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Updated Nov 20, 2023

Key Fobs 101: What Small Businesses Need to Know

Key fobs are essential elements of many access control systems. Here's how they work and how your small business can use them.

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Written By: Kiely KuligowskiBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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If you must hand physical copies of building keys to employees, you know how challenging and time-consuming it is to track personnel access in your facility. Dealing with physical keys is also a security risk because employees may misplace, copy or use keys after hours without your knowledge.

Key fobs are a solution for business owners and building managers who want more secure entry systems. They let you track, manage and limit access to your building without traditional keys. If you’re considering implementing a keyless entry system in your facility, here’s everything you should know.

Did You Know?Did you know
Physical security can affect cybersecurity. Poor access management can lead to cyberattacks when unauthorized individuals access sensitive or restricted data and resources.

What is a key fob?

A key fob is a physical device small enough to attach to a keychain that opens or unlocks doors electronically. A mainstay of keyless electronic door lock systems, the key fob has gone through many iterations since its inception in 1983. 

Early systems, used mainly in automobiles, relied on line-of-sight and infrared but were highly susceptible to copying. Systems developed over time to use challenge-response authentication over radio frequency. They now operate primarily over a passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, allowing the exchange of data through electromagnetic waves.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right access control system for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Key fobs and cards are used with various access control systems and offer a straightforward way for small businesses to manage entry into their facilities. They are increasingly popular elements of small business security systems because of their ease of use and customizability, allowing business owners to control who can access which doors, see records of entries and exits, and adjust access as their workforce changes. 

What is a proximity key?

A proximity key is a fob that allows for keyless entry. The fob communicates with a reader via RFID that a door should be unlocked. A proximity key is different from a key fob because a fob must be waved in front of the reader to allow access. In contrast, a proximity key can remain in a bag or pocket to unlock the door as long as it’s within a certain distance of the lock. Proximity keys are primarily used for cars but are gradually being adopted for building access control systems.

For additional control over employee access, time and attendance, consider a biometric time and attendance system – but understand that strict laws govern their usage.

How do key fobs work?

Modern key fobs work through RFID, an intelligent barcode system that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track data on “tags” containing stored information. The information then passes through radio waves.

The barcode system works similarly to the barcodes you see on the back of physical products. It requires a reader to gain the information.

To open a door using a key fob, hold or wave the fob in front of the reader. Each key fob contains a microchip with a unique frequency that communicates with the reader and indicates that the door should be opened. 

You can program fobs to allow access levels for various uses. For example, you could program your building manager’s fob to access all doors in a facility, while a help desk worker’s fob may allow access to only a few areas.

Did You Know?Did you know
RFID is also used in asset tracking. RFID-based asset tracking makes it easy to scan multiple items simultaneously and reach assets that aren't easily accessible.

Why are key fobs used?

Key fobs are known for their ease of use, convenience, security and access control features. 

  • Key fobs are easy to use and convenient. Key fobs eliminate the process of wiggling a metal key around in a lock. All you have to do is hold or wave the fob over the reader. Proximity keys are another excellent option for easy entry because you don’t even have to take them out of your pocket or bag for them to detect the lock.
  • Key fobs are more secure than keys. Key fobs provide the same function as traditional keys but offer additional security. If a fob is lost or you wish to deny entry to someone (a former employee or tenant), you can easily cancel access on that particular fob. 
  • Key fobs allow greater access control. Additionally, key fobs allow you to control who can enter which doors and when. For example, you can allow access to a warehouse only to necessary employees during their designated work times. Fobs also help you keep records of entries and exits to manage employee attendance, monitor visitors or evaluate staff mobility.
If you must fire an employee, cancel entry access on their key fob so they can no longer come into the building. You can also authorize specific employees to enter high-security areas during designated shifts.

Where are key fobs used?

Key fobs and proximity keys are often used for cars with keyless entry. However, they are also now commonplace secure entry tools for:

  • Office buildings
  • Apartment or condominium buildings
  • Recreational areas
  • Parking garages
  • College campuses and dorms
  • Gym facilities
  • Office spaces 

They’re also ideal for buildings with restricted areas, such as storage rooms, and warehouses holding valuable inventory.

