A Quick Guide to Card Printer Ribbons

This printer ribbon guide for 2023 provides you with an overview of everything you need to know about choosing the right ribbons for your printer. 

Choosing the right ribbon for your printer can be a frustrating task, especially with an alphabet soup of confusing letter combinations and different ribbon sizes out there. This guide will help describe the different panels that make up a ribbon.

What is a Printer Ribbon?

A printer ribbon is a cartridge that contains a thin band of material made up of panels and is used to carry a printing ink of either a single solid colour or various colours of dye which is then applied directly to the surface of a card.

In other words, it is a cloth soaked in regular ink or wax-based inks that yields printouts via a heating element located in the ID card printer. The print outputs then produce high-resolution quality images and accurate text and barcodes on your card.

How Does it Work?

The purpose of a ribbon is to produce high-resolution quality images including accurate text and barcodes for your ID cards. This works by inserting a coloured or monochrome panel ribbon into a printer using the plastic hooks on the ribbon. Once the ribbon is secured in place and the print process commences, heating dots from the heating element inside the printer strikes the panels or film of the ribbon at various points at a pre-set(adjustable) temperature that liquefies the ink and the coated side is then pressed onto the material. 

This method of printing is known as thermal transfer and it uses a heated ribbon to produce durable, long-lasting vivid images and high-definition text on a wide variety of materials, such as ID cards.

The Anatomy of Colour Printer Ribbons

There are all kinds of acronyms and abbreviations associated with ribbons that can seem confusing. We will cover the anatomy of colour ribbons that will summarise what each letter stands for. Each letter represents a different panel on the rolled-up ribbon. These panels are applied to the surface of a card or a transfer film one panel a time, combining to create the images and text that appear on PVC cards.

We will go through each of these panel ribbons and explain why they are important to help you make your decision when purchasing ribbons. The letters used in the ribbons below describe the different types of panels that make up that ribbon and the order that they are printed in, from left to right.


The standard colours that are denoted by letters on ribbon panels are called Yellow, Magenta and Cyan and together they result in just about any colour. This does not come with an overlay pannel or a K Black panel and so it is not recommended if clear black text or barcodes are required.


An additional Black resin panel to YMC is included for this type of ribbon which differs from the combination of the YMC. The purpose of the black resin panel is to create precise black text for printing crisp barcodes since composite black is unable to do.


KO ribbons print a single monochrome black colour denoted by “K”. It comes with an overlay panel denoted by “O” to provide a thin protective layer. Ideal for printing barcodes and black text.


This ribbon is the most common across all printers.The YMCKO also finishes with an additional Overlay which is a thin clear panel that serves as a coating for your card. It’s not as durable or as thick lamination but does offer protection. Additionally, some ribbons allow you to add security watermarks using the overlay panel which can help improve the overall security of your cards and organisation.


If you would like to print on both sides of the card, you’ll need a YMCKOK dual-sided ribbon. This six-panel ID card ribbon will print full colour on one side, along with a clear overlay, and black (represented by K) on side two If however, you wish to print full colour on both sides of a card, you will want a YMCK or YMCKO ribbon – but be aware that by doing so you are only using half the ribbon yield since you are utilising two full sets of panels for each card that you use.


This is another variation of the YMCK as mentioned above that includes an extra K Black panel so the reverse side of the card can be printed in monochrome.


This ribbon is another variation of the popular YMCKO ribbon, however the only difference is that the the concerned “T” in this case refers to "topcoat" and is just another name for the common “O” overlay panel. This can be found in the Datacard brand.


The term monochrome comes from the two Greek words “mono” (referring to “one”) and “chroma” (meaning “surface”). Therefore, a monochrome ribbon refers to a single colour, more frequently the colour black, blue, red, orange, green, white, etc. Monochrome ribbons are ideal for printing text or single-colour images, or even personalising a pre-printed card with a single colour. Common colours available consist of Black, White, Green, Red, Blue, Metallic Gold, Metallic Silver, Black and Overlay combined.


Half-Panel ribbons are ideal for producing photo ID cards where colour is only necessary to be printed onto one half of the card. You can add an image or logo onto one side of the card, and print in full black text onto the reserve side of the card. By using a half panel ribbon, you will save money on consumables but are restricted to the print area on each card.

Ultraviolet or Fluorescent

A colour ribbon which includes an F in it such as "YMCKF" has a UV panel included which can be personalised onto the card to print a static or variable image as well as the standard full colour and black text including overlay "YMCK" + "F". UV is a high security feature preventing duplicated ID card attempts and is only visible if a UV blacklight is shone on it.

Holographic Laminate

Holographic laminate is an element on the surface of your card that is visible in the light to produce colourful images which add an additional layer of security. They are normally either generic or custom designs.

Signature Panel 

If your card design requires an area where the user is required to add a signature, then look out for this type of ribbon.

Inhibitor Panel

A ribbon which includes an inhibit panel such as "YMCKI" is only found on a ribbon for a re-transfer printer. The intended use of an inhibitor panel is to prevent areas on the card from accepting the printed re-transfer film such as a signature panel or RFID chip to ensure that they function properly.

Choosing the Right Printer Ribbon

Printer Compatibility

Before purchasing a ribbon, you need to make sure that it is compatible with the card printer that you own. Generally, every card printer brand has its ribbons specially made for their printer. Ribbons are not the same for all printers for several reasons, ribbon panel dimensions may differ from each other as a result of card entry direction.

Step One - Type of Printer

Determine whether you have a Direct-to-card(DTC) or Retransfer ID card printer before you get started.

Direct-to-card ID card printers are the most common type of printer designed to print directly onto the card leaving a small white border around the edge of the card. These types of printers offer fast print speeds and have a lower cost per card than retransfer printers.

Retransfer ID card printers on the other hand are designed to offer higher quality prints and are capable of printing over cards with uneven surfaces and can print over-the-edge printing.

Step Two - Printer Make and Model

Now you have found out what type of printer you have, the next step is to then determine the make and model of your card printer. Each brand has its own card printer ribbons for each model of printer, and you muse ensure that you purchase ribbons that are suited to your printer alone in order for it to work. We do not recommend purchasing a ribbon from another brand for your printer as it will not work or fit with your printer ribbon holding design.

Step Three - Finding Your Ribbon

Having acquired both your type and make of printer model you have, you can now determine what you want to be printed onto your cards. Ribbons are available to purchase in different image quantities depending on your printing requirements. Ribbons on the market today can range anywhere from 170 images up to 3,000 images per roll. The larger the ribbon print size, the less the cost per print – and the higher capacity also saves on packaging and shipping.

We have a team of friendly experts that are passionate about advising and assisting you with finding the ribbons you need to meet your needs.
Give our friendly team today on 0800 600 6201 to get started.

Posted in Help and advice and tagged id card printer ribbons, printer ribbons, card ribbons, guide to printer ribbons, 2020 printer ribbon guide, ymcko, ymc, ymckok, KO on