The Home Office is to start issuing identity cards to people from outside the European Economic Area.
The first cards will go to students and the husbands, wives and partners of permanent residents who apply for permission to extend their stay.
Ministers want 90% of foreigners in the UK to have cards with fingerprints and personal details on, by April 2015.
The Conservatives called the cards an expensive gimmick. The Lib Dems called it a "dark day in British history".
They will contain the fingerprints, name, date of birth, nationality and the person's right to be in the UK.
Ministers predict that between 50,000 and 60,000 cards will be issued by the end of March.
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."
But shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: "This is a gimmick but it's a gimmick with a price.
"While these 'ID cards' won't stop illegal immigration or terrorism, they will land the taxpayer with a multi-billion pound bill.
"At a time of economic hardship this is the last thing the taxpayer needs."
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "Forcing ID cards onto guests in our country marks a dark day indeed in British history. 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.
"Foreign nationals, who cannot vote, are perfect guinea pigs for a government wanting to test a deeply unpopular and unworkable policy. When the rest of us are forced to carry ID cards, this scheme will prove to be a laminated Poll Tax."