Physical Access Control: The Ultimate Guide

Access control involves selectively restricting access to areas or resources in an organisation. Physical access control allows you to control who has access to your facility, where they have access and how long they have access.

To meet security goals, you must design, deploy, and operate physical security with security technology like physical access control systems.

Here’s everything you need to know about physical access control.

What is a physical access control system?

A physical access control system (PACS) allows you to approve or deny access to your organisation’s premises or specific areas. This security feature is a necessity if the building is needing different levels of access ie. for an employee, visitor, or contractor.

PACS can help protect your property from trespassing, vandalism, or theft. They keep intruders out and provide safer environments and user journeys for those authorised to be there.

Depending on the level of control and the flexibility of your technical infrastructure, PACS can lock out individuals, control entry and exit to rooms and floors, lock down all or parts of the building, report on occupancy and even send support messages to assist in wayfinding.

Barriers like turnstiles, security gates, or door locks are usually placed at the entry or exit point. Users require identifying credentials to enter or exit, including encrypted badges, PIN codes, mobile credentials, or passwords. PACS can incorporate scanners, card readers, iris scans, fingerprints, or facial recognition technology to authenticate credentials.

The best physical access control systems use multi-factor authentication where there’s a physical barrier plus a user authorization credential like a biometric scan or password to ensure only authorized individuals have access.

Types of access control systems?

You can achieve access control through various means depending on your security requirements and needs. Different types of access control systems include:

Manual access control

Manual access control uses people to secure specific access points, and this can be a guard, doorman, bouncer, steward, receptionist, or customer service agent. They decide whether or not people can enter the premises depending on predefined criteria, like showing a ticket to enter a concert venue.

Organisations often use manual access control to limit access at highly frequented access points like cinemas, theme parks, or zoos where identification isn’t necessary and getting information about people beforehand is difficult.

Mechanical access control

Mechanical access control uses mechanical technology like locks and keys to secure access points that incorporate physical barriers like doors, gates, or turnstiles.

Mechanical access control uses locks with suitable keys to limit access by restricting who can enter. Once locked, only someone with a key can enter. However, they don’t allow restriction of the key holder to specific dates or times and don’t provide records of the key used.

Keys can also be easily duplicated or transferred to unauthorised people, and when keys are lost or authorisation revoked, the doors must be re-keyed.
Electronic access systems

Electronic access systems allow you to avoid or eliminate the limitations of mechanical locks and keys. Electronic access control involves digitised or automated systems connected to computer networks for increased control and security benefits.

Electronic access control replaces mechanical keys with various credentials like ID badges, chips, or access cards to gain entry to secure areas. Doors only unlock for a predetermined time, with records of the transaction when access is granted based on the credential presented.

When access is denied, the door remains locked, and the attempted access is recorded. Electronic access systems also monitor the door if it’s held open too long after being unlocked or is forced open.

Such security systems have various components behind the scenes that work together to make the magic happen. The access point usually has interfaces like a scanner or card reader where users present their credentials. The reader sends the information to a control panel that compares the credentials to an access control list and grants or denies the submitted request.

You can add logical access control to prevent credentials from being passed around and ensure only the right people have access to secure areas. It enhances security by requiring identity authorisation and incorporating entry requirements and schedules to limit access.

Two things are required to gain entry: something you have and something you know. You may have a fob or keycard, but you’ll also need a personal identifier that’s harder to obtain to gain access, such as a password, PIN code, or facial ID.

Types of electronic access systems include:

Standalone systems

Standalone systems are suitable for single access points where access decisions are made based on local permissions in the standalone component. Because they’re unwired, they require fewer installation requirements than wired controls, allowing easy retrofitting of components and saving time on site.

Standalone components enable the implementation of effective access control that would traditionally be impossible because of existing site infrastructure or location. You can also integrate standalone components into larger access control systems that combine standalone and online elements.

Standalone systems enable easy integration of offsite access points, and you can easily integrate them into more extensive systems.

Online system

Online systems are wired and usually connected to the access control software of the host system. They’re suitable for large sites with high access rates. They allow you to achieve increased security levels thanks to the exchange of real-time messages between the software and the components.

Online systems can also incorporate interfaces to many other systems like alarms or elevator controls.

Mechatronic access control

Mechatronic access control combines mechanical and electronic security to give you secure solutions extending beyond what either discipline can offer alone. Such systems employ multi-factor security or authentication methods to ensure only authorized individuals gain access.

