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What’s the difference between RFID and NFC?

What’s the difference between RFID and NFC?

When acronyms mention, people get confused. That’s especially true when two acronyms stand for a couple of very similar wireless technologies. In this case, the acronyms are  NFC and RFID two close cousins in a world filled with wireless wizardry.

RFID tags contain an antenna and a memory chip that stores data. To see that data, you need an RFID reader. These tags and readers are used in a mind-blowing array of applications.

The tags are embedded into retail products to help stores keep tabs on inventory. Indeed, inventory and package tracking are two of the most common uses of RFID. But these tags can do much more. They’re stuck under your Live Stock skin or use Cattle Ear tag so that the Live Stock could be monitor using RFID Reader and identify each animal. The RFID highway toll tag in your car automatically identifies you to the toll reader, even at top speed, which bills you later. Some airlines use RFID tags to efficiently track and control large loads of baggage. And RFID appears in so-called smart passports and credit cards, as well as identification badges that let employees’ access secure areas.

RFID often works well at distances of many feet; otherwise, you’d have to veer your car dangerously close to a toll gate in order to make sure the reader accepted your payment. And RFID is a one-way communication system, in which data flows from tags to the reading equipment.

Long checkout lines at the grocery store are one of the biggest complaints about the shopping experience. Soon, these lines could disappear when the ubiquitous Universal Product Code(UPC) bar code is replaced by smart labels, also called radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID tags are intelligent barcodes that can talk to a networked system to track every product that you put in your shopping cart.

RFID tags, a technology once limited to tracking cattle, are tracking consumer products worldwide. Many manufacturers use the tags to track the location of each product they make from the time it’s made until it’s pulled off the shelf and tossed in a shopping cart.

Outside the realm of retail merchandise, RFID tags are tracking vehicles, airline passengers, Alzheimer’s patients, and pets. Soon, they may even track your preference for chunky or creamy peanut butter. Some critics say RFID technology is becoming too much a part of our lives — that is if we’re even aware of all the parts of our lives that it affects.

Imagine going to the grocery store, filling up your cart and walking right out the door. No longer will you have to wait as someone rings up each item in your cart one at a time. Instead, these RFID tags will communicate with an electronic reader that will detect every item in the cart and ring each up almost instantly. The reader will be connected to a large network that will send information on your products to the retailer and product manufacturers. Your bank will then be notified and the amount of the bill will be deducted from your account. No lines, no waiting.

NFC technology is a newer, more finely honed version of RFID. It operates at a maximum range of about 4 inches (10 centimeters) and can be set up for one- or two-way communications.

Let’s start with a one-way NFC data transfer. Using your NFC smartphone, you can tap NFC smart tags that might appear in everything from promotional movie posters and political flyers to museum tour placards. Smart tags are a lot like RFID tags; they’re simply tuned to work with an NFC reader instead of an RFID one.

Near field communication’s capabilities go far beyond being a short-range, RFID stand-in. On the next page, you see where NFC and RFID come to a fork in the road — and say their goodbyes once and for all.

RFIDis a one-trick tech: A reader detects and pulls information from a tag. That’s about the extent of these systems. NFC is more complex.

As you just read, NFC duplicates RFID’s feat by reading smart tags, thanks to its read/write operation mode. But in addition, to read/write capabilities, NFC has two other modes, both of which involve dynamic, two-way communication: card emulation and P2P (peer-to-peer). That’s where smartphones and other NFC-capable devices come into play.

NFC stands for near field communication, while RFID means radio frequency identification. Both employ radio signals for all sorts of tagging and tracking purposes, sometimes replacing bar codes. NFC is still an emerging technology; RFID, however, is currently in widespread use all over the world.


Although RFID systems can use many carrier frequencies, three dominate the market: LF, which uses the 125 to 135 KHz band; HF, which operates at 13.56 MHz; and UHF, which primarily is used in the 865 to 955 MHz band. The 2.4 GHz band may also be included in UHF. In some case, Passive tags that can be interrogated at a range of 80 feet.

LF, HF, UHF, Passive, and Active Tags

LF: Low Frequency (LF) RFID

Low Frequency (LF) RFID operates at the 135 kHz range and has a very short read range (1-2 inches normally). This type of RFID essentially requires contact to a reader to capture the data. While this type is not useful for product tracking, you will find it embedded in IDs and other key Fob applications for access/parking control, authentication, event attendance management, ticketing, and card payments.

HF: High Frequency (HF) RFID

High Frequency (HF) RFID operates at the 13.56 MHz range and typically has a short read range of about 5 inches. However, with specialized readers and larger tags, you can reach almost 3ft. HF RFID tags have less interference issues than UHF so, while their range is limited, they are a good solution for small object tagging on automated lines. High-speed reading is also possible which has made HF a good option in healthcare environments where small vials and samples need to be read.


Ultra High Frequency (UHF) RFID operates between 902-928 MHz in North America and has read ranges up to approximately 10ft. UHF has become the most used option in Auto-ID applications due to its long read range and dropping costs. UHF does have more issues with interference, but a well-designed system can overcome these problems. UHF RFID is also well suited for mounting on label stock, making it the perfect item/container-level tagging option.

Passive RFID Systems use tags with no internal power source and instead are powered by the electromagnetic energy transmitted from an RFID reader. Passive RFID tags are used for applications such as access control,  file tracking race timing supply chain management,  Smart Labels and more. The lower price point per tag makes employing passive RFID systems economical for many industries.

Active RFID systems use battery-powered RFID tags that continuously broadcast their own signal. Active RFID tags are commonly used as “beacons” to accurately track the real-time location of assets or in high-speed environments such as tolling. Active tags provide a much longer read range than passive tags, but they are also much more expensive.