There are many credit and debit card brands out there, and there are some important differences between them. While there are some general rules and regulations that the brands must comply with, each one has its own unique characteristics.
As a merchant, it’s important for you to understand the major brands and how they work. In this article, I’ll simplify it all for you and explain everything you need to know about each brand.
I’ll also discuss the differences between credit card and debit card brands, and include some expert tips and tricks on the best way to accept credit card payments.
What Is a Credit Card Network?
For clarity, I’ll use the terms credit card brand, credit card network, and credit card association interchangeably in this article, as they all mean the same thing.
A credit card network works behind the scenes to facilitate the transfer of funds that occurs when someone makes a purchase with their credit card. Most of us probably don’t really think about what happens between swiping a credit card (or entering the payment details online) and then seeing that “purchase approved” message.
What is happening during those few seconds is the credit card network at work. It’s transferring information about the cardholder to the bank, making sure that the cardholder has enough credit to let the transaction go through.
The card networks are also responsible for authenticating transactions and protecting sensitive financial data. They can also offer their customers certain benefits, which is one of the things that differentiates one from another.
Is a Credit Card Brand the Same as a Credit Card Issuer?
A credit card issuer is not the same thing as a credit card brand, although some brands function as both. The brand is the larger card association, like Visa or Mastercard. The credit card issuer is usually a bank that provides its customers with a credit card.
The credit card issuer is the one that actually lends the money to the cardholder to cover the costs of purchases they make using the card. They set the interest rates, limits, and fees that the cardholder must pay.
As a merchant, the card issuer shouldn’t matter to you. What matters more is the card brand, as it sets the interchange fees that you’ll have to pay. Of course, the brand also sets the rules and regulations that you need to follow in order to do business with it.
As mentioned above, the credit card issuer and the credit card brand are usually two separate entities, but there are exceptions to that rule. Both American Express and Discover act as card brands as well as card issuers, lending money to cardholders from their own banks and processing transactions via their own networks.
To sum up:
- Visa and Mastercard are credit card brands (or networks or associations). They do not issue cards, but rather partner with credit card issuers like Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, and many others.
- Discover and American Express are both card brands and issuers. This means most Discover and American Express cards will only have one logo on them, indicating that the same company is both the brand and the issuer.
Card issuers can work with more than one card network or brand. For example, a consumer may have a Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa Card or a Chase Freedom Flex Mastercard. In both cases, the card issuer is Chase, but the former uses the Visa network and the latter uses Mastercard.
Are Credit Card Networks the Same as Debit Card Networks?
Credit card and debit card networks are not the same, although some companies, like Visa and Mastercard, operate both.
A credit card transaction gets routed through a credit card network and a debit card transaction goes through - you guessed it - a debit card network. Both networks operate in similar ways, with the same goal of authenticating and authorizing the transaction.
Similar to credit card networks, Visa and Mastercard run the biggest debit card networks. Other providers include UnionPay, STAR, Pulse and more.
The Major Credit Card Brands
The 4 major credit card brands are Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover. These brands are very common in the US, but also have large international user bases. It’s important to note that in other parts of the world, other card networks are popular – such as UnionPay in China and Japan Credit Bureau.
Here are some details on the major networks.
As the first credit card brand to offer customers the ability to make purchases using credit that could be paid off over time, Visa became very popular and still remains the largest of all the credit card networks, processing almost 200 billion transactions every year.
Visa cards are accepted all around the world and include personal credit and debit cards, business credit and debit cards, secured credit cards, prepaid cards, and gift cards. Most Visa cards are contactless, allowing users to simply wave their card at the terminal or use an app on their mobile device to make purchases.
Many of Visa’s users (over a billion!) worldwide choose Visa cards because of benefits like rewards points, travel perks, and cashback schemes.
As a merchant, when you accept Visa cards, you’ll pay a per-transaction fee.
Although Mastercard is accepted at the greatest number of locations worldwide, it still processes fewer transactions per year than Visa, coming in at just over 100 billion.
Over 970 million people worldwide use Mastercard’s personal or business debit, credit, or prepaid cards. Many of the cards have no annual fee for cardholders.
As a merchant, you’ll be charged a percentage-based service fee when your customers pay with Mastercard.
American Express, the third-largest card network, widely known as Amex, operates differently from Visa and Mastercard. The company almost always issues its own cards, acting as both the card network and the card issuer, and it is currently the largest card issuer in the world.
Amex offers personal credit cards, business credit cards, corporate cards, and prepaid cards. The company’s 112 million customers can choose from standard credit cards with a pre-set limit, some of which must be paid off each month, or charge cards that have to be paid off in full each month, but don’t have a set limit.
While Visa and Mastercard appeal to the public at large, American Express targets customers who are likely to be bigger spenders and interested in additional services.
Some merchants hesitate to accept American Express cards due to the high fees. As a solution for some small businesses, Amex offers OptBlue. This program offers lower fees for merchants who have less than $1 million per year in sales paid for with Amex cards.
Like American Express, Discover usually issues its own cards, working through its own Discover Bank. The company does have a few third-party agreements with other card issuers, but third-party-issued Discover cards are not as common.
As the smallest of the major card networks, Discover has approximately 57 million cardholders and processes fewer than 10 billion transactions per year. It offers more than just credit and debit cards, however, and customers can also use Discover for direct banking services, including mortgages and student loans.
Discover offers personal debit and credit cards as well as secured credit cards, all with no annual fee. It was the first credit card brand to offer cashback rewards, a practice which has since become common among brands.
