A complete guide to key fob and key card access control systems

Electronic key card systems are a convenient way to get your employees in and out of their offices with ease and security. When it comes to keyless access control, there are many options to choose from. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the different types of key card and key fob door entry systems, what the benefits and disadvantages are to key card access, and how to choose the best door access security solution for your business.

Included in this guide:

  • What is key card door access?

  • Types of key cards and key fobs

  • Electronic key card and key fob door lock systems

  • Benefits of key card access

  • Disadvantages of key cards and fobs

  • Alternatives to key card and fob systems

  • Cost analysis of key card and fob access control systems

  • Upgrading your access control system

What is key card door access?

You’ve probably seen or used them before -- a plastic card, ID badge, or other electronic key card that you swipe in front of a reader to unlock a door or access a building. Key card access control systems have been around for a few decades now, and it’s a very common security method for businesses around the world. Key card and key fob door entry systems are commonly used for accessing parking garages, office buildings with multiple tenants, HOA communities with communal amenity spaces, and large enterprise offices with restricted access to specific areas.

Types of key cards and key fobs

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There are many different types of key cards and fobs available today. While they all perform a similar function, when it comes to choosing the best key card door access for your space, it’s important to know the difference between the most common options. Which access control system is right for you will depend on how many doors you have to secure, the number of people using the key card door access system, and the level of security needed. Below are the three most common types of key cards and fobs for access control.

Wiegand key cards

One of the first types of key cards to be developed in the 1970s, Wiegand key cards store unique binary data that cannot be erased or reprogrammed by magnetic fields, and are most commonly used with legacy security systems. These types of cards don’t use a microchip or other breakable components, so they tend to be a more durable, though outdated option. 

The Wiegand protocol is still the standard interface to connect readers and scanners to controllers today. Even newer iterations of key card systems and fingerprint scanners use readers that convert the data to a Wiegand number.

Swipe key cards

Your classic credit card-style system, a swipe card features a magnetic stripe along one edge of the key card that holds the credential data. To trigger an action, whether it’s to unlock a door or pay for a transaction, the user simply has to swipe their card through a magnetic reader. Swipe key cards can be individually tracked, and enable audit trails. A swipe card door access control system is an easy-to-use, inexpensive security solution for larger organizations with many people accessing the same areas.

Proximity cards, RFID cards, and RFID fobs

Some of the most commonly used types of security key cards, this access method uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to transmit data stored within the card to a reader. RFID enabled key cards and key fob systems can operate on different frequency ranges, depending on your needs and the type of security access you choose. With proximity cards and RFID key fobs, the card usually has to be very close to the reader in order for the data to transmit.

Key fobs can be programmed to allow time restrictions and special location permissions on individual components, making them a great option for keyless entry systems in larger building complexes. For this reason, offices complexes often use a key fob system for business tenants. Some key fob door entry systems also have built-in PIN pads for two-factor authentication.

Smart cards are a high-frequency RFID key card option that uses Near-Field Communication (NFC) to transmit data. These types of cards generally have more storage capacity than other RFID cards and include encryption for better security, as seen in contactless payment systems and credit cards.

Electronic key card and key fob door lock systems

In addition to the credentials themselves, commercial key card door lock systems can be configured with different types of readers and locking mechanisms. Often referred to as smart locks, commercial key card door locks are more technologically advanced than traditional door locks, and can strengthen building security. 

Keypad and PIN readers

Instead of a key card or fob credential, this type of keyless locking system uses a PIN code or passcode as the credential. A user will type in their PIN on a keypad to unlock the door. While these types of electronic door lock readers are convenient, they require users to remember a passcode, and need to be reset often to maintain security. For high-security or restricted access areas, sometimes keypad readers are used in combination with a commercial key card door lock, requiring the user to both scan their key card or fob, and then enter a passcode to gain entry.

RFID proximity key fob door locks 

This type of door access reader uses RFID technology to read a user’s credentials. In a key card door lock system, users would simply present their authorized key card or key fob at the reader to unlock the door. This type of key fob door lock system is the most common in commercial settings, as it provides the most flexibility, and can be used across a wide range of applications. Key card door locks are great for controlling access to office buildings, parking lots, elevators, and IT server rooms. Plus, commercial key card door lock systems can accommodate more granular access permissions.

Wireless door locks 

Wireless key fob door lock systems are increasing in popularity for residential apartment communities and hotels. With a wireless, keyless door lock system, tenants can use a convenient fob or sometimes an app to access both community doors, and their individual unit doors. Wireless locks use a combination of Wi-Fi and battery power, so they may not be the best option for commercial key fob door locks where a wired connection can provide a more reliable entry experience.

