Printing Smart Cards


Plastic cards have become part of everyone's life,as credit cards to driver's licenses, membership cards, "green cards", and employee identification badges. Their standard size, portability and durability have made them the vehicle of choice for many applications.

Digital plastic card printers offer the ability to create smart cards tailored to the application or to customize and personalize cards on demand, right at the point of issuance. Closely integrated with image capture systems (digital cameras, etc.) and computer database systems, the printer provides the delivery point of a highly integrated system. The printing process is fast (just a few seconds per card) so that cards are generated and personalized while the customer cardholder waits, quickly connecting the customer or cardholder to the issuing organization or program.

Digitally printed plastic cards provide numerous technological features, but start with a blank plastic card that can be printed with any combination of artwork, graphics, text, digital photograph, bar codes, logos, etc., limited only by the issuer's imagination. Additional machine readable information can be encoded such as magnetic stripes and smart card chips.

Digital plastic card printing has replaced previous card generation methods and integrated the card delivery process into the electronic environment that runs and tracks the rest of your business or agency.

Photo Identification Cards

Photo identification cards are generally produced using either a labor intensive, traditional film-based method or an easier and more practical one-step process using digital printing technology.

The old-fashioned cut/paste/laminate method for producing photographic ID cards is a multi-step process:
First, take an instant photo of the person, cut and trim the picture to fit the card.
Then, separately print the person's ID information on a card-sized piece of paper or card stock.
Last, laminate the picture and card together. 

This archaic process has been widely used in various applications including student ID cards, employee ID badges, club membership cards, and driver's licenses. Cards produced by this method are easily counterfeited or changed. Generating cards this way can be both time consuming and labor intensive.

Digital card printing is more efficient and secure.

Digital card printing is a one step process - text, graphics and pictures are physically printed on a 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 (PVC). Plastic cards can be printed in monochrome or full color, front side only or on both sides.

Digital Card Printing - The Advantages

Image Quality 

The image quality of plastic cards produced with digital printing technology is far superior to those produced through the old-fashionedl manual method described above. Plastic cards look better because digitized photo images are sharper and can be edited for color quality. Placement of various graphical elements of the card is more consistent and text is clearer and more readable.


Plastic card printers can print text, line art, and photographic images. They can also encode magnetic stripes and provide smart card chip programming contact stations, all in a single step process. Card design software used to produce the cards provides users the flexibility to change designs, store and access multiple designs, create variable text fields, and implement data base programs to store images and track information.


Plastic card printers can also apply various types of card protection materials to make cards resistant to tampering and alteration. These protection materials, including hologram overlays, make cards more secure because they cannot be easily reproduced or counterfeited.


Card protection materials such as overlay varnishes, overlaminate patches, and secure card media each provide various levels of card durability by making the cards resistant to abrasion, UV light exposure, water damage, and exposure to liquid chemicals.


In-house printing of plastic cards using an Eltron card printer eliminates both the need for, and costs associated with, producing cards using the time consuming, old-fashioned photographic cut/paste/laminate method. A plastic card printer is also more economical than jobbing out your card requirements to a lithographic printer or service bureau. Outside suppliers must mark up card production costs significantly in order to cover overhead and servicing costs, making them an economical alternative only for large volume applications.



Printing your own plastic cards give you the convenience of being able to produce cards when you need them, where you need them, letting you issue new cards on demand. Having your own card printer capability also makes it easy to make changes to card content or design quickly. 

How Card Printing Works

Plastic card printers feature 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.

(Figure 1) 
Yellow, magenta, and cyan are the primary colors used in 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 - the print head applies each color separately. 

yellow & magenta
yellow, magenta & cyan

The term Dye Sublimation is also referred to as Dye Diffusion. When the Dye on the 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 black in the printing industry.

(Figure 2) 
Why do you need a separate black panel, when you can create 
black by mixing the three basic YMC colors together?

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 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.

All Eltron printers are capable of printing in monochrome using a single color ribbon. These 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, blue, and yellow. 

Dye Sublimation ribbons are preferred when you are printing pictures, 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.

