Credit Card Processing

Credit Card Processing: How it Works

by Ben Dwyer

It isn’t necessary to have intimate knowledge of the inner-workings of the bankcard system in order to find the best credit card processor. But, it’s a good idea to have a general understanding of how credit card processing works because fees are incurred at various stages of the system.

Knowing the lay of the land will help you to isolate areas of possible savings. Once you’re done reading this article, check out our more detailed breakdown of where credit card processing fees come from. For now, let’s dive in to how credit card processing works.

The bankcard networks that ferry billions of transactions between merchants, processors and banks are truly modern marvels. In just a matter of seconds, your terminal passes transaction information to a processor, and then through the card network to the issuing bank for approval. The issuing bank then sends an authorization back through the card network to your processor before it finally ends up back at your terminal or software.

As involved as the system sounds, obtaining an authorization for a transaction is just the first step. Authorizations must be settled before sales can be deposited into you business’s bank account. Credit card transaction happen in a two-stage process consisting of authorization and settlement. This is important because different fees are incurred at each stage, and a failure (or partial failure) in either step can result in increased costs and/or credit card sales not being deposited.

How Credit Card Processing Works: Key Players

Let’s take a look at each of the key players involved in authorizing and settling a credit card transaction, and then we’ll move on to examine each process individually in more detail. The key players involved in authorization and settlement are the cardholder, the merchant (business), the acquiring bank (the merchant’s bank), the issuing bank (the cardholder’s bank), and the card associations (Visa and MasterCard.)

Cardholder

If you have a credit or debit card (as most of us do), you’re already familiar with the role of the cardholder. But just to be thorough — a cardholder is someone who obtains a bankcard (credit or debit) from a card issuing bank. They then present that card to merchants as payment for goods or services.

Merchant

Technically, a merchant is any business that sells goods or services. But, only merchants that accept cards as a form of payment are pertinent to our explanation. So with that said, a merchant is any business that maintains a merchant account that enables them to accept credit or debit cards as payment from customers (cardholders) for goods or services provided.

Acquiring Bank (Merchant’s Bank)

An acquiring bank is a registered member of the card associations (Visa and MasterCard). An acquiring bank is often referred to as a merchant bank because they contract with merchants to create and maintain accounts (called merchant accounts) that allow the business to accept credit and debit cards. Acquiring banks provide merchants with equipment and software to accept cards and handle customer service and other necessary aspects involved in card acceptance. The acquiring bank also deposits funds from credit card sales into a merchant’s account.

Interestingly enough, many merchants don’t recognize their acquiring bank as the primary provider of their merchant account. Acquiring banks are playing an increasingly hands-off role as the bankcard system evolves. Acquiring banks often enlist the help of third-party independent sales organizations (ISO) and membership service providers (MSP) to conduct and monitor the day-to-day activities of their merchant accounts.

Issuing Bank (Cardholder Bank)

As you’ve probably guessed, an issuing bank issues credit cards to consumers. The issuing bank is also a member of the card associations (Visa and MasterCard).

Issuing banks pay acquiring banks for purchases that their cardholders make. It is then the cardholder’s responsibility to repay their issuing bank under the terms of their credit card agreement.

Card Associations (Visa and MasterCard)

Visa and MasterCard aren’t banks and they don’t issue credit cards or merchant accounts. Instead, they act as a custodian and clearing house for their respective card brand. They also function as the governing body of a community of financial institutions, ISOs and MSPs that work together in association to support credit card processing and electronic payments. Hence the name, “card associations.”

The primary responsibilities of the Card Association are to govern the members of their associations, including interchange fees and qualification guidelines, act as the arbiter between issuing and acquiring banks, maintain and improve the card network and their brand, and, of course, make a profit. That last one has become even more important now that Visa and MasterCard are public companies.

Visa uses their VisaNet network to transmit data between association members, and MasterCard uses their Banknet network.

Credit card authorization

Cardholder

Merchant

Acquirer

Card Network

Issuer

Card Network

Merchant

Mouse over an image for an explanation

Cardholder

A cardholder begins a credit card transaction by presenting his or her card to a merchant as payment for goods or services.

Merchant

The merchant uses their credit card machine, software or gateway to transmit the cardholder’s information and the details of the transaction to their acquiring bank, or the bank’s processor.

Acquirer

The acquiring bank (or its processor) captures the transaction information and routes it through the appropriate card network to the cardholder’s issuing bank to be approved or declined.

Visa / MasterCard Network

MasterCard transaction information is routed between issuing and acquiring banks through MasterCard’s Banknet network. Visa transactions are routed through Visa’s VisaNet network.

