RFID vs. NFC: What are the 5 Key Differences?

Elliot Blackler May 6, 2021 5 min read

Choosing the right access control system for your unique needs can be a tough task.

You’re often presented with myriads of options and technologies to choose from.

On top of that, all the acronyms used in product’s features can leave you scratching your head.

This is especially so when it comes to deciding between RFID and NFC readers – two technologies that are so similar to each other. But fear not, our article will help you to put things in place and reduce the confusion.

In this Nortech guide, you'll learn: 

  • An introduction to RFID and NFC technologies
  • The key differences between RFID and NFC
  • The pro's & drawbacks of both RFID and NFC  

What is RFID? 

Let's start with the basics, namely, what do these acronyms actually stand for.

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and is a wireless, non-contact based technology that uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags.

These tags are often either attached to an object (e.g. vehicles, equipment, etc.) or implemented in an access card often used in personnel access control solutions.

To learn more about RFID technology, check out our ‘What Is RFID Technology?’ article.


What is NFC?

NFC or Near Field Communication is also a wireless technology, but, compared to RFID, it only enables short-range communication between compatible devices.

NFC requires at a minimum one transmitting device and another to receive the signal. So how does NFC work and how is it different from RFID technology?

One of the reasons why it's easy to confuse NFC and RFID technology is that the former works on the frequency of 13.56 MHz. Some high-frequency RFID readers operate on the same frequency level – hence the confusion.

NFC standards and protocols are based on the existing RFID standards including ISO/IEC 14443, FeliCa, ISO/IEC 18092 and those defined by NFC Forum. So, in other words, NFC technology builds upon the existing high-frequency RFID and is often used in proximity access control solutions.

NFC technology utilizes only an alternating magnetic field, meaning that no power is emitted in the form of radio waves. This prevents any interference from occurring between similar devices or any radio communications operating at the same frequency.

The system based on NFC technology is usually comprised of an initiator (a reader) and a target (tag, card, sticker or a key fob). NFC tags contain data and tend to be read-only. These tags can securely hold personal data, with memory ranging between 96 and 8,192 bytes.

As with RFID technology, NFC communication tends to be categorised as active and passive.

Active Mode

When initiator and target are in an active mode, they can both send and receive data by using an alternate signal transmission.

In this case, both devices have a power supply, meaning that the initiator doesn't have to send power to the target for the latter to perform its' task.

All active NFC devices can work in one or more of the following operating modes:

  • Card emulation – enables devices such as smartphones to act as a smart card, allowing users to use it to enter the building or other secured access point.
  • Reader/writer – enables devices to read data stored on tags embedded in access cards or key fobs.
  • Peer-to-peer – enables NFC devices to communicate with each other to exchange data. In this mode, an NFC device can act as both a reader and a tag. This feature is unique to the NFC devices, making this technology a great and flexible solution for companies.

Passive Mode

In this mode, the initiator sends a radio frequency power to the target to power it up. Next, the target modulates this power and sends it back to the initiator.

In comparison to an active mode, target in the passive mode restructures the amplitude of the original signal to send it back to the initiator.

With all of this in mind, it's important to take into consideration the key differences between NFC and RFID.


RFID Vs. NFC: The 5 Key Differences

Despite both technologies appearing similar on the surface, there are 5 key differences between both technologies..

Reading Range

NFC technology operates on a reduced range, often called proximity. RFID, on the other hand, can read tags at distances going up to 10m, which makes it the best solution for vehicle identification and access.

If you’re interested in learning more about long-range solutions, check out our Automatic Vehicle Identification Guide.


NFC is capable of two-way communication, and as such can offer unique and complex solutions such as card emulation and peer-to-peer.


Unlike RFID tags, only one tag can be read at a time with NFC technology. This can limit its use cases and means that RFID tags are often better suited to environments where there are a lot of trackable components. 

An example of this could be asset management in a manufacturing facility or tracking fast moving vehicles. 


NFC technology stores and transmits multiple types of data. Due to its' larger storage space, NFC devices can store and transmit more data than RFID devices that can only carry simple ID information.

This makes NFC better suited to environments where payment details, membership, ticket etc. information needs to be transferred.  

Cost Effectiveness

Due to its reduced reading range, NFC-based readers tend to be cheaper than long-range RFID solutions. This makes NFC a great solution for companies that are on a tight budget, but still, want to employ a high-quality solution.


RFID vs NFC: Summary

As you can see from the differences between both technologies, each holds unique properties that are demonstrated in NFC and RFID access control

NFC is best used to securely transfer a range of data over short distances, hence its prevalence in access control and payment applications. 

On the other hand, RFID is more suited to faster moving environments with lots of moving parts and is most often used for vehicle access control and asset management purposes. 

If you'd like to learn more about the properties of each, head over to the Nortech blog to find out more. 

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Why Should You Trust Us?

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.

Please consider subscribing or adding to the conversation in the comments below. We appreciate you taking the time to visit our resource centre.

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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