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How Do Hotel Key Cards Work? (Simple Guide)

Elliot Blackler June 10, 2021 8 min read

If you think about the last time you were in a hotel, it is fairly likely that you did not use a traditional key; Instead, you were given a digital key that resembled a credit card.

We are always seeing innovations that change the way we interact with businesses and services. 

The hotel industry has been a trailblazer for quite a while. The most notable is the shift away from lock and key and towards digital access control.=

In this guide, we are going to be looking at some of the reasons Key Cards have become so popular in the hotel industry and why they have become the premier solution to hotel security and Access Control in hotels.

We'll cover:

  • Hotel Key Cards 101
  • Features of Hotel Key Cards
  • How to Work Hotel Key Cards
  • Hotel Key Cards Benefits 
  • Industries That Can Use Hotel Key Cards
  • Hotel Key Cards Summary

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What are Hotel Key Cards?

The technology in Key Cards used in hotels can vary from country to country, and even chain to chain, but the overall concept is the same, digital access control. 

Hotel Key Cards are metal key alternatives that offer guests a simple way to get into their room using the uniquely assigned Key Card via the reception.  

With the reduction of traditional lock and key systems, hotels have been one of the first industries to push towards a keyless entry system. 

The technology has been recently integrated in a lot of different cars and the automotive industry as a whole. Meaning you no longer have to manually unlock or start up the car with the key and just have it in close proximity. 

This is the same as how the Hotel Key Cards work, the data is scanned via the reader when the card is in the radius. The Key Cards not only unlock your room but can also give you the ability to get to other guest areas such as the gym or pools.

Types of Hotel Key Cards 

There are a few options when it comes to Hotel Access Control, for instance, a similar technology is Key Fobs, but for the sake of simplicity we will focus on Key Cards today.

We are going to briefly look at three of the commonly seen or used Hotel Key Card types, there are some subtypes but these cover the core areas.

Magnetic Stripe - possibly the most common and one we have probably all come across in the last decade or so. The magstripe key cards have a blakc strip that is swiped downwards through the reader.

Radio Frequency - often known as a type of proximity card, or tap or contactless technology. This is a short range card that can be held by the scanner to grant access within a few CMs.

Hole Punch - typically on their way out nowadays, but these were very popular in years past. A unique combination of holes punched in the card would determine access to your room.


Key Components of Hotel Key Cards

As you can see from the above section there are different ways that cards work and technologies that are deployed. 

With this being said, let’s look at the core components of Hotel Key Cards that are fairly universal across the different types.

Card Assigner - this is the part of the system linked to the computers in the reception. It allows the blank Key Cards to be assigned to your croom when you check in.

Key Card - the physical way you get into your room, your Key Card is where the data is temporarily stored and scanned when you get to your room. 

Door Reader - how your Key Card is scanned to grant your access to your room or other guest areas. The reader determines whether or not you can enter by the data on your Key Card.

In-Room Power Device - not always present, but a way that you can provide power to your hotel room via your Key Card. Normally a small card slot near the front door of your room.


How Do Hotel Key Cards Work?

As we have alluded to, there are a few different technologies that can be used in Hotel Access Control, not only for room access but for limiting lift controls, and even parking management

In terms of room access though, the technology used is often fairly comparable and the core concept is the same. A digital key is scanned in close proximity or insertion that grants access to your room.

Let’s contextualise how the process works via a simple example, this will show you the basics of how Key Cards work in hotels.

Step 1: Guest Checks In

You arrive at the hotel and go to the reception and check in. When you get to the counter the front of house worker will grab a Key Card and start the process.

Step 2: Key Card is Assigned

Each Key Card is blank and will then be assigned the door unlocking privileges at the front desk or concierge. 

They will link the Key Card with your room on the digital system, this is often done by a keypad that is attached to the computer which will transfer the temporary data onto your Key Card.

Step 3: Your Key Card Unlocks Your Door

When you go to your room you will typically be doing one of two things, either sliding the card into a card reader or tapping it against the reader.

