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Access control card reader types

The main purpose of an access control system is to secure a building and the people and assets within it. They consist of several components, one of them being the access control reader.

An access control reader works by ‘reading’ the credentials presented to it and checking them against the database within the access control software. If access is allowed for said credential, the door is opened. If not, it remains locked.

Access control card readers are one of the most common types of access control readers, where the reader checks the credentials presented to it on a card and grants or denies access based on access permissions.

Read on to find out more about access control card readers, how they work, the different types of access control card readers, and how to choose the best one for your property:


One of the most basic security needs for any business is to control access within the premises. Many businesses these days use access control card readers as their main form of access control. Instead of using physical keys or codes to allow access, card readers make use of key cards.

Simply put, an access control card reader is a security system that requires a card to be swiped or tapped to verify the credentials of the person using it to gain access.

Most access control card readers emit a signal that reads the data stored on a card. Access control cards have an antenna that allows the data on the card’s chip to be transmitted directly to the reader.

The access control card reader sends this information to the control panel of the access control system which grants or denies access based on the permissions saved against the card credentials. If access is granted, the card reader will unlock the door. If access is denied, the door will remain locked.

Although it may sound like a complicated process, it is all carried out exceptionally fast and is a great way to control access within a building, particularly one with a lot of people such as an office.

Now that we’ve covered the basic mechanism of access control card readers, let’s look at the different types available for you to choose from.


Before buying an access control system, you must be aware of the different types of card readers available. Generally, there are two types of access control card readers: contactless and magnetic.

Contactless card readers

Contactless card readers work using contactless cards, also called RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) cards, which are the most common type of access control cards.

They contain RFID technology that features an internal microchip and antenna. The microchip holds information which is sent to the access card reader via the antenna when it is placed close to the reader. The reader then grants or denies the user access.

Contactless cards are called contactless because they do not need to be physically placed into the card reader. The RFID signal allows it to work at a distance and send the data over to the card reader.

Compared to magnetic stripe cards, contactless cards can store up to 100 times more data. Also, since the technology is internalised and not exposed to external factors, the chances of damage are very less. This makes them far more durable and can last years without any issues.

Other than durability, they are also incredibly easy to use and are very secure. Contactless cards can either be low or high-frequency, with the latter being more secure since they are encrypted.

Contactless cards usually come in two formats: proximity cards and smart cards. Both are commonly used for access and contain RFID chips that hold information. The only difference between the two is in their memory capacity and function capabilities.

Compared to smart cards, proximity cards have a lower memory capacity and limited functionality due to the less information that can be stored in them.

Smart cards, on the other hand, have a higher memory capacity and can hold more information. For this reason, they can be used for other purposes than access control, such as cashless vending.

Magnetic stripe card readers

Magnetic stripe card readers require a card with a magnetic strip, also called a magnetic stripe card, magstripe, or swipe card, to be swiped against the reader to allow users to gain access.

These cards contain a magnetic stripe located in the rear, which holds iron particles that are magnetised to include data.

Magnetic cards must be physically inserted and swiped in a magnetic stripe card reader, which then detects the magnetic field generated by the card’s magnetic strip.

In simple terms, when the magnetic stripe card is inserted and swiped inside the reader, the reader reads the information and grants or denies access based on access permissions.

There are two main types of magnetic stripe cards: low-coercivity (LoCo) and high-coercivity (HiCo) cards. Although both types store the same amount of data, the difference lies in how strong the magnetic encoding is.

LoCo cards, as the name suggests, have a low-intensity magnetic field that can easily be erased if the card comes into contact with an external magnetic field. For this reason, they are better suited for short-term applications such as hotel room keys and store gift cards.

HiCo cards, on the other hand, have a stronger magnetic field that is less likely to be unintentionally erased when exposed to an external magnetic field. For this reason, they have a longer lifespan and are used for long-term applications such as credit cards, access control cards, and transportation tickets.

It is worth noting that magnetic stripe cards use older technology than contactless cards, and for this reason, they are not as popular when it comes to using them for access control.

In addition to that, the technology on magnetic stripe cards is displayed on the outside, making them more prone to damage when compared to contactless cards.

Some access cards have both features and can offer contactless as well as magnetic stripe capabilities. This allows administrators to issue users with both credentials for added security and flexibility.


Although cards are a popular choice for access control systems, some organisations prefer alternative methods which include:

  • Biometrics: biometric access control readers scan and compare unique identifiers of the user, such as fingerprints and iris scans, and verify them against a stored record in the access control system software. These are highly secure and reliable, however, they come at a higher price point.
  • PIN codes: PIN code keypads grant access to anyone who knows and enters the right code. They are a good option for properties with low security.
  • RFID key fobs: fobs use the same technology as RFID cards but in fob format. Fobs are small electronic devices used in place of keys.
  • Smartphones: smartphones with a secure authentication app are becoming more popular as a form of access control. This turns the smartphone into a type of digital key and is a great option for organisations with many users.


