What is A Smart Card?

What is A Smart Card

A smartcard is a small plastic card equipped with a microchip. The microchip provides storage for data and, depending on the type, may have its own processor with the operating system. Typical applications of the cards are authentication or payment processes.

What is a smart card?

Alternative terms are chip card or integrated circuit card (ICC). It is a small card made of plastic, often in credit card format, which has a microchip embedded in the card. This microchip offers storage options, for example in non-volatile EEPROM memory, and can also be equipped with a processor. In principle, a distinction can be made between simple memory chip cards and processor chip cards.

Access to the smartcard‘s functions is either via the standardized contacts that can be recognized from the outside or contactless via near-field communication (NFC) technology. Special card readers are required.

Typical areas of application are authentication processes or electronic payment. In contrast to a card with a magnetic stripe, considerably more information can be stored and kept ready. Moreover, an additional processor offers extended possibilities such as encrypting and decrypting data or programming for special applications.

Components and structure of a smartcard

The microchip of a smartcard consists of several individual components. Depending on the type, whether a simple memory smart card or a complex processor smart card, one or more of the following individual components are present:

  • Processor
  • Coprocessor
  • ROM memory for providing the operating system
  • RAM memory (main memory)
  • EEPROM memory for storing and reading encrypted or unencrypted data
  • Special components for cryptographic functions
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The reading of data can be protected by a password or PIN on some smart cards. While simple memory chip cards are used for applications for which only data has to be provided, processor chip cards support more complex operations.

In the case of processor chip cards, data can usually be accessed via the CPU rather than directly. Specific applications can run on the processor. Applications, operating systems, or cryptographic keys are often loaded directly onto the smart card during manufacture.

The signing process with a smart card is considered very secure. Private keys stored on a smart card never leave the card when signatures are generated. In addition to recorded smart cards with a fixed instruction set, programmable cards also exist. They can be flexibly extended with specific commands for various applications.

The actual microchip of the smart card is not visible from the outside. Only the contacts for controlling the chip are visible. The shape, size, and number of contacts are standardized. Depending on the type, for example, there are six or eight contacts. The dimensions of the chip cards are also standardized. The most common format is the ID-1 format standardized according to ISO 7816 with 85.60 × 53.98 millimeters. It corresponds to the credit card format. Other formats are ID-00 (66 × 33 millimeters) or ID-000 (25 × 15 millimeters).

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Application areas of the smartcard

Smartcards are used for numerous applications. Examples of possible applications are:

  • Authentication of a subscriber for pay TV
  • Electronic identity cards
  • Electronic access control
  • Electronic time recording
  • Electronic health card
  • Secure login to IT systems
  • Electronic tickets
  • Electronic toll systems
  • Electronic payments
  • Electronic credit cards
  • Authentication for online banking
  • Billing of mobile phone calls