Clarifying RFID vs. NFC


We’ve all heard of these technologies.

But what are they, at their essence?

How do they work?

And are there any common misconceptions out there that can be clarified?

Learn more in today’s blog post.

RFID and NFC: A Quick Explanation

RFID encompasses all “Radio Frequency Identification” technologies.  NFC stands for “Near Field Communication” and is a subset of RFID.

Many believe that the terms are mutually exclusive, but this is not true.  The confusion stems from the fact that the term RFID is generally – and carelessly – used today to refer to a specific technology which operates in the UHF spectrum.  Also, NFC technology uses HF radio waves.

RFID: An Overview

RFID is an older term, so we’re going to start off with RFID first.

At its most basic definition, RFID is a set of technologies that uses radio frequencies (more precisely, radio waves operating at different frequencies) to identify products, people, transactions, etc., especially throughout a supply chain.

On one level, RFID a blanket term to cover all technologies that use radio waves to identify things.

There is, however, confusion surrounding the term, because many people now use it to refer to a specific type of RFID.  We will be clarifying this below.

How does RFID Work?

Electromagnetic waves are oscillating patterns of electric and magnetic energy that travel through space.

Electromagnetic waves are generally classified according to their “frequencies” – in other words, how often they recur per unit of time.

This classification system is commonly known as the electromagnetic spectrum.  The electromagnetic spectrum classifies bands of wave frequencies with names such as microwaves, gamma rays, infrared waves, etc. – and radio waves.

Another common way to classify electromagnetic waves is by their wavelength (the distance between waves), but we will use the concept of frequency for this post.

So, radio waves are simply a subset of the electromagnetic wave spectrum.  Stated another way, radio waves cover a band of wave frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Here is a nice graphic showing the basic electromagnetic spectrum:

Electromagnetic Spectrum


You can see that radio waves have lower frequencies than many of the other types of electromagnetic waves that you have heard of.

Radio waves are further classified into subsets.

Some names for common subsets are: LF (Low Frequency), HF (High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency), but these are not the only subsets as you can see in this chart:

RFID as we know it in the industry of “automatic identification” (auto ID, AIDC, etc.) commonly uses LF, HF and UHF radio waves.

In order to work, RFID needs two main mechanisms: an RFID tag (also called an RFID chip) and an RFID reader.

RFID tags are usually embedded in, attached to, or injected in the items they are expected to track.

These tags are outfitted with memory chips which store data and with antennae that receive and convey radio signals which are sent by RFID readers.

Common RFID applications use radio signals for requesting, receiving, and transmitting data in four different frequency ranges: 125-134.2 kHz, 13.56 MHz, 860-960 MHz, and 2.45 GHz.

It is important to keep in mind that when people use the term “RFID” today, they are usually referring specifically to RFID operating in the UHF range of 860-960 MHz.

The most common specifications for this UHF RFID are covered by the GS1 UHF Gen2 protocol which ISO/IEC has standardized as 18000-63.

This technology is also often referred to as RAIN RFID.  RAIN RFID is really a global alliance of key players in RFID promoting the universal adoption of the GS1 UHF Gen2 RFID technology and standards.

A quick note about RAIN RFID: Unfortunately, confusion arises because people are increasingly using just the term “RFID” to mean specifically RAIN RFID (a.k.a. GS1 Gen2 UHF RFID). So, what is RAIN RFID? Essentially, RAIN RFID is a specific RFID protocol using radio waves in the 860-960 MHz band.  This RFID is based on precise standards developed by GS1 and promoted by RAIN.

In general, the lower the radio frequency that is being used, the shorter the distance is between the RFID reader and the RFID tag it’s trying to read.

By using UHF, RAIN RFID systems have longer read ranges than NFC (which uses HF radio waves) systems.

RFID Applications

Besides being used in the automotive industry for various applications (including to help identify hidden mounted components during the assembly process), RFID has other industry uses that are only continuing to grow.

It is often used to track inventory in many kinds of sectors, including, but not limited to: healthcare, manufacturing, livestock, and retail products.

You may be surprised to find out that radio frequency technologies are also a key component in security badges.  When you scan a security badge, for example, it is linked to a database that shows whether or not you can enter the building based on your access level.  Most access control systems use HF radio waves.

Let’s not forget pets; with chipping technology, now you can keep tabs on your cats, dogs, and other animals if they get loose.  These systems are also primarily based on HF technology.

It’s even being used for growing industries like marijuana. For example, last July, marijuana seed-to-sale tracking technology was unveiled in Massachusetts which uses radio frequency tags to track packages and plants throughout their journey.

