credentials are also less likely to be lost as most people keep their phone with them at all times and are aware of its whereabouts, making it harder to accidentally leave behind or lose their access control credentials. Mobile credentials can also be more cost-effective, as office workers and other individuals likely already have access to a personal mobile device. Adopting mobile credentials eliminates the need to purchase cards and readers, which saves on up-front and lifetime costs.
  • Hands-free credential — A rising trend in access control, touchless entry is increasingly replacing smart card reader technologies. Through Bluetooth signaling and motion sensors, digital credentials can be hands-free, which is not only more convenient but also more hygienic. This type of contactless system can be activated through a wave of the hand or phone in front of a reader, without having to open an app or swipe a smart access card.

The future of smart access card technology for access control

Smart access cards will likely become even smarter in the future. New technology has upgraded smart access cards by changing their form, such as decreasing their size and making them wearable. Contactless smart reader systems are already evolving to have greater security and accessibility, so there is no doubt that they will continue to grow to adapt to society’s overall needs.

The focus of the future of smart card access control systems will likely be on the contactless’ aspect of access control, meaning we could begin to see the development of new and different types of tech alongside the standard smart card system. A desire for more data security and higher efficiency is a driving force in how businesses approach safety and security in the future.

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