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What are smart card readers used for and how do they work?

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What are smart card readers used for and how do they work?

Smart card readers are essential in many government offices, workplaces and public settings. As the perfect pairing with modern-day smart cards, these readers are two halves of a whole, allowing data to be read and received for an action to be concluded safely and effectively. Smart card readers have dozens of applications and are so ingrained into day-to-day life that you may have used one over the last few days without realising it.

So, what is a smart card reader? How does it work? What types are you likely to encounter? We cover all you need to know in greater detail below:

What is a smart card reader?

A smart card reader is a clever device developed to write and read the information on smart cards. These appliances can be static, handheld units or embedded into essential infrastructure to suit a range of purposes. To use a smart card reader, you typically use a smart card to transfer information through direct contact or use contactless to securely process actions or chains of events. For example, if you have a travel card for commuting, you tap your smart card on buses and at train stations to pay your fare.

How does a smart card reader work?

Smart card readers are a small part of a more extensive system that interfaces seamlessly with a local computer or a more comprehensive remote network. The second a smart card connects with a reader, the information within its microchip is read, processed, and sent to the system. With all actions complete, the system replies to the smart reader with processed information to confirm identity, open a door or verify a payment.

The types of smart card readers

Smart card readers divide neatly into three categories: contact, contactless and dual interface. Each method has its own benefits, and one may be chosen over the other for particular purposes or security reasons. The key types are:

Contact readers

A contact smart card must interact directly with a reader to send information. Usually, a card is inserted into a slot or swiped to access data within a chip or magnetic stripe that can then be read, and the necessary actions processed.

Contactless readers

Contactless smart cards interact with readers using the power of RFID technology, allowing for an exchange with no physical contact. The ability to tap or hover over a device allows for a speedier process in some cases and may even negate the need to remove a card from a wallet or lanyard.

Dual Interface Readers

Dual interface readers combine both a contact and contactless reader in one handy unit. These readers feature both a contact and contactless interface, allowing for both types of smart cards to be read.

Where are smart card readers used?

Smart card readers are widely used in many environments. Some of the areas where you're likely to see these readers in action include:

Security systems

Using cards, fobs, and similar smart items has been a common choice for many security systems over the past decade. As systems become even smarter, many businesses have upgraded to contactless systems or readers that can use smartphones to access secure areas and office buildings.


Hotels, theme parks and casinos make good use of smart card readers to restrict access, provide guests with room keys and offer special privileges. Smart cards are a common choice in many hotels, while theme parks may use wristbands or mobile apps in combination with readers.


ID cards that double as access cards for building entry are a common choice within the education sector. Many universities enhance security in areas with high-value equipment through a central access system, allowing students to be provided access as required through a contactless system.


The use of smart card readers in retail has dramatically increased in recent years. Since social distancing, the ability to contactlessly and hygienically pay for the weekly food shop and other items have made smart card reader a staple in most shops around the country.

Want to know more about smart card readers?

ID Cards Direct is the ideal place to start if you're considering an investment in smart cards, whether contactless or contact. Get in touch with our team today on +44 (0) 333 577 6767, or fill out our contact form online and a member of our team will contact you as soon as possible.