What's the Difference Between Magnetic Stripe & Proximity (Smart) Cards?

by ID Card Group 1. February 2017 08:01

When it comes to ID card security options, magnetic encoding offers a different level of security than proximity card or smart card encoding.Sample magnetic stripe card - IDCardGroup.com

Learn about the differences between magnetic stripe cards, proximity cards, and smart cards encoding - and find out which card style works best for your needs.

Keep in mind that these three encoding styles can be used separately - or combined - to create the level of security desired.

Finally, in many cases, a basic visual ID card without added security may meet your needs. Basic visual ID cards are regularly used for membership cards, loyalty cards, gift cards and more and can be created inexpensively with generic PVC card stock.

What is Magnetic Encoding?

Magnetic - or mag stripe - encoding offers a low-cost way to include more data on an ID card. Using a magnetic encoder, your ID card printer can store (encode) data on a magnetic (mag) stripe, typically found on the back of the card, when it is printed. 

Most printers offer a magnetic stripe encoder option without adding a lot of cost. Some encoders can even be added to a printer after purchase, depending on your model.

Magnetic stripe - also referred to as swipe - cards are physically swiped through a reader (much like a credit card). The card reader then deciphers the coded data.

Are Magnetic Stripe Cards Right for Me?

Magnetic stripe technology has been around for decades, and provides an affordable option for low security environments and convenience-based applications. Common uses of standard magnetic stripe cards include:

  • Loyalty or gift cards
  • Membership cards
  • Hotel room keys
  • Time and attendance systems
  • Secure access

What are Proximity Cards & Key Fobs?Sample proximity card in use - IDCardGroup.com

Proximity cards and key fobs are the most basic form of “contactless cards.” As the name implies, contactless cards don't need to physically touch a reader.

Instead, users simply wave them in front of a reader – reducing wear on the reader and card, and extending the life of the system.

Proximity cards and key fobs are encoded with unique numbers that cannot be updated or changed. This ensures that the data on the card remains intact and unaltered.

Want to learn more about proximity cards? This ProxSource overivew of different prox card types can help.

Are Proximity Cards/Keyfobs Right for Me?

Proximity cards are an ideal choice for access control at facilities with a high volume of traffic on specific openings, or a large number of users.

There are several types of prox cards, including branded (HID, Keri, Indala) and AlphaPass. All will work in popular access control systems. The type of prox card you choose will depend on the type of system that your facility uses.

As mentioned above, prox cards are pre-programmed (encoded) with two unique numbers: facility code and card number. These unique numbers can be standard or custom programmed for you.

  • Standard Pre-Programming - The numbers are pre-determined by IDCardGroup.com. To order pre-programmed cards, simply leave the Facility Code and Starting Card Number cells blank when choosing your options. Pre-programmed orders usually ship within 1-2 business days.
  • Custom Programming - The numbers are custom programmed with your organization’s personalized facility codes and/or sequential card numbers. To order custom-programmed cards, simply enter your organization’s personalized facility codes and/or sequential card numbers in the Option Menu when placing your order. Note that Standard cards ship in 3 business days, while HID-Branded cards require a programming lead time of 7-10 days

Though some prox cards can be personalized with a photo using an ID card printer, the most popular cards we sell are these durable, convenient, and more affordable styles:

What are Smart Cards?

Smart cards are the most advanced “contactless“ cards on the market today.Sample smart card - IDCardGroup.com

As far as users are concerned, they function just like proximity cards. But there's a key difference: smart cards have the ability to store information - they can read and write data to the card. This makes them significantly more useful than magnetic stripe or proximity (prox) cards.

Are Smart Cards Right for Me?

The smart card's advanced security features make them an ideal candidate for high security applications and those in which important data or financial information will be transmitted. Because they carry more data than any other type of card, they also tend to be more expensive. 

With their ability to read data from, and write data to, the card - smart cards are used for:

  • Kiosk payment systems
  • Biometric access control
  • Cashless vending
  • Meal programs
  • Transit passes

The most common smart card encoding types include Mifare, Desfire, and UHF. Only a limited number of high-performance card printers can include smart card encoding for these cards. For additional smart card help, please contact an ID Expert at (877) 868-0012.

More Helpful How-to Resources

ID Card Group carries a large selection of magnetic stripe cards and basic visual ID cards, including generic (value) and name brand - as well as proximity cards/keyfobs and UHF smart cards.


For help choosing the right security card to fit your needs, contact an ID Expert at (877) 868-0012 or sales@idcardgroup.com. We're happy to walk you through your options and answer questions.

ID Card Group offers a price match guarantee, provides free shipping on orders over $100, and accepts purchase orders.


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