What is the difference between direct-to-card & retransfer plastic card printers?

Card printers -

What is the difference between direct-to-card & retransfer plastic card printers?

At Easi-card. We get asked, “which is the best plastic card printer?” and “which one do I need?”.

The best plastic card printer is not a straightforward answer because every company is different and uses card printers for many things. 

We can guide you towards the best card printer for your needs, and here's how…

What is plastic card printing?

Inkjet card printer


Plastic card printing is when plastic cards are printed on-demand directly from your computer. These printers are usually desktop printers and produce the best quality cards. 

Plastic card printers are different from your basic inkjet printer. Instead of using ink to print on paper, plastic card printers use ribbons to print on plastic cards. 

The ribbons used inside the card printer can be colour or monochrome (black and white). 

There are two main methods of card printing. 

  1. Direct-to-card printing.
  2. Reverse transfer printing. 

Both methods can print in colour or monochrome. However, different card printers are needed for these methods. 

Direct to card printing

Direct to card priting


The most popular plastic card printer is direct to card printing. These printers use ink ribbons and PVC cards to print. 

Direct to card printers are surprisingly similar to inkjet printers, but instead of ink cartridges, an ID card printer ribbon contains the ink used to print.

How does it work?

Colour wheel

Step 1: A design is created by your company, or we create the artwork for you at the cost of R400.00. 

Step 2: Cards are placed into the input hopper of the card printer. The printing process is then issued on the printer, quickly done by following our support videos.  

Step 3: The design is sent to the printer to be printed. 

Step 4: The printhead inside the printer is heated and heats the ribbon in the process. 

Step 5: The print head contains tiny glass pixels that press the ink from the ribbon directly onto the surface of the cards, allowing the card to have instant imagery, text and logos etc.  

Step 6: The card process is complete; the card will exit the printer via the output hopper. The result is a perfectly printed CYMK colour or a monochrome card.

Because the print head cannot go all the way to the edge of the card, you will have a small white border around the edge of the card.

The small white border is barely noticeable, and the cards still come out beautifully. 

What are the benefits of direct to card printing? 

Plastic cards with direct to card printing


Direct to card printers are the most affordable printers on the market. Ranging from R15 000 to R25 000, these are sophisticated machines capable of high-volume printing. 

You will not be spending a lot on consumables either because direct to card printers do not use re-transfer film. 

Print speed and cost

Direct to card printers will give you faster print speeds and lower card costs than retransfer printers. 

Direct to card printers are suitable for high volume printing requirements and for companies who need to issue cards on-site quickly.

Most high-volume direct-to-card printers allow you to produce a single-sided colour card in less than 20 seconds. The same printer can make a single-sided monochrome card in just six seconds, while a full-colour dual-sided card will take around 24 seconds.

The more cards you print, the lower the costs are.


Direct to card printers can produce more than 16.7 million colours and print at a quality of 300 dots per inch (DPI). 

While the quality isn’t the same as a retransfer printer, dye-sublimation printers are more than capable of producing crisp, clear, full-colour printed cards and photo IDs.

What are the disadvantages of direct to card printing?

difference between direct to card printing and retransfer

Print quality

Direct to card printers are not capable of printing over the edge on card printers and will always have a white border around them. If you are looking for a more professional design, a retransfer printer will give you this. 

Printing on a smart card may result in a damaged printhead leading to costly repairs and less consistent print quality.

Wear & tear 

Due to the sensitive printheads, these card printers are more likely to suffer wear and tear problems down the line. The printhead comes into direct contact with the card and causes wear and tear over time.

Most manufacturers only offer a two or three-year warranty on the printhead for a direct-to-card card printer. However, retransfer printers usually benefit from a lifetime printhead warranty.

Plastic cards should be printed with an overlay material on them. This overlay material is usually added as an additional cost, but it prolongs the life of your card from up to 2-5 years. 

Direct to card printers

Direct to card printers

The best direct to card printers on the market is the
DS1, DS2 and DS3 card printers. 

These plastic card printers were designed for printing on regular PVC cards and adhesive-backed cards.

