Printers & Systems

ID Card Printer Buyer’s Guide

About this guide

Investing in the right ID card printer is critical, and navigating the identification buyer’s landscape can be overwhelming. This buyer’s guide contains valuable information and helpful tips for anyone preparing to purchase an ID card printer, especially those who are doing so for the first time. To support you in your search, this buyer’s guide:
  • identifies pre-purchase questions to help you define your card printing needs
  • introduces the two main types of plastic card printers available
  • highlights card printer features and capabilities to look for as you compare models
  • includes a handy ID Card Printer Buyer’s Checklist download
  • offers helpful tips for selecting a card printer for your ID program

Step one: Define your card requirements Given the numerous markets requiring ID card printers (e.g., healthcare, government, education, corporate, etc.) and the variety of card issuance programs that exist for each, it should come as little surprise that not all ID card printers are created equally.

ID card printers offer a host of printing capabilities at various price points to satisfy a diverse range of needs. Your first task is to determine which are necessary for your ID program. To define your card requirements, consider the following questions:
  • How will you use your printed cards?
    • For example, do you plan to use your cards for access control as well as visual identification?
  • How do you want your printed cards to look?
    • Do you want single-sided cards, or do you need to print onto both sides?
    • Are you willing to pay extra for full surface coverage, or is it OK if your card printer leaves a trace white border around the printed area of your cards?
  • How long do you need your printed cards to last?
    • Do you plan on reissuing cards frequently (as with student IDs), or on an as-needed basis (i.e., to replace lost or stolen cards)?
    • Will your cards be regularly exposed to direct sunlight or other harsh elements?
    • Will your cards be swiped through a reader on a daily basis?
  • How many cards do you need to print per year?
    • Will you print large batches of cards at once?
Your answers to these questions will alert you to which technologies, features, and capabilities to look out for as you shop for an ID card printer. Next, we will discuss the differences between the two main plastic card printer types. Then, we will discuss various printer features and capabilities in greater detail.

Step two: Define your printing requirements ID card printers are generally categorized by the printing methods involved and are classified as either direct-to-card printers or retransfer printers. Depending on the security level of your facility or worksite, desired on-card functionality, and the way you would like your printed cards to look – one of these two printer types will be better suited to your card printing needs.

Direct-to-card printers Both direct-to-card and retransfer card printers use processes called resin thermal transfer (to render sharp black text and barcodes) and dye sublimation (to produce full-color imagery). Direct-to-card printers are named for the nature of the print method they use when applying these processes, which involves the printer’s printhead coming into direct contact with the card surface. 

Summary of printing capabilities The most commonly used type of card printer on the market, direct-to-card printers work exceptionally well for the majority of card printing applications, including full-color photo IDs, membership cards, and proximity cards. These plastic card printers yield smooth, continuous tones for photographic-quality images, and are able to produce up to 16.7 million colors.

Due to the nature of the print method involved, however, direct-to-card printers tend to leave a thin margin or border around the perimeter of your printed plastic cards. In the industry, this is referred to as “edge-to-edge” surface coverage. This occurs because the printhead would be damaged if it came into contact with the card edge.

Cost and savings Direct-to-card printers are often more affordable than retransfer printers. If you purchase a direct-to-card printer, be mindful of the fact that the printhead can be exposed to dust, debris, and oil from fingerprints when it comes into contact with your cards. This can lead to expensive printhead damage, so it’s important to use caution.

If shopping direct-to-card printers, note the duration of the manufacturer warranties, especially as they pertain to printhead coverage. Often, extended warranties are available. Quick TipDirect-to-card printers accept standard PVC card stock and require a single ribbon to print. Keep this in mind when reviewing total cost of ownership; using fewer supplies lowers your cost per printed card.

Retransfer printers Retransfer printers use a two-step printing method called reverse transfer. This method involves printing to the reverse side of a clear film rather than directly to the card. This film is then thermally fused to the surface of the card. Compared to direct-to-card printers, retransfer printers yield slightly more durable credentials and offer greater print consistency.

Summary of printing capabilities Retransfer printers yield more fully saturated colors for vibrant, photo-realistic imagery. They also offer “over-the-edge” or full bleed card surface coverage, meaning that there is no white border left on your printed cards. Since the printhead never touches the card surface, retransfer printers are recommended for printing and encoding advanced security cards like smart cards, which have minutely uneven surfaces due to their embedded technology.

