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Differences in Types of ID Card Printers

ID cards are a common part of everyday life, we use them in schools, universities, offices, etc. They help us create a secure access control system, whether manual or automatic. So, how do we make custom ID cards, with different texts and images on them, without exorbitant costs? Simple, by using a card printer. In the same way, a normal printer creates an image on a paper sheet, card printers imprint images and texts on hard PVC cards.

So, let’s discuss more about these printers.


What are ID Card Printers?

As the name suggests, these are specialized printing tools that are designed to imprint information on cards. There are a variety of printers available in the market. They all differ based on factors like printing methods, card material, etc.

So, let’s not waste any more time, and get right into discussing the types of card printers.


Types of ID Card Printers Available in the Market

As mentioned above, there are different classifications of printers. Currently, there are three types of ID Card Printers available in the market, all using different techniques to create prints on card surfaces. 

Direct to Card Printer

These directly print on the surface of the cards. These printers contain a ribbon that consists of an ink layer. The printhead presses the ribbon firmly on the card surface and heats it to imprint the ink on the card. For cards with multiple colors, the printer will use different color sections of the ribbon. Depending on the color options, there are different types of DTC ribbons available in the market, which we will discuss in the next section.

Retransfer Printer

This printing technique doesn’t involve printing on the card surface, rather, these printers cover the card with a thin laminate on which the image is printed. They require both a color/ink ribbon roll and a laminate roll. Similar to DTC, the printer uses the printhead to heat the ribbon and imprint the ink on the laminate layer. Then the printer uses a set of heated rollers to press and adhere the laminate film to the surface of the card. There are two types of laminate rolls available, namely – Laminate, and Holographic.

Inkjet Printer

Lastly, the inkjet is the most common type of printer available in the market. The inkjet has been the staple of printing for decades. Unlike DTC or Retransfer printers, these do not use an ink ribbon or laminate. Rather, they use liquid ink to create an image. The printhead on these printers contains microscopic nozzles, known as inkjets. These nozzles are about 100 microns in diameter. The printer uses the nozzles to spray think droplets of ink on the card surface to create an image.


Types of Printer Ribbons Used in ID Card Printing

As stated above, there are a variety of printing ribbons used in the process of making/printing ID cards. We can divide them further into two subcategories.


Direct to Card Ribbons

These ribbons consist of swatches (sections), inside each swatch there are multiple-colored sections with different colors of ink. This is needed to print different colors on the cards, as each swatch can only be used once and each section can only print one color. 


These ribbons have five different sections of colors, namely – Yellow (Y), Magenta (M), Cyan (C), Black (K), and Overlay/Topcoat (O/T). These ribbons are used to print multi-colored prints, by combining the three primary colors (YMC), the printer can create any shade on the color wheel. Then it uses the black section of the ribbon to print black text, and lastly, the clear overlay/topcoat to create a protective layer on the printed image.


These are the same as the previous type of ribbon with one addition, these ribbons have two sections for black ink. This is because the second section of the black is used to print on the backside of the card. This ribbon saves a lot of costs if the backside of the card only needs black ink to print, like text. As, it prevents wastage of two-color swatches to be used on a single card, extending the use of the ribbon.

(C). Half-Panel

These ribbons have five different sections, similar to the YMCKO/T ribbons. However, the difference in these, is the colored sections are only half the width of the standard ribbon. Meaning that the printer can only print colored text/images on half the width of the card. These ribbons allow the users to create custom prints on the card front, with half colored and the other half just black text.

(D). Monochrome Black

As the name suggests, the monochrome ribbons have two sections in a single swatch, namely – Black & Overlay. These cards can only print in black & white. The printer uses the black section to create a print on the card surface, then covers it with the overlay.

(E). Colored Monochrome

Similar to the previous one, these ribbons also only print in single colors.


Reverse Transfer Ribbons

These ribbons are used for printing using the reverse transfer method. Unlike DTC ribbons, these do not have an overlay/topcoat section in them. These only have colored sections, they need to be used with another type of ribbons, called laminated to be able to create a print on a card.

(A). YMC

These ribbons have three sections per swatch, namely – Yellow, Magenta, and Cyan. The reverse transfer printer first uses the printhead to compress the ribbons on the laminate and transfer the ink on the laminate to create a picture. Then uses heated drums to press the laminate on the card surface to adhere it to it. These ribbons have a shorter life because they need to use a combination of the three sections to print in black.


Works similarly to the YMC ribbons, except it has an additional black section on it to print black text on the front side of the card, without reducing the life of the ribbon.


Similar to the previous ribbon, these also use a separate black section to print black texts or patterns on the card. The only difference is that it has an additional section of black on it that allows it to print text on both sides of the card.


These work the same way as YMCK ribbons, with three primary colored sections for the image and a black section for the texts. However, they have an additional section called the Inhibitor (I). The layer on this section prevents the other colors from being printed on the laminate.



As discussed above, the laminate is an essential component of the reverse transfer printing technique used to print on ID cards. These ribbons get the image printed on them, and then stick neatly on the surface of the cards. There are three types of laminates available.

(A). Overlaminate

These ribbons are not printed on, they are only applicable with printers that have a laminate module installed in them. After the print is made on the transfer film and is attached to the card, the laminate module will further apply a clear layer of laminate on the card, giving it protection against wear and tear.

(B). Transfer Film

The standard laminate ribbon, these are a thin layer of plastic that can be easily printed on using the reverse transfer ribbons. They are sensitive to heat, and once heated can easily form a nice adhesive bond with the card surface.

(C). Holographic

Lastly, these ribbons only have one use, they are used by the printer to attach a hologram on the card surface, to provide authentication to it.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What are the different types of ID card printing?

There are three types of printing techniques majorly used to print ID Cards. These are – Inkjet, Direct to Card (DTC), and Reverse Transfer.

Q2. Which ID card printer is best?

There is no best type of ID card printer there. Different types of printers/printing techniques provide different characteristics and disadvantages. For example, Inkjet printers are very cost-effective and provide good image quality. But they are slower and need to be regularly used. On the other hand, reverse transfer printers provide excellent and durable prints, but they are very expensive to operate.

Q3. What are the types of id card material?

Generally, ID cards are made using a single material, a type of plastic called PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). PVC is easy to manufacture and provides a decent strength-to-flexibility ratio.


Disclaimer: The information presented here is for general information purposes only and true to best of our understanding. Users are requested to use any information as per their own understanding and knowledge. Before using any of the information, please refer to our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions.

  • Created on Jun 16, 2023
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