Both methods will scan your card, read the data and grant you access, unlocking your door. The whole process normally takes less than a few seconds and you will probably be able to hear the mechanism unlocking.

Step 4: Cards Provide Power

In a lot of hotels your Key Card will actually provide power to your room, using a little reader next to the door. This is a green initiative utilised by hotels to reduce their power usage and also provide a secondary usage for your card. 

The reader is normally designed to be triggered by ANY credit card, not just your room key, so maybe put your library card or something you will not need in there.

Step 5: Check Out Card Reset 

When you check out the card is wiped again so that it can be resigned to a new lock and door. This then allows the process to be started again for the next guest. 

With all of the cards being able to be linked to any of the doors in the hotel it makes each Key Card’s value much lower and easier to replace.


What are the Benefits of Hotel Key Cards?

We are going to break down the benefits of utilising Hotel Key Cards into three areas, user benefits, security benefits and operational benefits.

User Benefits 



The difference between a Key Card and traditional key is not massively impactful on your overall carrying weight; However, having keys is much more difficult than a card that can go into your wallet or purse alongside your payment cards.

Key Cards were designed to be easy to carry and not give you an additional thing to take with you, keys can be bulky and hard to find a comfortable place to store. 

On the other hand, a Key Card is much more portable and lightweight.


Quick and Easy

Being able to get into your room easily and quickly makes the whole process a lot smoother and will improve guest perception of the hotel.

Pair this with how simple it is to check in and check out, and you have an effortless process from start to finish that is designed with the guest in mind. 

Understanding how to create a winning guest experience is an important part of managing a hotel and also improving your security.

Operational Benefits


Easier to Manage

Unlike a traditional lock and key system, you will be able to track and manage your access control system from a central computer. 

You will have a record of who has access to where, what keys have been issued, and if they have been returned or are still activated.

This can be good in an emergency as you can unlock all fire or outer doors to provide a quick and safe exit.



Another benefit of a Key Card access control system in a hotel is the fact it is incredibly cost-effective. 

With each card being reprogrammable countless times and holding a very low cost of manufacture you can easily replace any cards you need to.

If you lose a card it can be deactivated, if you lose a metal key, on the other hand, you run the risk of a security breach or may even need to change the locks.


Security Benefits 


Harder to Copy 

Having a system that is both easy to issue a new card but also hard for a layman or guest to copy means you will be much safer as a whole.

Key Card access control in hotels creates a safer environment and you do not run the risk of a guest copying a Key Card like they could a metal key.


More Secure 

There are a whole plethora of reasons that make a Key Card system more secure than other forms of security or access control. 

Take for example a lock and key system, you do not know who has what keys and if one is lost your whole system is compromised. Let’s put this example into Key Card context. 

Most systems actually allow for you to manually and remotely deactivate cards in the event of a Key Card being lost, stolen, or accidentally taken.


The Hotel Key Cards Industry

Now you should have a greater appreciation of the importance of access control in hotels and the decision to move towards digital security methods and away from lock and key.

Hotels were definitely one of the first major industries to implement this technology but will certainly not be the last. They have been ahead of the curve for a while and one more step towards a safer and eventually, a metal keyless future.

In recent years, we have seen more and more industries shift towards this style of security, looking for a cost-effective, easy to integrate and user-friendly solution that does not compromise the business. 

The move towards these systems and the desire from a user perspective to expect them and be comfortable with using that technology will ultimately be what determines the longevity of traditional keys.

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It seems that people and vehicle access control is an incredibly complex world using hard to understand technology, yet it impacts so many of the environments we interact with on a daily basis.

We are here to fill in the disconnect. We'll break down access control, the benefits, and drawbacks as well, including expert insight based on over 30 years experience in the industry operating as an independent British company. Our goal is to give you ALL the information so you know what's right for you.

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Elliot Blackler

Elliot is the in-house content specialist at Nortech and runs all aspects of the resource hub. He's passionate about UK manufacturing and how modern content marketing can help bring light to complex industries.

Elliot works extensively with the Nortech team to shine a light on the access control industry for both installers and end users. Always keen to improve, feel free to email him on new content suggestions or feedback!

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