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Technology has come a long way, and the rise of microchips has led to increased use of smart cards. Smart card technology is used to make payments, verify identities, and more.

In this article, we’ll define smart cards and explain what they’re used for, how they work, and how the financial landscape is changing because of them.

What is a smart card?

DEFINITION
Smart Card
A smart card is a physical card that has a built-in memory chip, allowing it to transfer data electronically. Credit cards, SIM cards, and certain ID cards are all examples of smart cards. Smart cards can maintain all of their necessary functions and details without having to connect to any external databases thanks to their integrated circuits.

Smart cards are subject to international standards and requirements (ISO/IEC 7816 and ISO/IEC 14443) because they need to ensure interoperability, security, and reliability across various platforms and devices worldwide. These standards dictate the physical characteristics, communication protocols, and application programming interfaces for cards used in banking, telecommunications, and other smart card applications.

What are smart cards used for?

Smart cards are used to verify identities, authenticate access, store data, and transfer payments. Virtual business cards are also examples of smart cards.

Important smart card trends

In 2019, the global smart card market was valued at about $10.19 Billion. It’s expected to reach $15.57 Billion by 2027. This means that the market will grow at a CAGR of 6.2% from 2020–2027.

Banks and credit card providers have also been encouraging the use of contactless smart cards and the COVID-19 pandemic has only helped their cause. By the middle of 2020, Visa had 93 million contactless smart cards in circulation. Smart cards have become a major payment channel, offering an alternative to other modes of payment like ACH payments and EDI payments.

What do smart cards look like?

Smart cards usually have the following characteristics:

  • Dimensions: Smart cards come in two sizes: The first is 85.60 by 53.98 millimeters, and the other one is 25 by 15 millimeters. Both are 0.76 millimeters thick.
  • Material: Smart cards are primarily built of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). However, polyethylene-terephthalate-based polyesters, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or polycarbonate are also used. Simply put, your smart card will feel like plastic.
  • Internal: Smart cards have various security features, such as temper resistance to power features that securely interchange information.

How do smart cards work?

An external smart card reader powers a smart card. The smart card communicates with the card reader via a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip or a Carrier Sensing Collision Detection (CSCD) system protocol.

A serial interface exchanges data between the smart card and card reader. Here are some of the ways the two communicate:

  • Physical contact
  • RFID
  • Short-range wireless connectivity

The processor inside smart cards contains operating systems that perform various functions such as:

  • Security
  • Data transmission
  • Data storage

How smart cards are used

Most industries have adopted smart cards in some way, either for business or entertainment purposes. Here are some of the ways smart cards are used:

  • Payment method for secure transactions at payment terminals, ATMs, and online stores
  • Access control to restricted buildings like workplaces, university dorms, and
  • Identification cards assigned by companies or governments, like driver’s licenses and medical records
  • Security certificate storage and protocols for web browsers to enable secure browsing
  • SIM cards for cellular devices

The history of smart cards

The smart card, in its first rendition, was invented in 1959. German engineers integrated the electronic chip with plastic in the late 1960s. Here’s a brief timeline of smart card development since then:

  • 1995: First SIM cards launched
  • 1999: First national eID card launched (Finland ID)
  • 2003: Micro-SIM launched
  • 2003: Chip and PIN cards begin to be issued in the United Kingdom.
  • 2005: First International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) compliant electronic passport issued.
  • 2006: Rollouts of smart cards begin in Asia, Europe and the United States.
  • 2012: Nano-SIM introduced
  • 2018: First biometric contactless payment card and eSIM launched
  • 2019: First 5G SIM launched
  • 2021: First voice payment card launched
  • 2022: Contactless cards accounted for 84% of all global card shipments
  • 2023: First Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) certified iSIM

Smart card patents

Roland Moreno conceptualized the smart cards in the mid-1970s and patented the memory card in 1974. Bull CP8, SGS Thomson, and Schlumberger further developed smart cards in 1977.

Michel Hugon of Bull CP8 created the first fully functioning microprocessor-based card with local memory in March 1979. He invented the computerized smart card.

Early use in banking

The use of smart cards in the banking sector started in France in 1974. A portable memory device was invented by a French engineer that offered more secure and reliable payment methods. It spread across France in 1988 and was exported to the rest of the world in 1997.

Smart cards took time to gain a foothold in Europe. This is due to how expensive they were relative to magnetic-strip cards at the time. It wasn’t until 2006 that most European banks introduced smart cards.

SIM cards and the rise of national IDs

The first ever SIM card was developed in 1991, and around 300 SIM cards were sold to Finnish wireless network operators. Today, SIM cards connect seven billion devices to cellular networks across the globe.

Finland was the first country to implement electronic IDs in 1999. In 2003, these were upgraded to national ID cards, which enabled the use of digital signatures. Eventually, these cards came to store health information along with ID data.

Smart passports

Setec equipped Norway with electronic smart passports in 2005. Norwegian biometric passports meet ICAO and EU security standards. The passport's microchips contain the holder's personal information and digital photo.

2019 to current

The smart card market is expected to expand exponentially, primarily due to the rise of digital national ID and SIM cards. SIM cards accounted for 42% of the smart card market in 2020. It increased to 50% of the total market less than a year later.

