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A Complete Guide To Hotel Key Cards [2021 Edition]

hotel key cards

Hotel key cards are small and thin plastic cards, which can be used as a key to open hotel doors. They’re shaped like credit cards and come in different colors. The RFID technology is embedded within these cards that enable them to unlock the digital door lock of specific hotels, apartments, houses, or resorts without any physical contact with the lock.

Hotel guests use their card as an access card for opening room doors after they check-in at the reception desk in the hotel lobby. These days most of the new hotels have been using RFID access management systems instead of traditional keys because it has increased security value due to its anti-theft features. However, things were never the same.

The hospitality industry has changed quite a lot from the usage of metal keys to smartphone keys. In this guide, I will tell you all you need to know about hotel access cards; card types, history, working mechanism, the materials used for making keys, available sizes, security features and etc.

Let’s first start with the history of the hospitality industry and hotel keys.

A glance at the history of the hospitality industry and hotel keys:

In the beginning, hotels or inns were mostly family-run businesses with about six bedrooms. With time they grew into larger organizations and employed more people. The hospitality sector or hotel industry as an organized business emerged in the 1950s or 1960s when a solid framework was established.

Similarly, the hotel door lock systems for these hotels consisted of metal keys and mechanical locks. But there were many concerns in using these traditional hotel lock systems. For example, the security of rooms and guests was at risk due to the counterfeiting of metal keys.

As time passed, hotels started offering keys with colorful ribbons or fabric cords instead of the old iron keys. They were given to guests so they could easily spot their rooms from a distance. This is where the tradition of using different color keys for every room started which continued into modern times as well. The use of metalcore keys became widespread because people thought that this would allow them to avoid any possible lock picking. However, these metal keys were extremely bulky and difficult to carry around.

In the 1970s, hotels started using electronic locks that could be opened with keys or plastic cards. People started to use the swipe cards instead of the old bulky metal keys. These magnetic swipe cards enabled hotels to have greater control over room access.

In modern times, many hotels have been using RFID cards, smart hotel room key cards, and NFC mobile keys in order to increase security and replace traditional locks with card access control systems. So this was the brief history of the hospitality industry and hotel keys. Now let’s talk about what functions can be performed with a hotel key card.

What can a hotel key card do?

Hotel key cards are an amazing utility for guests. These are not only the best security options but also a great luxury. A hotel room card can be used for the following purposes.

  • Grant user access to a specific room or facility.
  • To gain access to facilities like restaurant, swimming pool, gym, etc. (in case of some hotels)
  • Turning on and turning off electronic devices in IoT rooms
  • For payment of bills.
  • To access the Wifi network.
  • To use parking lots or garages in some cases.
  • For branding purposes.
  • To impress guests by providing them a great utility in the form of access key cards for different facilities.

What Type of resort keys is being used in the hospitality industry?

The types of hotel keys and card access control systems depend on different factors. These factors can include the location of the hotel, cost of the lock, guest expectation, and preference. We can sort these locks and keys into main four types. These are as follows.

  1. Traditional locks with metal keys.
  2. Electronic locks are also known as digital locks.
  3. Mobile keys.
  4. Smart cards.

1) Traditional Locks with metal keys

These locks are still used in many hotels around the world even though they were already replaced by electronic locks decades ago. Most people prefer them because they’re very cheap but they have a major drawback. They can be easily opened with many kinds of metal keys, and duplicate copies.

2) Electronic Locks

These locks are also known as digital door locks or electronic door locks (EEDLs). Many hotel chains around the world use these locks to protect high-end clients like business travelers, families with young children, and VIPs. They are technologically advanced due to their ability to protect rooms from unauthorized access with enhanced security. The newest models of card access control systems use RFID wristbands instead of traditional locks for higher security levels.

3) Mobile Keys

Mobile keys are unique by having the great advantage of being easily transferred or shared between different parties via NFC technology. This is especially useful for people who need to access different rooms or employees who would like to allow third-party access without giving them physical copies of the keys. Mobile keys are convenient but they also come with some disadvantages, such as an increased risk of loss, hacking, theft, and diversion.

