The history of credit cards
By Jay MacDonald and Taylor Tompkins | Published: July 11, 2017
To fully appreciate the modern convenience of the credit card, simply insert your chip card, pause while it processes, and consider what it replaced.
Prior to plastic, money as a means of exchange for goods and services was cumbersome, if not outright dangerous. Beginning as far back as 9000 B.C. with cattle and camels, currency took some truly odd shapes, from cowrie shells, bronze and copper imitation cowrie shells and gold and silver nuggets to Chinese deerskin notes and Native American stringed wampum beads.
From the beginning, credit cards offered significant advantages over all forms of money: They’re pocket size, easily portable, relatively secure and have no intrinsic value in themselves. What’s more, true credit cards buy you time to pay your bill, typically with a modest fee attached.
Here’s a brief look back at the fascinating evolution of the credit card:
The dawn of credit cards
According to historian Jonathan Kenoyer, the concept of using a valueless instrument to represent banking transactions dates back 5,000 years, when the ancient Mesopotamians used clay tablets to conduct trade with the Harappan civilization. While still cumbersome, a slab of clay with seals from both civilizations certainly beat the tons of copper each would have had to melt down to produce the coins of that era.
Fast-forward to America circa the 1800s. During westward expansion, merchants would use credit coins and charge plates to extend credit to local farmers and ranchers, allowing them to forgo paying their bills until they harvested their crops or sold their cattle.
In the early 1900s, a few U.S. department stores and oil companies took credit one step further by issuing their own proprietary cards, the precursor to modern-day store cards. Such cards were accepted only at the issuing merchant and designed less for convenience than to promote customer loyalty and improve service.
Bank-issued charge cards originated in 1946 when a Brooklyn banker named John Biggins launched the Charg-It card. Charg-It purchases were forwarded to Biggins’ bank, the middleman that reimbursed the merchant and obtained payment from the customer in what came to be known as the “closed-loop” system. Purchases could only be made locally and only bank customers could obtain a Charg-It card. Five years later, New York’s Franklin National Bank followed suit, issuing its first charge card to its loan customers.
With postwar America on the go, two dining and entertainment charge cards quickly followed.
The Diners Club Card, which debuted in 1950, was inspired a year earlier by an “a-ha” moment when a customer named Frank McNamara forgot his wallet while attending a business dinner at New York’s Major’s Cabin Grill. Months later, McNamara and his partner, Ralph Schneider, returned to the restaurant with a small cardboard card and a proposal that resulted in the Diners Club Card.
Used mainly for travel and entertainment, the Diners Club Card claims the title of the first credit card in widespread use. Although its purchases were made on credit, Diners Club was technically a charge card, meaning the bill had to be paid in full at the end of each month. By 1951, Diners Club had 20,000 cardholders.
The American Express card, which launched in 1958, had an altogether different provenance. Formed in 1850 as a competitor to the U.S. Postal Service, American Express had introduced money orders in 1882, invented traveler’s checks in 1891, and contemplated a travel charge card as early as 1946, before Diners Club beat it to the punch.
American Express would soon claim milestones of its own by expanding its reach to other countries and introducing the first plastic card in 1959, replacing cardboard and celluloid. Within five years, 1 million American Express cards were in use at 85,000 merchants, foreign and domestic.
Bank cards and revolving credit
Major banks would soon launch their own consumer cards, but with a welcome twist. Instead of users having to settle their bill in full each month, bank cards would truly become credit cards by offering revolving credit, which allowed cardholders to carry their monthly balance forward for a nominal finance charge.
Bank of America was first out of the gate in 1958, mailing unsolicited BankAmericard credit cards to select California markets. In 1966, BankAmericard went national to become the nation’s first licensed general-purpose credit card. It would be renamed Visa a decade later to acknowledge its growing international presence.
Also in 1966, a group of California banks formed the Interbank Card Association (ITC), which would soon issue the nation’s second major bank card, MasterCard. Now known as Mastercard Worldwide, the nation’s first card association competes directly with a similar Visa organization, both of which are run by boards comprised primarily of high-level executives from their member banks.
Unlike their nonbank competitors, the bank card associations operate in an “open-loop” system that requires interbank cooperation, as well as transfers of funds. While banks initially had to choose between the Visa and MasterCard association, changes to association bylaws have since allowed banks to join both associations and issue both types of cards to their customers.
Regulation and litigation
As the popularity of bank and nonbank credit cards exploded in the 1970s, so did legislation aimed at addressing consumer complaints against this fast-growing industry. Among the regulatory course corrections:
- The Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 restricted the collection and use of credit report data.
- The Unsolicited Credit Card Act of 1970 prohibited issuers from sending active cards to customers who hadn’t requested them.
- The Fair Credit Billing Act of 1974 amended the Truth in Lending Act to rein in abusive billing practices and enable consumers to dispute billing errors.
- Also in 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, disallowing lenders to discriminate against any applicant based on gender, race, marital status, national origin or religion.
- The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977 amended the Consumer Credit Protection Act to prohibit predatory debt collection practices and rework the debtor’s bill of rights.
The debut of the Sears Corporation’s Discover Card at the 1986 Super Bowl resulted in major litigation when Discover filed an antitrust suit against MasterCard and Visa for unlawfully preventing their association banks from issuing Discover cards. The six-year litigation ended in 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the defendants’ appeal, effectively allowing banks and other card issuers to issue multiple card brands.
