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Boon Edam Turnstile

Essential Elements of Physical Access Control and Security

Physical access control is a critical component of any organization's overall security strategy. With proper physical access controls in place, companies can restrict access to sensitive areas, protect assets, and ensure safety. This article will provide an overview of physical access control systems - their components, types, implementation best practices, and real-world examples.

What is Physical Access Control?

Physical access control refers to managing and restricting access into a facility or secure areas within a building. It involves authenticating and authorizing individuals to enter based on their identity and access rights.

Physical access control systems are made up of various mechanical and electronic components that work together to control and monitor access through designated entry points. These entry points are known as access points and include doors, turnstiles, mantraps, and other portals.

The main objectives of implementing physical access control are:

  • Ensure only authorized users can access restricted areas
  • Deter external threats from accessing facilities
  • Monitor and audit access events and exceptions
  • Quickly disable access rights if needed

Well-designed physical access control provides organizations with the ability to set flexible access permissions for users, maintain visibility into access events, and streamline entry processes.

Core Components of Physical Access Control Systems

Modern physical access control systems consist of layered components that handle different aspects of regulating facility access.


Credentials are objects or data assigned to authorized users which allow them to authenticate their identity at access points. Common credential types include:

  • ID cards - Contain identifying data like names, photos, and RFID chips
  • PIN codes - Personal identification numbers users enter on keypads
  • Biometrics - Unique biological traits such as fingerprints and iris scans


Readers are devices installed at access points which decode credentials presented by users. They extract the data encoded on credentials and convert it into digital information for verification. Readers can be contact-based like smart card readers, or contactless like proximity and QR code readers.


Controllers act as the brains of the system, processing credential information from readers and making access decisions. Controllers are wired to readers and connect to databases containing user access privileges and schedules. If authentication is approved, the controller triggers the access point to open.

Access Points

These are portals outfitted with electronic locks and reader devices. Upon access approval from the controller, the lock disengages allowing entry. Common access points include:

  • Doors - Fitted with electric strikes or magnetic locks
  • Turnstiles - Rotate barriers that unlock momentarily
  • Mantraps - Double-door entries for added security screening

Management System

The management system is the central console administrators use to manage user permissions, generate reports, set schedules, configure doors, and monitor events. Modern systems are software platforms with user-friendly dashboards.

Types of Physical Access Control Technologies

Physical access controls utilize various reader and credential technologies to authenticate users at access points.

Proximity Readers and Cards

Proximity readers emit radio waves that activate credential cards within a short range. When presented, data on the proximity card gets transferred to the reader. This allows touchless entry convenient for high traffic areas.

Magnetic Stripe Card Readers

These read magnetic stripes on cards in a similar way to credit cards. The reader scans encoded data when swiped. Magnetic stripe technology is declining in favor of smart cards.

Smart Card and Readers

Smart cards have embedded microprocessor chips that store and encrypt user data. When inserted into smart card readers, the chip information gets decrypted and verified. Smart card technology enables robust security and additional applications like cashless payments.

Biometric Readers

Biometric readers scan fingerprints, retinas, voices, or faces to identify users. No cards are required for biometric systems. While highly secure, biometric systems can be expensive and require close contact with readers.

Keypad and PIN

Keypads allow users to authenticate by entering a personal identification number (PIN). It provides a cost-effective option but lacks the security of advanced credentials.

By combining different reader and credential technologies, organizations can achieve balanced physical access control suited for their facilities and security needs.

Physical Access Control Best Practices

To maximize the value from physical access systems, organizations should follow these best practices:

  • Perform risk assessments - Assess which areas contain your most critical assets and require restricted access. Focus controls on entry points to these restricted zones first.
  • Install multi-factor authentication - For ultra-secure areas, implement two-factor authentication requiring multiple credential types like cards plus PINs or biometrics.
  • Integrate with logical access systems - Tie building access privileges with network and system permissions for unified access governance across physical and digital domains.
  • Manage user lifecycles - Make adding, modifying, and revoking user access highly streamlined through automation. Disable ex-employee credentials immediately upon termination.
  • Monitor access logs - Audit logs for anomalies and maintain compliance by tracking access history and generating reports.
  • Conduct system maintenance - Perform routine maintenance like testing backup power, checking door sensors, and validating user credentials are functional.

Real-World Physical Access Control Examples

Physical access systems provide versatile solutions across many industries and use cases.

Corporate Office Buildings

Major corporations secure office towers and campuses with layered access controls restricting entry to lobbies, elevators, offices, data centers, and executive areas based on employee roles.

Healthcare Facilities

Hospitals safeguard medicine, patient records, and critical equipment by limiting access to pharmacies, labs, IT closets, and recovery rooms to select staff.

Educational Institutions

Schools and universities control student flows and maintain safety by funneling visitors to main entrances while requiring access cards for dorms and classroom buildings.

Manufacturing and Industrial Plants

Plants control movements within warehouses, production areas, and cargo zones to prevent theft while also keeping untrained personnel away from dangerous equipment.

Well-designed physical access systems tailored to the unique needs of the environment provide indispensable protection for all organizations.


Physical access control provides the frontline defenses for security-conscious organizations. Core components like credentials, readers, controllers and access points combine to only allow authorized users entry into restricted areas based on preset policies and schedules.

Leveraging the right technologies and best practices enables robust protection of assets, data, and people. As threats persist in the physical world, the fundamentals of physical access control will continue playing a pivotal role in multi-layered security programs.

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