The Complete ID
Printer Buyer's Guide

This guide walks you through all the important considerations you'll need to know when selecting an ID card printer.

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Magnetic Stripe Encoding

Magnetic Stripe Encoding

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Magnetic stripes are a popular form of encoding data on cards that has been used for decades. Magnetic stripe cards work by storing data as a pattern of positive and negative magnetic stripe fields.

When the card is read, that pattern is decoded and the information translated into a usable format. Data is usually stored on three separate tracks that each can hold a set number of characters. Each of the three tracks can be used for a different type of data, for example member number, member name, and expiration date.

Magnetic stripe encoding is a common feature in ID card software, available in most standard software versions. If you are looking at entry-level or basic software, be sure to check the features to see if it includes magnetic stripe encoding.

How to Encode Magnetic Stripe Cards

To encode magnetic stripe cards you will need special magnetic stripe cardstock, ID software capable of encoding, and an ID card printer with a magnetic encoding module. Most ID card printers can be ordered with a magnetic encoder, which generally adds about $400 to the cost. In addition, all AlphaCard Complete ID systems include AlphaCard ID Suite software which can encode magnetic stripe cards.

To use magnetic stripe cards, you will first print your card design and then encode the cards. Once they are encoded, you’ll need a magnetic stripe reader to read and decode the data. Finally, you will need a system or software that will interpret and use the data on the cards.

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 Best For:

  • Membership & Reward Cards
  • Time & Attendance Programs
  • Cashless Payment Cards

Types of Magnetic Stripes

There are two types of magnetic stripes, each with their own strengths. HiCo (high coercivity) stripe cards are more durable and are generally not re-encoded or re-used. LoCo (low coercivity) stripe cards are intended to be temporary cards that can easily be erased and re-encoded.

The technical difference between HiCo and LoCo is in how much energy it would take to change the polarity of the stripe’s magnetic field, measured in Oersteads (Oe).

  • LoCo cards, which fall between 0 and 300 Oe and are easier to write to
  • HiCo cards, which fall between 300 and 3000 Oe and are harder to write to


What this means is that a LoCo card uses less energy to encode, but that encoding will last a shorter amount of time and is more susceptible to interference. Hotels and mass transit systems commonly use LoCo cards because they need to frequently encode, wipe, and re-encode the same cards. As you have may have experienced, LoCo can easily stop working, especially if they come into contact with strong magnets.

A HiCo card requires more energy to encode, allowing them to last longer. HiCo cards are best suited for applications where they are swiped frequently but need to last a long time. The stronger magnetic fields can withstand wear and tear better, and are less likely to be impacted by contact with magnets. Your debit card, for example, uses a HiCo magnetic stripe.

Do you know the easiest way to tell the two types apart? LoCo magnetic stripes will be a brown color, while HiCo magnetic stripes are almost black.