Passage of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, aka the CARD Act, provided greater transparency for consumers and eliminated or reduced a range of card issuer transgressions involving interest rate hikes, late fees and over-limit fees in the depths of the Great Recession.
Technological innovation and transformation
Since 1960, when IBM introduced magnetic stripe (or “mag-stripe) verification to credit cards, technological innovations have occasionally stolen center stage in the cashless payment play.
The card form factor itself broke out of its mold in 2002, when major card issuers rolled out key fobs and the “mini me” gym bag keychain card with names like MasterCard SideCard and that eyecatching kidney-shaped switchblade, Discover2Go. Card personalization allowed users to slap their favorite photo onto the face of their card (who can forget Spaghetti Jimmy?). MasterCard and Visa both launched interactive cards with tiny powered LCD screens that generated a one-time passcode at the push of the card’s other novelty, either a button or a mini-keyboard. Aromatic cards issued by Germany’s Commerzbank and Japanese card giant JCB were once the rage overseas. And even jewelers caught card design fever, turning credit cards into wearable art.
The arrival of radio-frequency identification (or RFID), which enabled touchless ID verification between cards embedded with an RFID chip/antenna set and a merchant’s RFID card reader, fueled an out-of-wallet fashion trend that included contactless bracelets, wristbands and watches. Card manufacturers also explored more exotic biometric solutions to cardholder verification, including facial, iris, hand and finger scans, voice prints and even RFID chip implants.
Eventually, the search for card security brought about a global switch from mag stripe and RFID to the EMV computer chip cards pioneered by Europay, Mastercard and Visa. The advantage of EMV: It is a more secure ID verification and payment solution. The disadvantage: It still relies on a physical card.
The future of credit cards
What will credit cards look like in 25, 50 or 100 years? Judging by the changes we see around us today, from rapidly evolving online and mobile payment technologies to home appliances that monitor and digitally reorder their own contents, card payments will likely be increasingly integrated into our lives in new and creative ways.
As a harbinger of payment options to come, Apple introduced Apple Pay in 2014, the first mobile payment technology in widespread use. It’s certainly possible that today’s teens may never use a physical credit card, preferring the convenience of the card payment app embedded in their smartphone.
Within 50 years, it’s equally likely that some unique, 100-percent theft-proof physical identifier, such as the vein pattern in your hand or even your DNA, will replace the mag stripe and chip as your credit card payment verification. Fast-forward a century and we may even become our own credit card, our physical forms instantly identifiable by video recognition and artificial intelligence at shops, banks, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Should technology one day render the physical credit card obsolete, it will have completed its mission to make the exchange of goods and services as convenient as humanly possible.
See related:Magnetic stripe begins its farewell tour
A credit card is a payment card issued to users (cardholders) to enable the cardholder to pay a merchant for goods and services based on the cardholder's promise to the card issuer to pay them for the amounts so paid plus the other agreed charges. The card issuer (usually a bank) creates a revolving account and grants a line of credit to the cardholder, from which the cardholder can borrow money for payment to a merchant or as a cash advance. In other words, credit cards combine payment services with extensions of credit. Complex fee structures in the credit card industry may limit customers' ability to comparison shop, help ensure that the industry is not price-competitive and help maximize industry profits. Because of this, legislatures have regulated credit card fees.
A credit card is different from a charge card, where it requires the balance to be repaid in full each month. In contrast, credit cards allow the consumers a continuing balance of debt, subject to interest being charged. A credit card also differs from a cash card, which can be used like currency by the owner of the card. A credit card differs from a charge card also in that a credit card typically involves a third-party entity that pays the seller and is reimbursed by the buyer, whereas a charge card simply defers payment by the buyer until a later date.
The size of most credit cards is 85.60 mm × 53.98 mm (3.375 in × 2.125 in) and rounded corners with a radius of 2.88–3.48 mm, conforming to the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-1 standard, the same size as ATM cards and other payment cards, such as debit cards.
Credit cards have a printed or embossed bank card number complying with the ISO/IEC 7812 numbering standard. The card number's prefix, called the Bank Identification Number, is the sequence of digits at the beginning of the number that determine the bank to which a credit card number belongs. This is the first six digits for MasterCard and Visa cards. The next nine digits are the individual account number, and the final digit is a validity check code.
Both of these standards are maintained and further developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 17/WG 1. Credit cards have a magnetic stripe conforming to the ISO/IEC 7813. Many modern credit cards have a computer chip embedded in them as a security feature.
In addition to the main credit card number, credit cards also carry issue and expiration dates (given to the nearest month), as well as extra codes such as issue numbers and security codes. Not all credit cards have the same sets of extra codes nor do they use the same number of digits.
Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward
The concept of using a card for purchases was described in 1887 by Edward Bellamy in his utopian novel Looking Backward. Bellamy used the term credit card eleven times in this novel, although this referred to a card for spending a citizen's dividend from the government, rather than borrowing.
Charge coins, medals, and so on
Charge coins and other similar items were used from the late 19th century to the 1930s. They came in various shapes and sizes; with materials made out of celluloid (an early type of plastic), copper, aluminum, steel, and other types of whitish metals. Each charge coin usually had a little hole, enabling it to be put in a key ring, like a key. These charge coins were usually given to customers who had charge accounts in department stores, hotels, and so on. A charge coin usually had the charge account number along with the merchant's name and logo.
