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 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

  • Benefits of Key Card Access

  • Disadvantages of Key Cards and Fobs

  • Alternatives to Key Card 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 cards and fobs 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

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 These types of cards don’t use a microchip or other breakable components, so they tend to be a more durable, though outdated option.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 fobs 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. Some key fobs 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.

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, 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

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.

  • Swipe cards are unreliable, and can be prone to damage to the magnetic strip that makes them unreadable. 

  • Wiegand key cards are easily copied, and put your building at greater risk for a security breach.

  • 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. Plus, with the growing need for contactless office solutions after the COVID-19 pandemic, key cards create more touch points than hands-free access solutions.

  • Dealing continuously 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 (or cutting new physical keys and replacing the locks) is time consuming. Your managers have a lot on their plates, and the extra time it takes to reconfigure individual cards, especially during increased hiring or temporary furloughs, is likely eating into their other important tasks.

  • Meeting with people to physically give them their key cards. In the post COVID-19 workplace, eliminating any unneeded physical contact will be paramount. Key cards can sometimes be configured remotely, but it’s still a physical credential that needs to be given to each individual that requires one. 

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

Alternatives to Key Card 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 on 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. 

Upgrading Your Access Control System

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 respond to 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 EV1 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.

Additional Resources