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ID Card Printers: Direct-to-Card or Retransfer?

ID Card Printers: Direct-to-Card or Retransfer?

ID Card Printers fall into two categories generally:

  • Direct to Card Printers (DTC or Dye Sublimation) 
  • Retransfer ID Card Printers (or Reverse Transfer).

As you’d expect, they use different printing methods and are best suited to different jobs. There’s usually a big price difference between Direct-to-Card printers (sitting at the lower end) and Retransfer Card Printers at the higher.

We take a look at how they print, what they’re likely to cost and whether they’re right for your particular printing projects.

Direct to Card Printers
Also known as DTC or Dye Sublimation Printers, these are the most popular type of ID card printer due to their affordability and availability, with most printer models falling into this category.

How DTC Printers Work
Direct-to-card printers use an Ink Ribbon to print text and images directly onto the surface of your card through heat and pressure. It is so called because the printhead comes into direct contact with the card during the printing process.

Using this thermal print process, the print head transfers the image to the ribbon, which then applies it to the card surface. The ink is applied one colour at a time, so if you have a YMCK Colour Ribbon, the Yellow panel will pass through, then the Magenta, then Cyan, then Black; blending together to create the full colour image.

Always remember that the data remains on the card ribbon after the cards are printed, which is why it’s important to shred them securely when they’re replaced.
Advantages of Direct to Card Printers

  • Cost
One of the biggest advantages is affordability. Entry-level direct-to-card printers start from around £545 and are perfectly good if you're only printing small volumes of cards (up to 1000 a year). The next step up to a model capable of printing up to 10,000 cards a year is around £350 more.
  • Options

      There's a fairly wide range of choice when it comes to Direct to Card, with more of these being sold on the market than any other. Although DTC Printers are broadly similar in terms of how they work, there are various different features available, particularly on the newer models.

      These include security features such as secure boot up, digital data shredding, printer locks to prevent unauthorised use, watermarks and more
      Potential Disadvantages to take into account

      • Print restrictions for access control or smart cards containing a chip

      Because the card comes into full contact with the printhead during the printing process, DTC printers aren't the recommended solution for printing on chip or technology cards.

      You can experience print quality issues over the chip area of the card and regular use can damage the printhead in the printer. 

      • You don't get full print coverage over the card

      All direct-to-card printers will leave a slim white border around the edge of the card (known as edge-to-edge printing) because their printing process doesn’t allow them to print fully over the edge. This isn’t a concern for most ID cards that don’t have a colour background; however it can be noticeable on a busy graphic.

      Retransfer ID Card Printers
      Retransfer card printers also known as reverse transfer printers use a completely different printing method.

      They use a two-step process. The card design is printed first onto a thin, clear film, which is then bonded to the surface of the plastic card using heat.

      This means that the printhead never actually comes into contact with the actual card, which is why retransfer Card Printers are the gold standard when you’re printing on Access Control Cards or any cards containing a chip (MIFARE®, Salto, etc).

      This is because the chip can’t be damaged or affected by the printing process, like it can with Direct-to-Card printing.

      Advantages of using Retransfer Card Printers

      • Handle high volumes of cards
      Retransfer printers are built to handle very large volumes of cards on a regular basis, which is why they're often used by government and educational establishments.
      • Better print quality with over-the-edge printing

        Direct-to-card printers will always leave a slim white border around the card, whereas Retransfer printers print ‘over-the-edge’, as the film extends beyond the edges. This makes your cards look more professional.

        You also get a more consistent print finish, time after time, which is why they’re often the printer of choice for organisations where branding is important.

        • Prints on all types of plastic cards including access control & chip cards
        Unlike Direct-to-card printers which are not recommended for printing cards with a chip inside, Retransfer printers can safely print on all types of cards without damage.
        • Increased durability
          Because of the method of printing, plastic cards printed with a retransfer printer are more durable and will keep their colour much longer due to their protective film. This is a consideration if your cards are used outside, are handled regularly or you need them to last for a long time (i.e. years).
          • Long-term investment
            Because cards never come into contact with the printhead, retransfer card printers are less likely to experience problems or need technical intervention. and need far less cleaning and maintenance than other printers. Potential Disadvantages to take into account:
            • Price Tag
              The main thing that puts people off is the cost. The cheapest printer in this category will set you back anywhere between £2.5-3K which puts it outside a lot of people’s budgets.
              • Size

                Retransfer printers are usually quite a bit larger than Direct-to-card printers, which is something to bear in mind if you’re planning on transporting it, say to events or conferences for example.

                Not sure which ID Card Printer is right for you?
                We’re happy to help! Either start a Chat with us or call our friendly team on 01244 526009.

                We promise never to upsell you to a more expensive printer than you need.

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