Id Card Basics: Terms You Need to Know In Los Angeles, Southern California

by | May 30, 2010

ID Card Basics

ID Cards

ID cards are generally produced using either a traditional film based method or digital printing technology. The older, more traditional process for producing personal ID cards is a multi-step process which is time consuming and costly as compared to a digital system. Card produced in this fashion can also be easily counterfeited or changed.

Take an instant photo of the person, cut and trim the picture to fit the ID card.
Separately print the person’s ID information on a card-sized piece of paper or card stock. Laminate the picture and card together.

This process has been widely used in various applications including student ID cards, employee ID badges, club membership cards, and driver’s licenses.

Many ID users do not see a need to upgrade their ID card production capabilities if the projected card production is relatively low (below fifty cards annually). At this production level, one will possibly want to consider an entry level, ink jet ID Card system or may also want to consider outsourcing card production.

Digital ID card printing is a one step process in which text, graphics and pictures are physically printed on a plastic card directly from a computer system without any user intervention. These cards are usually the same size as a standard credit card and made of a plastic called Polyvinyl Chloride otherwise known as PVC. Plastic ID cards can be printed in monochrome or full color, front side only or on both sides.

Digital access control ID card with photo image and standard hologram

Digital access control and stored value debit passenger card with photo ID and smart chip

Digital club membership card with photo ID, membership number and bar code

ID Card Printers – How they work

PVC plastic ID card printers feature all the same basic printing operations; dye sublimation and/or thermal transfer printing. Both techniques involve a ribbon being heated as it passes under a thermal print head. The difference is that thermal transfer ribbons heat up and transfer ink onto the plastic card, and dye sublimation ribbons heat up and undergo a chemical change process that turns the ink into a gaseous state which then permeates the plastic card.

The ribbon used in color dye sublimation printing is divided into three separate color panels Yellow, Magenta, and Cyan
(see Figure 1). This configuration is referred to as YMC.


These three colors are the primary colors used in ID card printing to produce all other colors including black.

The dye from the ribbon is applied to the plastic card via a multi-pass operation. This means the card will pass under the print head once for each of the three colored ribbon panels – applying each color separately.

The term Dye Sublimation is also referred to as Dye Diffusion. When the Dye on the printer ribbon is heated by the print head it is transformed from a solid to a gas and diffused onto the plastic card (the card is specially coated to absorb the color dye). The hotter the elements in the print head, the more dye is converted to a gas and absorbed into the plastic card. At 300dpi the picture quality and continuous color tones produced by a dye sublimation printer outperform most laser or ink jet printers with higher resolutions.

The advantage of dye sublimation is the millions of colors that can be created. The colors result from a combination of the panels on the ribbon. By combining these colors and varying the intensity of the heat, providing various shades of each color, you are virtually unlimited in your color selection.

Thermal Transfer differs from Dye Sublimation in that Thermal Transfer uses Ink rather than Dye. Both Dye Sublimation and Thermal Ink (sometimes refered to as Resin) can be combined in one ribbon (see Figure 2). This ribbon is referred to as a YMCK Ribbon. The letter “K” is the designator for the color black in the printing industry.


Why do you need a separate black panel, when you can create black by mixing the three basic YMC colors together?

The answer to this question is simple. When black is created by mixing the YMC colors together it creates what is referred to as “Composite Black.” Composite Black typically looks muddy or has a grayish tint when compared to Thermal Transfer (TT or resin) black. Composite Black is not recommended for printing bar codes on ID cards since combining the three colors together does not produce the sharp edge many scanners require (this is invisible to the naked eye but can be observed under magnification). Composite Black is also invisible to IR scanners since there is no carbon in the dye. Since you may not know what type of scanner will be used, the rule is to always use TT (resin) black to print bar codes.

PVC ID card printers are capable of printing in monochrome using a single color ribbon. These ID card printer ribbons are less expensive than full color multi-panel ribbons and can be either dye or ink (thermal transfer). The most commonly used monochrome ribbon is “Black” but there are several other colors available including; Red, Green, and Blue.

Dye sublimation ribbons are preferred when you are printing pictures on ID cards, since they can produce many shades of gray for a smoother look and a better picture quality. A resin black picture normally uses a dithered gray scale (gray made from a combination of pixels which limits the number of shades), producing a coarser, grainy look to the image.

Thermal Transfer (resin) ribbons should be used to print text, bar codes or single color graphics such as simple logos. Black monochrome ribbons are represented by the letter “K” followed by a lower case “r or d”, (Kr or Kd). The “r” designates a Thermal Transfer ribbon with resin ink. The “d” designates a dye sublimation ribbon.

ID card printers apply various types of materials are used to protect plastic ID cards from abrasion, wear, fading. Alternation, and duplications. Overlay varnishes and laminate patches are the most common materials used to enhance ID card durability and security.