The charge coin offered a simple and fast way to copy a charge account number to the sales slip, by imprinting the coin onto the sales slip. This sped the process of copying, previously done by handwriting. It also reduced the number of errors, by having a standardised form of numbers on the sales slip, instead of various kind of handwriting style.
Because the customer's name was not on the charge coin, almost anyone could use it. This sometimes led to a case of mistaken identity, either accidentally or intentionally, by acting on behalf of the charge account owner or out of malice to defraud both the charge account owner and the merchant. Beginning in the 1930s, merchants started to move from charge coins to the newer Charga-Plate.
Early charge cards
The Charga-Plate, developed in 1928, was an early predecessor of the credit card and was used in the U.S. from the 1930s to the late 1950s. It was a 2½" × 1¼" rectangle of sheet metal related to Addressograph and military dog tag systems. It was embossed with the customer's name, city, and state. It held a small paper card on its back for a signature. In recording a purchase, the plate was laid into a recess in the imprinter, with a paper "charge slip" positioned on top of it. The record of the transaction included an impression of the embossed information, made by the imprinter pressing an inked ribbon against the charge slip. Charga-Plate was a trademark of Farrington Manufacturing Co. Charga-Plates were issued by large-scale merchants to their regular customers, much like department store credit cards of today. In some cases, the plates were kept in the issuing store rather than held by customers. When an authorized user made a purchase, a clerk retrieved the plate from the store's files and then processed the purchase. Charga-Plates speeded back-office bookkeeping and reduced copying errors that were done manually in paper ledgers in each store.
Air Travel Card
In 1934, American Airlines and the Air Transport Association simplified the process even more with the advent of the Air Travel Card. They created a numbering scheme that identified the issuer of the card as well as the customer account. This is the reason the modern UATP cards still start with the number 1. With an Air Travel Card, passengers could "buy now, and pay later" for a ticket against their credit and receive a fifteen percent discount at any of the accepting airlines. By the 1940s, all of the major US airlines offered Air Travel Cards that could be used on 17 different airlines. By 1941 about half of the airlines' revenues came through the Air Travel Card agreement. The airlines had also started offering installment plans to lure new travelers into the air. In October 1948, the Air Travel Card became the first internationally valid charge card within all members of the International Air Transport Association.
Early general purpose charge cards: Diners Club, Carte Blanche, and American Express
The concept of customers paying different merchants using the same card was expanded in 1950 by Ralph Schneider and Frank McNamara, founders of Diners Club, to consolidate multiple cards. The Diners Club, which was created partially through a merger with Dine and Sign, produced the first "general purpose" charge card and required the entire bill to be paid with each statement. That was followed by Carte Blanche and in 1958 by American Express which created a worldwide credit card network (although these were initially charge cards that later acquired credit card features).
BankAmericard and Master Charge
Until 1958, no one had been able to successfully establish a revolving credit financial system in which a card issued by a third-party bank was being generally accepted by a large number of merchants, as opposed to merchant-issued revolving cards accepted by only a few merchants. There had been a dozen attempts by small American banks, but none of them were able to last very long. In September 1958, Bank of America launched the BankAmericard in Fresno, California, which would become the first successful recognizably modern credit card. This card succeeded where others failed by breaking the chicken-and-egg cycle in which consumers did not want to use a card that few merchants would accept and merchants did not want to accept a card that few consumers used. Bank of America chose Fresno because 45% of its residents used the bank, and by sending a card to 60,000 Fresno residents at once, the bank was able to convince merchants to accept the card. It was eventually licensed to other banks around the United States and then around the world, and in 1976, all BankAmericard licensees united themselves under the common brand Visa. In 1966, the ancestor of MasterCard was born when a group of banks established Master Charge to compete with BankAmericard; it received a significant boost when Citibank merged its own Everything Card, launched in 1967, into Master Charge in 1969.
Early credit cards in the U.S., of which BankAmericard was the most prominent example, were mass-produced and mass mailed unsolicited to bank customers who were thought to be good credit risks. They have been mailed off to unemployables, drunks, narcotics addicts and to compulsive debtors, a process President Johnson's Special Assistant Betty Furness found very like "giving sugar to diabetics". These mass mailings were known as "drops" in banking terminology, and were outlawed in 1970 due to the financial chaos they caused. However, by the time the law came into effect, approximately 100 million credit cards had been dropped into the U.S. population. After 1970, only credit card applications could be sent unsolicited in mass mailings.
Before the computerization of credit card systems in America, using a credit card to pay at a merchant was significantly more complicated than it is today. Each time a consumer wanted to use a credit card, the merchant would have to call their bank, who in turn had to call the credit card company, which then had to have an employee manually look up the customer's name and credit balance. This system was computerized in 1973 under the leadership of Dee Hock, the first CEO of Visa, allowing transaction time to decrease substantially to less than one minute. However, until always-connected payment terminals became ubiquitous at the beginning of the 21st century, it was common for a merchant to accept a charge, especially below a threshold value or from a known and trusted customer, without verifying it by phone. Books with lists of stolen card numbers were distributed to merchants who were supposed in any case to check cards against the list before accepting them, as well as verifying the signature on the charge slip against that on the card. Merchants who failed to take the time to follow the proper verification procedures were liable for fraudulent charges, but because of the cumbersome nature of the procedures, merchants would often simply skip some or all of them and assume the risk for smaller transactions.
