A worker scanning their keycard to enter a building, which uses a card access system.

What is a Card Access System?

A key card or key fob access control system monitors, manages, and grants access to particular physical areas within a business. System end-users gain access by employing key cards or key fobs instead of a traditional key.

Such systems can be cloud-based, empowering building teams to efficiently manage and update their settings as necessary. Card access systems modernize security through a combination of detailed and digital audit trails, various software integrations, and more. 

How a Card Access Control System Works

As an end-user, it might seem a straightforward process — simply wave the access card over the black box near the door. Once the receiver detects and confirms the credentials, the door opens.

However, there are multiple components involved in card access control. Let’s review some of them below:

  • A key card or key fob contains your unique credentials.
  • The card reader reads the credentials from the key card and passes it to the controller
  • The controller captures the data from the card reader and runs the authentication process by comparing the credential with permissions logged in a database. A match means that the user (or at least the card) is authorized for access, and the door can be unlocked.
  • Finally, if the user exists in the database, the electric or magnetic lock unlocks.

For businesses transitioning from traditional locks, there’s also the matter of setting up your card access control system.

You’ll need to work with the access control companies and integrators to set up the readers. Additionally, administrators may need to work with the management software to set up permissions across an organization. They’ll also need to determine what type of credential to use, set up the credential and distribute them to end-users.

The Two Main Types of Key Cards

Two common types of card access systems include proximity and swipe systems. Here is some important information about each. 

RFID Proximity Cards

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) cards transmit credentials to door locks by way of radio waves. Since RFID cards use radio waves as a medium, physical contact between the card and the reader does not need to occur. In turn, this often makes RFID cards more user-friendly than other credentials. 

There are two main RFID wavelengths: 125 kHZ and 13.5 Mhz. The wavelength will determine the path through which the radio signals communicate and will ultimately govern the quality of the received signal.

Note: RFID is sometimes confused with NFC technology, which transmits data through electromagnetic fields to enable two devices to communicate. To work, both devices will need NFC chips and must be in very close proximity to each other. NFC is most commonly seen in credit cards, where an end-user must physically place their card directly on top of the receiving device.

Swipe Cards

As the name suggests, swipe cards are cards that are swiped across or into a reader. Installing a swipe card access control system is often a cheaper alternative than RFID proximity cards, making it a viable option for organizations operating on a tighter budget.

While it’s an inexpensive alternative, swipe cards can sometimes be a bit more difficult to use compared to proximity key cards.

An end-user must take out their swipe card and actually insert it into the reader, likely taking more time and effort than a proximity card. In highly-concentrated areas where many people need to access (such as an office’s entrance), using a swipe card might create a line that makes it longer for tenants or visitors to get through.

Swipe cards are also susceptible to physical wear and tear, as users must actually swipe the card through the reader multiple times a day, most days. This can cause building owners and teams more expenses if they need to replace swipe cards regularly.

There are three common swipe cards: magnetic stripe cards, barcode cards, and Wiegand cards.

Keyless Alternatives to Card Access Systems

Key cards aren’t the only option if you’re looking to go keyless. In fact, some of these access control alternatives might meet your business’ needs better. Let’s take a look at four of the most common keyless entry systems


Biometrics are a type of access control technology that use someone’s unique and physical characteristics to verify one’s identity. These characteristics essentially act as the credential, and can read anything from someone’s fingerprint, iris pattern, or other facial features. However, biometric systems, most specifically a fingerprint, is not suggested for any organization hoping to go touchless.


Keypads, similar to biometrics, may not be the best access control solution for businesses hoping to go touchless. Keypads are a small grid usually attached to the door handle and users must input a unique pin code to gain entry. While keypads negate the need for any physical device, pin numbers can be shared. 

QR Codes

With this system, credentials are stored in the form of a unique QR code. Once scanned, the reader will start the authentication process and upon confirmation, access is granted to the user.

However, because QR can be easily duplicated, sent to others, and/or copied, QR codes should be used sparingly and/or should be updated regularly. (As long as the pattern matches, the reader will recognize it as valid.) Because of this, QR codes are most helpful for effective visitor management. Visitors who enter your building can receive a distinct, one-time use QR code in order to gain access or entry. 

QR codes can also be used to send visitors custom log-in questionnaires, directions, WiFi information, different clearance to several entry points, and even health questionnaires.

Key Fobs

Key fobs are a small handheld device that opens a door electronically. Key fobs work through RFID technology, which makes them efficient and easily programmable. Swapping out access cards for key fobs makes it possible to open doors from a distance and store your credentials in a small item that’s easy to carry. 

However, one notable disadvantage of a key fob is that it can be easily lost, hacked or stolen. Once this happens, building teams may have to conduct a complete and costly overhaul to ensure security.

Mobile Credentials

Mobile devices often use Bluetooth or NFC technology to transmit the unique credentials to the reader.

With mobile credentials, users don’t have to procure an additional item to store their credentials. Mobile credentials provide convenience as they can be stored directly on one’s phone via mobile apps or web pages. Mobile credentials are often a fan-favorite for both the users and building teams, as mobile devices are hardly lost and do not require a complete overhaul if a mobile device is compromised.

Benefits of Cloud-based, Card Access Control Systems

Key card access systems are a major upgrade if you’re still using traditional keys. However, there’s a cost attached to it. If you’re still hesitating to switch over, here are some benefits your organization and end-users can enjoy by switching to cloud-based card access control systems:

  • Flexibility. You can use one key card for multiple buildings and doorways, as they use a unique credential that’s stored on each key card.
  • Peace of mind. Because there are unique restrictions for each card––such as specific hours, doors, or areas—you have granular control over who has access to certain areas and bolster your physical security.
  • Cost-effective. If you lost a key card, you can simply revoke access from the control panel instead of calling the locksmith to change the door locks.
  • Convenient. A centralized access control dashboard makes it easier to manage access in real-time.

Explore Cloud-based Access Control and Security Systems with Genea

While card access systems exist, many companies like Genea, are looking towards the future. Mobile access control systems are just one of the systems revolutionizing the workplace. However, for teams that prefer physical credentials, Genea empowers its clients to select from the device they most prefer, including key cards, key fobs, and other security solutions.

With Genea, you have options.

Need some help deciding which system is right for you? Genea’s expert support team can help

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