Choosing the Right ID Card Printer

Identification cards today are far more versatile than just a basic photo ID. Today, you can use barcodes, magnetic stripes, RFID, and Smart Card technologies on an ID for greater security and traceability across many applications. Whether your business needs are low-volume office printing or full-scale enterprise and educational applications, there is an ID Card printer that will meet your needs.

There is a large variety of ID card printers and options for your application. While their operation has become easier, choosing the right one can be challenging without knowing and understanding the differences and options.

The first step in finding a printer is identifying your specific needs.

• What are you printing ID cards for?
• How many cards will you print per day?
• Will you print on both sides of the card?
• Do you need edge-to-edge printing?
• What kind of encoding options will you need?
• Do you need to make durable or secure ID cards?

Knowing how you’ll be using a card printer will help you decide what typeprint method, and other features you’ll need. Let’s review some of the key features and functions.

Print Volume

The first and most important question to ask when buying an ID Card Printer is how many cards will you be making per day? Keep in mind that choosing a printer class is based on a regular print volume. If you have a large batch to print once a year only, you can go with a smaller printer since your continued use throughout the year is low.

Value ID Card PrintersEconomical
Perfectly designed for your low volume printing needs. Many of the printers in this class have slower speeds and fewer encoding capabilities than other ID card printers. Printers in this class may also have manual card entry and monochrome printing. Economical printers like the Zebra ZXP Series 1 provide an excellent print quality, yet is priced to reflect lower duty cycle printing.

Value ID Card PrintersValue
With a limited footprint and scaled down capabilities, this printer class is made for low volume and on-the-go printing applications. Printers in this category are designed for print volumes from 1-100 cards per day. Value printers like the Zebra ZXP Series 3 are a perfect fit for small businesses that print on demand or in limited batches.

Standard ID Card PrintersStandard
A step up in design and printing capabilities, this class of printer offers a reliable print output with a moderate footprint. Printers like the  Fargo DTC4250e offer a wide range of encoding options for any type of card you need to make. Printers in this category can typically handle 100 – 500 cards per day and are perfect for medium-sized businesses and schools.

Premium ID Card PrintersPremium
These are the most robust printers in the industry. Premium printers occupy a larger footprint and typically offer more options for lamination and encoding technologies. With larger supply capacities, these printers are made to print all day. Printers like the Fargo HDP5000 typically can handle volumes of over 500 cards per day easily and are designed for applications that have high security and demanding print volume requirements.

Premium ID Card PrintersUniversity
Looking for large run print volume printers, the Fargo HDP8500 delivers the most reliable, high duty performance ID card printer in the industry. The Fargo HDP8500, featuring HID’s High Definition Printing (HDP) technology, is the superior industrial ID printer for extended-run, high throughput credential personalization and issuance. It’s especially suited for the high duty cycle requirements of large government ID card programs, laborious service bureau conditions, and demanding university and large enterprise environments.

Single vs. Dual-Sided Printing

Many printer lines will offer options for single or dual-sided printing. Single-sided printers are slightly less expensive but depending on the requirements of your card design (text, images, barcodes, etc…), using both sides of the card may be needed.

Single-sided ID Card PrintersThese printers are typically used for simple card applications which contain limited cardholder information. For simple photo IDs or applications where you are using a pre-printed card and simply need to print a name, barcode or numerical ID, a single-sided printer like the Datacard SD260 will be your most economical option.

Dual-sided ID Card PrintersDual-sided printers allow for both sides of the card to be printed on at the same time and are typically used when full color is required on the front of the card and black print on the back. Dual-sided printers options like the one found in the Zebra ZXP Series 7 are ideal for situations when a significant amount of data needs to be captured on the card, especially when using barcodes. By moving some of the information to the back of the card, the front remains uncluttered and void of distractions.

Print Method

ID card printers use a thermal transfer process with a fixed printhead that heats up and melts a ribbon onto a blank PVC card to create an image. There are two different printing methods to transfer the ribbon, each producing slightly different results to meet the needs of your application and your budget.

Direct-To-Card (DTC)
Direct-To-Card ID Card PrintersDirect-To-Card is the most common card printing technology as it enables photo quality printing, for pictures and full-color logos, by controlling the heat setting of the printhead which produces various sizes and densities of color. The card is passed under the printhead up to four times to create the perfect color, tones and highlights using CMYK ribbon. With DTC printing, images have sharp edges, deep blacks and a full spectrum of colors. This printing method does not provide full card coverage as a small white border will be at the edges of the card but is the more cost-effective option.

Retransfer (Reverse Transfer)
Retransfer ID Card PrintersRetransfer printing produces a similar high-quality print in a two-step process that transfers your image to a retransfer film before applying it to the card. First, the image is printed in reverse directly onto a clear layer of film (like direct-to-card except the film replaces the card in this step). Next, the printhead heats up and bonds the imaged film to the card’s surface by applying heat and pressure. The two-step retransfer process creates a true edge to edge (100% card coverage) high-quality image on PVC cards and other card material types. This method is more costly but produces a clearer image and has greater longevity and moisture resistance compared to DTC. The Zebra ZXP 8 Series printer is one of the more popular retransfer models available.

Encoding Options

Most ID Cards today utilize multiple ways of identifying the user beyond a basic photo. Card printers offer several ways to securely encode information onto the cards. Depending on the application the card is being used for, certain encoding options will be better suited than others. Encoding information on the card itself helps increase the security of the card as it becomes harder to counterfeit and also makes reading the card faster, easier and error-free.

Barcodes are the easiest encoding option, since the ability to add to a card is contained in the design software – so no additional features are needed on the printer. With options for 1D or 2D codes, you can encode a variety of information in a common, easy to read format.

Magnetic Stripe
Magnetic Stripe ID Card PrintersA magnetic stripe is the black stripe on the back of your credit or debit card. Blank cards can come equipped with a magnetic stripe ready to be encoded. This type of card is capable of storing data on a band of magnetic material. The magnetic stripe (also known as swipe card or magstripe) is read by physical contact when swiped past a magnetic reading head.

Contact/Contactless Smart Card
Contactless Smart Card ID Card PrintersContact Smart Card ID Card PrintersSmart cards are at the pinnacle of card security. Similar to barcodes and magnetic stripes, they provide another means to store data onto the card itself. The big advantage of the smart card is that it can store multiple strings of information, including encrypted certificates. A smart card provides multiple levels of verification on the card itself for the greatest security possible. Contact smart cards have gold-plated contact pads which a reader touches to read while the Contactless ones communicate via radio waves with a read range of up to around 5 inches.

RFID ID Card PrintersRFID has become a popular technology in many applications since it provides a means to read information on a card from longer distances. RFID cards store data that can be read without a line of site up to 10ft away. They also allow for multiple cards to be read at the same time and are quite secure. RFID is the most costly option but can be very beneficial to high security and access control applications due to its extended read range and option for automated reading.


Some higher volume printers, such as the Fargo DTC4500e, will offer built-in or add-on laminators to protect the print on the card from fading and wearing off. Lamination is the process in which a protective polyester film is applied to the card’s surface to guard it against wear, tear, and UV rays. Cards without lamination last about 1 to 2 years with everyday usage, but for the most security and longevity, card lamination is recommended. For even more security, a variety of holograms can also be applied to your cards before laminating for an excellent deterrent to forgery.

Finding the Right ID Card Printer

With all the choices available for ID Card Printers today, it’s important to find the right device for your business needs. Determining how you will use the printer and what features you need will make the decision process easier. If you are still having difficulty or have additional questions, give our ID Card Printer experts a call. We’re happy to help you out.

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