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Overview of Chip-Based Cards

January 28, 2013


First introduced in Europe nearly three decades ago, smart cards debuted as a stored value tool for payphones to reduce theft. As smart cards and other chip-based cards advanced, people found new ways to use them, including charge cards for credit purchases and for record keeping in place of paper.

In the U.S., consumers have been using chip cards for everything from visiting libraries to buying groceries to attending movies, firmly integrating them into our everyday lives. Several U.S. states have chip card programs in progress for government applications ranging from the Department of Motor Vehicles to Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBTs). Many industries have implemented the power of smart cards in their products, such as the GSM digital cellular phones as well as TV-satellite decoders.

Why Smart Cards

Smart cards improve the convenience and security of any transaction. They provide tamper-proof storage of user and account identity. Smart card systems have proven to be more reliable than other machine-readable cards, like magnetic stripe and barcode, with many studies showing card read life and reader life improvements demonstrating much lower cost of system maintenance. Smart cards also provide vital components of system security for the exchange of data throughout virtually any type of network. They protect against a full range of security threats, from careless storage of user passwords to sophisticated system hacks. The costs to manage password resets for an organization or enterprise are very high, thus making smart cards a cost-effective solution in these environments. Multifunction cards can also be used to manage network system access and store value and other data. Worldwide, people are now using smart cards for a wide variety of daily tasks, which include:

SIM Cards and Telecommunication

The most prominent application of smart card technology is in Subscriber Identity Modules (SIM), required for all phone systems under the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) standard. Each phone utilizes the unique identifier, stored in the SIM, to manage the rights and privileges of each subscriber on various networks. This use case represents over half of all smart cards consumed each year. The Universal Subscriber Identification Modules (USIM) is also being used to bridge the identity gap as phones transition between GSM, UTMS, and 3G network operators.

Loyalty and Stored Value

Another use of smart cards is stored value, particularly loyalty programs, that track and provide incentives to repeat customers. Stored value is more convenient and safer than cash. For issuers, float is realized on unspent balances and residuals on balances that are never used.

For multi-chain retailers that administer loyalty programs across many different businesses and POS systems, smart cards can centrally locate and track all data. The applications are numerous, such as transportation, parking, laundry, gaming, retail, and entertainment.

Securing Digital Content and Physical Assets

In addition to information security, smart cards can ensure greater security of services and equipment by restricting access to only authorized user(s).

Information and entertainment is being delivered via satellite or cable to the home DVR player or cable box or cable-enabled PC. Home delivery of service is encrypted and decrypted via the smart card per subscriber access. Digital video broadcast systems have already adopted smart cards as electronic keys for protection./p>

Smart cards can also act as keys to machine settings for sensitive laboratory equipment and dispensers for drugs, tools, library cards, health club equipment etc. In some environments, smart card enabled- SD and microSD cards are protecting digital content as it is being delivered to the mobile hand-sets/phones.


Smart cards make it easy for consumers to securely store information and cash for purchasing. The advantages they offer consumers are:

  • The card can carry personal account, credit and buying preference information that can be accessed with a mouse click instead of filling out forms.
  • Cards can manage and control expenditures with automatic limits and reporting.
  • Internet loyalty programs can be deployed across multiple vendors with disparate POS systems and the card acts as a secure central depository for points or rewards.
  • Micro Payments – paying nominal costs without transaction fees associated with credit cards, or for amounts too small for cash, like reprint charges.

Bank Issued Smart Cards

Around the globe, bank controlled co-ops (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express) have rolled out millions of smart cards under the EMV (Europay, MasterCard, VISA) standard. Often referred to as chip and PIN cards; these are the de facto types of cards for bank issuance in most countries except the U.S. As Canada has just recently started its regulatory shift to EMV cards, the U.S. will be the sole island in North America that has not yet made the adoption, which is being driven by the increased types of fraud with both credit and debit cards. Smart cards have been proven to secure transactions with regularity, so much so that the EMV standard has become the norm.

As banks enter competition in newly opened markets such as investment brokerages, they are securing transactions via smart cards at an increased rate. This means:

  • Smart cards increase trust through improved security. Two-Factor Authentication insures protection of data and value across the internet. Threats such as the “Man in the middle” and “Trojan Horses” that replay a user name and password are eliminated
  • This is improving customer service. Customers can use secure smart cards for fast, 24-hour electronic funds transfers over the internet
  • Costs are reduced: transactions that normally would require a bank employee’s time and paperwork can be managed electronically by the customer with a smart card
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