The fractured nature of the U.S. banking system under the Glass–Steagall Act meant that credit cards became an effective way for those who were traveling around the country to move their credit to places where they could not directly use their banking facilities. There are now countless variations on the basic concept of revolving credit for individuals (as issued by banks and honored by a network of financial institutions), including organization-branded credit cards, corporate-user credit cards, store cards and so on.
In 1966, Barclaycard in the United Kingdom launched the first credit card outside the United States.
Although credit cards reached very high adoption levels in the US, Canada and the UK during the latter 20th century, many cultures were more cash-oriented or developed alternative forms of cashless payments, such as Carte bleue or the Eurocard (Germany, France, Switzerland, and others). In these places, adoption of credit cards was initially much slower. Due to strict regulations regarding bank overdrafts, some countries, France in particular, were much quicker to develop and adopt chip-based credit cards which are seen as major anti-fraud credit devices. Debit cards and online banking (using either ATMs or PCs[clarification needed]) are used more widely than credit cards in some countries. It took until the 1990s to reach anything like the percentage market penetration levels achieved in the US, Canada, and UK. In some countries, acceptance still remains low as the use of a credit card system depends on the banking system of each country; while in others, a country sometimes had to develop its own credit card network, e.g. UK's Barclaycard and Australia's Bankcard. Japan remains a very cash-oriented society, with credit card adoption being limited mainly to the largest of merchants; although stored value cards (such as telephone cards) are used as alternative currencies, the trend is toward RFID-based systems inside cards, cellphones, and other objects.
Vintage, old, and unique credit cards as collectibles
The design of the credit card itself has become a major selling point in recent years. The value of the card to the issuer is often related to the customer's usage of the card, or to the customer's financial worth. This has led to the rise of Co-Brand and Affinity cards, where the card design is related to the "affinity" (a university or professional society, for example) leading to higher card usage. In most cases a percentage of the value of the card is returned to the affinity group.
A growing field of numismatics (study of money), or more specifically exonumia (study of money-like objects), credit card collectors seek to collect various embodiments of credit from the now familiar plastic cards to older paper merchant cards, and even metal tokens that were accepted as merchant credit cards. Early credit cards were made of celluloid plastic, then metal and fiber, then paper, and are now mostly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. However the chip part of credit cards is not made from plastic but from metals.
A credit card issuing company, such as a bank or credit union, enters into agreements with merchants for them to accept their credit cards. Merchants often advertise which cards they accept by displaying acceptance marks – generally derived from logos – or this may be communicated in signage in the establishment or in company material (e.g., a restaurant's menu may indicate which credit cards are accepted). Merchants may also communicate this orally, as in "We take (brands X, Y, and Z)" or "We don't take credit cards".
The credit card issuer issues a credit card to a customer at the time or after an account has been approved by the credit provider, which need not be the same entity as the card issuer. The cardholders can then use it to make purchases at merchants accepting that card. When a purchase is made, the cardholder agrees to pay the card issuer. The cardholder indicates consent to pay by signing a receipt with a record of the card details and indicating the amount to be paid or by entering a personal identification number (PIN). Also, many merchants now accept verbal authorizations via telephone and electronic authorization using the Internet, known as a card not present transaction (CNP).
Electronicverification systems allow merchants to verify in a few seconds that the card is valid and the cardholder has sufficient credit to cover the purchase, allowing the verification to happen at time of purchase. The verification is performed using a credit card payment terminal or point-of-sale (POS) system with a communications link to the merchant's acquiring bank. Data from the card is obtained from a magnetic stripe or chip on the card; the latter system is called Chip and PIN in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and is implemented as an EMV card.
For card not present transactions where the card is not shown (e.g., e-commerce, mail order, and telephone sales), merchants additionally verify that the customer is in physical possession of the card and is the authorized user by asking for additional information such as the security code printed on the back of the card, date of expiry, and billing address.
Each month, the cardholder is sent a statement indicating the purchases made with the card, any outstanding fees, and the total amount owed. In the US, after receiving the statement, the cardholder may dispute any charges that he or she thinks are incorrect (see 15 U.S.C. § 1643, which limits cardholder liability for unauthorized use of a credit card to $50). The Fair Credit Billing Act gives details of the US regulations. The cardholder must pay a defined minimum portion of the amount owed by a due date, or may choose to pay a higher amount. The credit issuer charges interest on the unpaid balance if the billed amount is not paid in full (typically at a much higher rate than most other forms of debt). In addition, if the cardholder fails to make at least the minimum payment by the due date, the issuer may impose a late fee or other penalties. To help mitigate this, some financial institutions can arrange for automatic payments to be deducted from the cardholder's bank account, thus avoiding such penalties altogether, as long as the cardholder has sufficient funds.
Many banks now also offer the option of electronic statements, either in lieu of or in addition to physical statements, which can be viewed at any time by the cardholder via the issuer's online banking website. Notification of the availability of a new statement is generally sent to the cardholder's email address. If the card issuer has chosen to allow it, the cardholder may have other options for payment besides a physical check, such as an electronic transfer of funds from a checking account. Depending on the issuer, the cardholder may also be able to make multiple payments during a single statement period, possibly enabling him or her to utilize the credit limit on the card several times.
Advertising, solicitation, application and approval
Credit card advertising regulations in the US include the Schumer box disclosure requirements. A large fraction of junk mail consists of credit card offers created from lists provided by the major credit reporting agencies. In the United States, the three major US credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) allow consumers to opt out from related credit card solicitation offers via its Opt Out Pre Screen program.