Since there are two steps involved in the printing method, you may experience slightly slower print speeds than you would with a direct-to-card printer.

Cost and savings Reliably designed for volume printing and lasting performance, retransfer printers sometimes cost slightly more than direct-to-card printers up front, but they offer greater protection on your investment. All retransfer printers come with a lifetime printhead warranty.

Quick TipRetransfer card printers perform best with composite PVC-PET card stock and use both a ribbon and retransfer film to print. This results in a slightly higher cost per printed card.

Step three: Consider printer features and capabilities Now, let's go over the various features and capabilities of ID card printers. Depending on your present and future card printing needs, some features may add more value to your card issuance program than others. As you read through this list, use our ID Card Buyer’s Checklist to note which features are priorities for your card printing application.

Download the ID Card Buyer's Checklist>> ID card printer features in this list:
Printer dimensions Connectivity options Lamination Print quality
Field upgrades Single-sided vs. dual-sided printing Encoding options Thermal erase and rewrite
Platform compatibility Design and visual security Print volume Warranties and support plans
Printer dimensions Some ID card printers take up more space than others, particularly those that are expanded to include various modules (e.g., modules for dual-sided printing or lamination). If space is a concern, check the specs as you shop and note the footprint or overall dimensions of the card printer. To accommodate tight spaces, some ID card printers offer optional same-side input and output card hoppers that consolidate access points needed to operate your card printer.

Field upgrades Field upgradable printers offer optional modules, many of which can be easily installed on-site. These modules allow you to expand the capabilities of your printer on an as-needed basis as your card printing program needs evolve over time. Look for the words “field upgradable” or “field upgrades” when reviewing card printer specs to determine whether the model that you are interested in offers this flexibility.

Common upgradable printer fields include: duplex (dual-sided) printing, encoding options (e.g., magnetic stripe encoding or smart card encoding capabilities), interface options (i.e., Ethernet or WiFi connectivity), secure lamination, high capacity input and/or output hoppers, or a same-side input/output hopper to accommodate small workspaces.

Platform compatibility When shopping for an ID card printer, look for a model that is compatible with your operating platform. The majority of card printers and card printing systems are Windows-based. If you need a Mac-compatible card printer, make sure that the model you’re considering includes a Mac driver that works with your operating system (OS) version.

Connectivity options At a minimum, your ID card printer will offer USB connectivity. Standard USB is a great solution for small print operations with a single-station print center. If you need to extend your card printer access across a network, giving printer access to multiple users, look for a printer with Ethernet connectivity. For remote access to your card printer, or to connect multiple computers to your printer wirelessly, find a model with optional WiFi connectivity (often available as a field upgrade).

Single-sided vs. dual-sided printing Single-sided ID card printers print onto one side of the card, while dual-sided or double-sided ID card printers are capable of printing onto both sides in one process. Reloading single-sided printed cards into a single-sided card printer to print to the reverse side of the cards can lead to expensive printhead damage, so it’s wise to invest in a dual-sided printer (or a single-sided printer with an optional duplex printing module) if you know that you will need to print to both sides.

Design and visual security There are a number of elements that you can add to your cards to enhance the design or protect them from counterfeit copying. Standard direct-to-card or retransfer printers can produce some of these, but more advanced visual elements typically require a card printer with laminating capabilities.

Using a non-laminating printer (standard) ID card printers that support ribbons containing UV or F panels are capable of printing with fluorescent or UV ink. To produce this visual effect, simply check your printer’s specs for compatibility and be sure to order the appropriate ribbon type. No matter which card printer you use, you can always apply holographic adhesives to your cards by hand after printing. You can also print onto card stock that includes an embedded hologram.

In addition, some manufacturers offer branded technology, such as Magicard’s Holokote® secure watermarking, built into the printer itself. Such technology allows you to add stunning visual effects to your credentials at no additional cost.

Using a laminating printer (advanced) With a laminating card printer, you can select from a variety of security overlays (also called overlaminates) featuring holograms, guilloche patterns, microtext, hidden imagery, or optically variable ink (OVI). Custom holographic laminates are by far the most secure method available for fail-safe card protection from tampering, fraud, and counterfeiting.

