Guide to Buying a Plastic Card Printer

Plastic card printing methods

You have two options when it comes to printing plastic cards. The first is to make them yourself with a dedicated thermal plastic card printer, and the second is to order them from a specialist printing company.

Specialist printing companies may use a card printer for smaller, full colour runs (a few hundred) or much larger monochrome (single colour) print runs. For high quality full colour runs where the design is the same on every card however, they will print onto large plastic sheets which will then be punched into credit card sized pieces after printing. This method is commonly known as litho printing. If you wish to be able to overprint these cards with a thermal card printer (for example; to add a name, barcode etc.) the printer company will need to add a varnish at the end of the initial print process.

For further information on pre-printed plastic cards, please give us a call to discuss options and pricing. If you plan to produce your own cards, then please read on.

Card printer technologies

There are two types of card printing machines. The first and by far the most common (accounting for 95% of sales), is the direct to card printer (DTC printer). As the name suggests; these printers print directly onto the card.

The second type of card printer is most commonly called a re-transfer (reverse transfer) printer. Instead of printing directly onto the card, it prints first onto a clear film. This film is then transferred onto the card using a basic lamination process. There are two advantages of using a re-transfer printer which we will discuss a little later on - together with the disadvantage of cost.

Both printing machine types use a mixture of dye sublimation and thermal transfer methods. Dye sublimation prints full colour photo quality images whereas thermal transfer is used to print monochrome (single colour) text, images or barcodes etc.

Although it sounds complicated, the card printer handles all processes automatically.

You may ask: "Why are card printers so expensive?"

The most expensive part in a card printer is the thermal printhead. A 6cm printhead contains nearly 700 elements, which heat individually to different temperatures hundreds of times per second, to transfer dye and resin ink onto the surface of the card. Replacement printheads cost £350-£400 so it is very important to maintain them properly. We can advise you on how to do this.

Thermal printing technology hasn't really changed in the last 20 years, some of the latest printers are still using the same printhead and supplies as their predecessors were using in the late 90's.

Prices for a new card printer have dropped significantly in the last few years to make them affordable for more businesses, although unfortunately this often comes at the expense of build or image quality. This takes us on to the next question:

New or Refurbished?

Buying a new or 'nearly new' printer has only one true advantage: receiving 2or more years warranty included in the price of the printer.

Printers refurbished by Infocus (that's us) are perfect if your usage requirements don't justify the cost of a new printer, or you simply want a more superior model for the same price as an entry level machine. Some of our stock looks brand new, having printed less than 100 cards. Some may have between 1 and 2 years manufacturer's warranty remaining. If you intend to print thousands of cards a year, this might be a good option. Alternatively, we offer an annual maintenance contract which takes the worry out of buying a pre-owned printer. If you aren’t planning on printing more than a few hundred a year though, this is an unnecessary cost.

While buying such an expensive and technical machine second hand may seem daunting, we take the risk out of buying a used ID card printer. Our refurbished printers are in great condition and have been professionally cleaned, serviced and calibrated to ensure performance as good as the day the machine left the factory. Any worn or damaged parts are always replaced.

Certified pre-owner Datacard ID printers: we are authorised by Datacard to sell their factory refurbished card printers. These are typically the latest models and are refurbished to the same high standard as our other stock.

We provide a 6 month guarantee on all of our printers, followed by discounted servicing and labour charges* in the unlikely event that something goes wrong further down the line. We also offer maintenance contracts from £85 per year, which is exceptionally competitive.

*Conditions apply.


Choosing the right printer

1) Running costs

These vary hugely. If you are looking to print a couple of hundred staff ID cards a year or less, it isn't really so important as typically the ID printers are cheaper to buy in the first place..

Costs vary typically from 12p per card to 34p per card for a single sided full colour print, plus the cost of the blank card (premium white cards cost 6p each or less). Monochrome (single colour) printing is as cheap as 1p per print.

You can work out the print cost for each printer yourself, simply by dividing the cost of the ribbon by the number of prints it provides. If you want to save time however, give us a call on +44 (0)1724 277777.

2) Single or multi-feed

Single feed machines require you to insert the card when prompted. It is then printed and ejected. Single feed card printers are particularly attractive to those who will print a small number of cards, but wish to print on both sides. Recommended for those printing 200 cards a year or less.