Credit card issuers usually waive interest charges if the balance is paid in full each month, but typically will charge full interest on the entire outstanding balance from the date of each purchase if the total balance is not paid.
For example, if a user had a $1,000 transaction and repaid it in full within this grace period, there would be no interest charged. If, however, even $1.00 of the total amount remained unpaid, interest would be charged on the $1,000 from the date of purchase until the payment is received. The precise manner in which interest is charged is usually detailed in a cardholder agreement which may be summarized on the back of the monthly statement. The general calculation formula most financial institutions use to determine the amount of interest to be charged is (APR/100 x ADB)/365 x number of days revolved. Take the annual percentage rate (APR) and divide by 100 then multiply to the amount of the average daily balance (ADB). Divide the result by 365 and then take this total and multiply by the total number of days the amount revolved before payment was made on the account. Financial institutions refer to interest charged back to the original time of the transaction and up to the time a payment was made, if not in full, as a residual retail finance charge (RRFC). Thus after an amount has revolved and a payment has been made, the user of the card will still receive interest charges on their statement after paying the next statement in full (in fact the statement may only have a charge for interest that collected up until the date the full balance was paid, i.e. when the balance stopped revolving).
The credit card may simply serve as a form of revolving credit, or it may become a complicated financial instrument with multiple balance segments each at a different interest rate, possibly with a single umbrella credit limit, or with separate credit limits applicable to the various balance segments. Usually this compartmentalization is the result of special incentive offers from the issuing bank, to encourage balance transfers from cards of other issuers. In the event that several interest rates apply to various balance segments, payment allocation is generally at the discretion of the issuing bank, and payments will therefore usually be allocated towards the lowest rate balances until paid in full before any money is paid towards higher rate balances. Interest rates can vary considerably from card to card, and the interest rate on a particular card may jump dramatically if the card user is late with a payment on that card or any other credit instrument, or even if the issuing bank decides to raise its revenue.
A credit card's grace period is the time the cardholder has to pay the balance before interest is assessed on the outstanding balance. Grace periods may vary, but usually range from 20 to 55 days depending on the type of credit card and the issuing bank. Some policies allow for reinstatement after certain conditions are met.
Usually, if a cardholder is late paying the balance, finance charges will be calculated and the grace period does not apply. Finance charges incurred depend on the grace period and balance; with most credit cards there is no grace period if there is any outstanding balance from the previous billing cycle or statement (i.e. interest is applied on both the previous balance and new transactions). However, there are some credit cards that will only apply finance charge on the previous or old balance, excluding new transactions.
- Cardholder: The holder of the card used to make a purchase; the consumer.
- Card-issuing bank: The financial institution or other organization that issued the credit card to the cardholder. This bank bills the consumer for repayment and bears the risk that the card is used fraudulently. American Express and Discover were previously the only card-issuing banks for their respective brands, but as of 2007, this is no longer the case. Cards issued by banks to cardholders in a different country are known as offshore credit cards.
- Merchant: The individual or business accepting credit card payments for products or services sold to the cardholder.
- Acquiring bank: The financial institution accepting payment for the products or services on behalf of the merchant.
- Independent sales organization: Resellers (to merchants) of the services of the acquiring bank.
- Merchant account: This could refer to the acquiring bank or the independent sales organization, but in general is the organization that the merchant deals with.
- Credit Card association: An association of card-issuing banks such as Discover, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc. that set transaction terms for merchants, card-issuing banks, and acquiring banks.
- Transaction network: The system that implements the mechanics of the electronic transactions. May be operated by an independent company, and one company may operate multiple networks.
- Affinity partner: Some institutions lend their names to an issuer to attract customers that have a strong relationship with that institution, and get paid a fee or a percentage of the balance for each card issued using their name. Examples of typical affinity partners are sports teams, universities, charities, professional organizations, and major retailers.
- Insurance providers: Insurers underwriting various insurance protections offered as credit card perks, for example, Car Rental Insurance, Purchase Security, Hotel Burglary Insurance, Travel Medical Protection etc.
The flow of information and money between these parties — always through the card associations — is known as the interchange, and it consists of a few steps.
- Authorization: The cardholder presents the card as payment to the merchant and the merchant submits the transaction to the acquirer (acquiring bank). The acquirer verifies the credit card number, the transaction type and the amount with the issuer (card-issuing bank) and reserves that amount of the cardholder's credit limit for the merchant. An authorization will generate an approval code, which the merchant stores with the transaction.
- Batching: Authorized transactions are stored in "batches", which are sent to the acquirer. Batches are typically submitted once per day at the end of the business day. If a transaction is not submitted in the batch, the authorization will stay valid for a period determined by the issuer, after which the held amount will be returned to the cardholder's available credit (see authorization hold). Some transactions may be submitted in the batch without prior authorizations; these are either transactions falling under the merchant's floor limit or ones where the authorization was unsuccessful but the merchant still attempts to force the transaction through. (Such may be the case when the cardholder is not present but owes the merchant additional money, such as extending a hotel stay or car rental.)
- Clearing and Settlement: The acquirer sends the batch transactions through the credit card association, which debits the issuers for payment and credits the acquirer. Essentially, the issuer pays the acquirer for the transaction.
