The Home Office has started issuing the first biometric identity cards, to people from outside the European Economic Area.
The cards are being issued to students from outside the EU, foreign employees and people holding visas as the marriage partner of a UK citizen.
But the ID card scheme has been significantly revised since its inception.
Plans by the Home Office to make ID cards compulsory for all 200,000 airside workers at UK airports by 2009, drew strong opposition from pilots’ union British Airline Pilots Association which threatened legal action to prevent pilots from being forced to take the cards.
In early November, the government revised its plans, announcing an 18 month trial in two airports: Manchester and London City.
The cards will carry a facial image and fingerprints. The government says this will securely lock biometrics to one identity and help businesses crack down on illegal working.
But the cards are likely to be of limited use for full biometric ID checks as employers will not have scanners that can verify a worker's ID against the fingerprint and facial scans held on the card's chip. Instead, employers will rely on visual checks until scannners are rolled out.
Companies will have to keep records of the migrants they have sponsored - including their contact details and a copy of their identity card. Ministers want 90% of foreigners in the UK to have cards with fingerprints and personal details on, by April 2015
Announcing the launch yesterday, Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith said: “In time identity cards for foreign nationals will replace paper documents and give employers a safe and secure way of checking a migrant’s right to work and study in the UK."
The ID card scheme has faced strong criticism from opposition parties, unions and lobbyist that have called on the government to scrap the £4.7 billion plan.
Yesterday, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "This hugely expensive scheme will have no impact on crime, terrorism, illegal immigration or illegal working as foreign nationals already have passports with visas. This intrusion on British liberty is completely unnecessary."