Card durability has to do with how well the card withstands various forms of environmental stress. They include resistance to abrasion, such as passing the card through a magnetic stripe or bar code reader, protection from image fading when exposed to sunlight, and resistance to damage when immersed in water or exposed to chemicals.

Another important factor in applications such as drivers licensing is resistance to tampering, alteration, and/or replication. With the use of protective materials such as laminate patches with holograms, cards can be constructed to eliminate the potential of tampering and alteration. Card security means that the ID card can be verified for authenticity.

Techniques include the application of overlay varnish or overlaminate materials with or without hologram images. Use of these materials in constructing cards makes replication by anyone without access to the hologram image materials virtually impossible.


Card Life



Overlay Varnish

Up to 2 years


Overlay Varnish
with Hologram

Up to 2 years



Clear Patch

Up to 5 years


Patch Overlaminate
with Hologram

Up to 5 years



ID card overlay varnishes provide card protection, but have a much shorter life span than laminate patches – and offer very little security (with the exception of some hologram varnishes). Varnishes are not a solid covering and have multiple tiny holes in the surface, which allows the dyes to be drawn away from the card. This will cause the image on the card to blur and fade due to UV light, shift in color, or just wear away. The life expectancy of a plain plastic card is up to 2 years.

ID Card Overlaminates

ID card laminate patches offer better protection than plain varnish, for both security and life expectancy. A patch laminate is, as its name implies, a polyester patch that is applied to the surface of the card after printing. Laminate patches, most often either .6 or 1.0 mil thick are applied via a hot roll laminating station that is usually incorporated into the ID card printer for efficiency and easy operation. The life expectancy of a plastic card with a laminate patch is up to seven years.

Bar Codes

Many times the key to understanding a technology is to understand why it came about. One of the first publications concerning barcodes was one written by someone at NCR (National Cash Register) titled: “Keyless Data Entry”. This was around 1973. The publication described a method of entering data into a Point of Sale System without having to use the keys. Cash Registers had become data terminals attached to a main computer in large retail and grocery stores. This is why they were no longer even called Cash Registers. When the clerk “rang up” items this new Cash Register did a lot more than total up your bill and calculate your change. Actually, the clerk didn’t even enter the price of the items any more; but rather a series of numbers that described what the item was. This number was sent to the computer. The computer looked up the price and sent it back to the Point of Sale System and also subtracted the product from the store inventory. When the inventory got low enough the computer could process the paperwork to order more products. The computer also compiled various reports for the store management so they knew all about their inventory; what the fast moving products were; the slow moving ones and a lot of other things about how their store was running. Of course the key to accurate transactions and accurate information for management all relied on the clerk entering those numbers accurately.

It didn’t take long to realize that human beings are not very good at reading a series of numbers from an object and entering them correctly on a keyboard. A lot of mistakes are made, especially when the clerk is expected to do this hundreds or even thousands of times a day. Somehow, a method had to be devised to mark the necessary information on each product in a manner that some type of “machine” could read the information accurately provided that the clerk just held the item so the machine could see this special marking. It would also be necessary that this special marking be added to the product at very little or no cost. This requirement, of course led to the development of barcodes.

The types of barcodes in use today can be roughly divided into two categories; Retail and Industrial. The example discussed above of why barcodes came about, covers their usage in retail applications. But barcodes are used everywhere these days. You’ve seen the TV ads for UPS and Federal Express saying that they know where your package is at all times. You can even use your PC to find out the status of your shipment. None of this would be possible without barcodes. So, let’s look at the main barcode symbologies in use today.

The retail sales business in the United States mainly uses the UPC or Uniform Product Code. If you’re a manufacturer of retail products you must apply for a UPC barcode for that product by contacting the Uniform Code Council. A normal UPC code contains 12 digits. The first digit tells what type of product the code is on (retail, pharmaceutical, etc.). The next five digits identify the manufacturer of that product. The next five digits identify a specific product produced by that manufacturer. The last digit is a check digit used to tell if the barcode scanner read the first eleven digits correctly. In Europe the EAN or European Article Numbering code is used. It’s similar to UPC, but contains an extra digit as part of the identification of the country where the product originated. EAN is also used in some applications in the US, such as Booklan code.

In industrial applications many different types of barcodes are used because the type of information that is contained in the barcode varies considerably. Retail applications just require the product and manufacturer. In industrial applications the barcode can contain part numbers, serial numbers, lot identification or just about any other piece of information about an object. The characters in the barcode might be numbers, letters or other punctuation marks, in any combination. There might be a limited area to mark the code, requiring the highest density of information possible.

The three most common codes used in industrial applications are Interleaved 2 of 5, Code 39 and Code 128.

