What Is a Credit Card Network?

person in pink shirt holding multiple cards and pressing with a finger on a calculator

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Credit card networks help facilitate the movement of money around the world. When you use a credit card to buy something in a store or online, these networks work quickly to get the transaction authorized. It might get approved within a second, or it could be denied if you don't have enough available credit or the transaction looks suspicious.

How Credit Card Networks Work

There are four major credit card networks in the United States: American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa. Each credit card network, also called a card association, may work a little differently, but the basic principles are similar.

Card networks are one of the underlying links that work to transfer funds from a cardholder to a merchant. When you make a purchase using a credit card, payment processors use a card network to communicate transaction information between the merchant's bank (also called the acquiring bank or acquirer) and the financial institution that issued your card.

The card networks also offer benefits to cardholders, help monitor and prevent fraudulent transactions and create rules for the cards that are part of their network. For example, Mastercard announced that it won't require magnetic strips on its cards starting in 2024, and that the strips will be phased out entirely by 2033.

To collect payment for their services, card networks set interchange fees—such as a flat fee plus a percentage of the transaction amount. These fees are split by different parties involved in the processing of the transaction, and merchants must pay them if they accept payments from cards belonging to a credit card network.

For consumers, card network acceptance isn't as much of a concern as it once was, at least not within the U.S. Nearly every merchant that accepts credit cards will accept Visa, Mastercard, Discover and American Express. Card networks may also offer unique benefits on their cards, which you may want to consider when applying for a new card.

Credit Card Network vs. Credit Card Issuer

While credit card networks facilitate the transfer of information, credit card issuers are the companies that offer credit cards to consumers and businesses. The card issuer may be the one determining who qualifies for the card, its fees and its rewards. As a cardholder, you'll primarily deal with your card issuer (not the card's network) when taking actions such as paying your bill or reporting your card as missing.

American Express and Discover are distinct among the big four credit card networks because they also issue credit cards. If you want a Visa or Mastercard credit card, however, you'll need to apply for one through another financial institution, such as Chase, Citi, Bank of America or Capital One. There are also a few card issuers that offer American Express cards, such as Credit One Bank.

Some large credit card issuers aren't household names, even if they issue a lot of credit cards. For example, Synchrony Financial and Comenity Bank are the two big credit card issuers behind many store credit cards. The retailer's name might be printed on the front of your card, but the card issuer will manage your account, collect payments and may report the account's status to the credit bureaus.

Find Your Next Credit Card

Knowing about credit card networks and issuers can be important if you're looking for a new credit card—or want to better understand the cards in your wallet. The network may determine where your card is accepted and if you qualify for certain benefits. But the card issuer is the company you pay and the one you'll call if you have a question. The card issuer may also determine who gets approved for its credit cards.

Using a free Experian account, you can check your credit report and FICO® Score . Experian can also help provide personalized credit card offers based on your unique credit profile. You can even filter the card marketplace to find cards from specific card issuers.