ID Card Encoding Options

What does it mean to “encode” an ID card? Simply put, encoding is the process by which data is placed onto (stored within) an ID card’s components. ID cards can hold data in several different ways, from the simple to the complex, and from a little data to large amounts of data. Each card encoding method is designed to accommodate certain data types and quantities, and each encoding type requires appropriate software (some card-printer software can handle only limited encoding options). The more sophisticated the ID card’s data-storage mechanisms, the more complex the software.

Barcode Encoding

Barcodes are the most common and simplest way to store data on an ID card, and virtually any ID card software-regardless of sophistication level-can encode barcodes. They can be printed on any card with the most basic software and don't require special ribbons.

  1. Standard 1D barcodes (mixed-width vertical black lines and white spaces) are read in one direction only and hold limited information-e.g., a membership or identification or product number.
  2. 2D barcodes (two dimensional) allow use of rectangles, dots, hexagons, and other geometric patterns, are read vertically and horizontally, and can store hundreds of times more information than 1D barcodes. The most common 2D barcode type is a QR code. Because they can hold so much more information 2D barcodes are useful for storing more sophisticated data tools and links like internet URLs, and importing data from external sources like MS Office programs, MS SQL Servers, and other databases and files, and ensuring patients get the right medication. Software for 2D barcodes is included in most of today's ID card printers, but it's always smart to verify software features before purchasing.

When the barcode is scanned by a barcode reader the reader links to the barcode's stored data via a computer interface, which accesses/retrieves the detailed account, cardholder or product information, or instructions associated with the barcode. Data stored in barcodes is static and can't be rewritten. Barcodes can include detailed personal data such as a cardholder's name, address, department, employee number, access authorizations, training status, expire date, and biometric fingerprint or portrait data, depending on the type of barcode used.

Barcodes Are Best for Access Control and Verifying Cardholder Identity

On ID cards, barcodes simply and affordably reveal information about the cardholder-but covertly and only with the use of a "reader." The barcode permits quick retrieval of key user data, increases accuracy and reduces errors, and accelerates check-in / verification processes.

Common ID card barcode uses include:

  1. Membership and rewards cards
  2. Time and attendance programs
  3. Library cards

When a barcode on a rewards card is scanned at purchase checkout, the transaction is tracked and the cardholder accesses special members-only perks or discounts.

Magnetic-Stripe Encoding

Magnetic stripes are a ubiquitous and decades-old method of encoding data on ID cards. To create ID cards with a magnetic stripe requires specialized card stock (with the stripe) and an ID-card printer with magnetic-stripe printing capabilities (a magnetic encoding module) and the requisite ID-card software capable of encoding, which makes it marginally more expensive than printing barcodes.

The "magstripe" is comprised of iron-based ferromagnetic particles in a film applied on one side of the card. Custom data, determined by the card issuer and entered into the ID card printing software, is stored on the magstripe during the ID card printing process. Different data types are stored on three different data tracks within the stripe. That data is activated or read when the card (stripe) is passed through a console reader at an access point, which translates the stored data into a usable format.

Because magnetic-stripe encoding is so common, most standard/current ID card software supports this encoding function. It's nonetheless important to verify that entry-level ID-card software contains the magnetic stripe encoding feature. Also, when adding a magnetic-stripe encoder to some ID-card printer models, users may need to specify "mag stripe up" (front of card) or "mag stripe down" (back of card) to ensure the mag encoder is configured/installed correctly.

Magnetic-stripe cards can add value and security to ID cards and membership cards:

  1. Low cost compared to other technology cards.
  2. Data can be re-written/updated as required.
  3. Holds more data than barcodes.
  4. Provide more security and are harder to duplicate than barcodes.
  5. Easy and quick to use, ideal for transit and point-of-sale applications.
  6. Long-established standards render them highly compatible with most systems.

How to Use Magnetic-Stripe Cards

Encoded magnetic-stripe cards must be read by a "reader," which decodes the data for use by system software that interprets/applies/uses it.

Common examples of systems that use magnetic stripe cards include libraries, gift- and reward-card programs, time-and-attendance tracking, and keyless access control.

Magnetic stripe cards are very commonly used for:

  1. Membership and reward cards
  2. Time-and-attendance programs
  3.  Cashless payment cards

Two Magnetic Stripes Types

Two distinct types of magnetic stripes are available, and the right choice depends on the issuer's purpose and intended use for the magnetic stripe. HiCo (high coercivity) stripe cards are harder to write to, more durable, and not typically re-encoded or re-used. HiCo stripes require more energy to encode and to later change the magnetic field and reset the data. They are work best in applications in which they are often swiped but need to last a long time (e.g., debit cards), for example, uses a HiCo magnetic stripe.

But LoCo (low coercivity) stripe cards are easier to write to, take less energy to encode, can easily be erased and re-encoded, and are intended to be temporary. LoCo encoding doesn't last as long as HiCo encoding, and can be interfered with by strong magnetic fields. LoCo magnetic stripe cards are used by issuers who need to frequently encode, erase, and re-encode the cards-like hotels and mass-transit systems.

It's easy to tell LoCo from HiCo magnetic stripes-HiCo stripes are dark, almost black, while LoCo are a lighter brown in color.