- Funding: Once the acquirer has been paid, the acquirer pays the merchant. The merchant receives the amount totaling the funds in the batch minus either the "discount rate", "mid-qualified rate", or "non-qualified rate" which are tiers of fees the merchant pays the acquirer for processing the transactions.
- Chargebacks: A chargeback is an event in which money in a merchant account is held due to a dispute relating to the transaction. Chargebacks are typically initiated by the cardholder. In the event of a chargeback, the issuer returns the transaction to the acquirer for resolution. The acquirer then forwards the chargeback to the merchant, who must either accept the chargeback or contest it.
Credit card register
A credit card register is a transaction register used to ensure the increasing balance owed from using a credit card is enough below the credit limit to deal with authorization holds and payments not yet received by the bank and to easily look up past transactions for reconciliation and budgeting.
The register is a personal record of banking transactions used for credit card purchases as they affect funds in the bank account or the available credit. In addition to check number and so forth the code column indicates the credit card. The balance column shows available funds after purchases. When the credit card payment is made the balance already reflects the funds were spent. In a credit card's entry, the deposit column shows the available credit and the payment column shows total owed, their sum being equal to the credit limit.
Each check written, debit card transaction, cash withdrawal, and credit card charge is entered manually into the paper register daily or several times per week. Credit card register also refers to one transaction record for each credit card. In this case the booklets readily enable the location of a card’s current available credit when ten or more cards are in use.
As well as convenient credit, credit cards offer consumers an easy way to track expenses, which is necessary for both monitoring personal expenditures and the tracking of work-related expenses for taxation and reimbursement purposes. Credit cards are accepted in larger establishments in almost all countries, and are available with a variety of credit limits, repayment arrangements. Some have added perks (such as insurance protection, rewards schemes in which points earned by purchasing goods with the card can be redeemed for further goods and services or cashback).
Consumers' limited liability
Some countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, limit the amount for which a consumer can be held liable in the event of fraudulent transactions with a lost or stolen credit card.
Business credit cards
See also: Stored-value card
Business credit cards are specialized credit cards issued in the name of a registered business, and typically they can only be used for business purposes. Their use has grown in recent decades. In 1998, for instance, 37% of small businesses reported using a business credit card; by 2009, this number had grown to 64%.
Business credit cards offer a number of features specific to businesses. They frequently offer special rewards in areas such as shipping, office supplies, travel, and business technology. Most issuers use the applicant's personal credit score when evaluating these applications. In addition, income from a variety of sources may be used to qualify, which means these cards may be available to businesses that are newly established. In addition, most major issuers of these cards do not report account activity to the owner's personal credit unless there is a default. This may have the effect of protecting the owner's personal credit from the activity of the business.
Business credit cards are offered by almost all major card issuers—like American Express, Visa, and MasterCard in addition to local banks and credit unions. Charge cards for businesses, however, are currently only offered by American Express.
Secured credit cards
A secured credit card is a type of credit card secured by a deposit account owned by the cardholder. Typically, the cardholder must deposit between 100% and 200% of the total amount of credit desired. Thus if the cardholder puts down $1,000, they will be given credit in the range of $500–1,000. In some cases, credit card issuers will offer incentives even on their secured card portfolios. In these cases, the deposit required may be significantly less than the required credit limit, and can be as low as 10% of the desired credit limit. This deposit is held in a special savings account. Credit card issuers offer this because they have noticed that delinquencies were notably reduced when the customer perceives something to lose if the balance is not repaid.
The cardholder of a secured credit card is still expected to make regular payments, as with a regular credit card, but should they default on a payment, the card issuer has the option of recovering the cost of the purchases paid to the merchants out of the deposit. The advantage of the secured card for an individual with negative or no credit history is that most companies report regularly to the major credit bureaus. This allows building a positive credit history.
Although the deposit is in the hands of the credit card issuer as security in the event of default by the consumer, the deposit will not be debited simply for missing one or two payments. Usually the deposit is only used as an offset when the account is closed, either at the request of the customer or due to severe delinquency (150 to 180 days). This means that an account which is less than 150 days delinquent will continue to accrue interest and fees, and could result in a balance which is much higher than the actual credit limit on the card. In these cases the total debt may far exceed the original deposit and the cardholder not only forfeits their deposit but is left with an additional debt.
Most of these conditions are usually described in a cardholder agreement which the cardholder signs when their account is opened.
Secured credit cards are an option to allow a person with a poor credit history or no credit history to have a credit card which might not otherwise be available. They are often offered as a means of rebuilding one's credit. Fees and service charges for secured credit cards often exceed those charged for ordinary non-secured credit cards. For people in certain situations, (for example, after charging off on other credit cards, or people with a long history of delinquency on various forms of debt), secured cards are almost always more expensive than unsecured credit cards.
Sometimes a credit card will be secured by the equity in the borrower's home.
See also: Stored-value card
A "prepaid credit card" is not a true credit card, since no credit is offered by the card issuer: the cardholder spends money which has been "stored" via a prior deposit by the cardholder or someone else, such as a parent or employer. However, it carries a credit-card brand (such as Discover, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or JCB) and can be used in similar ways just as though it were a credit card. Unlike debit cards, prepaid credit cards generally do not require a PIN. An exception are prepaid credit cards with an EMV chip. These cards do require a PIN if the payment is processed via Chip and PIN technology.
