How Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover Differ Plus Acceptance and Best Offers

Visa Mastercard American Express and Discover

How Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover Differ from Each Other

If you take a credit card out of your wallet right now, most likely it will have the logo of one of the four major credit card processors. Those are Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover. Credit card processors act as the middle man between your bank and a merchant’s bank. They analyze a payment request and then move the money from one bank to the other to complete it. Credit card processors take a percentage from every transaction.

But two of these credit card processors, American Express and Discover, are also credit card issuers. That means that when you apply for an American Express or Discover credit card, they are the ones who review your application and decide whether to approve you or not. They also provide the customer service when you have issues with your credit card. But if you apply for a Visa or Mastercard gift card, then the credit card issuer is most likely one of the major banks such as Chase, Citi, Capital One, Barclays etc..

Acceptance

All credit cards are not made the same. You usually notice this when you try to pay with an American Express credit card for example, and they don’t accept it. Or if you’re abroad and they don’t take your Discover card. Here’s some data from Nilson Report in 2019 that shows why your Visa and Mastercard are the best option worldwide. They each have close to 53 million merchants, compared to 44 million for Discover and just over 25 million for American Express.

Visa Mastercard American Express Discover
Global merchants
52.9 million 52.9 million 25.3 million 44 million
Countries supported
200 210 130 185

Mastercard is probably the safest bet for world travelers, since it is also accepted in more countries, besides having the same number of merchants as Visa.

Here’s a list of credit card acceptance for the 25 most visited countries in the world, published by Value Penguin:

In the United States, Visa, Mastercard and Discover have a slight edge, but American Express is also accepted by 99% of domestic merchants. American Express did take the top spot in the J.D. Power 2020 Credit Card Satisfaction Survey, followed by Discover in second place and Bank of America in third. This was a ranking of credit card issuers, so Visa and Mastercard weren’t included.

Part of the reason that American Express cards aren’t accepted everywhere, is that it charges merchants a higher fee on average than others. Here’s what each credit card processor charges merchants for accepting their credit cards. The payment also varies based on the type of credit card, and the merchant category code (MCC) of the business.

Visa 1.29% + $0.05 to 2.54% + $0.10
Mastercard 1.29% + $0.05 to 2.64% + $0.10
Discover 1.53% + $0.05 to 2.53% + $0.10
American Express 1.58% + $0.10 to 3.30% +$0.10

Cards that offer more benefits and travel rewards usually have higher interchange fees. A World Elite Mastercard will have higher interchange fees than an Elite Mastercard,  and Visa Infinite Card will have higher fees than a Visa Signature Card.

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