4) Smart Cards

Smart cards are similar to RFID hotel keys in the sense that it uses an embedded microcontroller chip with an integrated antenna. It has a similar usage to mobile keys when it comes to transferring or sharing information between users. And they can be used for electronic locks as well, either by swiping them over RFID-enabled terminals next to the door or inserting them into compatible card readers. The extra feature of Personal Identification Number (PIN) makes the smart card less vulnerable to hacking and misuse.

Different hotels prefer different resort keys for the security of their rooms:

The guest management system varies from place to place. In some places, traditional metal keys and locks are being used for the purpose of security of hotel rooms. However, in some places, the latest key card lock systems are being used for the above-said purpose. The following are some of the popular resort keys used in the hospitality industry by hotel managers.

  • Traditional metal keys and mechanical locks
  • Card key with hole punches.
  • Magnetic stripes key cards, commonly known as swipe cards and magstripe cards.
  • key cards with an RFID chip.
  • RFID encrypted key cards.
  • Smart key cards.
  • NFC smartphone keys.

Different hotels, motels, inns, and hospitality entities use any of the above-said locks and keys according to their own choices.

Luxury hotels and international brands are pioneers of the latest trends in this industry. They can afford the financial implications of these latest technologies. Therefore, we can expect the usage of NFC smartphone keys, smart contactless cards, and RFID key cards, also known as closeness cards, at the same time in these hotels.

  • Medium-size hotels, on the other hand, prefer economic and viable solutions for the security of their rooms. So they prefer the use of Magnetic stripe key cards and key cards with RFID chips.
  • Similarly, the traditional or economic hotels cannot afford the expenses of RFID keys, magnetic stipe key cards prefer the usage of traditional metal keys and key cards with patterns of holes.

As we have discussed the history of resort keys, their history, types, and uses in the hospitality industry let’s talk about the benefits of these hotel key cards/ resort key cards.

What are the benefits of access key cards?

Some of the frequently asked questions about hotel key cards are regarding their benefits. While RFID key cards provide us with added security they also come with some other major benefits as well. Some of them are listed below:

  • Resort access cards are lightweight, easy to carry, and are highly efficient. They are not bulky at all which means you can keep them in your pocket or on a key ring without any hassle.
  • Hotel staff can easily program these accessibility cards with different access privileges. So, if you have people inside your hotel who require special treatment, then these cards can provide them with that privilege very easily just by programming them. You can also do the same for a sensitive user or guest for special treatment.
  • These contactless cards are not just limited to their basic function of opening doors. They can also be programmed to do other tasks as well like turning lights on and off, which makes them more efficient than traditional key cards.
  • Improved guest access management system for facilitation of guests. Next to opening doors, hotel managers can now also keep track of all guests’ spending patterns inside the hotel. This is a major task as many hotels have over 200 rooms and try keeping track of every single guest’s expense can be very difficult.
  • These smart key cards reduce the number of employees required to monitor guests and their spending.
  • These accessibility cards provide you with greater control and accountability.
  • The pains of financial management have been reduced with the help of smart hotel access management systems.
  • You can provide access to your guests without revealing their identities.
  • Enhanced security of hotel guests and their belongings has been made possible with these card access control systems.

So these are some of the benefits you can get by opting for hotel key cards over traditional metal keys. But do you really know how these smart key cards work? In the following section, we will discuss the working mechanism of all of the above-mentioned key cards.

What is the working mechanism of hotel keys?

The working mechanism depends on the type of lock used in the hotel management system and the key. Therefore, it will be easier to understand the working of hotel keys if we discuss different types separately.

How does metal key work in hotels?

The working mechanism of the metal key and mechanical lock is not a mystery. As everyone uses a mechanical lock and keys on a daily basis, it will be the simplest and easiest thing to understand.

The metal key is a simple combination of a blade and a shaft. The shaft has a grooved pattern which enables the key to work as a tumbler in the lock implanting its own specific pattern which can be different from one lock system to another.

