Smart card readers for access control systems

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Even if you’ve never heard of a smart card reader before, chances are that you’ve used one. If you pay for groceries with a credit card, or have an ID badge that you scan in at the office, you’ve probably interacted with a smart card reader. Contact smart card readers require a card to be inserted into the hardware to read data, like a credit card reader or ATM machine. Contactless smart card readers are also available, which only require a user to tap the reader with a smart card to activate an authorization, like you may see at an office building or parking structure. As you can see, this type of technology is widely used, as it’s great for authorizing requests quickly, while also offering a high level of data security.

What is a smart card reader?

As part of an access control system, a smart card reader sends data from credentials to authorize entry requests. The process works by reading data from the user’s smart card credentials, and sending it to a centralized control panel for authentication. After the credential is authorized, the reader receives a signal to trigger an unlock. 

Before you choose an access method for your building, review the different types of key card and fob access systems to understand the benefits and disadvantages of each credential type. Smart cards used for access control are a high-frequency RFID key card option. They use Near-Field Communication (NFC) to transmit data, which requires the user to be close to a reader in order for data to transmit properly. Smart cards also include encryption for enhanced data protection, and have more storage capacity than other types of keycards such as proximity card readers. This allows them to contain more specific identification information, as well as store usage history.

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What to look for in smart card reader software

The reader hardware and physical smart cards aren’t the only important components of a good smart card based access control system. Smart card reader software can make or break your system, depending on the features and functionality available to you. For the best smart card reader software, you’ll want to make sure you have the following features.

Audit trails and detailed reporting

When security is a top concern, your access control should prevent threats, and mitigate risk. Your smart card readers have the capability to read and transmit extensive amounts of data. Having access to detailed analytics, audit trails, and the ability to view custom reporting through your smart card reader software keeps you on top of who is accessing your facility, and when, plus gives you real-time status reports for all your smart card readers. In the case of an emergency, you can also provide better information to authorities. A security audit checklist is also a useful tool in determining where you need extra security measures throughout your property.

Remote management

Using a smart card reader software platform that runs in the cloud offers you greater flexibility and interoperability. With remote access to your software, you can easily view real-time analytics, administer or revoke credentials, assist with a door unlock, or activate a system lockdown — from anywhere. This is especially helpful for enterprise businesses with multiple locations, allowing you to centralize your operations and reduce administrative burden, with access to every building site in one streamlined interface. Remote reader management is also essential for companies pivoting to flexible work schedules, reduced capacity, or remote workforces.

Cloud-based maintenance and troubleshooting

With many legacy access control systems, if there is an issue with a reader, somebody will need to come on-site to service the hardware. Cloud-based smart card reader software has the added benefit of remote maintenance and troubleshooting, allowing support teams to access your smart card reader hardware remotely to provide service. Additionally, cloud-based platforms enable real-time updates to your smart card reader software, so your system is never at the mercy of outdated technology.

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Benefits of smart card based access control systems

Physical access control is an essential element of any building security system. With so many different types of access control systems on the market today, it’s vital to understand the key advantages and disadvantages to each access method and system before making any major updates to your building. Smart cards are one of the most common access methods used across a wide range of industries, and it’s easy to see why. There are many benefits to choosing smart cards as the access method for your building. 

Low up-front costs

Smart card based access control is considered a budget-friendly option for many buildings. Depending on the number of locations and entries that require a reader, the up-front costs associated with this type of access control are purchasing the smart card reader hardware, installation if it’s not already available, and purchasing the number of smart cards needed for all your users.


Smart card readers are quick and easy to use for access control. Contactless smart card readers are the most common for access control applications, which do not require a card to be inserted into a reader. Usually mounted close to the access point, a user simply needs to tap their credential to the reader to gain entry. Smart card readers are great for main entrances, gates, and turnstiles where you want to prevent a bottleneck of people.

