What is a smart card?

A smart card is credit card-sized piece of plastic that contains a small computer, or microprocessor, and its own data storage, processing power and software.  Smart cards provide data portability, security and convenience and can be used for many different applications.  

Today, smart card technology is not just used in the shape of a card either.  Sometimes it is inside something else, like a USB token, passport or cell phone.  In the United States, applications for smart card technology include:
**U.S. electronic passports
**Subscriber Identification Modules (SIMs) inside cell phones
**Contactless payment cards, like MasterCard PayPass, Visa PayWave and Chase blink
**Contactless transit fare cards
**Employee badges, like those being issued to all U.S. federal government employees  
**Personal USB tokens for protected portable information storage and Internet or network security  

Smart cards have two different types of interfaces: contact and contactless. Contact smart cards are inserted into a smart card reader, making physical contact with the reader.  Unlike a magnetic stripe card that is swiped, the contact smart card stays in the reader during use, so the computer in the card or token can communicate with the reader and the system or network behind it.  

Contactless smart cards have an antenna embedded inside the card that enables communication with the reader without physical contact.  It works by holding the card or token near the reader.  Both contact and contactless cards are capable of providing a very high level of security.  


For more information, visit the Smart Card Alliance Web site.

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