The metal key does not have any electrical interface attached to it. It only consists of a metal shaft with a grooved pattern and a shaped blade with an oblong-shaped groove at one of its ends.

How does a card key with a hole punch work?

Though these hotel keys are less prevalent, however, these are also used by some hotel managers. The working mechanism of key cards with hole punch is also simple.

The key card with a hole has a series of punched holes on the top surface which match specific ones on the reader’s device. In this way, each card has unique patterns and works as a set of password keys for the management system to open doors or rooms without any error. The unique thing about these cards is that the punched holes are disposed of in a way that they create a limit to which you can place your key card i.e. either vertically or horizontally to open the door.

How do magnetic stripe key cards work?

The magnetic stripe key cards are also known as swipe cards or magstripe cards. These cards work in close coordination with the electronic management system or hotel door card reader. In other words, these swipe cards are used to access the digital locks. These cards consist of a magnetized stripe that corresponds to the lock and unlocks it perfectly.

The magnetic strips contain some digital data in their structure, these also work on the same lines. Each card has unique digital data that the reader can read using its magnetic field. Finally, this data is processed by the key card entry system which accordingly decides whether to open or close the door, turn on or off lights or air conditioning systems, etc.

One disadvantage of these key cards is that they can be hacked into by using special equipment and gadgets. The main difference between the hacking mechanism of magnetic stripe cards and other credit or debit cards is the absence of a personal identification number (PIN) which makes it easier to get hacked. And this is the biggest reason that these key cards are becoming obsolete. There are other solutions like RFID key cards, photo ID cards, Smart hotel cards, and NFC cell phone keys.

How do key cards with RFID chips work?

The working mechanism of RFID smart chip cards is a little bit more difficult to understand. The RFID stands for radio-frequency identification which means that the card transmits data over the radio signal to the RFID reader. It is a secure, and convenient system currently used in hotels.

The RFID lock system consists of the following components:

  • A conventional RFID keycard (also known as an RFID card)
  • The RFID management system.
  • An electronic lock.
  • The RFID reader.

RFID key cards have a microchip in their structure which acts as the driver that controls the door. For example, if you want to open a door using an RFID card, it must emit radio signals so that wireless communication takes place between the lock and the key. The RFID reader will detect this signal and send encrypted data to the key card lock system and the lock will open the door only if it is authorized by the hotel management. The fact that this technology does not just use a magnetic stripe but instead uses radio waves makes it more secure than any other key card system.

RFID key card is also known as a Proximity card or Smart Card because it contains an integrated circuit with an antenna that enables it to transmit digital information to the card readers. Modern hotel access management uses RFID technology.

How do smart hotel key cards work?

The question is what does the “Smart” in “smart key cards” really mean?

Well, this is yet another advancement in hotel card access control systems that have turned all other key cards outdated. Smart cards have storage capacity in them, making them recordable keycards, which allows them to record a wealth of extra information about the user. It can be used to grant access to additional facilities, such as a playing area for children, gyms, swimming pools, bar, laundry, conference rooms, and any other amenity that requires secure access in the hotel. As far as the security of these cards is concerned, these are more secure than other hotel cards. These cards have made things easier for both guests and hotel managers. Now the hotel managers can easily monitor the financial transactions made by the guests with their smart cards.

The working mechanism of smart hotel key cards is somewhat similar to RFID chip cards. The only difference is that they use near field communication (NFC) technology instead of radio frequency to communicate with the lock. NFC is a short-range wireless protocol i.e. it works over a distance up to 10 cm or 3.9 inches. The communication of signals between smart card and NFC compatible key card lock systems takes place with the help of radio waves.

How does NFC smartphone key work?

The working mechanism of NFC smartphone keys is also similar to that of RFID key cards or Proximity Smart cards. These are actually apps which you can set up on your mobile phone or specifically smartphones. The NFC chip inside your smartphone will store the credentials required to access different facilities in your hotel. These apps are also known as mobile key management systems and they are used by many hotels all over the world. There is no need for any carrying key cards all the time with you. Once an access card is configured with these apps on your mobile phone, you don’t require them. They make use of your phone’s NFC chip as a key to access hotel rooms and to access other facilities.

