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Buying NFC Tags

Last Edited 10 January 2018 by NFC.Today

If you aren't a techie, then the idea of buying some NFC tags might seem a little daunting. There's a large variety of tags, shapes and chips. NFC.Today have put together a getting started guide to help you buy your NFC tags. Use the 'things to consider' to help you put together the information you will need for your order.

Step 1: What is your project ?

This is clearly a good place to start. Forget about all the chips, encoding and other technical stuff. First, you need to decide which type of NFC tags or products you need. NFC tags and products come in a variety of formats including keyfobs, wristbands, labels, hang tags, durable tags and more. Some products will cost more than others and having a couple of options in your mind will help your progress.

One of the most important aspects here is to decide if you can add NFC to what you are doing or need an NFC product in itself. For example, if you are running a tradeshow and want to add NFC to the typical neck hung vistor badges, then you have two options. The first is to simply stick a simple, plain, cheap NFC tag to the back of the paper badges that you usually print. The second is to create fully integrated printed NFC visitor badges. The lead time on the first option will be days and the cost will be low. On the second option, the lead time could be weeks and the costs much higher.

Perhaps you want to add NFC to a wine bottle for marketing and authentication. You can either find a label convertor to create fully integrated NFC wine bottle labels up to your usual standard - or stick a thin NFC tag on the bottle first and put your usual labels over the top. The end result in both these cases is the same. The difference is the logistics of how you get there.

Buy NFC TagsBuy NFC tags. Image : NFC.Today

Things to consider :

  • How long will you have from order to delivery ?
    Remember, that's not from now until your event. It's the amount of time you will have from when you are ready to place the order (incuding any web address that might need encoding or any artwork that might need printing) to when it has to be in your hands (which might be well in advance of the event date).
  • Will the tags or products need printing ?
    It's better here to make the distinction between whether you would like your NFC products/tags to have a logo or branding and whether you need to. Printing NFC tags and products isn't like making standard printed material. It can be complicated and flexibility here might help you hit a deadline.
  • NFC enhanced or NFC built in ?
    In many cases, it's (a lot) cheaper and easier to add NFC to a product than create an NFC product in itself. See the notes above on the difference.
  • Where will the tag be placed ?
    In particular, will the tag be used inside or outside ? A normal NFC sticker isn't designed for outside use. Can you cover the NFC tag with a more durable sticker or do you need a more industrial plastic encased tag ?
  • How long will the tag need to last ?
    There's two points here. First, in the product itself. If you need a wristband for a single evening event, there's probably not much point buying expensive silicone style wristbands when cheaper single use paper ones may work. Secondly, how long do you need the memory to last. If you are using NFC tags for asset management, some chips should hold the memory for years longer than others. It's important to ask.

Step 2: Do you need NFC encoding ?

Encoding is the process of putting data, such as a web address, into the memory of an NFC tag. In lower quantities up to perhaps 100 tags this can often be managed with an Android mobile phone after purchase. In larger quantities or if you aren't sure what you are doing, you will want to use your supplier or a specialist company to encode the data. There are some applications on the market in areas such as asset management or healthcare which do not require any encoding.

In some cases you might need a UID scan. Each NFC tag has a 14 character unique ID locked into the chip. That unique ID can be scanned and can be used to identify the tag and therefore the product or person that it's attached to. A few applications might use this UID and a list of the UIDs on the tags you have purchased will be required. This is different than encoding although the lead times are typically similar.

Things to consider :

  • Do you need encoding ?
    Three things to consider. First, what will need encoding ? If it's a web address for marketing then when will you get it as this will affect delivery times. Second, if you need to track each scan, then will probably you need each tag uniquely encoded. Do you have the analytics software to do this and importantly, when will get the web links/URLs for encoding ? Thirdly, how long is the data that you need encoding ? For example, a simple web address with, say 20-50 characters or some fancy 200 character unique ID sequence ?
  • Do you need a UID scan ?
    There's not many applications that need this but if you do, it will add lead time and if you are buying in any quantity you will need to get it done by your supplier.
  • If the encoding is unique, will you need to identify each tag visually ?
    This is important and can have a very significant bearing on both cost and lead time. If you need to visually identify each NFC tag then using stickers and labels shouldn't be much problem. It'll add a little cost and lead time but a good quality supplier can do this without too much effort. If, however, you need a unique ID on a silicone wristband then this is a huge task. It might need to be laser etched during manufacturing which could add many weeks and signficant cost (and risk) to the project.
Choosing an NFC Tag supplierChoosing an NFC Tag supplier. Image : 123rf

Step 3: Choosing your NFC chip

When you know what you may need encoding, you can start to get a picture of which chip will you will need. Generally, you can leave this to your supplier who should know what they are doing. However, there are plenty of NFC stores that don't know what they are doing so let's give some straightforward advice.

If you are planning to store a URL (web address) and aren't using any encryption or advanced features, then you need an NTAG213 chip. An NTAG210 may be cheaper and will usually work just fine. An NTAG215/NTAG216 will cost you more as they have more memory. However, you won't need it and will not perform better. They are not 'better' chips. They are the same but with memory you will not need.

