How does RFID (radio-frequency identification) work?

Written by andrea stein
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How does RFID (radio-frequency identification) work?
RFID technology enables the tagging and tracking of animals, people and objects. (deer image by Charles Kaye from

RFID (radio-frequency identification) refers to a technology that uses radio signals to exchange data between a terminal and an object, person or animal for identification and tracking purposes. RFIDs work via an antenna, transceiver and transponder system.

Scanning Antenna

RFID scanning antennas are often permanently attached to a surface, but can also be hand-held. The RFID scanning antenna transmits short-range radio-frequency signals, which are picked up by any RFID transponders within that range.


Transponders, also known as RFID tags, are programmable devices attached to an item of interest, and may be of two types. Active RFID tags contain a power source typically in the form of a battery, and may have a lifespan of up to 10 years. Passive RFID tags contain no power source, are activated by an external source and have an unlimited lifespan. Passive RFID tags switch on via the signal transmitted by the scanning antenna when in range. Both passive and active RFID tags transmit information stored on their microchips to the antenna.


RFID transceivers contained in transponders are used to send and receive radio signals. The transceiver houses a decoder device which translates the signal the transponder receives from the antenna into binary code (a series of ones and zeros) that the transponder can understand.

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