The Discover network is primarily based in the US, but it’s expanding to more countries around the world.
Based in China, UnionPay is a huge card network and issuer. The company has 90% market share in China, with 9.4 billion users and over 150 million cards issued in approximately 70 countries outside of China.
The network is gaining a strong foothold around the world with 55 million merchants now accepting UnionPay cards globally. Cardholders generally don’t pay any fees, and merchants are charged a small percentage of each purchase amount.
Japan Credit Bureau
The Japan Credit Bureau (JCB) has issued 95 million cards, mostly in Japan, but also in approximately 20 other countries. Over 20 million sellers in almost 200 countries accept JCB cards. In some countries, like Australia and Canada, the cards are accepted through a partnership with American Express.
The network charges merchants a percentage-based fee and can process payments in a range of currencies including US dollars, Canadian dollars, euros, yen, francs, and more.
What Is a Credit Card Network's Role in Payment Processing?
Here’s a brief rundown of how payment processing works, with particular emphasis on the role of the credit card network:
- When a customer makes a purchase, their card details are securely transmitted to the payment processor.
- The payment processor identifies which card network is responsible for the card and sends the information to the network.
- The card network then passes the information to the card issuer (also known as the issuing bank) and waits for a response.
- The card issuer determines whether or not the cardholder has sufficient credit to allow the transaction to be approved.
- If the transaction is approved, the card network makes sure the funds are transferred from the issuing bank to your merchant account.
- You get paid and then the consumer pays their credit card bill to the issuing bank at a later date.
The first 5 steps take place in a matter of seconds. The role of the credit card network is to make sure that the card issuer authorizes the transaction so the merchant can get paid.
The credit card network charges an interchange fee for its role as intermediary.
What Are Credit Card Associations and What Do They Do?
As mentioned above, ‘credit card association’ is just another name for ‘credit card network.’ Its main role is to facilitate payment transactions and serve as the go-between, ensuring that funds move from the card issuer to the merchant.
This role stays the same regardless of which credit card association is involved. That said, each associations makes certain decisions about how it operates, including the following:
Setting Credit Card Association Rules
When you, as a merchant, enter into an agreement with a credit card association in order to accept its credit and debit cards, you agree to follow its rules and regulations. Each association sets its own rules, so don’t assume that Mastercard will have the same rules as Visa, for example.
These rules can include minimum charges and fees that may accrue, and procedures that you need to have in place for processing payments.
As credit cards are highly regulated, it’s important to make sure that you are in compliance with all laws and rules. When you use Pay.com as your payment service provider, you’ll know your business is always compliant, even as rules and regulations change.
Establishing Security Standards
The credit card associations are responsible for the security of the data that is transmitted through their networks. Data leaks and security breaches are significant threats, and the credit cards associations are committed to protecting their users.
The major card associations banded together with other associations to create the PCI Security Standards Council, which meets regularly to review and update the rules on transferring and storing all sensitive data.
The standards include the type of encryption that has to be used to transmit data, hardware security requirements, and the type of access that employees can have to private data.
Determining Fee Rates
Each card association sets its own interchange rates that it charges for processing transactions. The fee is usually dependent on what the association’s own service providers are charging, but regardless of how it determines the price, as a merchant, you can’t negotiate with them.
Most of the fee ends up being paid to the various banks that are involved in the transaction process, but the card association is the one that sets the fee to ensure that all of the banks involved get paid following the same rules.
Developing and Managing a Payment Processing Computer Network
In order to play their role in the payment process, the card associations need to have a computer network built for authorizing, clearing, and settling payments. Because of the importance of this network, associations like Visa and Mastercard have actually begun to refer to themselves as technology companies rather than financial services.
The card association’s computer network has to communicate and work together with the bank’s own networks. Because the card association’s network is responsible for providing information from the merchant to the bank and back again, it’s arguably the central part of the entire system.
For this reason, the card associations invest a lot in ensuring that their network is fast and reliable.
Detecting Fraud and Preventing Cybercrime
Each card association has to put systems in place to detect and prevent fraud. Most use sophisticated data analysis to identify patterns that could signal data breaches, stolen cards, or other types of fraud.
With hackers and scammers becoming bolder and smarter, fraud detection is an ever-evolving field, and the card associations must continuously update and upgrade their cybercrime prevention systems.
Marketing and Selling Cards
Each credit card association is in direct competition with the others, which is why the companies need to work to market their brands and attract customers.
One way a credit card association may try to stand out and gain market share is offering a range of benefits to customers. From airline miles to rental car insurance, people will often become loyal to the card network that offers them the best perks.
What's the Best Way for Your Business to Accept Credit Card Payments?
Pay.com makes it simple for you to accept credit and debit cards online, even if you’ve never had your own payment system before. All you have to do to get started is fill out the simple application form. With our quick and seamless onboarding process, you’ll be up and running in no time.
From our user-friendly Pay Dashboard, you can easily choose which credit and debit cards you want to accept. All rates and fees are completely transparent, so you never have to worry about nasty surprises at the end of the month.
With Pay.com’s advanced security and authentication, you’ll know that your business is always PCI-compliant. You won’t have to worry about fraudulent transactions, and your customers will know that their data is secure.
The Bottom Line
Understanding how credit card networks work and the differences between them should give you a better sense of what happens behind the scenes when your customers use their credit cards to make purchases from your business.
Depending on where in the world your business operates, you’ll want to be sure you know about the most common credit card networks in that area. While Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are the most common, don’t forget that some countries may have much smaller brands as well.