Home Secretary Alan Johnson has unveiled the final design of the controversial national identity card.
The card will be offered to members of the public in the Greater Manchester area from the end of this year.
Ministers plan to launch the £30 biometric ID card nationwide in 2011 or 2012 - but it will not be compulsory.
Opposition spokesmen said it was a "colossal waste of money" and civil liberty groups said it was "as costly to our pockets as to our privacy".
Ministers say the card, which follows the launch of the foreign national ID card, will provide an easy way of safely proving identity.
They say this system, backed up by a national identity register, will help combat identity fraud, crime and terrorism.How the card will look and work
The card is very similar in look to a UK driving licence but holds more data, including two fingerprints and a photograph encoded on a chip.
This chip and its unique number in turn links the card to a national identity register which, under current legislation, could hold more information about the identity of the individual.
If the scheme goes ahead, the card could be used as a travel document within Europe, separate to the passport, similar to arrangements between other EU member states.
Like the UK passport, the front of the card displays the royal crest as well as the thistle, the rose, the shamrock and the daffodil to represent the four parts of the UK.
The Home Office denied the union jack had been left off the card for fear of antagonising Northern Ireland's nationalist community. A spokeswoman said the card was based on the British passport, which did not have a flag on it.
Unveiling the card, Mr Johnson said: "The introduction of ID cards today reaches another milestone, enabling the people of Manchester to prove and protect their identity in a quick, simple and secure way.
"Given the growing problem of identity fraud and the inconvenience of having to carry passports, coupled with gas bills or six months worth of bank statements to prove identity, I believe the ID card will be welcomed as an important addition to the many plastic cards that most people already carry."
The Home Office has faced increasing pressure over the ID card programme in recent months.
Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said the government had signed contracts worth £1bn before last month's U-turn on the cards, which are no longer compulsory.
"Alan Johnson today launches a wing-and-a-prayer scheme based on the hope that people across the North West will sign up for a glossy ID card, and send a message to their counterparts in other parts of the country that the ID card is the hottest property since Susan Boyle," said Mr Grayling.
"The government has already wasted £200m that we cannot afford.
"The scheme will cost hundreds of million pounds more, even if the cards are voluntary. It is time this scheme was completely scrapped."
And Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats said: "It doesn't matter how fancy the packaging is when the product is a colossal waste of money that achieves nothing.
"A designer piece of plastic is not going to combat identity fraud, crime or terrorism. This intrusive scheme should be scrapped immediately."
But Mr Johnson said the card was a "no brainer" and that the opposition had initially supported the plans before changing their position.
Last month, the Home Office dropped plans to make the ID card compulsory for 200,000 airport workers amid widespread opposition from inside the industry that it would do nothing to improve the strict security procedures already in place.
That announcement means only some foreign nationals are currently obliged to hold a card, although the Home Office still wants to press ahead with an 18-month trial at Manchester and London City airports.
No2ID, a national pressure group, is launching a counter-campaign across North-West England to derail the Home Office's plan.
Dave Page, from the organisation, said: "Once you are on that database, you can never come off it.
"From the moment you're registered you'll have to tell the authorities of any change in your circumstances for the rest of your life - and pay whatever fees they ask for the 'service'.
"You'll never know who's looking at your details. It won't protect our safety. It won't be convenient - except for Whitehall. This scheme is an expensive and dangerous con."
A poll of 1,731 adults across the UK, conducted by human rights campaign group Liberty, suggested six out of 10 people were unlikely to volunteer for a card.
Campaigns co-ordinator Sabina Frediani said the North West was being made an "ID card guinea pig".
"How many times can you re-design and re-launch this tired old policy?" she said.
"When will the government realise there is dwindling public support for a scheme that is as costly to our pockets as to our privacy and race relations?"
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