Biometric door readers

A favorite for access in medical, financial, and government buildings, a biometric key card door system adds heightened security. Biometrics use a fingerprint, retina scan, of facial recognition software to authenticate a user. Many commercial key card door locks systems use biometrics as a form of two-factor authentication, requiring the user to scan a key card credential, and then perform a biometric scan to gain entry.

Benefits of key card access

Most businesses use electronic key card systems to provide easy access control for employees. Key cards are better than physical keys because, if someone loses a card, resigns or is terminated, it’s easy to deactivate one specific card at a time, rather than having to retool all your locks. When performing a safety audit, consider the benefits of using key cards as your access control method.

  • Key card access systems are often more cost-effective than other technology, but if you have a large enterprise, be wary of climbing costs associated with scaling and replacing your team’s key cards.

  • Key card door access readers require little maintenance to the physical components.

  • Access can be configured or reconfigured easily for individual credentials with a key card entry system, such as if a card is lost or stolen. 

  • Each person can be issued their own physical credential, which provides better security than a traditional key that everyone has a copy of.

  • Key cards, RFID badges and key fobs are often small and easily fit into a wallet or pocket, which is more convenient for employees to carry around than a key ring.

  • Access with a key card is usually trackable and can provide an audit trail depending on the type of readers and integrations your system provides, so you can see who used their ID or key fob at specific entry points and times.

Disadvantages of key card and fob access

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While key card door entry systems are less expensive than many other alternatives up front, there are some important disadvantages to this type of building security you should be aware of.

Security risks of key card systems

  • Swipe cards are unreliable, and can be prone to damage to the magnetic strip that makes them unreadable. While swipe cards are inexpensive up-front, the cost of maintaining both the reader and cards due to constant wear-and-tear will add up over time. Swipe cards are also inconvenient, requiring a free hand and close range for the person to use them. 

  • Wiegand key cards are easily copied, and put your building at greater risk for a security breach. Wiegand protocol has been around since the 1970s, which means hackers have had plenty of time to discover fast and effective ways to breach Wiegand systems. In fact, almost anyone could purchase a key card copying device for as little as $10, and gain access to your system.

  • Key cards are easy to misplace. Anyone can pick up a dropped or stolen key card and gain access to your space. Without two-factor authentication or added security measures, your space is less secure on a legacy key card access system.

  • Waiting times can vary while the keys are being made or registered for your key card entry system. Receiving your new key cards could take weeks, and can compromise your building security while you’re waiting for new credentials to arrive.

Key cards are inconvenient to use and expensive to manage

  • Key cards are not hands-free. While key cards are definitely easier to use than traditional keys and locks, digging around for a key card can cause a bottleneck in crowded lobbies or doorways, not to mention it’s nearly impossible to get a key card out of your wallet with your hands full. 

  • Administrators will continuously deal with lost, stolen or forgotten keys. Humans are forgetful and there are many reasons why people are prone to losing wallets and keys. Every time an employee loses or forgets their key card, your managers have to reissue a new one or administer a guest pass, and either temporarily or permanently deactivate the old credential.  

  • Registering and deactivating key cards is time consuming. Your managers have a lot on their plates, and the extra time it takes to reconfigure individual cards and fobs, especially during increased hiring or temporary furloughs, is likely eating into their other important tasks.

  • You have to meet with people to physically give them their key cards. In the post COVID-19 workplace, eliminating any unneeded physical contact will be paramount. Key card and key fob door entry systems can sometimes be configured remotely, but they still use a physical credential that needs to be given to each individual that requires one. 

Key card door access systems lack scalability

  • If the key fob system for business is run on a legacy platform, you can’t manage multiple buildings remotely or from a centralized hub. Each location/site needs its own on-premise server. 

  • Delays in issuing and revoking credentials on a key card or key fob entry system mean a longer on-boarding process and potential loss of revenue for businesses that need to move quickly.

  • Any time you have a change in branding or need to add a new location, you’ll have to order and distribute all-new cards to the entire enterprise. 

  • Users with access permissions at multiple sites need to carry multiple key cards. Nobody likes having to worry about carrying the right key card at the right building.

Alternatives to key card and fob systems

It’s no secret that managers are stressed out enough, and if your key card security system is adding to their workload instead of making it easier, it may be time to consider an alternative solution. A smartphone-based, keyless access control system can eliminate a few of the stresses and hassles. 

