RFID readers: how they work for door lock systems

What is an RFID door lock system?

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a prominent technology for a wide array of applications, from inventory tracking to payment processing. When it comes to security, RFID door lock systems are very common for access control, as they provide a reliable, consistent experience with trackable data. Unlike other forms of traditional access control such as swipe cards, RFID locking systems are contactless, meaning that the credential doesn’t have to touch the reader for it to work.

Similar to a barcode reader, RFID readers work by sending and receiving data, but instead of having to scan a code, the data is transmitted over radio frequencies. An RFID door locking system requires RFID tags, antennas, an RFID reader, and a transceiver in order to function as a complete system.

In an RFID door lock access control system, the user’s credential (usually a keycard or fob with an RFID chip) contains unique identifying information called a tag. When the user comes within proximity of a reader, the reader’s signal locates the information stored on the user’s RFID tag, and sends it through antennas and transceivers to authorize the tag in the access control system. Once read, the system will either accept or deny the request to unlock the door. Data from an RFID-enabled system is automatically stored, making it possible to track entry activity in an access control system.

Types of RFID technology for door lock access control systems 

Due to the wide range of use, there are different types of RFID technology available on the market. The biggest differences in RFID card readers for door locking systems is the frequency at which the system operates. There are three main types of RFID frequencies to know:

  • Low frequency (LF) - Low frequency RFID readers operate at 125 KHz and have a shorter read distance of about 10 centimeters, which means the tag has to be very close to the reader in order to communicate. Due to the close proximity required for low frequency RFID, there is less chance of interference from other systems and channels. Low frequency RFID readers are common in door access control applications for this reason. However, they may not be the best option for cases where there is more distance between the credential tag, reader, and entry.

  • High frequency (HF) - The most common form of RFID technology. High frequency RFID readers operate on 13.56 MHz and have a read range of 10 centimeters up to 1 meter, so they’re very versatile. Near Field Communication (NFC) runs on the same frequencies as high frequency RFID, so you’ll often see high frequency RFID readers that support NFC-enabled devices, most commonly for payment processing and access control.

  • Ultra-high frequency (UHF) - This type of RFID technology typically operates around 900 MHz and has the longest read range, up to 100 meters depending on the tag, with the fastest read speed. However, due to the long read range, ultra-high frequencies are prone to interference. If not proactively managed, interference can make UHF communication less reliable, and pose potential security risks if someone is attempting to intercept data from RFID devices. That being said, UHF readers are commonly used in parking garages and for vehicle identification.

There are also three different types of RFID tags, which function in different ways. An active tag sends out a constant signal, and requires a continuous power supply, such as a battery. Active tags also have a built-in antenna to enable it to transmit and receive radio signals from other tags and nearby readers. Active tags support data reading and writing functions, so they are popular for logging or documentation purposes.

Semi-active tags also require battery power for integrated circuitry. Also known as Battery-Assisted Passive tags (BAP), these tags don’t send out their own signals until they are within range of an RFID reader. Once they pick up a signal from a nearby reader, the internal battery powers on to enable the necessary communication.

The third type of RFID tag is called a passive tag. Passive RFID tags don’t have any internal power source, instead using an RFID reader’s magnetic field emissions to induce a current in the tag’s built-in antenna. Passive tags are usually less expensive than active or BAP RFID tags.

Some multi-tech RFID readers support a combination of the above frequencies and tags, making them more flexible for different types of deployments and credentials in an access control system. RFID technology is also frequently combined with other types of access control methods to enhance door security, such as PIN pads and biometric readers, especially for high-security applications such as in medical, financial, or government facilities.

Benefits of RFID door locks


There is a reason RFID is so prevalent in commercial security system deployments. Compared to traditional locks and keys, it offers more security and convenience. Some of the key benefits of an RFID door lock system include:

  • Contactless entry experience. Because RFID technology uses radio frequency to send and receive data, there’s no need to swipe a card or enter a key for it to work. Touchless entry is quickly becoming a more popular access control option, as it removes a common touch point and offers greater convenience for users. In addition, keyless door entry systems are more convenient for daily use. Using an RFID reader for a business can actually improve the employee experience.

