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RFID vs. NFC: What is the difference?

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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.


RFID and NFC Definitions

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.

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?


RFID Vs. NFC 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.



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.



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.


Differences Between NFC and RFID

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.
  • Only one tag can be read at a time with 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.
  • Cost-effective. 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.


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

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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