Multi-feed card printers can be left to print a run of cards without the operator being present. They are more convenient as they store the cards ready for printing which also keeps the cards clean. Specks of dust on a card will cause print quality issues. Almost all card printers are multi-feed.

3) Connectivity

Unless specified, all of our printers can be connected via a USB cable to your computer. All of our printers run on Windows XP, Vista and 7 and most work with Windows 8 and 10. We list the compatibility in the product description. If you wish to use a card printer with Mac OSX, please be aware that even if the machine is listed as compatible, not all functionality is available from the driver due to Apple software restrictions.

If you require network connectivity, look out for machines advertised with an Ethernet (LAN) port.



Some printers can print a hidden ultra violet logo or text onto a card. Others can apply a laminate to prevent tampering with the printed cards. There is usually a choice of laminates, including ones with built in holograms.



Many of our printers have encoders installed or can be easily upgraded to encode different types of smart cards.

The three basic encoding technologies are: magnetic strip, contact smart chip and contactless chips which are hidden inside the card. All three are included in modern bank cards. Not all encoders can handle all variations of chip type, so please call for advice if you are unsure.


Direct to Card (DTC) or Re-transfer Printer?

Direct to card printers are the most common as they are cheaper to buy and use. They are suitable for 9 out of 10 buyers and results like those below are what you can expect to achieve:

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You will note that almost full card coverage can be achieved if desired. Skin tones in ID card photos are smooth and the overall result is more than adequate for the majority of applications.

So what can a re-transfer printer do that a direct to card (DTC) printer can't? The answer is simple; a re-transfer printer handles block colour much better, especially darker colours. For instance; If you try to print block colour or your design is very dark, you can expect to see random flashes of colour. (See below)


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These are caused by the card overheating and the ribbon sticking to the card during the printing process.

No matter what any card printer sales person (or glossy sales brochure) tries to tell you, it is difficult to get consistent results with block colour printing on a DTC printer. There are exceptions to this rule and some ways to get around the problem, such as slowing the printing process down, but this can only be done on some printers.

This is the main reason the re-transfer printer was introduced. The printing is transferred to the film instead of directly onto the card, which stops the overheating issue.

Print quality appears higher with re-transfer printers, though it is actually the deeper colours and glossy finish which gives this illusion. The exception to this rule is with the latest re-transfer printers which can print in 600dpi resolution. The benefit of the glossy finish is that it is aesthetically a little more desirable and it is also helps with tamper proofing the card. (It is possible to get an equally glossy surface with some DTC card printers, along with tamper proofing benefits by choosing one with a built-in laminator.) For the ultimate in security, some re-transfer printers can be fitted with a laminator.

The other main benefit of re-transfer printing is that you can print 'over' the edge of the card. Having said that, with the correct calibration and settings, you can print right to the edge of the card with most DTC printers.

If you plan to print cards with surface irregularities such as those with a contact smart chip, the re-transfer card printer is the best option as there is no chance of missing print or the printhead being damaged in the printing process.

The following cards were printed on a re-transfer printer:

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Simplex or Duplex?

Simplex - single sided printing.

Duplex - double sided printing.

Any ID card printer can print double sided if you manually feed the card back through it after printing. This is perfectly fine if the information on at least one side of the card stays the same. For convenience though, if you wish to print double sided, you can choose a duplex printer. The only difference with a duplex printer is that it contains a flipper which turns the card over and feeds it back to the printhead. If you want to print more than one double sided card at a time, with variable information on the front and back of the card, it is definitely worth considering a duplex machine.

Consumables and accessories

We stock ribbons, cleaning kits and accessories for all of the plastic card printers that we sell. We supply a huge range of card holders and lanyards included personalisation options.

It is important to keep your printer clean and use high quality cards. Cheap cards often have burrs and scratches on them, which damage the printhead over time. We stock all available colours of card, including fluorescent and metallic.

It should be noted that when printing in full colour, the print is translucent which means: if you print blue onto a yellow card, the blue will appear green.

Monochrome (single colour) printing looks better on coloured cards as it is opaque. White or silver print on black cards looks particularly striking.


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Hopefully now you’ll have a much clearer understanding of card printing technologies and which one is likely to provide you with the functionality you need. For any further questions or enquiries, please call us for friendly advice on 0800 999 5588 or +44 1724 277777.