Magnetic Stripe Encoding

Magnetic stripe cards have been in existence since the early 1970s when they were used on paper and film-based ID cards and credit cards. Magnetic stripe technology is widely used throughout the world and remains the dominant technology in the U.S. for transaction processing and access control. Other technologies such as PDF bar codes and smart chip cards are now capturing part of the magnetic stripe market since they can hold more information.

Magnetic Stripe Plastic Card

Magnetic stripe encoding terms: 

Coercivity - 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.

HiCo - 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.

LoCo - Abbreviation for Low Coercivity. Easier to encode and slightly less expensive than HiCo magnetic stripe cards.

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.

Stripe-Up/Stripe Down - Other terms often used are 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. Stripe-down is most common.

Selecting the appropriate type of magnetic stripe.

Selecting the appropriate type of magnetic stripe depends on how the card will be used. Another consideration is how often the card will be used -- daily, monthly, or just a few times a year. The chart below shows some of the applications where magnetic stripes are used and which stripe is most common for each application.

Access Control yesdaily
Retail Customer 
Loyalty Cards
yes weekly
Membership Cardsyes weekly/monthly
Time and Attendance yesdaily
Debit/CreditInternationalUnited Statesweekly/monthly
Drivers Licenses yesOccasionally, but HiCo is required by most states.

Encoding Magnetic Stripes

All Eltron Encoders follow the ISO standard for encoding, but can be changed via the Microsoft Windows™ driver to enable proprietary encoding. Proprietary encoding offers greater security and most readers can also be easily reprogrammed to read custom encoding.


Smart Cards

There are a wide variety of contact and contactless smart cards currently in use. The Terms "Smart Chip Card", "IC Card", and "Smart Card" all refer to the same type of card. Smart cards have a chip embedded in them which can be programmed. Smart cards can store over 100 times more information than a magnetic stripe and they can be reprogrammed to add, delete, or rearrange data.

Smart Cards in Europe. Smart cards were invented in Europe in the 1970s and were in wide use in Western Europe by the early 1980s. Smart cards began as an easy, inexpensive way for European businesses to do off-line transaction verification. Off-line verification is preferred due to the high cost of telecommunications in Europe.

Smart Cards in the U.S. The United States has been slow to implement smart cards because it requires replacing the widely installed magnetic stripe card reading equipment with smart card readers. The cost of having the current magnetic stripe readers "on-line" via telecommunications is relatively inexpensive in the U.S.

Microprocessor Smart Card

The second type of smart card contains both a microprocessor as well as memory. These cards can store massive amounts of information, and the micro-processor enables the card to make its own decisions regarding the information stored.

Both types of chips can be addressed by Eltron card printers since they all offer an optional smart card contact station. The printer brings the card into the contact station and then passes programming signals from an external programmer to encode the smart chip.

Contactless smart cards and proximity cards utilize various short and long range RFID technologies to write and read. Many card printers print on these kinds of smart cards. Encoding or programming the electronic devices on these cards is typically accomplished by an external encoding or programming device, but contactless smart card encoders integrated into the card printer are becoming increasingly available.

Card Durability and Security

Card Durability

Various types of materials are used to protect plastic cards. Overlay varnishes, holograms and patch overlaminate materials provide card durability and security, depending on user requirements.

Card durability has to do with how well the card withstands various forms of environmental stress. Durability entails 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. 

MaterialCard LifeDurabilitySecurity
Overlay VarnishUp to 2 yearsMinimaln/a
Overlay Varnish 
with Hologram
Up to 2 yearsMinimalVisual
Clear Patch 
Up to 5 yearsHighn/a
Patch Overlaminate 
with Hologram
Up to 5 yearsHighVisual

Card Security

Another important factor in applications such as ID cards and driver's licenses is resistance to tampering, alteration, and/or replication. With the use of protective materials such as overlaminates, cards can be constructed to eliminate the potential of tampering and alteration.

Card security means that the card can be verified for authenticity. Techniques include the application of overlay varnish or overlaminate materials with hologram images. Use of these materials in constructing cards makes replication by anyone without access to the custom hologram image materials virtually impossible. 

Smart Card API (SDK)

Easy smart card integration with our smart card framework for .NET with C# and VB.NET sample code.

Sample code available for Mifare, DESFire, JavaCard, KVK, eGK, SIM, PIV, CAC, HID Prox/iCLASS and many more