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Encoding Options for Plastic Cards

In situations where printed text and visuals aren't enough, and more complex information needs to be stored on a card, there are various encoding options available. Find out what they are in this article.

While text and visuals printed on a card’s surface may satisfy the needs of many plastic card programs, there are situations where more complex information needs to be stored on a card. There are three ways to do this:


Barcodes are an easy and free way to store information on an ID card. Check the back cover of any book and you’ll find a barcode. A barcode is an image that is scanned and read by a computer to identify the object it labels. Just as book publishers print directly onto the book jacket, you can print a barcode directly onto your card with any plastic card printer. Because there are many different types of barcodes, such as standard, 2D or QR codes, they are a versatile option for many different applications. These applications include:

  • Supply chain
  • Distribution
  • Retail

One of the best uses of barcodes is in the implementation of access control at, for example, community centres, gyms, and other facilities. In an access control situation, a barcode can be used to determine whether a card holder is authorized to access a certain area in a building.


  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to use
  • Can be printed using any plastic card printer
  • Long Lasting

Barcodes are inexpensive and easy to use. Because they are just images, they can be printed using any plastic card printer without adding any expensive add-ons. Another advantage is that, despite just being a small image, they can store large amounts of information. When treated properly, barcodes can last a long time, reducing the need for replacement cards.


  • Easy to duplicate and read
  • Cannot be reused/reassigned
  • Can be damaged through wear and tear
  • Require direct line of sight

Because they are simply images, barcodes tend to be easy to duplicate and read. In cases where a card will be used for authentication purposes, a barcode alone is not enough. An additional security measure, such as a photo, PIN number or scratch off pane, is needed. In addition, cards that require frequent swiping may be damaged through general wear and tear. The more use a barcode has the more likely it is to wear off, which can lead to the card malfunctioning. Another significant disadvantage of barcodes is that they cannot be reused or reassigned. This may lead to additional costs for creating cards for new employees and destroying cards belonging to former employees.

Magnetic Stripe

Flip over a typical gift card and you’ll find a magnetic stripe or, as it’s commonly called, mag stripe. Unlike barcodes, there are only two types of magnetic stripe cards, identified by the strength of the stripe’s magnetic field. This strength is called coercivity. The two different types are high coercivity, or HiCo, and low coercivity, also called LoCo. HiCo magnetic stripes are easily identified by their black color while low coercivity is a distinctive brown color.

Most magnetic stripes, roughly 99%, are HiCo. This is because they have a longer lifespan than LoCo stripes. LoCo stripes are best when used in short-term situations, like for hotel room keys.

Coercivity – a measure of the strength of a magnetic field
HiCo – High Coercivity
LoCo – Low Coercivity

Magnetic stripes allow you to encode a long ID number on a magnetic track. When you swipe a card, the ID number will locate the corresponding ID in your database giving you access to whatever information you have relating to the ID. For example, the ID may show how much money is left on a gift card. Magnetic stripes are often used for:

  • Access control
  • Monitoring time and attendance
  • Lunch programs
  • Library cards

Magnetic stripes are often used in situations like school lunch programs and library cards because data stored on the card can easily be changed. For example, when a magnetic stripe card is used as part of a school’s lunch program, students can add money to their cards. When they make a food purchase, the purchase amount is deducted from their account. Because the magnetic stripe simply contains an ID number from a database, a single card can be used for multiple purposes and to access different types of information.


  • Cannot be photocopied
  • Can be used with standard payment terminals
  • Inexpensive
  • Simple to Program
  • Easy to use
  • Information can be rewritten and updated

Unlike barcodes, mag stripes cannot be photocopied. This makes them more difficult to use fraudulently. Another benefit of magnetic stripes is that they can be used with standard payment terminals. This makes them a good option for retail applications. Although more expensive than barcodes, magnetic stripes are still a relatively inexpensive encoding option, costing between $0.01 and $0.40 per card.


  • Cards can be copied
  • Specialized equipment needed
  • Limited storage space

Magnetic stripes can still be copied with the right equipment. You will need a map stripe reader and writer to use these cards. These are usually expensive add-ons for most card printers. Another drawback of mag stripes is that they can store a limited amount, and type, of information. Magnetic stripes hold a maximum of 79 alpha-numeric characters.

Smart Card

Open up your phone and you’ll find a smart card. Smart cards are tiny computers contained within a card. Unlike barcodes and mag stripes, smart cards can securely store large amounts of information right on the card. A smart card can store a many different types of data, including:

  • Images
  • Fingerprints
  • Iris scans
  • Encrypted currency
  • Encrypted keys

Smart cards are, essentially, miniature computers. They can even store applications that run on the card itself. Smart cards are typically used by large organizations for such a wide range of applications, including:

  • Border control
  • Public transit passes
  • Electronic wallets
  • Single sign-on
  • Medical records

Because information is stored directly on a smart card, most of a smart card’s value is found in situations where:

  • Records need to be updated from time to time
  • Records interact with multiple systems or databases
  • Security and confidentiality is of primary importance

One area where smart cards are incredibly effective is in the area of storing medical records. In this scenario, a person’s medical information is stored on a card (usually government issued), making it easier for medical professionals to access information and provide more efficient diagnoses and treatment. In addition to improving patient care, smart cards contribute to reducing record maintenance costs and also help prevent fraud.


  • Secure
  • Flexible
  • Convenient

Smart cards offer the highest level of security and flexibility. They can also be extremely convenient, especially if you’re using RFID or contactless cards.


  • Complex
  • Expensive

Smart card systems are complex to set up and expensive to deploy and maintain. You will need to partner with a smart card service provider, such as ID Superstore, to set up the infrastructure of your system.

The method for storing information on your cards will be determined by your organization’s needs. The ID security experts at ID Superstore are here to help you every step of the way. For a free consultation to assess whether your application requires barcodes, mag stripes or smart cards, give us a call at 1-800-667-1772.

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