Understanding the Different Types of RFID Tags

Types of RFID Tags

What are the different types of RFID Tags?

There are primarily three basic types of RFID tags that are familiar to most consumers who use the technology: active, passive, and semi-passive. When considering the purchase of tags for different scenarios, pinpointing which RFID tag type to use and integrate into an operation can be tricky.

So let’s compare using some facts and a few examples knowing full well that, in many cases, the individual situation and the pocketbook often make the decision on which RFID tag type goes into what operation.

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What are active RFID tags?

Active RFID tags are electronic devices that transmit data wirelessly using radio frequency signals. Active RFID tags have their own power source (usually a battery) and can broadcast signals independently. These tags are capable of transmitting data over longer distances and can be used to track and monitor assets in real-time.

Active RFID tags are commonly used in asset tracking, inventory management, and logistics applications where continuous, long-range tracking is required. They offer benefits such as enhanced accuracy, extended range, and the ability to provide additional sensor data such as temperature or humidity.

What are passive RFID tags?

Passive RFID tags are small electronic devices that store and transmit data wirelessly using radio frequency signals. Passive RFID tags do not have their own power source; instead, they rely on the electromagnetic energy emitted by an RFID reader to power the tag and initiate communication. When the tag comes within range of the reader's signal, it absorbs energy from the signal and uses it to transmit stored data back to the reader.

Passive RFID tags are typically smaller, less expensive, and have a shorter read range compared to active RFID tags. They are commonly used in applications such as access control, inventory management, and retail merchandise tracking, where cost-effectiveness and simplicity are priorities.

RFID Tag Similarities

Passive/Active Tags

  • Allow wave penetration that eliminates line of sight transmission.
  • Use Radio Frequency (RF) electromagnetic energy.
  • Enable readers to detect and identify objects.
  • Are amenable to large-scale applications such as GPS and sensor technology.
  • Can monitor and record sensor data: time, temperature, pressure, etc., but only active tags are continuously monitoring and recording.
  • Bear data that can be manipulated or static: read-write, read-only, and WORM  (“write once, read many”).
  • Enable “simultaneous reads” through anti-collision algorithms of entire fields since radio frequency waves penetrate most objects.
  • Can carry regulations as to control of tag ownership or origination.
  • Bear data that can be manipulated or static: read-write 128 KB, read-only, and WORM  (“write once, read many”).

RFID Tag Differences

Active Tags

  • Are usually larger than passive tags.
  • Have energy that comes from their own batteries to send strong radio frequency waves to readers.
    • Recognize a low signal strength from reader because of their on-board battery.
    • Can enable readers to detect objects at distances up to 750 feet away.
    • Enable tags to always be “on” to receive radio frequency waves from the reader.
    • Have high read reliability.
  • Facilitate less reliance on a centralized database because of more data storage.
  • Operate at set intervals from 433 MHz to 5.6 GHz for a range of up to 100 meters.
  • Can continuously monitor and record sensor data: time, temperature, pressure, etc. at high speeds.
  • Can initiate conditional transmissions.
  • Readers are, typically, fix mounted.
  • Are expensive (approximately $15 and up in quantity).
  • Need maintenance such as battery replacement.
  • Are usually attached to expensive items.

Passive RFID Tagspassive rfid

  • Micro RFID tags can be so tiny they are placed on bees and ants in research situations.
  • Have energy that comes from the reader activating an electromagnetic field within the tag.
  • Are typically read only.
  • Must be in close range to the reader.
    • Need strong signal strength from reader.
    • Send low level signals back to the reader.
  • Respond only when activated by the reader.
  • Operate at low frequencies producing over short distances,
  • Operate at set intervals from 125 MHz to 960 MHz up.
    • Have slow read speeds.
    • Read over short distance.
  • Can, in snapshot fashion, monitor and record sensor data: time, temperature, pressure, etc
  • Are inexpensive with costs trending down (approximately $.05 and up in quantity).
  • Experience some read failure with low energy reads.
  • Are often read with hand-held readers, but readers can also be fix mounted.
  • Are usually attached to commonplace items that are made to be disposable.
  • Need little or no maintenance.

Semi-Passive RFID Tags

  • Are battery-powered.
  • Do not transmit active signals.
  • Can monitor things in a container, such as climate or security breaches.
  • Range from $10 to $50 in price.



Transportation venues, military and civilian, have benefited from active tags for years in gateway security and collection of tolls and fees. Freight companies use them for similar reasons. School districts are now using GPS plus active RFID tags to manage their fleets of busses to be spot on for efficiency and child welfare.

But active RFID tagging goes further than fleet management.  As early as 2004,  Merrimac Industries, Inc, a maker of microwave parts used active RFID tags to track propriety folders throughout their 50,000 square-foot facility, according to Axcess. Merrimac implemented the RFID system to rapidly deliver customer quotes. Similar applications abound with the insight to create them in a hospital/pharmaceutical situations perhaps.

Through item-level tracking, inventory control and supply chain management, retail marketing and high volume manufacturing have histories of using passive tags successfully in WIP.  But no history is longer than the effective use of passive tags in agricultural animal tagging. Libraries too were early adaptors of the technology to keep a stable inventory of media. During wartime, the wounded have been and are identified and treated with the help of passive RFID tags sewn into their military attire.

Semi-active tags have made their mark in the identification of container tampering and tracking of high valued merchandise.



So, when buying RFID tags what is really important to know?  First, you need to understand the different types of RFID tags and their basic functions, but, more importantly, they want you to know that tags and their uses vary. In some ways, variation is the essence of this emerging technology.

Applications may have different or similar uses for tags: one is successful using active tags, one using passive tags, and the third using semi-passive tags. The versatility of the tags and the imagination of the client certainly can be the deciding factor in which tag to use in an operation--but it helps to have the professional guidance of a RFID converter like Metalcraft who listens and can help find the right solution.

To learn more about the different types of RFID tags, contact us today at [email protected].

Aaron Hobert - RFID Technical Specialist   

About the Author: Aaron Hobert

Aaron Hobert is our RFID Technical Specialist. Hobert joined Metalcraft in September of 1994 as a Litho Press Operator, became the Autograph Team Lead in 1998 and in April 2005 he became the RFID Sales Support Rep. He was named our RFID Technical Specialist in 2008. Aaron lives outside Charles City with his wife Diane.

Mobile Phone: 641-330-2660

Email: [email protected]

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