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How do Hotel Key Cards work?

How do Hotel Key Cards work?

Hotel Key Cards are usually split into two types:

  • Magstripe Hotel Key Cards that you 'swipe' through a door lock, which are clearly marked by the magnetic stripe running along the top or bottom of the back of the card.
  • NFC or RFID Hotel Key Cards which contain a chip within them that's not visible to the naked eye, that you 'tap' or 'wave' onto the door handle or lock.

Ten years ago, most of the key cards around were magstripe cards, but as the technology in door locks becomes more sophisticated and the price of the chips comes down, it's now far more common to be given an RFID Hotel Key Card on check-in.

Regardless of which type they are, they both fundamentally do the same thing. They store information within the stripe or chip that works with a unique hotel room key lock to open the door.

Hotel Key Card Magnetic Stripe

How do Magstripe Hotel Key Cards work?

Magstripe Hotel Key Cards, or swipe cards, are less sophisticated than RFID or NFC and so are usually just capable of opening a door (as opposed to RFID key cards which can do much more, like give access to the gym, lockers or the lift).

Basically, the magstripe contains a unique number that correlates with the room number, so that the correct door opens when the card is swiped through the door reader.

Magstripe cards are usually cheaper but tend to wear out quickly and aren't as secure as their RFID counterparts. They can be easy to clone if you have access to a magstripe reader, which is why they're rarely used in any situation where security is a significant factor.

RFID Hotel Key Cards

How do RFID Hotel Key Cards work?

The chip within an RFID key card is capable of performing many more actions than a magstripe due to its memory size, which is why they're often multipurpose: also giving access to the hotel's leisure facilities for example.

RFID Hotel Key Cards don't need actual contact with a reader to work, you just need to wave your card in front of it. That's because they contain a chip within them that transfers data digitally to the reader through the use of non-contact radio waves.

If the data is transmitted and read effectively by the reader, the 'action' is completed - in this case, opening the hotel room door.

RFID cards are viewed as a secure mode of communication and access.

🔎 Read more about what an RFID card is and how it works.

Do Hotel Key Cards contain personal information?

In short, no. There was an urban myth going around years ago that if you got hold of someone's key card, you could extract their personal bank card details and information.

The reality is, you can't. The data held on a physical key card purely identifies the door it should open, and the dates it should open it. That explains why it sometimes stops working when you've come back from breakfast on the day you're checking out.

Whether it's a magstripe or a chip card, personal data isn't programmed onto the card.

Which means it can be safely handed back to reception at the end of your stay or thrown into the wastepaper basket without fear of unwittingly giving access to your personal data.

Sustainable Wooden Hotel Key Card

What sustainable Hotel Key Cards options are there?

A few years ago, PVC was pretty much your only option for your hotel key cards. Now, as hotels work towards various green accreditation and sustainability programmes, the card industry has had to catch up.

Hotels and accommodation providers can now choose from materials such as Biodegradable PVC, 100% Recycled PVC, Wood, Bamboo and even strong paperboard, though that comes with durability challenges. All are now available with RFID or NFC chips.

At The Card Network, we now get roughly the same number as enquiries for Wood RFID Key Cards as we do for PVC, as hotels are keen to showcase their environmental commitments to guests at check-in. A Bamboo RFID Hotel Key Card or Wood Card needs no explanation or introduction: it communicates the eco message by itself.

The only potential downside with Wood Key Cards is that you sometimes get less cards handed back in as guests want to keep hold of them as a souvenir!

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