After purchasing the card, the cardholder loads the account with any amount of money, up to the predetermined card limit and then uses the card to make purchases the same way as a typical credit card. Prepaid cards can be issued to minors (above 13) since there is no credit line involved. The main advantage over secured credit cards (see above section) is that the cardholder is not required to come up with $500 or more to open an account. With prepaid credit cards purchasers are not charged any interest but are often charged a purchasing fee plus monthly fees after an arbitrary time period. Many other fees also usually apply to a prepaid card.
Prepaid credit cards are sometimes marketed to teenagers for shopping online without having their parents complete the transaction. Teenagers can only use funds that are available on the card which helps promote financial management to reduce the risk of debt problems later in life.
Prepaid cards can be used globally. The prepaid card is convenient for payees in developing countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China, where international wire transfers and bank checks are time consuming, complicated and costly.
Because of the many fees that apply to obtaining and using credit-card-branded prepaid cards, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada describes them as "an expensive way to spend your own money". The agency publishes a booklet entitled Pre-paid Cards which explains the advantages and disadvantages of this type of prepaid card.see #Further reading
A digital card is a digital cloud-hosted virtual representation of any kind of identification card or payment card, such as a credit card.
Benefits and drawbacks
Benefits to cardholder
The main benefit to the cardholder is convenience. Compared to debit cards and checks, a credit card allows small short-term loans to be quickly made to a cardholder who need not calculate a balance remaining before every transaction, provided the total charges do not exceed the maximum credit line for the card.
Different countries offer different levels of protection. In the UK, for example, the bank is jointly liable with the merchant for purchases of defective products over £100.
Many credit cards offer rewards and benefits packages, such as enhanced product warranties at no cost, free loss/damage coverage on new purchases, various insurance protections, for example, rental car insurance, common carrier accident protection, and travel medical insurance.
Credit cards can also offer a loyalty program, where each purchase is rewarded with points, which may be redeemed for cash or products. Research has examined whether competition among card networks may potentially make payment rewards too generous, causing higher prices among merchants, thus actually impacting social welfare and its distribution, a situation potentially warranting public policy interventions.
Comparison of credit card benefits in the US
The table below contains a list of benefits offered in the United States for consumer credit cards. Benefits may vary in other countries or business credit cards.
|Return Extension||60 days|
up to $250
up to $250
up to $300
up to $500
|Extended Warranty||2x Original|
up to 1 year
|depends||1 Additional Year|
6 years max
|1 Additional Year|
4 years max
|Price Protection||60 days||Varies||90 days|
up to $500
|Loss/Damage Coverage||90 days||depends||90 days|
up to $1,000
up to $500
|Rental Car Insurance |
Main article: Damage waiver
|15 days: Collision, theft, vandalism||15 days: Collision, theft||30 days: Collision, theft, vandalism||31 days: Collision|
Detriments to cardholders
High interest and bankruptcy
Low introductory credit card rates are limited to a fixed term, usually between 6 and 12 months, after which a higher rate is charged. As all credit cards charge fees and interest, some customers become so indebted to their credit card provider that they are driven to bankruptcy. Some credit cards often levy a rate of 20 to 30 percent after a payment is missed. In other cases, a fixed charge is levied without change to the interest rate. In some cases universal default may apply: the high default rate is applied to a card in good standing by missing a payment on an unrelated account from the same provider. This can lead to a snowball effect in which the consumer is drowned by unexpectedly high interest rates. Further, most card holder agreements enable the issuer to arbitrarily raise the interest rate for any reason they see fit. First Premier Bank at one point offered a credit card with a 79.9% interest rate; however, they discontinued this card in February 2011 because of persistent defaults.
Complex fee structures in the credit card industry limit customers' ability to comparison shop, help ensure that the industry is not price-competitive and help maximize industry profits.
Research shows that a substantial fraction of consumers (about 40 percent) choose a sub-optimal credit card agreement, with some incurring hundreds of dollars of avoidable interest costs.
Weakens self regulation
Several studies have shown that consumers are likely to spend more money when they pay by credit card. Researchers suggest that when people pay using credit cards, they do not experience the abstract pain of payment. Furthermore, researchers have found that using credit cards can increase consumption of unhealthy food.
Detriments to society
Inflated pricing for all consumers
Merchants that accept credit cards must pay interchange fees and discount fees on all credit-card transactions. In some cases merchants are barred by their credit agreements from passing these fees directly to credit card customers, or from setting a minimum transaction amount (no longer prohibited in the United States, United Kingdom or Australia). The result is that merchants are induced to charge all customers (including those who do not use credit cards) higher prices to cover the fees on credit card transactions. The inducement can be strong because the merchant's fee is a percentage of the sale price, which has a disproportionate effect on the profitability of businesses that have predominantly credit card transactions, unless compensated for by raising prices generally. In the United States in 2008 credit card companies collected a total of $48 billion in interchange fees, or an average of $427 per family, with an average fee rate of about 2% per transaction.
Benefits to merchants
For merchants, a credit card transaction is often more secure than other forms of payment, such as cheques, because the issuing bank commits to pay the merchant the moment the transaction is authorized, regardless of whether the consumer defaults on the credit card payment (except for legitimate disputes, which are discussed below, and can result in charges back to the merchant). In most cases, cards are even more secure than cash, because they discourage theft by the merchant's employees and reduce the amount of cash on the premises. Finally, credit cards reduce the back office expense of processing checks/cash and transporting them to the bank.
