What is a smart card?
A smart card is a device that includes an embedded integrated circuit that can be either a secure microcontroller or equivalent intelligence with internal memory or a memory chip alone. The card connects to a reader with direct physical contact or with a remote contactless radio frequency interface. With an embedded microcontroller, smart cards have the unique ability to store large amounts of data, carry out their own on-card functions (e.g., encryption and mutual authentication) and interact intelligently with a smart card reader. Smart card technology conforms to international standards (ISO/IEC 7816 and ISO/IEC 14443) and is available in a variety of form factors, including plastic cards, key fobs, watches, subscriber identification modules used in GSM mobile phones, and USB-based tokens.
What are the ISO/IEC 14443 and ISO/IEC 7816 standards?
ISO/IEC 14443 is the international standard for contactless smart chips and cards that operate (i.e., can be read from or written to) at a distance of less than 10 centimeters (4 inches). This standard operates at 13.56 MHz and includes specifications for the physical characteristics, radio frequency power and signal interface, initialization and anticollision protocols and transmission protocol.
ISO/IEC 7816 is the international standard for contact smart cards. ISO/IEC 7816 Parts 4 and above are used by both contact and contactless smart card applications for security operations and commands for interchange.
What is a contactless smart card?
A contactless smart card includes an embedded smart card secure microcontroller or equivalent intelligence, internal memory and a small antenna and communicates with a reader through a contactless radio frequency (RF) interface. Contactless smart card technology is used in applications that need to protect personal information and/or deliver fast, secure transactions, such as transit fare payment cards, government and corporate identification cards, documents such as electronic passports and visas, and financial payment cards. Example applications using contactless smart card technology include:
The U.S. FIPS 201 Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card being issued by all Federal agencies for employees and contractors;
The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) being issued by the Transportation Security Administration;
The First Responder Authentication Card (FRAC) being issued in Department of Homeland Security pilots;
The new U.S. ePassport being issued by the Department of State;
Contactless payment cards and devices being issued by American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa
Contactless transit fare payment systems currently operating or being installed in such cities as Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Contactless smart cards have the ability to securely manage, store and provide access to data on the card, perform on-card functions (e.g., encryption and mutual authentication) and interact intelligently with a contactless smart card reader. Contactless smart card technology and applications conform to international standards (ISO/IEC 14443 and ISO/IEC 7816). Contactless smart card technology is available in a variety of forms – in plastic cards, watches, key fobs, documents and other handheld devices (e.g., built into mobile phones).
How do contactless smart cards work?
Contactless smart card systems are closely related to contact smart card systems. Like contact smart card systems, information is stored on a chip embedded within the contactless smart card. However, unlike the contact smart card, the power supplied to the card as well as the data exchanged between the card and the reader are achieved without the use of contacts, using magnetic or electromagnetic fields to both power the card as well as to exchange data with the reader.
The contactless smart card contains an antenna embedded within the plastic body of the card (or within a key fob, watch or other document). When the card is brought into the electromagnetic field of the reader, the chip in the card is powered on. Once the chip is powered on, a wireless communication protocol is initiated and established between the card and the reader for data transfer.
The following four functions describe at a high level the sequence of events that happen when a contactless smart card is brought near a card reader:
Energy transfer to the card for powering the integrated circuit (chip)
Clock signal transfer
Data transfer to the contactless smart card
Data transfer from the contactless smart card
Hence, once the card is brought within range of an electromagnetic field of the required frequency, the card will be powered up, ready to communicate with the reader. Since the contactless smart cards described in this FAQ are based on the ISO/IEC 14443 standard, this frequency is 13.56 MHz and a reader that complies with the standard would have an activation field (range) of about 4 inches (approximately 10 centimeters). In other words, the card needs to be within 10 centimeters of a reader for it to be effectively powered; however, the effective range for communications for the card to be read will depend on a number of factors like the power of the reader, the antenna of the reader and the antenna of the card.