Dye Film vs. Ribbon – Which Should You Get?

  • January 29th, 2016

“Pop quiz, hot shot! What’s the difference between dye film and ribbon?” Here at ID Edge, we’ve always thought this would’ve been a great line in the 1994 movie, Speed, where Keanu Reeves was trying to save a bus from a maniac played by Dennis Hopper. Could Keanu have solved this riddle, even if his life depended on it? Our guess is that no, he wouldn’t be able to…Because there’s still quite a bit of confusion about how dye film and ribbons are used in the ID card industry.

dye vs ribbon

To help you better understand the difference in this technology, we’ve put together an overview of dye film and ribbons for you. Though they may seem quite similar at first – understanding the nuanced difference between the two can help you make smarter decisions when it comes to your organization’s security.

What’s in a Ribbon?

If you’ve worked with ID card printers before, you’ve probably heard the word “ribbon” quite a bit. Over the years, this term has become widely adopted in the industry to describe the ink cartridges used in ID card printers. However, not all ribbons are the same.

For example, one of the most general ways to segment ribbons is to look at them as either dye sublimation film, or resin film. There are two major differences between these:

  • Color: When it comes to colors, resin film is always monochrome. It can be any color you can imagine, but it’s only that one color. Dye sublimation film, on the other hand, can be other monochrome, or can have many different colors.
  • Ink Transfer: The biggest difference between dye sublimation and resin ribbon is how the ink pigment is transferred. With dye sublimation, the ink is first heated into a gas. As these gas particles come in contact with the ID card, they become solid again (due to the card’s cooler surface), and are infused into the card surface.

The ink on resin ribbons is transferred differently. Instead of heating up the ink to a gaseous state, portions of the film are transferred over onto the card. It’s a very different process, because instead of ink particles becoming infused into the surface, small layers of film are attached to the card.

Why Should You Care?

The inherent differences between the ink transfer technologies create two very different types of cards. Both can create stunning visuals, with very clean and crisp images. There is no visible difference in print quality at all. But, there is a difference in how the surface of the card reacts to the surrounding environment.

For example, cards printed with resin film tend to have better ability to withstand UV radiation and show almost no fading, even after continuous use. This quality makes resin-printed cards a good choice for outside environments, where there is significant exposure to light.

But, cards printed with resin ribbon tend to experience faster wear from physical rubbing. The film rests on top of the card surface, so regular rubbing of the card (when it’s inside a pocket or is routinely taken out of a wallet) causes portions of the film to rub off over time. To avoid this, the card can be placed into a clear badge holder, which will limit the physical contact with the surface.

Because cards printed with the dye sublimation ribbons have the ink infused on the surface, they are more resistant to rubbing and physical wear. This makes them a good choice for environments where a badge holder may not be feasible.


In order to prevent the physical wear of the ink on ID cards, another option is to laminate the card. Different thickness laminates can be used, with thicker options providing longer protection, for up to 10 years in some cases.

Choosing the Right Ribbon

If you’re not sure what ID card printer ribbon will work best for you, please give us a call! Talking with one of our experts is always free! Just call 800-798-3343, or fill out the Contact Form, below!

Questions? Get in touch. Call us at (800) 798-3343, use live-chat or fill out the form below

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