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Key Fob Guide for Businesses

Jeff Hale
Jeff Hale

Key fobs have become the industry standard for basic access control applications across the world, and that doesn't look set to change anytime soon.

"Key fob" is a broad term for a wide range of wireless access devices that are typically small enough to fit onto a keychain. The most common use and form factor of this technology is found in the automotive industry with keyless entry systems that use short-range radio transmissions activated by the press of a button. However, key fobs for business use do not usually have buttons to arm or disarm an alarm system. Instead, business access control systems most frequently rely on passive radio frequency identification (RFID) to identify and track tags attached to objects without the use of battery power. They play a small but crucial role in a complete access control system for businesses.

What is a security key fob?

A security key fob is a critical component of most keyless access control systems that businesses of all sizes use today. They typically are made of plastic and resemble a thick dog tag with a key-ring hole. These small devices house a microchip that stores data and an antenna that receives and transmits a signal. The best access control companies typically offer several options for door access.

In practice, each fob is designated for a single employee, ensuring they have access to specific areas of a facility at designated times. The level of access granted by each fob is typically handled by human resources managers but can be adjusted at a moment's notice by any authorized personnel.

FYIFYI: Key fobs for businesses are usually sold in bulk for around $5 each.

How do key fobs work?

A key fob is part of an RFID system that consists of a very small radio transponder, receiver and transmitter. These systems use electromagnetic fields to automatically identify the tracking tags in fobs or similar devices. In the more common passive RFID system, a high-frequency electromagnetic wave is sent from a reader, which powers the tag within the key fob to transmit an identification number back to the reader for verification. In practice, this will occur when an individual carrying a key fob comes close enough to the reader that controls a door's lock.

In an active RFID system, the tag within the fob is battery-powered and capable of communicating with the reader at ranges of more than 300 feet. Passive tags are inexpensive and most often seen in access control management, while the larger and more expensive active tags are better suited for inventory and industrial applications.

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What is a proximity key?

Proximity keys are passive, read-only wireless access devices that are easily secured to a badge clip, lanyard or key ring. Unlike a standard contactless key fob that must be waved very close to a reader, proximity keys extend their functional distance to work from a pocket or bag with a range up to 20 feet, depending on the wall-mounted reader's power. However, the operational distance can be reduced when necessary for security.

These keys contain RFID antennas that transmit stored data to the reader, which converts the radio waves into verifiable information. Mercedes-Benz introduced the Siemens-designed low-frequency electronic access and authorization system to the general public under the name Keyless Go with the release of the 1998 S-Class Sedan, and it is still widely used across many industries today.

These are the different types of proximity keys:

  • Fobs
  • RFID
  • Mobile devices
  • Remote dashboard unlocks

What are the benefits of security key fobs for businesses?

Key fobs help modernize access control management for businesses in several ways.

1. They are easy to replace or revoke.

An HR or security administrator can easily revoke a key fob's facility access from a remote computer in case an employee loses their fob or is determined to be a security threat. In the same situation with a traditional metal key and lock, the lock would need to be rekeyed as soon as possible by a locksmith, and a new set of keys would need to be made and distributed.

2. They're easy to track.

Since key fob tags are unique to each user, they also benefit security by granting the ability to track individuals within a facility in real time – an important feature of many business security systems.

3. It's simple to change permissions.

With cloud-based controls for all of your company's key fobs and access points, you and your security team can easily adjust access permissions to suit changing schedules or holidays across multiple locations. 

Bottom LineBottom line: Some of the main benefits of key fobs are that they are easy to deactivate, track, and adjust to change their access permissions.

Key fob FAQs

Can key fobs be tracked?

Yes. Once you've assigned a unique key fob to an individual, you or your security team can track that person's movements throughout your facilities each time the fob transmits an identifying signal. However, this practice is more common in inventory situations, where RFID tags are used to monitor the movement of assets throughout the manufacturing process.

The ways you can track key fobs vary by the signal they emit. Some key fobs use active signals, meaning they broadcast all of the time with the help of battery-powered antennas. Other key fobs use passive signals and only broadcast when prompted to do so, in range of a specific access terminal. However, all key fobs that emit an identifying signal can be tracked from short distances while the signal is being broadcast.

FYIFYI: Any signal that can be tracked can potentially be recorded and used to make a duplicate device.

How is a key fob used in multifactor authentication?

Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user who attempts to gain access to a building or system. In multifactor authentication, a key fob can be used as a second or third layer of security by serving as a unique identifier.

For example, an employee who wants to access a secure area may wave their key fob in front of a reader near the door. They would then receive an SMS message with a one-time password to enter on the door's keypad for authorized access. Without the correct key fob, the PIN will not be sent and the unauthorized access attempt could trigger alerts or any number of automated actions, depending on the security system's settings.

Can you copy a key fob?

Yes, it is possible to duplicate or clone the vast majority of RFID-based key fobs and tags. In fact, a quick search online will pull up a number of digital locksmiths to perform the service. Consent is not required from the issuer, which is why multifactor authentication is always recommended alongside this technology.

Despite the potential to copy or clone a key fob, your ability to deactivate any lost, stolen, or suspicious key with the click of a mouse from a cloud-based control system mitigates the risk of unauthorized access with a counterfeit key.

How much do key fob security systems cost?

Key fob security systems are typically priced by the door, which makes it simple to compare the features and total cost between providers. As a general guideline, you can expect to spend $1,500 to $2,500 per door with access readers and fobs for up to 150 employees.

At this price point, these may not the most affordable smart security systems for small businesses, especially if your building requires any modification for proper installation. Some buildings may require significant labor expenses for the proper wiring and installation of a complete key fob system with a secure door and locking mechanism controlled by RFID technology.

Which companies provide key fobs for business?

Some of the best access control companies that sell key fobs are Brivo, Honeywell, IDenticard, ISONAS, Kisi, SimpliSafe and Vanderbilt Industries.

Image Credit: Alextov / Getty Images
Jeff Hale
Jeff Hale
business.com Contributing Writer
Jeff Hale is a writer and editor based in San Diego with a background in business development and marketing. He has identified new market opportunities for Fortune 500 companies and developed communications strategies and digital branding for tech startups and small businesses. Jeff covers emerging technologies and business solutions with a focus on efficiency and growth. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Irvine, and an MBA from Chapman University.