Smart-Card and RFID Encoding

What is a "Smart" card? Smart cards store data in card components (a chip with a microprocessor / wireless antenna built into the card) and can hold up to 100 times more data than a standard magnetic-stripe ID card. They also offer added functionality, and can send data between the card and the card reader, which allows users to both read the card and write to it. With expanded processing capabilities, these cards are tamper-proof and are easily reconfigured to add, erase, or edit hosted data.

Types of Smart Cards

Two types of smart cards are available-contact and contactless-which are aptly titled based on how they operate:

  1. Contact cards have an embedded smart chip and to function must come into contact with the reader.
  2. Contactless cards have a chip and antenna system that can wirelessly send data to the reader (i.e., be read) once it's in range without direct contact.

Smart cards are best for

  1. Cashless payment cards
  2. Data and information storage
  3. Multifunctional ID programs
  4. Public transportation passes

How Smart Cards Work

When contact cards are placed in the reader the embedded chip's circuit is closed and the data can be read. Closing the circuit allows the card to store information, process data, and perform tasks.

When contactless cards come within range of the reader their Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip/antenna closes the circuit can send and receive and process data. Because they don't require physical contact (swiping, insertion), contactless cards last longer than others because most of the wear and tear that damages other cards is eliminated.

Encoding Smart Cards

Encoding contact or contactless smart cards and RFID cards is specialized and requires an ID-card printer with smart-card encoding capabilities, an advanced feature in ID-card printer software that may require software upgrade options or professional versions.

Smart card encoding is the priciest encoding option, but for many users it's well worth it-it offers the most storage, the highest security, and affords users significant data-storage flexibility (both in amounts and a wide variety of sensitive data types). This makes smart cards perfect for ID-card issuers that use ID cards for multiple purposes/programs. Smart cards accommodate diverse data types, including:

  1. Identification details
  2. Personal information
  3. Financial data
  4. Biometric information

Printing on Smart Cards

Because of the embedded circuitry in smart cards, they can have an uneven or irregular surface, which can interfere with card-printing processes and damage the printhead on standard dye-sublimation printers. This is why it's best for users to print smart ID cards using a reverse-transfer printer, which prints on a film (not directly on the card surface) and then adheres the film to the card surface. Learn more about reverse-transfer printing.

Proximity-Card Encoding

Proximity cards (aka "prox cards" or "access-control cards") are a distinct version of contactless smart card used for access-control programs. These cards unlock doors when placed near the card reader, allowing access without traditional keys. They replace traditional lock-and-key systems. The embedded RFID (radio frequency) chip sends a signal containing the card's information to card readers built into or adjacent to the door (door stations must be installed at all entrances to read cards). The reader verifies the data against the database and-if it matches a card in the system-the door opens; if it doesn't match the card is not authorized and the door remains locked.

Proximity cards are low-wear-and-tear cards (never swiped or inserted) and therefore very durable-making them ideal for controlling access to sites, spaces and buildings that cardholders access repeatedly each day.

How Proximity Cards Work

Proximity cards are encoded with a secure key-code number, which is transmitted wirelessly using an internal antenna. Proximity cards have a signal range of 2 - 15 inches and are read when placed near a reader, even if the card is in clothing, pockets, purses, wallets, briefcases, etc.

Proximity card readers translate the card code into a format the electronic door lock can understand and act on to unlock or maintain locking. Proximity cards can't be re-encoded, but the access-control system can be updated with a current list of valid key codes as cards are issued, lost, or retired.

Best Uses for Proximity Cards

  1. Access control
  2. Security
  3. Public-transportation passes

Ordering Prox Cards

Most prox cards are ordered/purchased pre-encoded to match the user's building/system specifications, i.e., the existing door-control system in place within a building or site. Resupplying/ordering prox cards requires the system's card format, facility code, and card sequence range.

Different access control system brands use different frequencies and formats; when users purchase new prox cards they must ensure the cards are compatible with their system's configuration information. Users must know the brand (Indala, HIDm, Keri, Schlage, etc.), format (26 bit or 37 bit), RFID Frequency (125 kHZ or 13.56 MH), card type (clamshell, key fob, tag, standard ISO card), and card sequence. Uncertainty about this ordering information can be resolved through card retailers like ID Security Online, who can examine a user's existing proximity card, identify the card's system configuration, and supply compatible cards.

Users can purchase a complete system including prox cards and readers, or they can work with a security provider to install readers compatible with the user's prox card type. ID Security Online doesn't offer complete access-control systems, but does provide proximity cards compatible with existing systems, and printers capable of printing on proximity cards.

Types of Proximity Cards

Proximity cards come in a variety of styles including cards that look like normal ID cards, thick clamshell cards, and key fobs. Depending on the prox card style, users can print on the card with a standard ID-card printer. Alternatively, printing on a thin adhesive ID card, which can then be adhered to the proximity card, is an option.

Encoding Proximity Cards

Users must order proximity cards from a secure supplier, and cannot encode the cards in house with an ID card printer. In this way keycards can't be fraudulently duplicated. Proximity card encoding is a feature found only in advanced ID-card software, and is not a common option on ID-card printers. 

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