Prior to credit cards, each merchant had to evaluate each customer's credit history before extending credit. That task is now performed by the banks which assume the credit risk. Credit cards can also aid in securing a sale especially if the customer does not have enough cash on hand or in a checking account. Extra turnover is generated by the fact that the customer can purchase goods and services immediately and is less inhibited by the amount of cash in pocket and the immediate state of the customer's bank balance. Much of merchants' marketing is based on this immediacy.
For each purchase, the bank charges the merchant a commission (discount fee) for this service and there may be a certain delay before the agreed payment is received by the merchant. The commission is often a percentage of the transaction amount, plus a fixed fee (interchange rate).
Costs to merchants
Merchants are charged several fees for accepting credit cards. The merchant is usually charged a commission of around 1 to 4 percent of the value of each transaction paid for by credit card. The merchant may also pay a variable charge, called a merchant discount rate, for each transaction. In some instances of very low-value transactions, use of credit cards will significantly reduce the profit margin or cause the merchant to lose money on the transaction. Merchants with very low average transaction prices or very high average transaction prices are more averse to accepting credit cards. In some cases merchants may charge users a "credit card supplement" (or surcharge), either a fixed amount or a percentage, for payment by credit card. This practice was prohibited by most credit card contracts in the United States until 2013, when a major settlement between merchants and credit card companies allowed merchants to levy surcharges. Most retailers have not started using credit card surcharges, however, for fear of losing customers.
Merchants in the United States have been fighting what they consider to be unfairly high fees charged by credit card companies in a series of lawsuits that started in 2005. Merchants charged that the two main credit card processing companies, MasterCard and Visa, used their monopoly power to levy excessive fees in a class-action lawsuit involving the National Retail Federation and major retailers such as Wal-Mart. In December 2013, a federal judge approved a $5.7 billion settlement in the case that offered payouts to merchants who had paid credit card fees, the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history. Some large retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Amazon, chose to not participate in this settlement, however, and have continued their legal fight against the credit card companies.
Merchants are also required to lease or purchase processing equipment, in some cases this equipment is provided free of charge by the processor. Merchants must also satisfy data security compliance standards which are highly technical and complicated. In many cases, there is a delay of several days before funds are deposited into a merchant's bank account. Because credit card fee structures are very complicated, smaller merchants are at a disadvantage to analyze and predict fees.
Finally, merchants assume the risk of chargebacks by consumers.
Main article: Credit card fraud
See also: Wireless identity theft
Credit card security relies on the physical security of the plastic card as well as the privacy of the credit card number. Therefore, whenever a person other than the card owner has access to the card or its number, security is potentially compromised. Once, merchants would often accept credit card numbers without additional verification for mail order purchases. It's now common practice to only ship to confirmed addresses as a security measure to minimise fraudulent purchases. Some merchants will accept a credit card number for in-store purchases, whereupon access to the number allows easy fraud, but many require the card itself to be present, and require a signature. A lost or stolen card can be cancelled, and if this is done quickly, will greatly limit the fraud that can take place in this way. European banks can require a cardholder's security PIN be entered for in-person purchases with the card.
The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is the security standard issued by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC). This data security standard is used by acquiring banks to impose cardholder data security measures upon their merchants.
The goal of the credit card companies is not to eliminate fraud, but to "reduce it to manageable levels". This implies that fraud prevention measures will be used only if their cost are lower than the potential gains from fraud reduction, whereas high-cost low-return measures will not be used – as would be expected from organizations whose goal is profit maximisation.
Internet fraud may be by claiming a chargeback which is not justified ("friendly fraud"), or carried out by the use of credit card information which can be stolen in many ways, the simplest being copying information from retailers, either online or offline. Despite efforts to improve security for remote purchases using credit cards, security breaches are usually the result of poor practice by merchants. For example, a website that safely uses SSL to encrypt card data from a client may then email the data, unencrypted, from the webserver to the merchant; or the merchant may store unencrypted details in a way that allows them to be accessed over the Internet or by a rogue employee; unencrypted card details are always a security risk. Even encrypted data may be cracked.
Controlled payment numbers (also known as virtual credit cards or disposable credit cards) are another option for protecting against credit card fraud where presentation of a physical card is not required, as in telephone and online purchasing. These are one-time use numbers that function as a payment card and are linked to the user's real account, but do not reveal details, and cannot be used for subsequent unauthorised transactions. They can be valid for a relatively short time, and limited to the actual amount of the purchase or a limit set by the user. Their use can be limited to one merchant. If the number given to the merchant is compromised, it will be rejected if an attempt is made to use it a second time.
A similar system of controls can be used on physical cards. Technology provides the option for banks to support many other controls too that can be turned on and off and varied by the credit card owner in real time as circumstances change (i.e., they can change temporal, numerical, geographical and many other parameters on their primary and subsidiary cards). Apart from the obvious benefits of such controls: from a security perspective this means that a customer can have a Chip and PIN card secured for the real world, and limited for use in the home country. In this eventuality a thief stealing the details will be prevented from using these overseas in non chip and pin EMV countries. Similarly the real card can be restricted from use on-line so that stolen details will be declined if this tried. Then when card users shop online they can use virtual account numbers. In both circumstances an alert system can be built in notifying a user that a fraudulent attempt has been made which breaches their parameters, and can provide data on this in real time.
- Issuing Bank Logo
- EMV chip (only on "smart cards")
- Card number
- Card Network Logo
- Expiration Date
- Card Holder Name
- Contactless Chip