Are smart cards reliable?

The fact that these cards are better in comparison with the RFID key cards has been proven by various studies and tests conducted on them. These results clearly indicate that adding a programmable memory inside a proximity card improves its security and effectiveness with enhanced features.

The same study also proved that smart cards are relatively more secure than contactless bank cards, especially when they are programmed with mutual authentication algorithms. These algorithms protect the data stored in the key card by encrypting the radio signals when sending or receiving them.

So smart cards are the latest trend in the hotel key cards industry. These cards are the best option for hotel owners. However, there is one more thing that the hotel owners should also concern about. The material used in the making of these key cards.

Related Post: Why Are Hotels Going Eco-Friendly?

As Plastic cards are negatively impacting the environment, governments all over the globe are making tougher regulations for hotels to curb the use of PVC. Therefore, hotel owners should look for eco-friendly options. The following sections discuss the material and size of access key cards.

What materials are available for a hotel key card?


Virtually every material is available to have an access key card. The most popular and cheap material is plastic. For higher durability, cards can be made from metal or aluminum. In the high-end sector, there is also a demand for expensive materials such as titanium or precious metals like gold or silver. In addition, there are also key cards made of glass, ceramic, and even wood.

Some companies even offer stone key cards with imprinted hotel keys on them! These can not only be used as decoration but are just as practical as plastic or metal key cards.

Below is a list of the different materials used in key cards.

  • PVC
  • Paper
  • Wood
  • ABS
  • PET
  • PETG
  • BioPVC
  • PLA
  • BioPaper


PVC or plastic is widely used in making hotel keys. Plastic cards are popular because they are inexpensive and ideal for mass production. The biggest disadvantage of PVC card is that it is artificial plastic that does not biodegrade in nature. It also emits a number of gases during the processing of the product. Furthermore, it remains for thousands of years in landfills and contaminates natural resources.

Despite all of these negative environmental impacts, PVC is still one of the leading materials for the production of access key cards. However, efforts are being made on a global scale to minimize the use of plastic and to provide economical and sustainable alternative materials. The latest eco-friendly, economic and sustainable material is BioPaper developed by Nexqo.


It is a natural material and completely biodegradable. It can be recycled with other paper products as well as wood-based materials such as door cards etc.

The production of paper key cards requires a huge amount of water. Furthermore, the raw material used in the making of paper is wood pulp which makes it unsustainable. However, the usage of paper for making hotel key cards is more eco-friendly than PVC. It is far less harmful than PVC and other polymers. However, the carbon footprint of the paper card is higher than other available options for making key cards.


Wood is also another eco-friendly material for the making of resort key cards. It is a natural material and it will bring the guest closer to nature. It is also very durable and should last the test of time. However, wood key cards are more expensive than PVC or paper key cards.


ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. It is a semi-crystalline thermoplastic, which can be found in many everyday items including building materials and car parts. This is also another popular material used for making key cards nowadays.

ABS can be recycled at any time. Although ABS has the same advantages as PVC, it also has its own disadvantages. The biggest problem with this material is that it emits highly toxic fumes/particles during processing which can cause chronic health issues as well as damage the environment when produced in larger quantities. Besides this disadvantage, it is an eco-friendly option for hotel owners for making access key cards.


Many companies are also making authentication key cards with PET material. PET stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate. This is another popular form of material for key cards because it has a high melting point and it resists water damage. But, all these qualities do not come without cost.

The good thing about this material is that it is BPA-free. It can be recycled. There are companies that have started using recycled PET to produce key cards. So it is an economical choice for hotels or resorts that wish to opt for eco-friendly material for the making of access control key cards.


PETG stands for polyethylene terephthalate glycol. It is another common material used for making hotel key cards. This type of plastic is actually a modified form of PET by adding glycol which makes it less brittle.

It has the same advantages as other forms of plastic but it is more resistant to chemicals, water, and humidity than others so it will not be damaged easily. It is 100% recyclable which makes it eco-friendly.