COVID-19 massively increased the demand for smart cards. As businesses trend toward private communication, cellular technologies such as 5G, LTE, eSIM, and M2M, smart card adoption is increasing.

Types of smart cards

Smart cards are categorized by their data read/write capabilities, chip type, and chip capabilities. There are various types of smart cards, as detailed below.

Contact and contactless cards

These two major types of smart cards have different properties and uses. Electrical connectors connect a contact smart card to the card reader that transmits data. The card's gold-plated covering holds the electronic cardholder certificate.

However, you can use contactless smart cards by simply tapping them on the card reader. They use RFID or NFC technology and transmit data seamlessly.

Hybrid cards

Hybrid cards are more technologically advanced than other types of smart cards. They’re embedded with memory and microprocessor chips. The proximity chip allows physical access to restricted places, while the contact smart card chip verifies sign-in details.

Dual-interface smart cards

Dual-interface smart cards can be used in both contactless and contact payments. These cards typically work with EMV readers but also contain NFC chips to transfer information. Most bank cards are dual interface cards.

Microprocessors

These cards contain an IC microchip with a microprocessor and memory. They can be contactless or need contact to transfer data. Microprocessor cards contain sophisticated architecture like Java and dot net powering their functions. They can store complex data such as business credit scores, helping you track business expenses.

What is the difference between a smart card and a debit card?

A smart card is embedded with a microprocessor chip that allows it to store and process data, enabling functionalities such as encryption and digital authentication. A debit card, on the other hand, is a plastic card that’s directly linked to a bank account and primarily used for financial transactions, typically relying on a magnetic stripe, or magstripe, for security.

What is the difference between a smart card and a credit card?

Both smart cards and credit cards contain embedded chips, but while a smart card uses its microprocessor for complex data processing and secure transactions, a credit card primarily provides a line of credit for financial transactions with simpler security features. Debit and credit cards with just a magnetic stripe are less secure than smart cards, which is why companies like Mastercard are starting to phase them out. In the near future, our cards may only contain chip technology.

What is the difference between a smart card and a SIM card?

Both a smart card and a SIM card are embedded with microprocessors, but while the smart card serves multiple purposes such as secure transactions and identity verification, a SIM card is specifically tailored for mobile devices to store network and subscriber information and enable communication services.

Pros and cons of smart cards

Smart cards offer several advantages but a few disadvantages too. Here they are in no particular order.

Pros of smart cards

  • Security: Smart cards hold more authentication and account data than magnetic stripe cards, making them more secure. Unlike magnetic stripe cards, smart cards resist electronic interference and magnetic fields.
  • Large and impenetrable memory: Smart cards provide tamper-resistant memory ideal for storing confidential data.
  • Prevent fraud: Smart cards reduce fraud and theft by securely storing sensitive data. Unlike magnetic strip cards, malicious actors can’t easily replicate or read smart card data.

Cons of smart cards

  • Weak durability: The chip embedded in a plastic or paper card can bend, causing damage. Cards are often carried in wallets or pockets, which increases the risk of damage due to pressure.
  • Possible risk of hacking: Smart cards aren’t theft-proof. Hardware hacking is possible with physical access to the card.
  • High cost and weak compatibility: Most smart cards and card readers are relatively expensive. Moreover, they’re also incompatible with some smart chip card software. Several smart cards use patented software that’s incompatible with other readers.

How Ramp's smart cards simplify business expense management

Block and restrict spending minutely: Ramp lets you define spend limits per vendor, employee, department, or category. The result is minute control over your expenses.

Centralized card management: Ramp helps you manage up to thousands of company cards in a few clicks. Our platform displays employee card information, expense policies, and transaction data in a single platform, giving you in-depth visibility into expense trends.

Enforce expense policies automatically: Automate your expense policies to save valuable work hours. Ramp lets you digitize your expense policies and design complex approval workflows, adding manual approvals at predetermined steps.

Automated expense categorization: Our AI-powered platform categorizes expenses and matches receipts to transactions, automating the expense reimbursement processes. The result is less time spent manually matching receipts and more time spent analyzing expense trends.

Smart cards are here to stay and are set to grow even bigger. Thanks to their applications in finance, identity management, and healthcare, smart card usage will increase significantly, changing our lives for the better.

See how Ramp’s smart corporate cards can streamline your business expense management.

Try Ramp for free
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Finance Writer and Editor, Ramp
Ali Mercieca is a Finance Writer and Content Editor at Ramp. Prior to Ramp, she worked with Robinhood on the editorial strategy for their financial literacy articles and with Nearside, an online banking platform, overseeing their banking and finance blog. Ali holds a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from York University and can be found writing about editorial content strategy and SEO on her Substack.
Ramp is dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes make informed decisions. We adhere to strict editorial guidelines to ensure that our content meets and maintains our high standards.

FAQs

Smart cards offer benefits such as:

  • Security 
  • Large and impenetrable memory
  • Better security compared to legacy cards

Credit cards can be a type of smart card. Most credit cards issued currently are smart cards and they can be secured or unsecured. However, some legacy credit cards carry a magnetic strip. Charge cards might offer businesses more benefits compared to a credit card thanks to precise spend control mechanisms.

Ramp offers unlimited virtual and physical cards designed to automate and digitize spend management. Thanks to smart technology, Ramp’s cards give you granular views into spend management trends, helping you save time and money.

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