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A personalized color ID card is printed by infusing dye from a film ribbon into the plastic surface of the card. Inside every card printer is a roll of semi-opaque ribbon made up of a repeating series of Yellow (Y), Magenta (M), Cyan (C), Black (K) and Overcoat (O) panels.

The YMC panels contain thermally sensitive dyes. By combining varying amounts of these dyes, any color spectrum can be created, from white (no dye transferred) to black (full transfer of each of the three dyes).

The Black and Clear panels are also used in the thermal printing process, but they operate in a different way called “mass transfer” in which all of the material (in this case a plastic resin rather than a dye) is transferred once the carrier ribbon reaches the required transfer temperature. The black resin is used to apply dense black text and barcodes on top of the YMC color image, and the clear panel is used to put a protective overcoat over the entire printed image.

For users that require extra protection for their cards, a lamination layer can be added onto the card after printing. This is normally a 0.6 mil or a 1 mil thick layer of polyester which protects the card from scratching. Lamination is usually required for high wear usage cards that are swiped daily through access control readers or otherwise exposed to heavy handling.

Card layers


There are two primary methods that card printers use to personalize plastic cards: direct-to-card (also known as dye-sublimation) and reverse-transfer (sometimes referred to as retransfer) printing methods. Both methods can reliably create high-quality printed cards but have major differences in price, speed and card durability.

Direct-to-card printing, also known as dye-sublimation or dye-diffusion is the most common method used to print images directly onto the surface of a card.

In direct-to-card printing, the ID card printer transfers color directly to a blank card by heating a special ribbon beneath a thermal printhead. The heat from the printhead first causes the ink in the ribbon to vaporize into a gas which then diffuses into the surface of the card where it solidifies, or sublimates, into a solid.

The result is a durable color pigmentation into the white surface of the card that resists scratching and fading. Since the printer can only lay down one color at a time, the dye-sublimation process is repeated for each YMCK panel until a complete, colored image is formed on the card.

As a final step, the printer prints an overcoat (O) panel over the entire card surface. This overcoat layer protects the card from UV and physical damage. Certain Magicard™ brand printers take advantage of this overcoat layer to print a secure watermark onto the surface of the card.

The benefit of dye-sublimation is that is is fast, cheap and easy to use. The majority of desktop card printers on the market use dye-sublimation technology, making it proven and straightforward to use.

Dye sublimination

Reverse transfer is a high-quality print process that functions by first transferring ink from the YMCK dye film onto a clear film. The clear film which contains all the ink is then laminated entirely onto the card.

Placing the YMCK dye film onto a clear film instead of directly on the surface of the card allows users to create excellent edge to edge printed cards with deeper color saturation and better resolution than the dye-sublimation process.

In order to make the card more durable most place a layer of overlaminate onto the card for greater protection against scratches or other forms of damage. Many organizations place a holographic feature onto the overlaminate in order to add greater visual security to the card.

Retransfer technology


  • A finished ID card with color is created with dye film ribbon
  • For extra protection users can add a lamination layer over their cards
  • Lamination is great for cards that are swiped daily
  • Direct-to-card printing is a traditional method used to print images directly onto the card
  • Reverse transfer printing allows users to create excellent edge to edge printed cards