What is a smart card?

Smart cards are wallet-sized plastic cards with an embedded chip that securely stores data, performs digital signature operations and provides card holder authentication by means of a PIN code or biometric verification. Depending on the requirements of the issuer, the functionality of the chip, the sensitivity of the information it contains and the card’s anticipated lifespan, these cards can be adapted to differing standards of durability and security.

Low-end smart cards are generally made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). High-end smart cards use the more durable polycarbonate plastic, which withstands rough handling and lasts much longer without degrading. Data stored on the chip may be accessed via contact or contactless readers. While contactless access is faster and results in less wear and tear on the cards, it is also less secure, since the card may be accessed without the knowledge or participation of the cardholder.

Smart cards combine both physical and electronic security features. Physical security features include holograms, signatures, user photos, design and graphical features that are difficult to replicate. Electronic security is provided primarily by the microchip's functions for strong authentication of the card holder, protection and/or encryption of the data stored on the chip and special features such as digital signature or biometric authentications.