Are you thinking about getting a new credit card, but are unsure if it will be accepted everywhere you shop?
It's a good question to ask. Whether a credit card is accepted at a particular merchant depends on the payment network it belongs to. The good news is that the four major payment networks—Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express—are widely accepted everywhere in the United States. Understanding more about how credit card issuers, payment networks, and merchants work together offers clues about where you can use your credit cards.
What Is a Payment Network?
Credit cards are typically issued by banks, which determine a card's interest rates, fees, rewards, and other terms. However, cards also belong to a branded payment network. This network, such as Visa or Mastercard, processes the payments made between banks and merchants. (Discover and American Express act as both payment networks and issuers of credit.)
Merchants decide which payment networks they will accept at their stores. When a consumer uses a credit card to make a purchase, the merchant pays credit card processing fees on the transaction. If a merchant decides that a payment network's fee is too high, it might not accept cards in that network.
Payment networks can also offer cardholders specific benefits in addition to what the bank issuer might include, such as warranties or rental car insurance. Your card's perks and benefits are comprised of both the issuer's and the payment network's offerings.
Where Is My Credit Card Accepted?
The good news is that if you live in the United States, most major merchants will accept cards belonging to the Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express payment networks. There are a few exceptions, of course. If you're traveling abroad, you might find that Discover and American Express are less popular, though they can often still be used. Find details on the major payment networks below:
Visa and Mastercard
Virtually every merchant that takes credit cards accepts both Visa and Mastercard.
Visa cards are accepted in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide. If a retailer accepts credit cards, then it more than likely accepts Visa. According to the Nilson Report, a payment industry publication, there were 335 million Visa cards in circulation as of 2017.
Mastercard's presence is also nearly universal, with acceptance in 210 countries. As of 2017, there were 200 million Mastercards in circulation.
The only exceptions to Visa's almost universal acceptance may be in the case where a retailer has an exclusive deal with one payment network. Costco wholesale clubs, for example, used to only accept American Express cards, until they switched to an exclusive deal with Visa in 2016.
If you're traveling abroad, you shouldn't have any problems with cards in either of these two networks.
As of 2017, there were 51 million Discover cards in circulation. Discover is accepted in 190 countries and territories around the world. Out of the four major networks in the U.S., Discover has the third-highest acceptance rate. But Discover is not far behind Visa and Mastercard, so you shouldn't have issues at most merchants in the country.
In fact, there aren't many major retailers that don't accept Discover. You can use it at major grocery and super stores, with popular ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft, and on mobile payment platforms like PayPal, Square and Venmo.
If you're traveling abroad, do your research before you leave. You can check which countries accept Discover on the company's website. Discover has also partnered with other card networks, like Diners Club, China UnionPay and JCB, to expand its reach.
American Express had 48 million cards in circulation as of 2017, though it's hot on the heels of Mastercard in terms of capturing U.S. market share.
American Express cards are accepted at major grocery and superstores, major gas station chains, department stores and other national brands. Like Discover, Amex cards are also accepted on mobile payment platforms like PayPal, Square and Venmo, as well as popular ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft.
While some smaller retailers or independent businesses may not accept American Express because it typically charges higher merchant fees than its counterparts, it is still widely accepted by all major retailers in the U.S.
If you're thinking about traveling abroad with your American Express card, it's smart to do some research ahead of time and have a backup option with you. Call Amex to let them know where you're traveling and to find out whether you will have issues using your card.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on January 29, 2019, and has been updated.