Also, RFID applications using LF can be found in solutions such as implanting an RFID chip in livestock, so that the animals can be identified using a wand reader.  LF is also common in access control solutions such as hotel key cards.

Moreover, typical HF applications include identity cards, contactless bus passes and payment solutions (Apple Pay, for example).  NFC is a specific type of HF RFID, and we will cover NFC in more detail below.

NFC: A Quick Overview

NFC – which stands for Near Field Communication – can be thought of as a more specific form of RFID which also uses electromagnetic radio signals to transfer data.

The term NFC can still be confusing, because “near field communications” (note that this is lowercase) is also a blanket term for any radio wave technology involving two devices communicating at a close distance.  NFC (in caps) is a specific set of standards for one type of near field communications.

Most of the standards for NFC are developed and maintained by an organization called the NFC Forum.  The NFC Forum is like a combination of GS1 (standards development) and RAIN (applications and commercial considerations) but for NFC. The NFC Forum is a predominant alliance driving adoption of the technology.

NFC is also known as a type of contactless technology, especially since one of its main applications is contactless payments (e.g., Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Pay for Android).

How does NFC Work?

Like UHF RFID, NFC consists of two main components: NFC tags (also called smart tags or NFC chips) and the devices that read them.

These small NFC-enabled chips contain integrated circuits that allow them to store and communicate data.

NFC operates in three different modes:

  • Tag Reader/Writer Mode: This mode connects the world of apps with NFC tags embedded in products, posters, labels, etc. For example, if you would like to know when the next bus is leaving, you could use your cell phone to scan a printed timetable with an embedded NFC chip.  An interactive app might then come up on your phone, allowing you to do things like select a destination, preferred route, etc.
  • Peer-to-Peer Mode: This mode connects devices through physical proximity, so they can quickly share information (for example, two NFC-enabled laptops sharing data with one another).
  • Card Emulation: This mode connects to a common infrastructure (e.g., contactless payments, contactless ticketing, etc.).

Unlike UHF RFID, NFC only works at short distances – usually a range of 4 centimeters or less. NFC technology is specified to operate at a frequency of 13.56 MHz.

In order to transfer data, you will typically bring an NFC device (which can include smartphones, credit cards, and as we mentioned above, laptops) in close proximity with another device that’s enabled to read it. Sometimes this is called “bumping” devices.

For instance, if you’re using Apple Pay to pay for a transaction in lieu of a physical credit card, debit card, or cash, you will hold your smartphone up to an NFC-enabled payment terminal to complete the transaction.

Meanwhile, to transfer data from one laptop with built-in NFC technology to another, all you need to do is place the laptops close to each other.

NFC Applications

We’ve already mentioned some of the most well-known applications of NFC: contactless payments, contactless ticketing, and NFC-enabled laptops. But NFC offers many other applications.

One of these applications is smart packaging. For instance, wine companies such as 19 Crimes and Chateau St John have started embedding NFC tags in their wine labels that consumers with NFC-enabled smartphones (a quick note: most smartphones now come automatically furnished with this technology) can download an app and then scan the label. Once you scan the wine label, an interactive video will show up on your phone screen.

But this isn’t the only way companies are using NFC tags for marketing tools. Besides smart packaging, we now have smart displays and smart posters with embedded NFC tags that consumers can scan for more information about the products, shows, services, and events that are being advertised.

Because most smartphones have NFC capabilities, you can also transfer data like photos and virtual business cards from one phone to the other, much like you can with laptops.

Another application that’s grown in use in Europe (the UK especially) is with public transportation. London is a prime example. Instead of the tokens and printed tickets of the past, Londoners now use NFC-enabled Oyster cards to pay for bus, train, and Tube rides.

“RFID” vs. NFC: How Do They Differ?

As you’ve discovered, UHF RFID and NFC have many things in common. But there are crucial distinctions between them.

Distance is probably the #1 differentiator between RFID and NFC. Because it uses a higher frequency range, RFID is designed for larger distances – anywhere from several inches to hundreds of feet. But as we mentioned above, NFC’s range is generally limited to a range of 4 centimeters.

As a result, while RFID remains a great tool for tracking inventory, NFC is not.

RFID and NFC differ in their modes as well. Both technologies use the tag reader/writer mode, but NFC has two other modes (peer-to-peer and card emulation) that RFID does not support.

Lastly, while RFID tags often need to be read by special RFID reading devices, NFC tags can be read by devices that serve many other purposes. Whether smartphones, payment terminals, or other smart devices, the sky’s the limit for NFC-reading devices.

What’s Next?

In the next blog post, we will go into more detail on RFID. In the meantime, if you are looking for RFID printing solutions, we invite you to explore our RFID printers here!


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