Interleaved 2 of 5 code is designed to encode numbers only. It is a two level code, meaning that the bars and spaces have only two widths. The code is interleaved in that one digit is represented by a series of five bars, two of which are always wide. The next digit is represented by five spaces, two of which are always wide. For this reason an Interleaved 2 of 5 code always contains an even number of digits. A leading zero is usually added if an odd number of characters are to be encoded. All codes have unique patterns at the start and end of the code. This tells the barcode reader which direction it is reading the code. Most all codes can be scanned front to back or back to front, as long as the scanner knows which way it’s going. Because of the simple start/stop pattern it is possible for a decoder, looking for an Interleaved 2 of 5 code, to mistake printing for the code and try and decode it. Many times the decoder will be successful in decoding a two digit code. To avoid potential problems with Interleaved 2 of 5 code, always use four digits or more. In addition, always try to use the same number of digits and program your decoder to only accept a code with only that number of digits.

Code 39 is a two level code that is designed to encode both letters and numbers. The standard version encodes upper case letters A-Z, numbers and a few punctuation marks. The asterisk (*) character is always used as a start and a stop character. Extended Code 39 encodes all 128 ASCII characters. Code 39 is the code most often used in industrial applications. Even where only numbers are involved, because it is not subject to the problems outlined above. It is called Code 39 because each character is made up of nine elements, five bars and four spaces, and three of the nine are wide, while the remaining six are narrow. Extended Code 39 uses certain character pairs to represent characters not normally present in Code 39. This works fine but the added characters take the space that would normally yield two characters, so the resulting code is longer than normal Code 39 for a given number of characters.

Code 128 is the best code to use when all 128 ASCII characters are needed. It is a four level code, meaning that bars and spaces can have four different widths. There are actually three versions of Code 128. The A version encodes all upper case alphanumeric characters plus all of the ASCII control characters. The B version encodes all upper and lower case alphanumeric characters. The C version encodes numbers only. It is possible to switch between character sets within the code by using shift characters. The advantage of Code 128 is that it can encode all ASCII characters in the shortest possible code length. The disadvantage is, because it has four different bar and space widths rather than two, more demands are put on printing and decoding technologies.

ID Card Encoding

Magnetic stripe cards have been in existence since the early 70’s when they were used on paper and film-based ID cards as well as credit cards. Magnetic stripe technology is widely used throughout the world on plastic cards and remains the dominant technology in the United States for transaction processing and access control. Other technologies such as PDF bar codes and smart chip cards for ID cards are now capturing part of the magnetic stripe market since they can hold more information.

Magnetic Stripe Plastic ID Card 

Magnetic stripe encoding terms:


A technical term used to designate how strong a magnetic field must be to affect data encoded on a magnetic stripe. Coercivity is measured in Oersteds (Oe). Coercivity is the measure of how difficult it is to encode information in a magnetic stripe.


Abbreviation for High Coercivity. HiCo magnetic stripes provide the highest level of immunity to damage by stray magnetic fields. They are more difficult to encode than LoCo magnetic stripes because the encoding requires more power. HiCo magnetic stripe cards are slightly more expensive for this reason.


Abbreviation for Low Coercivity. Easier to encode and slightly less expensive than HiCo magnetic stripe cards. Selecting which type of magnetic stripe to adopt depends on how the card is to be used. Will the magnetic stripe be used daily, once a month, or just a couple of times a year? The chart below shows some of the applications where magnetic stripes are used and which stripe is common for that application.





Access Control


Retail Customer
Loyalty Cards


Membership Cards


Time and Attendance




United States


Drivers License

Occasionally, but HiCo required by most states.

The easiest way to determine visually if a stripe on a card is HiCo or LoCo is by the color. HiCo stripes are black and LoCo stripes are a lighter brown. Magnetic stripe readers are “blind” as to whether a stripe is HiCo or LoCo and are designed to read both.

Another term often used is Stripe-up and Stripe-down. Stripe-up means the magnetic stripe is on the front of the card and Stripe-down means the magnetic stripe is on the back of the card. This information is important when ordering a printer since the magnetic encoder must be installed differently for Stripe-up and Stripe-down models at the factory. The most common is Stripe-down.

All major ID card printer manufacturers follow the ISO standard for encoding, but can be changed via the Windows driver to enable proprietary encoding. Proprietary encoding offers greater security and most readers can also be easily reprogrammed to read custom encoding.

E-card Features Insert E-card features graphic from pdf file

E-cards is an industry term that includes both proximity and smart cards. E-cards offer the greatest security available because they can contain vast amounts of data and information.

Proximity Cards

Proximity cards are at the entry level of the secure e-card continuum. They are widely used in access control applications, giving the user a great deal of keyless convenience. A proximity cards internal antenna provides a greater security than a magnetic stripe whose data is vulnerable to strong magnetic fields or decoding. Proximity cards signals are not easily intercepted.

Smart Cards

Smart Cards are at the high end of the secure e-card continuum. They provide the most security because they can store and transfer a significant amount of information. Plus they are extremely tamper resistant. Because they can store biometric data like fingerprints, iris scans and signature dynamics, you can authenticate identify or verify information. This allows you to control access and track usage of physical assets and data.