  • Easy to configure. Rather than cutting new keys and retooling locks, RFID configuration is primarily digital. This makes adjusting settings and making changes much easier. If you’re using an on-premise RFID access control system, your configuration is likely to rely on local servers, and may require a technician to manually install product updates. On a cloud-based system, however, configuring settings like unlock time, proximity, and permissions can be done remotely, and reflected in your system instantly. Cloud systems also enable instant software updates, which automatically run as soon as they are available.

  • More secure. The RFID tags used in many modern key card and fob credentials are highly encrypted, which provides added security for your system. Whereas swipe cards and older models of RFID cards are easily cloned and copied, DESFire EV2 128-bit AES cryptographic cards are equipped with digitally signed identifiers that make it extremely difficult to copy cards, and help prevent criminals from intercepting signals and skimming data.

  • Versatile deployment options. RFID chips are small and easily embedded in a variety of access methods, such as ID badges, key cards, and fobs. Plus, RFID card readers also come in many different designs. For example, mullion readers have a slimmer profile that can fit in smaller spaces, but still offer the same level of functionality and security as a standard RFID card reader. RFID security systems are also easily scalable to accommodate new doors or building sites.

  • Increased awareness. Data is automatically read and stored on RFID devices, which is a powerful tool for any business. RFID technology is an important asset when it comes to logging activity, as the system can record every time the RFID reader communicates with a tag. For example, an RFID-powered access control system will track each user’s entry, giving admins a clear picture of who entered the facility, which door they used, and when the entry event occurred. This data can be used to audit security issues and streamline operations across any size organization.

  • Low maintenance costs. One of the reasons this technology is so prevalent in commercial uses is the relatively low maintenance cost. RFID key cards and fobs can be reprogrammed, so instead of replacing credentials, businesses can simply reconfigure them as needed. New RFID credentials are also fairly inexpensive, and businesses can usually save by ordering them in bulk. Similarly, when RFID card readers need a software update, you usually don’t need to replace the entire system. Service fees and costs will vary depending on the provider and size of the deployment, but RFID door lock systems remain a cost-effective security solution across many industries.

Security considerations for RFID door locks and readers

While RFID readers for a building have many benefits, there are also some disadvantages of commercial RFID door locks. If you currently use an RFID locking system at your building, or are considering new security options, it’s important to understand the risks associated with this technology so you can take proactive steps against potential security threats.

When using RFID readers for touchless entry, it’s important to look closely at proximity settings to make sure users don’t accidentally trigger door unlocks when walking by. Another concern with commercial RFID door lock systems is having too many RFID readers within close proximity to each other, which could cause confused signals. This could happen in narrow hallways, or with lobby turnstiles where there are multiple entries right next to each other.

Because RFID tags can be read from a few feet away, one major security concern is skimming. With this type of attack, somebody nearby uses a scanner to intercept the signals and potentially steal data from RFID tags. The best way to prevent this type of security threat is to ensure all your RFID credentials and readers use high-level encryption. Another smart way to protect data is to install door readers that don’t store any data locally. In the event of device theft or vandalism, criminals won’t be able to get any data from the hardware itself.

Tailgating is a top security concern for many buildings. If RFID readers are farther away from the entrance, the door has to be unlocked for longer to allow a person ample time to reach the entry. This can leave buildings open to tailgaters, or people who sneak in behind somebody with an authorized credential. There are a few ways to protect against tailgating with an RFID door locking system. One is to install RFID readers for an office closer to the entries, and minimize the amount of time doors have to be unlocked. Turnstiles are also an effective way to prevent tailgating, as they only allow one person through at a time. You can also integrate your access control system with people sensors and video cameras set up to detect tailgating incidents, allowing security teams to monitor and take appropriate action in the event of an unauthorized entry.