Lamination Lamination protects your printed plastic cards from daily wear, abrasion, dye migration, and color-fading from UV rays to extend overall card life. Lamination is especially useful if you plan to issue cards with magnetic stripes or barcodes that will be read or swiped on a routine basis, or if your cards will be worn outdoors or exposed to harsh conditions. See below for examples of how lamination can protect your ID cards.

Lamination also deters tampering and increases the overall security of your credentials. For maximum card security, you can laminate your cards using custom, secure overlaminates that feature covert (hidden) or difficult-to-reproduce, overt design elements. Some ID card printers feature built-in single-sided or dual-sided lamination, while others can be upgraded for lamination with the addition of an optional lamination module. Although lamination increases the cost of your card printer up front, you will see savings over time since laminated cards last longer and are less likely to bend or break, reducing the number of cards that you have to reissue.

Encoding options You can encode your cards to include secure and confidential personalized data. Encoded data can be used for more secure ID authentication, or to expand the capabilities of your plastic cards to include secure access control, time and attendance tracking, cashless payment, rewards points tracking, public transportation ticketing, and more.

Available encoding methods for ID card printers include barcode printing (1D and 2D barcodes, and QR codes), magnetic stripe (like the strip on a credit or debit card), and contact or contactless smart card encoding (embedded microchip technology).

Barcode printing Barcodes are the most cost-effective encoding option on the market, especially for high-volume printing, but also the least secure. Any ID card printer can produce them using the black resin panel of a ribbon.

Magnetic stripe encoding Magnetic stripes or “mag stripes” are more secure and relatively inexpensive, but offer limited storage space (for information such as an account number, ID number, or balance on a gift card) when compared to a smart card. They are also subject to wear because they need to be swiped to access the encoded data. One important advantage of mag stripes as compared to barcodes is that they can be rewritten to reflect updated cardholder information.

Contact and contactless smart card encoding Smart cards feature embedded computer technology that stores and provides access to personal data. They can also perform on-card functions (e.g., encryption and mutual authentication) by interacting intelligently with a smart card reader. Smart cards are tamper-proof, store 100x more data than mag stripe cards, and can be reconfigured to add, edit, or erase hosted data. The most secure encoding method on the market, smart cards are ideal for hosting financial information, biometric data, personal records such as medical records, and other highly sensitive or classified information.

Quick TipTo encode your plastic cards, you will need an ID card printer outfitted with your choice of encoder. Be sure to order the appropriate card stock (mag stripe cards or smart cards, depending on the application).
Keep print volume in mind when comparing printers, especially if you have high print volume needs. Features such as dual-input hoppers (where blank card stock is fed) or dual-output hoppers (where printed cards come out) can save time and maximize productivity if you need to batch print large quantities of cards. You may also want to pay attention to per-card print speeds. If photo-realistic image quality with fully saturated colors, detailed graphics, and “over-the-edge” surface coverage are essential to your ID program, shop retransfer printers. Retransfer printers offer the highest, most consistent print quality on the market.

Thermal erase and rewrite Select ID badge printers include a rewritable printing mode that allows you to erase and reprint one side of your cards to reflect updated cardholder information. This feature requires special thermosensitive card stock that can be “rewritten” up to 500 times and is most beneficial for producing visitor badges or temporary IDs. Thermal erase and rewrite is best for printing text-based information and simple graphics, as it is only available in monochrome blue or black ink.

Warranties and support plans ID card printers typically include a manufacturer’s warranty ranging from 1 to 3 years. With direct-to-card printers, printer warranty coverage is very important, as improper or negligent use of a direct-to-card printer can lead to expensive printhead damage. This is not an issue with retransfer printers (which include a lifetime printhead warranty).

Some manufacturers and retailers offer printer loaner coverage to ensure that your card printing program can continue uninterrupted in the event that your card printer is out for repair. This service is especially important for high-volume printing programs.

Conclusion This concludes our ID Card Printer Buyer’s Guide. We hope that this guide has proven useful in giving you a basic understanding of the type of plastic card printer and capabilities needed to implement your secure ID or personalized card printing program.

Ready to shop? Browse our ID card printers, or contact ID Wholesaler directly to speak with an ID Professional and get a personalized recommendation for your card printing program.

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