These card printers are perfect for:

  • Membership cards
  • Gift cards
  • Basic photo ID cards
  • Student ID cards
  • Business cards

Retransfer card printing 

Retransfer card printing process

A reverse transfer printer is also an over-the-edge or high definition printer, specifically designed to print on cards with uneven surfaces and smart technology cards.

The retransfer card printer uses a two-step print process. 

Firstly, the card design is printed onto a durable overlay transfer film.

Secondly, the overlay film is bonded onto the card’s surface using a combination of heat and pressure.

Using a retransfer printer will allow you to produce high-definition cards known as “over-the-edge” cards, meaning that no white border is left around the edge of the card, creating a more professional look. 

How does it work?

Retransfer placed on plastic card

Step 1: A design is created by your company, or we create the artwork for you at the cost of R400.00. 

Step 2: Cards are placed into the input hopper of the card printer. The printing process is then issued on the printer.

Step 3: The design is sent to the printer to be printed. 

Step 4: The card design is printed onto the overlay transfer film via a printhead. 

Step 5: Once the design has been printed onto the laminate film, it then passes through the printer via a heated transfer roller, where the card will be waiting. Using a combination of temperature and pressure, the transfer overlay sticks to the card—this prints edge-to-edge over the entire card surface.

Step 6: Once complete, the printed card will exit the printer via the output hopper. The result is a perfectly printed CYMK colour or a monochrome card.

Retransfer card printers are available as single-sided or dual-sided printers and various encoding options depending on your requirements for printing onto access control cards.

What are the benefits of retransfer card printers? 

High quality cards

Print quality

The retransfer printer produces cards of the highest quality. 

Reverse transfer printing is the best choice for printing on technology and smart cards since the printhead never comes into contact with the uneven card surface. Dust particles can damage the printhead of a dye-sublimation printer but do not affect the retransfer printer.

Print resolution 

Retransfer printers can produce more than 18 million colours and print 300 - 600 (DPI). 

Retransfer printers produce unique, crisp quality cards. Retransfer printers can over-the-edge design with no white borders around the card. 

Increased security

The protective overlay film printed over the card protects the card from tampering. Immediately, you will see if the card has been tampered with as the layer would look disrupted. 

A retransfer printer is the way to go if you want to produce tamper-proof cards that offer the best protection against fraudulent copies.

You can add a layer of security using tactile impression, lamination or UV watermarks to your card to make it more secure. 

Long lifetime

The protective overlay on the card prolongs the lifetime of your card up to 10 years, preventing any wear and tear. 

What are the disadvantages of retransfer printers?

Plastic cards


Retransfer printers are expensive and have significant expenses on consumables like the retransfer film because of their costly technology. Prices range from R20 000 to R100 000 depending on your company's needs. 

These costly machines may seem out of reach. However, a retransfer printer can cost you less in the long run. Their print heads are less prone to damage because you are not printing directly onto the cards like dye-sublimation printers. 

Speed & costs 

Retransfer printers are slower than direct to card printers, and the cost per card is higher because three consumables are used. 

However, this printing process will give you the best image quality and more durable cards.

Retransfer card printers

Retransfer card printer

The CR805 card printer is a retransfer card printer. It prints the highest quality cards.

Retransfer printers are the best solution for those wishing to create top-quality cards. They add an extra layer of durability and security, and they are great for:

  • Businesses and corporates
  • Local government agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Public sector organisations
  • Mines
  • Anybody that is planning to print onto access control cards

The wrap-up 

Card printer kit

So as we have stated in the beginning, every industry is different, but we hope we have helped you find the right printer based on your needs. 

Dye-sublimation printer: 

  • Ideal for printing photo ID cards, loyalty cards, membership cards and student ID cards.
  • It has a higher card printing speed than most retransfer printers, allowing you to print cards faster. 
  • Prints directly onto the card with heat transfers.
  • They are commonly used in the most popular dual and single-sided printers like the new DS Entrust range.

Retransfer printer:

  • An over-the-edge card print creates more professional and high-quality cards.
  • Ideal for printing onto technology and smart cards.
  • Single-sided and dual-sided printer options are available.
  • Overlay film material increases the security of the card. 

We hope this guide has given you more understanding of the difference between direct to card and retransfer printers.

If you’re ready to purchase a printer and would like to look at our range, please visit us

Or if you need some more information, please get in touch with us.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published