BioPVC key cards are also popular among hotel owners. BioPVC is an environment-friendly option for resorts because it is 100% biodegradable in a compostable environment. The BioPVC material is made up of crude oil and rock salt. The pricing varies depending upon the company that manufactures them, but they are pretty affordable than other materials.


PLA plastic is one of the eco-friendliest options for making access control cards. PLA or polylactic acid is an eco-friendly form of plastic that is made up of cornstarch or sugar cane. The manufacturing process results in 80% less carbon emission than PVC. Furthermore, it is biodegradable as well as recyclable.


The BioPaper material is an ideal material for the making of key cards. It is the latest environment-friendly alternative to PVC. This means it is 100% biodegradable, compostable, non-toxic.  less water consumption, zero-emission of toxic gases upon burning.

It is a plastic-like material having the same properties as plastic. However, it is 100% eco-friendly. It has emerged as the latest economical and eco-friendly solution for hotel key cards.

So these are the available materials for making resort keys. The most economic and eco-friendly option for security management systems in hotels is BioPaper. It is made up of natural material. So, to promote environmental awareness in your guests, you can use BioPaper hotel key cards developed by the researchers of Nexqo.

Want to know more about this revolutionary BioPaper? You can read more about BioPaper and its applications in this blog post.


Moving forward let me tell you the available sizes of hotel crucial cards in the market.

What dimensions are available for hotel key cards?

Hotel key cards are available in different dimensions. Smaller and bigger-sized key cards also exist for some reasons such as aesthetics and practicality. The choice of the size depends upon the hotel owner or management. However, it is better to stick with one size or go for smaller-sized cards if you are looking for a multi-purpose key card.

Key cards with bigger dimensions can come in handy when they have been put to use as photo identification. It also makes sense because larger-sized crucial cards are more durable than smaller ones. The following dimensions are available for access key cards.

  • CR80
  • CR50
  • custom hotel key cards sizes or shapes


The most popular size is CR80 (standard credit card). It is used by most hotels and resorts for their property access control systems. It measures up to 2.13” x 3.38“ inches.


The measurement for CR50 cards is 3.5″ X 1.75″ inches. This size is mostly used for magstripe cards.

Custom size or shapes:

Many hotel brands prefer to print electronic keys on custom size cards for branding purposes. Sometimes their needs don’t fit within the CR80 or CR50 size cards so they get their hotel keys printed on custom sizes and shapes. For example, membership cards should be of a special size or a specific shape.

So, it depends on the design of the hotel or resorts that what dimensions of key cards they would like to choose for their hotel’s room access control system. If they want something more stylish and attractive then they can go with custom hotel key cards.

What kind of information is usually included on a key card?

Some hotel managers or owners ask what kind of information should be included on crucial cards (key cards). It all depends upon the security requirement of the hotel. Hospitable brands include only the basic or important information on these cards. These may include the following.

  • The name of their brand.
  • A decent design/logo of their brand is also a must thing on the card.
  • Safety instructions for hotel services/facilities
  • Operation instructions with regard to the usage of key cards.
  • Wifi password.
  • Important phone or extension numbers such as reception, security, and room service.
  • Special instruction for example eco-friendly signs.

They do not include any other kind of information that might be considered sensitive for security purposes.

Final thoughts:

In this guide on hotel key cards, I have talked about the most important things while choosing the best option for your hotel. A lot more can also be written but the above-mentioned points are critical in making a better purchasing decision. Now you are capable of choosing the best option for your property.

According to American Hotel & Lodging Association, approximately 54,200 hotels are serving millions of guests, in the USA, and that number is expected to grow. As the majority of hotels upgrade their facilities with RFID-powered locks on doorways, guests will be able to bypass entering a room key into a lock by simply touching an electronic wristband or card against it. This modern technology has been hailed as one of the most significant upgrades for hospitality spaces since WiFi was implemented years ago. Nexqo can help you get started incorporating this advanced security measure at your property today. To learn more about how we might partner together, contact us now!

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