The Difference Between NFC and RFID

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RFID and NFC are two closely related wireless communication technologies that are used globally for a vast number of applications such as access control, asset tracking and contactless payments. RFID was first patented in 1983 and is the precursor to NFC, so we will begin there.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

RFID enables a one way wireless communication, typically between an unpowered RFID tag and a powered RFID reader. RFID tags can be scanned at distances of up to 100 meters without a direct line of sight to the reader and as such RFID is used globally for asset tracking in warehousing, airport baggage handling, livestock identification and much more. RFID operates at a range of radio frequencies each with their own set standards and protocols.

RFID Frequency Band Scan Distance
120-150 kHz (Low Frequency, LF) Up to 10 cm
13.56 MHz (High Frequency, HF) Up to 1 m
433 MHz (Ultra High Frequency, UHF) 1-100 m
860-960 MHz (Ultralight High Frequency, UHF) Typically 1-12 m (tag dependent)
2450-5800 MHz (Microwave) 1-2 m (Active Tags)
3.1-10 GHz (Microwave) Up to 200 m (Active Tags)

 

RFID tags can be active or passive. Simply, active means that they are powered and can transmit data. Passive means that they do not have their own power source and must be powered by another device. Active RFID tags can broadcast their data up to 100m. Passive RFID tags have a more limited read range up to around 20m.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

NFC is best described as a subset of RFID. NFC operates within a specific High Frequency (HF) of 13.56 MHz and is an extension of High Frequency (HF) RFID standards. NFC therefore shares many physical properties with RFID such as one way communication and the ability to communicate without a direct line of sight. There are however three key differences.

1. NFC is capable of two way communication and can therefore be used for more complex interactions such as card emulation and peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing.

2. NFC is limited to communication at close proximity, typically a few cm, although distances up to ten times this are theoretically possible.

3. Only a single NFC tag can be scanned at one time.

The requirement for close proximity can make NFC a more secure option. This, together with NFC’s ability for two way communications, has made it an ideal choice for contactless payments.

Arguably, this is perhaps the most important difference between NFC and RFID. Partly driven by the requirement for mobiles to be able to make contactless payments, almost all modern smartphones are now NFC enabled. Most mobile NFC devices can read tags compliant to ISO/IEC 14443 (NFC Forum Types 1, 2 and 4) and many can also read tags compliant with ISO 15693 (the new NFC Forum Type 5).

NFC-enabled phones offer both businesses and day-to-day users slick and intuitive communication between mobile phones and between a mobile phone and an NFC tag. Examples include file sharing via Android Beam, instant connection setups between electronic devices and the ability to link everyday objects such as posters to online content.