Active RFID vs. Passive RFID: What’s the Difference?

Active RFID vs. Passive RFID: What’s the Difference?

Short Answer:

Active RFID systems use self-powered RFID tags that continuously broadcast their own signal. Active RFID tags are commonly used as “beacons” to accurately track the real-time location of assets or in high speed environments such as tolling. Active tags provide a much longer read range than passive tags, but they are also much more expensive.

Passive RFID systems use tags that are powered by the electromagnetic energy transmitted from an RFID reader. Passive RFID tags have applications including access control, tool tracking, race timing, supply chain management, smart labels, and more. The lower price point per tag make employing passive RFID systems economical for many industries.

Long Answer:

Active RFID

Active RFID Tag

Example of an active RFID tag

Active RFID tags possess their own power source and transmitter enabling the tag to broadcast its signal. Performance capabilities include longer read ranges and greater memory capacities when compared to passive RFID tags; however, in order to achieve a significant read range and larger memory, these performance capabilities generate a greater demand for power. Typically, active RFID tags are powered by a long life battery that will last a few years, but will eventually require replacing.

Essentially, two different types of active RFID tags are available on today’s market – Transponders and Beacons. An active RFID transponder only communicates when in the immediate presence of a reader’s interrogating signal, thus conserving battery life when the tag is out of range of the reader. Active RFID transponders are commonly used in secure access control and in toll booth payment systems.

Active RFID tags purposed as beacons will periodically transmit their identifying information at user defined intervals and RFID reader antennas will read and determine the tag’s location with the help of back-end software. This type of active RFID tag is frequently used in real-time location systems (RTLS) commonly found in outdoor shipping yards and throughout supply chains. Some active RFID tags have a read range capable of reaching 100 meters in ideal outdoor environments.

Active RFID tag with hardcase

A hardshell active RFID tag

Tasked with weathering harsh environmental conditions such as extreme temperatures and moisture, some active RFID tags may be encased in a rugged shell. Because of the size of the enclosed battery, circuitry, and bulk of a durable exterior, active RFID tags are usually much larger than passive tags. Also, some active tags may have on-board sensors that track environmental parameters.

All these additional features translate to increased costs for the customer, but the return on investment of a system may far outweigh the initial costs. The prices of active RFID tags range anywhere from $20+ to $100+ depending on the tag’s ability to withstand harsh conditions and other key functional features of the tag. Given the required investment of an active RFID system, active tags are usually reserved for tracking high worth assets or for items where accurate location tracking is necessary to the success of the system.

Passive RFID

Unlike active tags, passive RFID tags have no internal power source. A passive RFID transponder consists only of a microchip and an antenna; the two together are commonly referred to as an RFID inlay. As the name implies, passive tags wait for an interrogating signal from an RFID reader. Once the tag is within range of the interrogation zone, the RFID tag’s antenna draws energy from the electromagnetic waves.

Passive RFID tag

A roll of Passive RFID inlays

Once the tag’s microchip, or integrated circuit, becomes powered, it transmits a signal. The change in the electromagnetic wave is detected by the reader’s antenna which interprets the information. For the process to work properly, the antennas in both the tag and reader must be at least within several meters of each other; however, the read range depends on the transmit frequency, equipment settings, and other environmental factors.

Passive RFID tags generally operate at three distinct frequencies:

  • Low Frequency (LF) 125 -134 kHz
  • High Frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz
  • Ultra High Frequency (UHF) 856 MHz to 960 MHz

As frequency increases, the radio wave’s ability to penetrate liquids and metals decreases, and, generally, read range increases as frequency increases. Technology has improved in recent years, and specialized UHF RFID tags can operate around water and on-metal surfaces with minimal interference. Some applications, such as NFC payment systems, have adopted short read ranges as a unique feature. Near field communication (NFC) is a specialized subset of HF RFID and considers short read range a benefit and is a hallmark capability of the NFC protocol.

Passive and Active RFID Tag

Size comparison between passive and active RFID tags

Since passive RFID tags do not have their own power source, they typically have lower memory capacities and significantly shorter read ranges than their active counterparts; however, passive tags are drastically cheaper with prices ranging from pennies up to several dollars. Passive RFID tags are much smaller than active tags, and depending upon the application, passive tags may be as thin as a few sheets of paper.

As the cost of passive RFID tags continues to decrease, a greater number of industries are adopting the technology, and many companies are replacing standard barcodes with RFID labels. Passive tags are found in asset tracking, tool tracking, event monitoring, access control, race timing, and variety of other applications.

While both active and passive RFID technologies use radio frequencies to communicate information, each is very different, and likewise, possess different qualities well suited for varying applications.

If you have any questions about active and passive RFID, leave a comment below of email us at

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About James Thrasher

James is a contributor to RFIDinsider and the Digital Marketing Manager for atlasRFIDstore. When he's not following the latest news in tech, James is probably watching a basketball game. He currently resides in Birmingham, AL with his wife.

  • Yasir

    Which will be source of current in passive r.f.i.d ,if we will inject it in any human body for a longer time…?

    • atlasRFIDstore


      Thank you for your question. Due to the amount of water in the human/animal bodies, tags that work on Low Frequencies (with longer wavelengths) are required. These LF tags are typically in the 125 kHz to 135 kHz range and are usually passive tags in that they only respond when interrogated by an RFID reader on the same frequency.

      These passive tags work essentially by harnessing enough energy from the reader in order to excite the tag and enable it to respond. In the case of passive LF tags, the read range is very short (i.e. a few centimeters).

      See our blog post for more details:

  • Sonya Fnkey

    Interesting. The very first question concerns an RFID implant into a human body. And just suppose, for a moment, that the power is jacked up and size is dialed down enough to be injected by hypodermic needle. And just suppose, for a moment, that everyone will be required to have this kind of implant in their hand or forehead, if they want to buy or sell… Do you read me?

    • monarch

      so scary!!

  • Muhammsman

    how to find Acrive Tag Location….?

  • silent soul88

    I am currently working on my Capstone project about attendance monitoring system using rfid… can you please help me….

  • James

    What are the largest advantages of using RFID’s to track tools, calibration information, or other Preventative maintenance requirements?