The choice of the card reader is an incredibly important one as it can make or break the access control system. The choice needs to be an informed one based on the most appropriate technology and the level of security required.

Other than providing an appropriate level of security, the readers also have to be easy to use and reliable in operation.

The system should grant access to the right card credential holder and deny access to users who do not have the required access permissions.

When choosing the best access control card reader for your property, you need to consider a few factors in order to make an informed decision. They include:

Balance between security and cost

A more secure and technologically advanced access control system comes at a higher cost compared to one that is less secure with basic functionality.

The tools needed for criminals to exploit and bypass less secure access control systems are readily available, which is why if your risk of access breaches is high or the potential damage of a security breach is high, you must invest in more secure and expensive options such as RFID smart cards.

Aesthetics and durability

Since the reader is the most visible part of the access control system and is usually installed at the entrance of a building, its design and aesthetics must be such that it should blend well with the building’s décor and design.

Readers installed outdoors must be resistant to sunlight, rain, dust, and pollutants, and also to a certain degree against vandalism. These factors can also influence the choice of card readers used indoors.

In certain cases, it may even be possible to customise the reader to match the colour palette of the building. This may be possible for the colours of the plastic shell or the choice of LED colours.

Above all, the access control reader must have a robust design that ensures 100% uptime and reliability.

Data security and credential protection

End-to-end security between the different components of the access control system, namely the access control readers, door controllers, and the access control software are all fundamental to protect the credentials.

If the credentials can be read by a third party, they can be possibly cloned and used to gain unauthorised access to a secure area.

Data integrity and security are two very important aspects of an access control system provided through system encryption and authentication. For an added layer of security, you can use two-factor authentication as well.

Firmware and feature upgrades

All access control card readers need to be easily able to upgrade the firmware and control the features and functionality of the system as a typical access control system can last 10 to 15 years, or more.

Future business direction

Depending on the business’s growth and future direction, it may be worth investing in a flexible access control system to adapt to any changes to the business model in the coming years.

For example, will your business expand or employ more people? Will it open a new department that needs a high level of security?

Existing infrastructure

If your organisation is currently using a card reader technology, you will want to select a multi-card reader that can accommodate both old and new cards. This will make it easier to shift to a new system.

Similarly, if you are already using RFID badges for another system, you can leverage the existing technology and integrate a compatible RFID access control system with the existing infrastructure.

Regulatory requirements

You may have to install access control readers based on the regulatory requirements of your organisation for security.

Simpler systems such as ones with codes may not be sufficient in terms of security or identity verification in order to comply with said standards. Stricter regulations with more rigorous forms of authentication may require the use of proximity or smart cards for compliance.


Compared to human staffing and traditional lock and key systems, access control card readers can offer several advantages that include:

Automated control

Electronic card readers are fully automated and can be relied on to never mistakenly hand out the wrong credentials, provided of course that they are properly and regularly maintained.

Data gathering

Not only are these systems incredibly reliable and easy to use, but also allow the administrators to collect access data to reveal trends or irregularities. For instance, you can keep a check on when your employees are checking in and out of work every day. These logs also provide valuable forensic data in case of theft or crime occurring on site.

Remote management

Since access control card readers are fully automated and are linked to a central database, most systems can be managed remotely via a secure network connection. This is particularly helpful when you need to manage multiple work sites or have security managers working off-site.


High-volume access card management tasks such as updating access permissions for the whole organisation become incredibly easy and efficient compared to the cost of cutting dozens of new keys or rekeying the entire facility.

Integration with other security systems

Most of the leading access card systems available on the market are designed to easily integrate with other security management systems such as security alarms and CCTV systems to enable you to run everything on a single management platform instead of working with multiple user databases and management portals.


Calder Security provides access control system services for homes and businesses that includes professional installation, maintenance, and repair.

We’ve been working in the security industry since 1976 and partner with only the best brands. Our MLA-approved locksmiths can advise you on the best type of system for your property by helping you assess your security needs and requirements.

Because an access control system operates the locking and unlocking mechanism of your door, installation must be completed properly by someone with detailed knowledge of how these systems work.

We are SSAIB-approved installers and can work with all types of access control systems including intercom, proximity fob, card swipe, and keypad. We also offer biometric systems that use fingerprints or retina scans.

Access control systems are very reliable and will last a long time. But like any technology, they require periodic maintenance to continue working as they should.

We conduct annual servicing to keep your system working well and give it a full check including checking the battery strength, power supply, and connections.

While generally very reliable, sometimes problems may occur with access control systems that can potentially compromise the security of your property.

Common issues include simple wear and tear or faults with the power supply or batteries, and to preserve the security of your property, you need to get the problems fixed ASAP.

We operate a 24-hour emergency service run by qualified security specialist engineers who understand access systems and can resolve issues efficiently and effectively.

Contact us here or call us on 0800 612 9799 for a quick consultation and more information on access control card reader types!

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash