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You asked: Do hotel key cards store my personal data?

By The Way Concierge investigates a hotel urban legend

(Illustration by María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

Can you settle a score? A friend insists that hotel key cards contain all your information, including credit card numbers. I maintain that they only have the dates for which the card is valid to enter the room. — Edith G., Laurel, Md.

I’ll admit, I was suspicious when a few big hotels declined to comment for this column. But once I spoke with nearly a dozen experts, I learned hotel key cards don’t carry your sensitive information.

Curt Cashour, spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, pointed me to an article from Snopes that shows the rumor started at least 20 years ago.

Apparently a detective with the Pasadena Police Department circulated a warning that it was possible to put personal information on hotel key cards, but not that hotels actually did. The police department contacted major hotel chains, but none said it was their policy to store anything beyond what’s required to unlock guest rooms safely.

I also contacted some big chains. A Hilton spokesperson told me that the data within a physical key card only identifies the hotel room and dates of the guests’ stay. A spokesperson for the Red Roof Inn and four different Hyatt property reps said the same.

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That goes for smaller properties, too.

In his 27 years in the industry, Jeremy Sadler, now the general manager for 106 Jefferson in Huntsville, Ala., has never seen a system that holds credit card information or any other customer data. He’s worked at 12 hotels, and none had lock systems integrated with property management systems, where guest reservation information is stored.

Justin Foster, the general manager of the Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tenn., has also worked at 12 hotels between his 21 years in the biz. He said even if the property management and lock systems are integrated, personal data is not shared across the two and that guests should have no concerns that their personal information could be accessed from their used key cards.

So what’s actually on them? “Nothing other than, ‘Are you authorized to open [the door] from this day to this day?’” said Mark Zisek, a senior leader at Front Desk Supply, a company that makes key cards for small hotel brands. That’s true whether you’re using a magnetic key — the kind you insert into a lock — or a radio-frequency identification (RFID) key — the kind you wave in front of a door lock to open.

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Magnetic keys are programmed to open a certain door for a certain time frame, which the lock reads and acts accordingly. RFID cards work similarly, Zisek said, but instead of a magnetic strip, they have microchips inside with antennas that “talk” to your hotel room’s lock. RFID cards also have a little memory on them to hold enough data on when they can open your door.

“So all of that stuff like your credit card information, your name, your address ... none of it is held on the card,” Zisek said.

Experts say you also don’t need to worry about turning your key card in at the end of your stay; information expires so hotels can reuse them.

So you’re in the right! Congratulations!

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