Mechatronic access control is very adaptable, allowing flexibility, control, and abilities to audit movements within buildings. They also don’t require complex installation or extensive wiring

For example, the electronic system will first require you to have a code, PIN, or card, and only after passing this check will you be able to use a key on the mechanical lock to open the door. Such combinations ensure extra protection and are suitable for high-security needs in offices, server rooms, and private residential buildings.

The Evolution: Mobile access control

Mobile access control refers to using smartphones to access door card readers and is also known as a smartphone access card or mobile access credentials.
Mobile access control involves replacing the physical in PACS with mobile. It allows smartphones, tablets, and wearable electronic devices to function as users’ credentials when entering offices and other areas.

Bluetooth powers most mobile access control authentication methods, allowing your phone to communicate with readers placed on doors. Apps on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) or near field communication (NFC) enabled smartphones will enable you to open a door securely.

You can establish Bluetooth connections from a few feet away, allowing contactless access and a noticeable edge over traditional access card technologies with an average ad range of about an inch. Mobile access control turns your phone into a smart card, and you no longer need a key card to gain entry.

The ease and convenience of mobile access control make it a viable alternative to physical cards and a cost-effective solution to manage identification credentials efficiently.

What to look for in an access control system

Access control systems are vital for protecting your premises from unauthorized persons, and you must view them holistically in line with your safety requirements. A sustainable and scalable approach is better than relying on an outdated and inflexible system. You should consider the following:

Authentication level required

The suitable level of authentication will depend on the levels of security identification you need. Users can share fobs and cards easily, while biometric and mobile systems provide you with more certainty about identity.

Take a realistic look at your physical security needs, like the number of openings to protect, interior and exterior portals, and the types of locks you have. You may need to consider two-factor or multi-factor authentication if you need high security to protect sensitive data and server rooms.

Two-factor authentication is a subset of multi-factor authentication similar to adding more locks to your door. It can include a knowledge factor like a password, a possession factor like a card or phone, and an inherent factor such as a face ID or fingerprint.

Biometrics offers the highest level of authentication because features like fingerprints and facial IDs are unique to each individual. They can’t be cloned, forgotten, or given to others.


You need to consider how easy it is to use and manage the access control system. Sophisticated technology will be pointless if you can’t use it to easily and quickly monitor and control access to your premises and prevent unauthorized people from gaining access.

Consider whether or not it’s easy to rescind permissions and access rights or set up new users, report on entry and exit activities, lockdown buildings or areas, and control display boards or wayfinding messaging.

You need to ensure the access control software you choose makes access management easier and not more difficult.

Integration and flexibility

Your access control software and the system must be future-proof by allowing easy integration and flexibility. New technologies emerge every day, and you’ll want to add new software and hardware to improve access management, connect with other management systems and enrich the data at your disposal.

It needs to be flexible to infrastructure changes when you add entry points, doors, or even new buildings to the access control dashboard. It’s wise to choose systems with open application programming interfaces (APIs) that can allow you to scale and connect to new technologies.


The actual costs of owning and operating an access control system will go well beyond the initial acquisition costs. Such expenses can vary depending on the needed requirements or specifications unique to your premises or company.

Hardware is usually the first component and the most easily definable cost in new installations. Here you’ll need to consider system control processors, input and output modules, readers, and other peripherals to complete the system.

Access control software costs are another consideration that will have a significant potential to drive up ongoing access control system costs. Ensure you are aware of software-related pitfalls in reader licenses, software add-ons, and software maintenance agreements.

Support costs can account for a considerable percentage of the expenses incurred in an access control system over its lifetime. Therefore, identifying and controlling them is also vital. Such costs can include training costs and troubleshooting or support desk costs. Users may require initial and ongoing training provided by the vendor or dealer at their premises or the installation location. Some vendors may include troubleshooting costs in their software maintenance agreements, while others may not.

Hidden costs are another possibility you need to consider. Although they can be hard to measure depending on your business, mission, or organisation, integration is the most common hidden cost. Therefore, it’s vital to ensure your access control system can integrate with other devices and systems to avoid additional costs.

Video surveillance and physical access control

Video surveillance is a vital part of the modern physical access control system. It provides you with a complete picture of security by delivering ‘eyes’ on every access event as it occurs.

With video surveillance, you can visually verify that credentials match identities, spot unauthorised access attempts, see who’s at the door, and mitigate tailgating in real-time from anywhere!

Access control and security solutions

Effective access control solutions are vital for all security strategies, and they help prevent security risks and vulnerabilities in your security plan.

Satori Risk offers one of the best access control security solutions in the market with a management system tailored to your entry point security needs to help control how you grant and restrict access.

It includes visitor management and allows you to control personnel access areas, limit access with time schedules, create permissions, and receive reports about which staff or visitors access which areas and at what time.