  • Mobile credentials are more secure than key cards, thanks to end-to-end encryption and the ability to use multi-factor authentication.

  • Smartphone-based access control minimizes the possibility of people sharing their credentials. People are less likely to share their smartphone with a coworker than a physical key card or key fob.

  • Cloud-based security management helps eliminate some of the disadvantages of key fobs and key cards. This type of technology doesn’t require localized servers, so it’s easily scalable to include more doors and more building sites, and saves your organization money on maintenance.

  • Remote management in the cloud means your administrators can easily administer credentials, revoke access, and customize entries at any time from anywhere. 

  • Guest passes can be easily administered with an email or text message, and configured to expire once access is no longer needed. One less thing to worry about!

  • Completely touchless access control. The option of a hands-free entry and exit will help businesses reopen after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. A mobile access system like Openpath, which uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular data in its patented Triple Unlock technology, can be configured to respond to motion detection, as well as integrate with automatic door opener hardware for germ-free access.

  • Having the latest version of your software is easier with a security solution that’s mobile app-based, as upgrades can be automatically installed with no down-time to your system. 

Cost analysis of key card and fob access control systems

A security system is a big investment for any business, and how much your access control system will cost is always a top concern. When designing a budget for access control, your final cost will depend on the number of readers and control panels you need, the type of hardware you choose, and which credentials the system requires. Up front, a key card access reader system may seem like the less expensive option. You can expect a key card door access reader installation to cost $2,500 or more, depending on the existing wiring in your space, and the type of reader you select. However, there are additional costs associated with key card access control that can quickly add up over time. 

  • Key cards are a physical credential that you will need to purchase for every user. Not only will you need enough cards for your existing employees, you’ll also need to order additional cards for new hires, to replace lost or stolen cards, and cards that can serve as temporary guest access. If you have multiple locations or buildings, you will need to order separate cards for each site, and make sure everyone who has access to those sites has the right key cards.

  • Key cards usually require manual setup on a local server. This means your administrators will need to take time to enter new information into the system, set permissions, and issue the credential. That additional time will be factored into your labor costs. 

  • Legacy key card systems will require expensive software upgrades and on-site maintenance. Most access control companies charge fees every time an installer needs to roll up a truck, and every time there’s an upgrade or service at your building.

Especially for multi-location enterprises and growing businesses, an access control system needs to be able to scale without adding to overhead costs. When comparing the long-term cost benefit of access control systems, a mobile solution can offer surprising savings in the long run. Most smartphone-based access readers are a bit more expensive for the up-front installation, but there are cost savings that increase the ROI over time. 

  • With a mobile access control system, your smartphone serves as your credential, meaning there are no key cards to order, maintain, or hand out. People are also much less likely to lose their phone or leave it at home, so you won’t need as many temporary passes.

  • You can set site-specific permissions for each user, all on the same system. Instead of purchasing a new key card for each building, mobile credentials work for all your locations, anywhere in the world.

  • Cloud-based access control eliminates on-premise servers. This means you won’t need to worry about expensive maintenance, and access control software upgrades are done instantly over the cloud.

  • Another cost-savings benefit of a cloud-based platform is that all your sites can be managed remotely. New users can be set up with just a few clicks, and revoking credentials is instant and easy. Plus, with remote unlock features, you no longer have to waste time going to the office to let somebody in who’s forgotten their key card. 

Upgrading your access control system

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Smartphone access control is a great upgrade to your security system, but what if you still want to keep your key cards, too? With Openpath’s cutting-edge, smartphone access control system, you can get the best of both worlds. The innovative cloud-based system is designed for maximum interoperability and flexibility to meet your unique security needs. 

  • Openpath readers can be configured to support unlock requests via the Openpath mobile app, the Apple Watch app, tablets with the app installed, custom key cards and fobs, or a Cloud Key, with extra security features to ensure your business is protected.

  • Openpath offers DESFire EV2 128-bit AES cryptographic key cards with digitally signed identifiers to make it extremely difficult to clone or copy cards.

  • MIFARE RFID cards are also supported for backwards compatibility of legacy RFID systems when running hybrid mode with a legacy card system.

  • An open API platform like Openpath’s allows you to integrate with other tools and apps, including VMS and surveillance software.

If you’d like a keyless access system that offers scalability, reliability, security and interoperability, contact Openpath to see how our smartphone access system can seamlessly integrate with your existing setup.

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