If you aren't storing data but just need to access the UID for identification purposes, then either the NTAG213, NTAG210 or even MIFARE Ultralight® chips will work well for you.

Make sure your supplier is using genuine NXP chips. There are a large number of 'fake' chips on the market particularly the Ultralight. The performace may be reduced, the memory may not last and the unique ID's may not be unique. Check that your supplier knows the supply chain.

Things to consider :

  • An NFC Tag is an identifier, not the data
    It's fairly safe to say that if you need a chip with memory larger than an NTAG213, then you aren't doing your project correctly. Use your NFC tag to link to larger data (such as a simple web link to a large website, or a simple unique ID to detailed information about a product) rather than trying to store data on the tag itself. And, do not store vCard contact information on an NFC tag.
  • Insist on genuine chips
    The small amount of money you will save (if any) by using non-genuine chips will be lost many times over on dead tags, scan problems, duplicate UIDs and so on.

Step 4: Reducing the costs

There are number of quick techniques you can use to help reduce the cost.

  • Consider plain instead of printed
    Do you really need custom print products with your logo or artwork ? NFC tags and products are complicated microchip items and custom printing can add significant cost. Is there are a way you can add NFC to your project such as putting the NFC tag on the back of your poster (and scanning through) rather than on the front ?
  • Can you two part process ?
    For printed NFC tags it can often be cheaper to 'two part' rather than create a fully custom NFC item. For example, if you are putting hangers round the neck of a wine bottle, can you put a simple tag on the back of printed card hanger rather than created a fully integrated printed item ?
  • Bigger chips doesn't equal better performance
    The most popular range of NFC tags include the NTAG series chips. It's important to note that the larger memory NTAG215/216 do not perform any better than the smaller NTAG210/212/213 chips. And, if you are storing a short web address/URL then the cheap MIFARE Ultralight® chip can work just as well and, particularly in wristbands/keyfobs/etc save you money. Bigger isn't better. (Be careful with fake chips on Ultralight products though)
  • Careful of import tax / delays
    If you are buying your NFC tags/products from eBay or Amazon then firstly be very careful and secondly be aware that the shipment might be directly from Asia. In some of these cases, you might be hit with a tax/import bill. Our suggestion would be that if you are in Europe, order from a European based supplier. If you are in North America, order from a North American supplier and so on. NFC labels/stickers can often be shipped without duty but in the case of wristbands, keyfobs, etc, the customs authorities may not see them as RFID/NFC products and see them as promotional goods or similar - resulting in costly duties and/or delays.

Step 5: Choose your supplier

NFC.Today is currently sponsored by Seritag, so if you are looking for quality NFC tags and are in Europe, then Seritag is a great place to buy NFC tags.

If Seritag can't provide the tags you need or you are outside Europe, then this is what to look for :

  • Stock
    Check whether they have the products or tags that you are considering are actually in stock. Many suppliers order their tags from China and many order on demand. Which means that there can be significant (and unforeseen) delays from order to delivery. This can be substantial around the Chinese New Year in February. The simple solution is just to ask your supplier but also do not assume that stock today will mean stock tomorrow. If the products are coming from China, then do the sensible thing and allow extra time.
  • Encoding
    If you need encoding, will your supplier encode the tags themselves or outsource to the Chinese manufacturer or someone else ? There's not necessarily any problem with outsourcing encoding but it can add the risk of errors. It might also mean that your data is travelling around the world - something that may not be wise. A supplier that can encode in house will likely be faster, more secure and more reliable.
  • Printing
    If you are getting an ID print (with matching encoding) then see the previous note on encoding. If you are getting full colour print then your NFC supplier will be outsourcing. Double check lead times carefully but also make sure you understand how problems with print colour accuracy, clarity and so on will be resolved. If you require high quality pantone matching level of print - how accurate is this likely to be ?

Step 6: Check your tags

Once you get delivery of your tags then check them. You need to check a number of things.

  • Print/Quality
    If you have had printing, ID printing or similar, then check carefully. Don't just check the first item in the first box. It has been known that some less reliable manufacturers will put the high quality items at the top and push the badly printed ones to the bottom of the third box. Spot check each box from the middle/bottom.
  • Encoding
    In most cases, you can do this with a mobile phone yourself. If you have encoded the tags with a web address, just scan the tags and make sure they work probably and direct as intended. If you have had your tags locked to prevent any further changes to the tag then you can also check this with Apps such as NXP's Tagwriter or TagInfo on Android phones.
  • Genuine Tags
    If you download NXP's TagInfo App for Android (free), then you can scan the tags and it will tell you the manufacturer and chip type. Make sure you got what you paid for. Additionally, as with the print notes above be aware that some less than honest manufacturers may but genuine product at the top/front and hide fake chips within the delivery. Spot check throughout the delivery to make sure it's all as it should be.