Credit card processing has become an essential part of modern commerce, allowing businesses to accept credit and debit card payments from customers. However, understanding the intricacies of credit card processing can be overwhelming, especially for small business owners who are looking for the best solutions that suit their needs. In this comprehensive guide, we will break down the credit card transaction process, explore the fees and costs associated with credit card processing, and provide tips on how to minimize expenses. So let’s dive in!
The Credit Card Transaction Process
To fully comprehend credit card processing, it’s crucial to understand the stages involved in a typical credit card transaction. Let’s take a closer look at each stage:
Stage 1: Authorization
The first stage of a credit card transaction is the authorization process. Here’s how it works:
- The cardholder presents their credit card to the merchant at the point of sale.
- The merchant uses a point-of-sale (POS) terminal to transmit the credit card details to the acquiring bank or its acquiring processor.
- The acquiring bank forwards the credit card details to the credit card network.
- The credit card network clears the payment and requests payment authorization from the issuing bank.
- The authorization request includes the credit card number, expiration date, billing address for Address Verification System (AVS) validation, card security code (CVV), and payment amount.
- The issuing bank verifies the validity of the credit card by checking the available funds, matching the billing address, and validating the CVV number.
- The issuing bank approves or declines the transaction and sends the response back to the merchant.
- Once the merchant receives the authorization, the issuing bank places a hold in the amount of the purchase on the cardholder’s account.
- The merchant provides the customer with a receipt to complete the sale.
Stage 2: Authentication
In the authentication stage, the issuing bank verifies the validity of the customer’s credit card using fraud protection tools such as the Address Verification Service (AVS) and card security codes like CVV, CVV2, CVC2, and CID. Here’s how it works:
- The issuing bank receives the payment authorization request from the credit card network.
- The issuing bank validates the credit card number, checks the available funds, matches the billing address, and validates the CVV number.
- The issuing bank approves or declines the transaction and sends the appropriate response back to the merchant.
- Once the merchant receives the authorization, the issuing bank will place a hold in the amount of the purchase on the cardholder’s account.
- The merchant’s POS terminal collects all approved authorizations to be processed in a “batch” at the end of the business day.
- The merchant provides the customer with a receipt to complete the sale.
Stage 3: Clearing & Settlement
The final stage of a credit card transaction is the clearing and settlement process. Here’s how it works:
- At the end of each business day, the merchant sends the approved authorizations in a batch to the acquiring bank or processor.
- The acquiring processor routes the batched information to the credit card network for settlement.
- The credit card network forwards each approved transaction to the appropriate issuing bank.
- Within 24 to 48 hours of the transaction, the issuing bank transfers the funds to the acquiring bank, less an “interchange fee” shared with the credit card network.
- The credit card network pays the acquiring bank and processor their respective percentages from the remaining funds.
- The acquiring bank credits the merchant’s account for cardholder purchases, less a “merchant discount rate.”
- The issuing bank posts the transaction information to the cardholder’s account, and the cardholder receives the statement and pays the bill.
Credit Card Transaction Participants
To better understand the credit card transaction process, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the key players involved. Here are the main participants:
- Cardholder: The individual who holds and uses a credit card for making purchases. There are two types of cardholders: “transactors” who repay the credit card balance in full and “revolvers” who repay only a portion of the balance while accruing interest.
- Merchant: The store or vendor that sells goods or services to the cardholder and accepts credit card payments. The merchant sends the card information to the cardholder’s issuing bank and requests payment authorization.
- Acquiring Bank/Merchant’s Bank: The financial institution responsible for receiving payment authorization requests from the merchant and sending them to the issuing bank. It relays the issuing bank’s response to the merchant.
- Acquiring Processor/Service Provider: A third-party entity that provides services or devices enabling merchants to accept credit cards and sends payment details to the credit card network. It forwards payment authorization back to the acquiring bank.
- Credit Card Network/Association Member: The organization operating the network that processes credit card payments worldwide and governs interchange fees. Examples include Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express. The credit card network receives payment details from the acquiring processor, forwards authorization requests to the issuing bank, and sends the issuing bank’s response to the acquiring processor.
- Issuing Bank/Credit Card Issuer: The financial institution that issued the credit card involved in the transaction. It receives the payment authorization request from the credit card network and either approves or declines the transaction.
Credit Card Processing Fees & Costs
As a merchant, accepting credit cards comes with associated fees and costs. Let’s explore the primary fees involved in credit card processing:
Merchant Discount Rate
The merchant discount rate is the fee paid by merchants for accepting credit card payments and receiving services from acquiring processors. It typically ranges between 2% and 3% of the total purchase price (higher for online merchants) and includes several components.
The interchange fee is paid by the acquiring bank and processor to the issuing bank. Each credit card network sets its interchange rates, which are typically updated semi-annually. Interchange fees vary based on factors such as the presence or absence of the card during the transaction, processing method used, credit card company, card type, and the merchant’s business type.
Credit card networks charge assessment fees for transactions made with their branded cards. These fees are based on a percentage of the total transaction volume for the month and are usually fixed. The merchant’s acquiring bank may not negotiate a lower rate, and assessments constitute a significant portion of total card-processing costs.
Acquiring banks and processors include markups over interchange fees and assessments for profit and to cover the cost of facilitating credit card transactions. Markups vary by processor and pricing model, constituting a portion of total card-processing costs.
Chargebacks occur when customers dispute a charge on their credit card statement. Merchants are charged penalties by the issuing bank, ranging from $10 to $50, for each chargeback. If the merchant fails to respond within a specified timeframe, additional fees may be incurred.
Tips to Minimize Credit Card Processing Costs
To minimize credit card processing costs, consider implementing the following strategies:
- Set a minimum credit card transaction amount to mitigate costs for low-value transactions.
- Minimize chargebacks by providing excellent customer service and resolving issues promptly.
- Negotiate fees with acquiring banks and processors to secure better rates.
- Choose a pricing model that aligns with your business needs, whether it’s a flat fee, per-transaction fee, or volume-based fee.
- Leverage technology to streamline payment processes and reduce processing fees.
- Stay informed about changes in interchange rates and assess the impact on your business.
- Monitor your credit card processing statements regularly to identify any discrepancies or unnecessary fees.
- Regularly review and update your fraud prevention measures to minimize chargebacks.
- Consider investing in equipment or software that allows you to accept a variety of payment methods, including contactless payments and mobile wallets.
- Seek advice from payment processing experts or consultants to optimize your credit card processing setup.
In conclusion, credit card processing is a crucial aspect of modern commerce. Understanding the credit card transaction process and the associated fees and costs is essential for both merchants and consumers. By implementing strategies to minimize expenses and choosing the right payment processing solutions, businesses can optimize their financial operations and provide seamless payment experiences for their customers.