Direct-to-card ID printers | Your ultimate guide

hid fargo dtc1250-100

Choosing an ID card printer can be difficult, particularly if you’ve never purchased one before. Despite the huge amount on offer, there are only two main types of technology: direct-to-card (aka DTC) and retransfer (aka reverse transfer).

In this guide, we’ll be dealing with direct-to-card printers. We’ll talk you through how they work, how they compare to retransfer printers, their benefits and limitations, as well as considering who they are best for.

1. What is a direct-to-card printer?

A direct-to-card printer is a printer that prints ink directly on to an ID card. Compared to a retransfer printer, direct-to-card printing is an older technology that has some limitations if you’re looking to create a secure photographic ID card. That said, they are often the best ID card printer for small businesses with low- to medium-volume requirements that need simple photographic identification.

Related content… The best ID card printers for small businesses

2. How does a direct-to-card printer work?

DTC printer working

The technology in a direct-to-card printer is surprisingly similar to a regular inkjet desktop printer. This is because a printhead passes over the card inside the printer and deposits ink directly onto the card itself. A printer ribbon contains the ink. This passes between two spools in the printer and, when it comes into contact with the thermal printhead, the card design will be printed on to the card. This process is known as dye sublimation, which explains why you may hear direct-to-card printers referred to as dye-sub printers.

Dye-sublimation printing is produced by creating a “diffusion” process. In layman’s terms, that essentially means that the colours are melded together by the thermal printhead. Direct-to-card printers are capable of producing more than 16.7 million colours, and most will print either 300 or 600 dots-per-inch (DPI). While they don’t offer the same quality print that a retransfer printer would, they are more than capable that they are capable of producing crisp, clear, colour photos.

3. What are the benefits of a direct-to-card printer?

Direct to card printer positives

Despite being an older, less sophisticated technology than retransfer, direct-to-card printers remain the most popular type overall. Here are some of the reasons why.


They are more affordable to purchase than retransfer printer owing to their older technology. Direct-to-card printers cost from around £500 for a handfed basic model, rising to £1,000+ for more sophisticated machines capable of high-volume printing. You won’t be spending as much on consumables either, due to the fact direct-to-card printers do not use retransfer film.

They are more to purchase than retransfer printers owing to their older technology. Direct-to-card printer cost from around £500 for handfed models, rising to more than £1,000 for sophisticated machines capable of high-volume printing. You won’t be spending as much on consumables either, due to the fact direct-to-card printers do not use retransfer film


Direct-to-card printers produce ID cards faster than retransfer printers. So, they’re suited to those needing to produce large quantities of cards in a short amount of time. High-volume direct-to-card printers include to Fargo DTC1250e and the Evolis Zenius. Most DTC printers allow you to produce a single-sided colour card in less than 20 seconds – in the case of the DTC1520e, that’s around 225 cards per hour. The same printer can produce a single-sided monochrome card in just six seconds, while a full-colour dual-sided card will take around 24 seconds.

4. What are the limitations of a direct-to-card printer?

Direct to card negatives

Despite their plus points, direct-to-card printers do have their limitations compared to more advanced retransfer technology.

Access control

Direct-to-card cannot be used to print on to access control cards. This is because these cards have raised ridges around their internal technology. Because a DTC printer comes into direct contact with the card, these ridges can cause damage to the printhead leading to costly repairs.

Print Quality

Direct-to-card printers cannot create an over-the-edge card finish – this means there’s always going to be a thin white border around the edge of the card. This is fine if you only plan on printing simple ID photos and logos on to blank white cards, but if you have intricate card designs and want a top-notch professional finish, you’d be better off with a retransfer printer.

Card life

Cards printed by a direct-to-card printer are not as durable as those created using a direct-to-card printer. This is because there is no protective overlay; the ink is simply applied to the card. The result is a card that will not last as long and will be more prone to fading over time. In environments where ID cards need to be regularly sanitised using cleaning products, this can cause issues. The picture below demonstrates the problem.

Travel Pass DTC vs retransfer

The lower card has been printed using a direct-to-card printer, and the top by a retransfer printer. Both were exposed to the same amount of hand sanitiser over the same period of time. Can you see the difference?

Wear and tear

Due to their sensitive printheads, direct-to-card printers are more likely to suffer from wear and tear problems down the line. This is due to the fact that the printhead comes into direct contact with the card. Over time, this causes wear and tear.

Most manufacturers offer a two or three-year warranty on the printhead of a direct-to-card printer. A retransfer printer, on the other hand, usually benefits from a lifetime warranty on its printhead.

5. What printer options can be added to a direct-to-card printer?

Exact printer options will vary depending on the model in question, but below we run through some of the most important add-ons that you may wish to include.

Dual-sided printing module

A dual-sided printer is a great option if you want to print on both sides of the card. It’s particularly useful if you have a lot of information to print – splitting it over two sides ensures the card remains uncluttered and looks professional. The reverse of a card can also contain information such as ID policies, QR codes, barcodes or emergency information.

Technically you can create a dual-sided card with a single-sided printer. However, having to print on the back of a batch that’s already been printed on not only adds time to the process but introduces the risk of contaminating the printhead with dirt and debris. This can cause damage to the printhead and reduce the print quality of the card.

Currently, the Magicard 300 and Magicard 600 both feature a dual-sided add-on free of charge.

Encoding modules

You should never print directly on to access control cards with a direct-to-card printer, but it is possible to encode them with your printer with the addition of a module. The type of encoders available will vary between printers, but upgrading modules for magnetic stripe encoding and access control products are usually available. The latter means they are the perfect option for encoding HID’s iCLASS, MIFARE Classic and MIFARE DESFire among others.

6. Who are direct-to-card printers best for?

direct-to-card printers remain the best choice for those looking to create highly cost-effective photographic identification. We’d always advise smaller businesses with ad-hoc printing needs to opt for this type of printer, but they can also work in large-scale environments such as schools and colleges too.

They aren’t for those looking to print onto access control cards. If you’re looking for long-lasting identification, a retransfer printer is probably the better bet. For lots of businesses and organisations though, a direct-to-card printer still works just fine.

Direct-to-card vs retransfer: Need help choosing?

If you’re still unsure about which type of printer is best for you, the video above should give you a clearer idea. You can get in touch with us directly on 0800 988 2095. Our experts will be able to help you out. Remember to check out our articles on the best ID card printers and best ID card software.