Minimal training required

Most people understand the basic concept of a smart card reader, and are familiar with using one. Therefore, making the switch to smart card access control often requires less user-based training than other systems. Simply administer the credentials, and users are ready to start using them.

Safer than traditional keys

Thanks to the enhanced encryption, smart cards are much more secure than a traditional lock and key door security system. Because each user has their own keycard, it’s more difficult to copy or clone them. Openpath offers DESFire EV2 128-bit AES cryptographic cards with digitally signed identifiers, which provide extra protection against potential security threats. 

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Disadvantages of smart card reader systems

While smart card readers are definitely a good option for an access control system, there are some disadvantages which you should be aware of prior to installing a new system. Compare different smart card readers to make sure you find ones that not only have all the features you want, but also fit where you need to mount them. 

They’re not hands-free

Even though smart readers come in a contactless option, the user experience is not completely touchless. People still need to have their keycards in-hand when they approach the reader, which is inconvenient if your hands are full. Searching a bag for a lost keycard can also create a bottleneck at the entry point. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for touchless technology greater than ever to prevent transmission, which makes digital credentials and wave-to-unlock capabilities safer for end users.

Increases potential for security breaches

While smart cards are significantly safer than a traditional key system, there are still security concerns. Smart cards are easily lost or stolen, passed around to other staff, and visitors are constantly forgetting to return borrowed credentials before leaving. With smart cards floating around, anyone can pick one up, walk up to the smart reader, and access your building, no questions asked. Without multi-factor authentication, smart cards leave your building open to security breaches.

Scaling can be costly

Because each user in a smart card reader system needs their own keycard, accommodating company growth or adding new locations can quickly become a burden on your budget, and your administrative teams. Plus, you’ll always need an inventory of extra visitor keycards at each location, and depending on your system, users with access to multiple building sites may need more than one keycard for all their access levels. 

They don’t fit your space

There are many different smart card reader designs, but an often-overlooked detail is how they actually look in your building. Most reader hardware is surprisingly bulky and just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Before you purchase new smart card readers, make sure they physically fit where you need them to mount. If the reader is too far from the entry, it will be inconvenient, and pose a potential security threat. If aesthetics are important in your building, Openpath’s Smart Readers are award-winning for their sleek, streamlined design, giving them a high-end look and premium user experience. For narrow hallways or mounting a smart card reader on a doorway, Openpath’s Mullion Reader has a slim profile that easily fits in smaller spaces.

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Alternatives to smart card readers

If smart card readers don’t seem like the right solution for your building, there are other access control credentials available. Mobile credentials are the preferred access method for most modern workplaces, as they are more convenient and easier to manage. The main benefits of using a mobile-based system like Openpath are that users just need their smartphone to enter the building, and that administrators no longer need to worry about managing keycards and fobs. 

Digital credentials are also hands-free. With Openpath’s Bluetooth-enabled smart readers, a user doesn’t even need to take their phone out of their pocket or bag. The readers pick up the BLE signal once the phone is within range, and send the authorization request; no touching required. More businesses are adapting to touchless technology as a way to address health and safety concerns in the workplace, too. When reimagining your building in the wake of COVID-19, make sure you are addressing all the new concerns and local mandates. A COVID-19 workplace safety guide can help you determine what your building needs to reopen according to recent regulations. 

Digital credentials are also great for buildings with visitors, as you can issue a visitor pass via SMS text or email right to their phone, and customize the access privileges on the administrative side. No need to meet face to face to sign out a badge, and the visitor doesn’t have to remember to give the credential back before leaving the premises. 

For buildings that operate on a legacy access control system where a rip-and-replace is not feasible, some smart card readers can work alongside existing hardware. Look for backwards compatible readers, like Openpath Smart Readers, which use standard Wiegand wiring to connect to RFID legacy hardware systems running in hybrid mode.

If your business wants to use digital alongside smart card credentials, Openpath smart readers have functionality for both. With the Openpath hardware, you have the option to fully customize your access control solution, and create a better end user experience without sacrificing security.

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