Trials of identity cards are to be launched next week, the BBC has learnt.
An opinion poll suggests most people back an ID scheme
The pilot will involve 10,000 volunteers and be run from the Passport Office in London and three other centres around Britain.
The government hopes the pilot scheme will pave the way for compulsory identity cards for everyone within the next decade.
Ministers are due to set out details of plans for a nationwide identity database on Monday.
They will publish draft legislation and Home Secretary David Blunkett says he wants a Bill paving the way for the scheme to be passed before the next general election.
Carrying false identity papers is also to be made a specific offence for the first time under the plans, with offenders facing up to 10 years in jail, say government sources.
The new ID cards will hold biometric details - facial dimensions, an iris scan or fingerprints.
The pilot scheme will try to assess which of the three options works best.
Neil Fisher, from QinetiQ - one of the companies developing the new technology, said the public would want to be able to prove their identity to show they were not a risk.
He told the BBC's 10 O'Clock News: "You will want this to be part of your life.
"You will want, in what's fast becoming a digital society, to be able to authenticate your identity almost for any transaction that you do, be it going to the bank, going to the shops, going to the airport."
News of the pilot follows an opinion poll suggesting 80% of people backed a national ID card scheme.
But most of the 1,000 people questioned by MORI expressed doubts the cards could be introduced without problems.
Nothing to fear?
Almost half those surveyed said they would not want to pay for the cards. A £35 fee has been proposed.
From 2007-08 all new passports and driving licences will include biometric data and there will be separate identity cards for those who do not drive or have passports.
By 2012, it is estimated that 80% of workers will have the card or a combined driving licence or passport.
The Home Office hopes the scheme will be compulsory by 2014.
The plans are designed to tackle identity fraud, which costs Britain an estimated £1.3bn each year.
A new government website giving the public advice on how to avoid identity theft is also expected to be set up this summer.
On Thursday, Mr Blunkett said the ID cards would probably be free for young people and there would be concessions for the elderly and those on low incomes.
He said the biometric system proposed would end multiple identities and give a boost to the fight against terrorism and organised crime.
"What has anybody to worry about having their true identity known?" he said.
2008: 80% of economically active population will carry some form of biometric identity document
Estimated cost of £3.1bn
Consortium of companies in UKPS trials led by SchlumbergerSema include NEC, Identix, Iridian
Source: Home Office
"They have got everything to fear from someone stealing and misusing it."
The government has said it sees ID cards as a weapon against terrorism.
But civil liberties groups are opposed to the plans, claiming that having a number of means of identification, such as a passport, driving licence or benefit card, was still the safest option.
They also predict the cards could worsen race discrimination, particularly as foreign nationals will have to carry the cards before Britons do.