Use cases for RFID locking systems


RFID technology lends itself to a wide variety of applications, especially when it comes to keeping spaces secure. Chances are, you’ve probably encountered or used an RFID reader for an office, hotel, or apartment complex. Take a look at some common examples of how RFID technology works to strengthen security and improve operations in different industries.

RFID door lock systems for commercial office buildings

RFID is a very convenient entry method for offices. Most commercial office buildings today use some form of RFID door locks, especially for multi-tenant properties. With easily programmable key cards and fobs, commercial property owners can more effectively manage a rotating list of tenants, rather than having to replace and retool locks after each lease is up. RFID door locking systems for corporate offices can also accommodate different levels of access for different employees, making them more versatile than other security systems.

With touchless technology quickly becoming a necessity to make offices feel safer, the contactless nature of RFID card readers adds peace of mind for tenants and staff. With a traditional on-premise RFID door locking system, readers and credentials are managed on local servers and networks. On the other hand, RFID systems that run on cloud-based platforms can be configured and managed remotely, helping to reduce occupancy in corporate office buildings. This is also an important use case for multi-site organizations, as remote capabilities make it easier to manage all locations in one dashboard on the same cloud-hosted network.

Multi-family residential complexes and hotel lock systems

One of the most common examples of using an RFID reader for building entry is in hotels and modern apartment communities around the world. Hotels and multi-family apartments have a higher rate of turnaround on credentials than other property types, so being able to easily issue and revoke access permissions to community spaces is essential to efficiency, making RFID a smart choice. Plus, most RFID readers for buildings use standard wiring, making them easy to install in almost any space.

Many hotels need controlled access to their amenities and office spaces to keep the building secure. With RFID tags, guests can enter hotel amenities like a hotel gym, spa, conference rooms, and event spaces with their credential, while keeping non-guests and unauthorized individuals from gaining entry. Because RFID cards are easily reconfigurable, if a guest forgets to return their key card before checking out, it’s no big deal. Hotel staff simply deactivate the tag in their management system, and the card can’t be used on the property. In addition, hotels can keep their offices secure with RFID door lock systems, giving access only to hotel staff to prevent guests from wandering into the wrong room.

Similarly, apartment complexes and multi-family communities are beginning to replace traditional keys and locks with RFID door lock systems. With people coming and going frequently, and varying lease terms, the convenience of a digital credential management system is clear. In addition, tenants of apartment communities are often concerned with safety and security, with many renters viewing gated access as a must-have amenity. Having controlled access to parking garages, mail rooms, and apartment amenities helps residents feel safer in their homes, and can help boost tenant retention. RFID key card and fob access is a great way for multi-family property owners to increase security at their properties, without incurring additional costs per tenant.

Warehouses and RFID access control technology 

Another place where security is paramount is in large warehouses and manufacturing facilities. RFID technology is quickly becoming an essential part of warehouse management, given that the RFID systems can store and log all activity. While RFID is commonly used to track the movement of products and materials throughout a facility, it’s also a valuable tool for tracking entry activity.

Commercial RFID door lock systems in warehouses can help facilities become more efficient and compliant. In the case of a security breach, having a detailed log of all the persons who entered the facility and when is essential for auditing and reducing response time. When paired with other security systems, such as video surveillance and alarms, RFID door locks are a powerful tool in preventing theft and criminal activity in commercial  environments.

Ready to upgrade your RFID door locking system?


With a flexible, cloud-based solution from Openpath, your access control can do more than just lock the door. Combining encrypted RFID and mobile credentials with high-tech Smart Readers, Openpath gives businesses the ability to go fully remote with their building management, without sacrificing security or convenience. Talk with your security system integrator to learn how an adaptable access control solution from Openpath can help safeguard your space and protect your most valuable assets.

Additional resources

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