Home Secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled the new ID card today, but revealed it will be impossible to include a full set of fingerprints for everyone carrying a card.
Concerns have been raised that scanners will not be able to record the prints of people whose ridges have worn down, such as older people and manual labourers.
The Home Office said it was "looking at mechanisms" to deal with the problem but pointed to a 12,000 person trial in which some prints were collected from everyone.
Ms Smith said: "It's not a problem that will undermine the effectiveness of the scheme."
Up to 60,000 cards, which are pink and blue and resemble driving licences, are to be issued to foreign workers by April at centres in Croydon, Sheffield, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff.
They will be compulsory for anyone from outside the EU needing to renew their visa. Each one carries the owner's picture, and details of their residence and work allowances on the front.
On the back is their name, date and place of birth, nationality and benefit entitlements. Biometric data, such as the fingerprint scans and an electronic version of the picture, will be stored on a special chip.
Ms Smith said the cards would protect against identity fraud, illegal working, and help people prove who they are.
"Many people want securely and quickly to be able to prove their identity and want to be able to check people are who they say they are," she said.
The scheme will start on November 25, and ministers predict one million cards a year will be issued each year from 2010.
The first phase will target people suspected of abusing the immigration system, such as foreign students and people claiming the right to stay through marriage.
Workers at sensitive sites such as airports will also be issued with cards from next year.
The cost of the ID card database, biometric passports and ID cards is predicted to hit £4.7bn.
But the Tories have pledged to abandon ID cards which they claim are being introduced "by stealth".
Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: "The Government are kidding themselves if they think ID Cards for foreign nationals will protect against illegal immigration or terrorism - since they don't apply to those coming here for less than three months."
The cards will be made available to everyone from 2011 at a cost of £30. Ministers could still make them compulsory by a vote in Parliament.
Ms Smith said she expected "broad coverage" but would not put a figure on how many people she expected to buy one.
MigrationwatchUK chairman Sir Andrew Green said the cards were "essential" to tackle illegal immigration.
But civil liberties campaigners and opposition groups said they were an infringement of people's liberties, and would prove both expensive and ineffective.
Former shadow home secretary David Davis, who resigned over the creation of what he called a "database state", said the announcement was the "thin end of the wedge".
"There is no justification for requiring every British citizen to have an identity card and for innocent citizens to be required to submit their fingerprints to a state controlled database, with all the risks that go with that."
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said cards were a "grotesque intrusion" on the liberty of the British people and would be regarded as a "laminated Poll Tax" if made compulsory.
Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti said: "It's going to take more than pastel colours and flowery design to persuade us to surrender our privacy and billions of pounds to boot.
"Picking on foreign nationals first is the nastiest politics; as costly to our race relations as to our purses."
Each card is etched with four flowers representing the nations of the UK: the rose, the thistle, the daffodil and the shamrock.
Like other EU countries, the UK ID card shows a bull to represent the Greek myth in which Zeus turns himself in to a bull and abducts Europa.
Britons were last issued with ID cards during the Second World War but the cards were dumped in the early 1950s.