Campus ID News
Card, mobile credential, payment and security
Magstripes 2 e1643136688746

Chapter 3. Magnetic stripe tracks

Chris Corum   ||   Nov 30, 2004  ||   ,

The width of a magnetic stripe track is standardized at about one-tenth of an inch, but as you have likely noticed, most magnetic stripes are wider than this. Why is this? It is because there are multiple tracks on the same stripe. Think of a track as a line of text on paper. You can have a single line or you can stack multiple lines on top of each other and fit more data on the same page. Such is the case with magnetic stripes. Stacking multiple tracks on top of each other enables multiple ‘lines' of data to be stored on the same stripe and card. Most cards are of the two-track or three-track varieties though it is technically possible to have as many tracks as will fit on the card.

The reason that most cards contain either two or three tracks is that the industry has standardized around these types. The ISO/IEC 7811 standards, titled Identification Cards – Recording Technique, detail the data formats and encoding schemes for tracks one, two, and three. By establishing parameters for all parties issuing standardized cards, the industry has been able to develop encoders, readers, cards, and applications that are interoperable.

Think of it this way. Imagine if there was not a standard for key elements such as the physical location of the stripe on the card, the size and location of the tracks, the encoding scheme used to store data on the tracks, and the specific data elements and their positions. There would be no way that a card issued by one bank could be read in an ATM deployed by another bank. Nor could you be certain that your credit card would be readable to a point of sale device at a merchant location.

Track One

The standards for Track One were originally established by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). Its intended use was for the storage of airline ticketing and travel reservation data. This use, however, did not materialize and the track has been co-opted for various other applications. Track One uses the Alpha Data Format, so it uses seven bits to store each character. With the data compression established at 210 bits per inch, it is capable of storing seventy-nine alphanumeric characters. It is read-only, and typically includes the cardholder's name and account number.

If you have ever wondered how an ATM is able to display a welcome message with your name on it, Track One is the key. The ATM reads your name from Track One on the magnetic stripe and displays it on screen.

Track Two

Frequently people describe a magnetic stripe as ABA-standard or ABA-encoded. This is in reference to Track Two, as its definition was established by the American Bankers Association (ABA). ABA standard encoding is a requirement for a card to work in the transaction processing networks for credit, debit, or ATM functionality. While the entire magnetic stripe is often referred to as ABA-standard or ABA-encoded, only Track Two's standardization is required to make a card ABA compliant.

The standard for the Track Two format uses the BCD encoding scheme and thus is capable of holding only numeric data. The 40 numeric characters are compressed at 75 bits per inch. It is read-only, and holds in its first field a 16-digit account number.

Track Three

The Thrift Industry developed Track Three, though like the IATA's efforts with regard to Track One, the track has been co-opted for a variety of other uses. The main differentiation from Tracks One and Two is that Track Three was designed to enable read-write capability. It was designed to be updated with each transaction and can hold 107 numeric five-bit digits at a compression rate of 210 bits per inch via the BCD encoding scheme.

It is important to remember that there is no actual difference between the physical make up of the magnetic material on the tracks. All the tracks are exactly the same until they are encoded. The differences only manifest themselves when a card issuer decides how to encode data and what data to encode on a specific track. If the need to follow the standards is not important to a specific issuer, each track can be used in any number of ways.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter


Sheridan College onecard banner
Sep 21, 23 / ,

Interview: Sheridan College onecard manager details hugely successful mobile credential rollout

At the start of the fall term in 2022, the Sheridan College onecard office rolled out its new Mobile onecard. The Canadian institution serves 27,000 students across its three campuses in Ontario, so launching a project of this magnitude required careful planning and a well-orchestrated marketing effort to ensure success. CampusIDNews spoke with Aesha Brown, […]
University of Minnesota Twin Cities mascot
Sep 21, 23 /

Treasure hunt sends students in search of mascot’s lost campus card

At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, the mission is to find Goldy’s U Card. On each of the institution’s three campuses, one of the mascot’s U Cards is hidden. Each undergraduate student that finds a card will receive a $100 reward. Finding the cards will not be easy. To help in the hunt, three […]
UX Tech event logo
Sep 19, 23 / ,

ColorID’s UX Tech event explores campus ID impact on user experience

We all want great user experiences for our cardholders and our system administrators, and advancements in technology are making this more possible than ever before. New credential and reader technologies are transforming the campus ID and with it the campus. The event is hosted and sponsored by UC Irvine, and will take place at the […]
CIDN logo reversed
The only publication dedicated to the use of campus cards, mobile credentials, identity and security technology in the education market. CampusIDNews – formerly CR80News – has served more than 6,500 subscribers for more than two decades.

Join us, @NACCUorg, and @TouchNet to explore how campus card programs can successfully navigate the sales and procurement process. Join the webinar on June 6, 2 pm EDT.

Webinar: Learn how the University of Arizona uses campus cards, mobile ordering, kiosks, lockers, and robots to revolutionize campus dining. April 7, 2-2:30 EDT. Register Now at

Load More...
CampusIDNews is published by AVISIAN Publishing
315 E. Georgia St.
Tallahassee, FL 32301[email protected]
Use our contact form to submit tips, corrections, or questions to our team.
©2023 CampusIDNews. All rights reserved.