A Merchant-Friendly Guide to Credit Card Networks

A Merchant-Friendly Guide to Credit Card Networks

Credit card networks are like a quietly humming electric engine that helps to power the worldwide economy. These wide-ranging virtual networks operate silently in the background, driving the processing of millions of credit card transactions daily. 

In hundreds of countries, credit card networks funnel sales income into retail businesses that range from neighborhood convenience stores to worldwide mega-retailers. If you’ve wondered about credit card networks’ role in the retail universe, view this nuts-and-bolts guide that should help you to connect the dots.

Credit Card Networks: Payment Processing Role

When you ring up a retail customer’s sale, and ask for their payment, they’ll swipe their card through the payment terminal, or perhaps run it through the chip reader. Next, your payment terminal electronically “talks” to the credit card network, a company that acts as an intermediary (or a bridge) between you and the credit card-issuing bank. 

Within seconds, the credit card network asks the issuing bank if the customer’s credit card has sufficient credit to process the sale. When the card network receives the “Approved” or “Denied” message, it quickly transmits that message to you (the merchant). 

Assuming the answer is “yes,” you bag the customer’s item and hand them a receipt. If the transaction was denied, you break the news and ask them for another form of payment.

Additional Credit Card Network Functions

Each time a customer initiates a credit card sale, the credit card network charges you a preset fee to process that transaction. Credit card networks also perform card-related functions that aren’t directly related to transaction processing. 

For example, the card network policies state where those branded credit cards can be used, and discuss cardholders’ fraud liability exposure. Credit card networks may also offer extended product warranties, plus other benefits such as travel insurance and rental car insurance. Of course, the card networks must formulate their policies, and offer cardholder benefits, in compliance with credit card networks regulations.

Can a Credit Card Network Also Be the Card-issuing Bank?

Yes, a credit card network can also function as the card-issuing bank. Here, the network handles both parts of a transaction: the card processing tasks along with the approval (or denial) of the transaction. The American Express and Discover card networks perform both functions. These two companies issue the great majority of the American Express and Discover cards in circulation.

In contrast, Visa and Mastercard don’t issue their own branded credit cards, so they’re not card-issuing banks. Rather, these well-known credit card networks function solely as intermediaries between merchants and card-issuing banks. So, a Visa or Mastercard credit card can come from different card-issuing banks.

Additional Card-issuing Bank Functions

A credit card-issuing bank handles varied functions related to that card’s use. For example, the issuing bank determines the card’s interest rates and applicable foreign transaction fees. If a customer initiates a charge that causes the card to exceed its credit limit, the issuing bank assesses the corresponding over-limit fee.

After the card sale is completed, the customer may decide to dispute the charge. They’ll initially contact their bank, which sends a refund request to the card-issuing bank.

On a happier note, the issuing bank also handles its optional card rewards program. These extremely popular programs give customers predetermined numbers of points for their purchases. Customers can use their accumulated rewards points to obtain merchandise, gift cards, and other desirable commodities.

Snapshot of Four Major Credit Card Networks

If you’ve wondered how many credit card networks are there, know that four primary credit card networks essentially dominate the worldwide credit card landscape. Customers use their Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover cards in thousands of retail stores, flea markets, mobile service businesses, and countless other venues. 

If you’re a businessowner who’s preparing to accept credit card payments, view these brief credit card network profiles, beginning with their respective market shares and fees. Plus, note several considerations when choosing the most suitable card networks from the credit card networks list.

Four Major Credit Card Networks: Market Share

To learn about the major credit card networks’ respective market shares, view this data compiled from the February 2019 Nilson Report:

Credit Card Market Share by Network Outstanding Balance in 2018

Visa – 48.4%

Mastercard – 31.8%

Amex – 12.3%

Discover – 7.5%

Source: Nilson Report, February 2019

Four Major Credit Card Networks: Fees Charged to Merchants

Every time a customer makes a credit card purchase, the credit card network charges the merchant a small fee to execute the transaction. If the merchant decides that fee is too high, they may decline to accept cards from that credit card network.