What are the costs of a key fob system?

Depending on the system and the features you require, an access control system that uses key fobs and readers will cost around $1,500 to $2,500 per door with access for up to 150 people. This includes additional costs like wiring and employee training. Additional or replacement key fobs costs can vary by system and manufacturer. Some replacements can be as much as $400.

Can you copy a key fob?

Yes, you can make a copy of a key fob. However, it requires some technical knowledge and an RFID reader. You can buy an RFID reader online that allows you to read and write 125 kHz key fobs, the most common type for apartment and office buildings. If you don’t want to do it yourself, several key-fob-copying services can clone your fob for you.

Copying a key fob is equivalent to taking your metal key to the hardware store to make a copy. The copy is identical to the original fob, meaning it’s subject to the same allowances and restrictions.

Can smart door locks be hacked?

Yes, it’s possible to hack into the smart doors that key fobs open, making them among the devices you must secure from hackers.

Security teams have demonstrated how hackers can steal badge data from your fob and copy it to their cards, badges, or fobs. Most RFID-enabled tags are not encrypted and do not carry any sophisticated protection, leaving them vulnerable to scammers. 

To avoid your fobs being hacked, consider an RFID-blocking sleeve to cover your fob. You can also change your system to one that does not broadcast information to a hacker’s reader, like a rolling code or challenge-response approach.

If you use key cards, Ryan Smith, owner of Keycard Ninja, recommends including a printed photo ID on them because a photo cannot be duplicated onto a new card.

Did You Know?Did you know
Small business cybersecurity measures should include secure backups, encryption software and the use of password managers.

Do magnets affect key fobs?

No. A common magnet is not strong enough to interfere with, impair or otherwise compromise your employees’ key fobs. For example, you could hang your key fob near metal without worrying. 

Can a locksmith program a key fob?

This depends on the system that you use and the locksmith. Some larger locksmiths offer the service, but you should contact your access control system provider first to see what support options it provides.

Do you have to reprogram a key fob after replacing the battery?

Generally, no. If you have a professional replace your battery, they should be able to do it without having to reprogram the fobs.

How is a key fob used in multifactor authentication?

Just as a key fob is an excellent way to upgrade a building’s security, two-factor authentication is one of the best ways to upgrade your business’s digital security. 

In recent years, security keys have been created that operate similarly to key fobs. Employees must insert a physical USB-A or USB-C security key or enter an algorithm-based code from the key fob and then enter a strong password to access sensitive information, protected data or online accounts.

Tips for introducing a new key fob access system

Consider the following best practices when introducing a new key fob access system in your organization: 

  • Train your employees on using their key fobs. When you give employees their fobs, take a few minutes to review the system with them, answer their questions and provide a list of FAQs. Include any pertinent key fob information in your employee handbook.
  • Emphasize the key fob’s personalized nature. Let employees know their fob is unique to them and should not be shared with colleagues.
  • Create a key fob admin system. Set up a clear and easy process for employees to report missing or lost key fobs. If a fob is misplaced, you will want to deactivate it immediately.
Consider choosing a video surveillance system to enhance your facility's physical security and help protect it from theft, intrusion, natural disasters and burglary.

Benefits of key fobs for keyless entry

Small and large businesses increasingly use key fobs as an essential element of their access control systems. In addition to being secure – thanks to RFID technology – they are also programmable. Businesses can customize who has access and when that access is allowed. 

Key fob systems can also provide reports of who enters or exits an area of a building and when they were there. And because each fob is unique to its owner, it can be easily deactivated if an employee loses one. This is in contrast to physical keys – you’d need to change them all if one is compromised. Business owners should seriously consider key fobs as part of their access control strategy.

Jessica Pooree contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. 

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Written By: Kiely KuligowskiBusiness Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Kiely Kuligowski is an expert in project management and business software. Her project management experience includes establishing project scopes and timelines and monitoring progress and delivery quality on behalf of various clients. Kuligowski also has experience in product marketing and contributing to business fundraising efforts. On the business software side, Kuligowski has evaluated a range of products and developed in-depth guides for making the most of various tools, such as email marketing services, text message marketing solutions and business phone systems. In recent years, she has focused on sustainability software and project management for IBM.
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