Mastercard – 1.55% to 2.6% per transaction

American Express – 2.50% to 3.5% per transaction

Visa – 1.43% to 2.4% per transaction

Discover – 1.56% to 2.3% per transaction

Visa 

In the card network universe, globally accepted Visa cards are considered the gold standard. In fact, this financial juggernaut reported $2.1 trillion in its total payment volume during the fiscal second quarter of 2019. By the end of 2020, Visa projects that about 300 million contactless cards will be in use within the United States. That number represents a tripling of the current 100 million contactless cards used for varied transactions.  

MasterCard

MasterCard currently claims the #2 spot in the credit card networks sweepstakes. During the first quarter of 2019, MasterCard reported $3.9 billion in net revenue, a year-over-year increase of 9 percent. In addition, use of cards with MasterCard brands jumped 224 million on a year-over-year basis.

Visa and MasterCard Comparison

According to MasterCard, its cards are accepted in more than 210 countries, slightly more than Visa network cards. However, finding an establishment that accepts MasterCard while excluding Visa would be very difficult. Both card networks feature four distinctive tiers, each offering its own product benefits. When it comes to exclusive deals with major banks and retailers, Visa has the definite edge.

American Express 

Unlike Visa and MasterCard, American Express acts as both a credit card network and a card-issuing bank. When compared with Visa and MasterCard, significantly fewer merchants accept American Express cards, and fewer customers use them. 

On the positive side, however, American Express’ United States merchant base is growing, as the network added one million brand-new merchants in 2018. During that same period, American Express boosted its United States business by 9 percent on a year-over-year basis. Most major United States retailers accept all four networks’ cards, and the network’s rewards cards programs remain popular.

Globally, American Express has a notable downside, and here’s why: a typical merchant is about 40 percent more receptive to taking the other three networks’ cards compared to an American Express card. This may result from the latter company’s higher card processing fees relative to other networks’ charges.

Discover

The fourth-place Discover credit card network also functions as a card-issuing bank. It reports considerably lower 2018 purchase volume numbers than the other three card networks. However, in the fourth quarter of 2018, Discover enjoyed 10 percent growth in year-over-year total network volume numbers. And, Discover is now accepted in almost as many establishments as Visa and MasterCard.  

American Express and Discover Comparison

Comparing these two networks results in some intriguing observations. First, American Express’ higher transaction fees likely cause many merchants to shy away from using this card network. This creates a major opening for Discover, which has a considerably higher acceptance rate than American Express.

However, American Express has more credit card offerings than Discover, and American Express also appears to have the edge in rewards programs. And, American Express cards frequently rank at the top of credit card comparison lists. Weigh these factors (and others) when choosing the best credit card networks for your needs.

Four Niche Credit Card Network Profiles

Along with the four major credit card payment networks, four second-tier players have each carved out their own market niche, so they appear on the list of credit card networks. Other smaller credit card networks may make a noticeable splash in specific markets or regions.

STAR

This credit card network stands out because it was a leader in PIN-based debit card transactions. In addition, STAR boasted the first use of no-envelope ATM deposits, along with the first direct electronic check debit transaction processed on a real-time basis. In 2003, First Data purchased the STAR network.

Accel

This relatively large interbank network includes more than 400,000 ATMs, with coverage in all 50 states. Worldwide, several United States Air Force bases also offer Accel ATM machines.

Interac

Interac has just about cornered the Canadian debit card market, as Visa and MasterCard have a minimal presence there. The Canadian Interac network includes more than 59,000 ATMs, and shoppers can use their Interac debit cards at over 450,000 merchant locations.

JCB

 Formally known as the Japan Credit Bureau, JCB is a well-known fixture of the Japanese credit card market. In fact, JCB’s credit cards enjoy regular use in more than 20 different countries. In 2019, JCB formed an alliance with Santander, through which this well-known bank will facilitate JCB credit card use with Spanish merchants. 

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