Issuer

The credit card issuer receives the transaction information from the acquiring bank (or its processor) through Banknet or VisaNet and responds by approving or declining the transaction after checking to ensure, among other things, that the transaction information is valid, the cardholder has sufficient balance to make the purchase and that the account is in good standing.

Visa / MasterCard Network

The card issuer sends a response code back through the appropriate network to the acquiring bank (or its processor).

Merchant

The response code reaches the merchant’s terminal, software or gateway and is stored in a batch file awaiting settlement


Credit card clearing and settlement

Merchant

Acquirer

Card Network

Issuer

Cardholder

Mouse over an image for an explanation

Merchant

A merchant begins the settlement process by sending their batch of approved authorizations to their acquiring bank (or the bank’s processor). Authorization batches are typically sent at the close of each business day.

Acquirer

The acquiring bank (or its processor) reconciles and transmits the batch of authorizations through interchange via the appropriate card association’s network (VisaNet or Banknet).

The acquiring bank also deposits funds from sales into the merchant’s account via the automated clearinghouse (ACH) and debits its merchant’s account for processing fees either monthly, daily or both depending on the merchant’s processing agreement.

Card Network

The card association debits the issuing bank’s account and credits the acquiring bank’s account for the net amount of the authorizations which is gross receipts less interchange and network fees.

Issuer

The card issuing bank essentially pays the acquiring bank for its cardholder’s purchases.

Cardholder

The cardholder is responsible for repaying his or her issuing bank for the purchase and any accrued interest and fees associate with the card agreement.

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Ben Dwyer

BY Ben Dwyer

Ben Dwyer began his career in the processing industry in 2003 on the sales floor for a Connecticut‐based processor. As he learned more about the inner‐workings of the industry, rampant unethical practices, and lack of assistance available to businesses, he cut ties with his employer and started a blog where he could post accurate information about credit card processing. As the blog gained in popularity, Ben began directly assisting merchants in their search for a processor. Ben believes in empowering businesses by providing access to fair, competitive pricing, accurate information, and continued support. His dedication to transparency and education has made CardFellow a staunch small business advocate in the credit card processing industry.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. from Colleen Adams, on November 17, 2015

    I recently was contacted by a Dave Roberts, Director of Programs, Processing Division of Visa/MasterCard with an offer to set up a website which will allow me to send emails to small business, telling them that if they switch to Visa/MasterCard direct processing, instead of their current processor of credit/debit cards, they could save approximately 5% of their current processing fees. Mr Roberts also claimed that by directing these businesses to his website, I would receive a commission for every business who converted to his processor. What I want to know is, am I being scammed? He claimed I needed to have a $1,000 credit line with either Visa or MasterCard to set up my home based business or sending out emails to the businesses he would provide me to contact. He claimed the $1,000 , credit line I would need was for a licence to do this referral business, as well for the website he would set me up with.

    • from Ellen Cunningham, on November 18, 2015

      Hi Colleen,
      I definitely would not get involved with this, as it is almost certainly a scam. I’d advise calling Visa and MasterCard directly if you have questions or to report the situation.

  2. from David Beggs, on May 3, 2016

    Recently every time I purchase gas from HEB, my bank account has $100 frozen(‘a hold is put on’). The amount is unavailable to me for at least 5 days. My account is debited for the amount of gasoline I put in my tank and I am without access to $100 of my money for at least 5 days. I have tried entering the transaction as Debit and Credit, both with the same result.
    To me this is stealing, as I did not give express permission to anyone to ‘hold’ my money.
    The bank insists that it is the merchant who is doing this and the merchant insists that it is the bank. What is the truth? No one here seems to know

    • from Wendy Schroeder, on July 6, 2016

      Its the merchant who dictates the transaction type and amount. Use a different gas station.

  3. from Howard, on July 27, 2016

    It appears that the states which host most merchant accounts(acquiring banks) include South Dakota & Delaware. Is their a reason merchant bank accounts are located in these states as opposed to a bank near the merchants locations?

    • from Ellen, on July 27, 2016

      Hi Howard,
      Processors have relationships with acquiring banks; the merchant’s location is mostly irrelevant. The location of a settlement bank only matters to the business when trying to clear batches before the end of day (in the bank’s time zone) to receive funds faster.

  4. from Bev, on February 24, 2017

    I recently used a credit card at a restaurant. When I received the bill, the amount charged was $5 different from the receipt I had. I filed a dispute, and the credit card company issued a $5 credit, so everything was made okay. I am just wondering where the “mistake” lies…..merchant or credit card company?

    • from Ellen, on February 27, 2017

      Hi Bev,
      We can’t say with certainty, but most likely the merchant. Sometimes, incorrect totals are entered when the checks are adjusted for tips.

  5. from Márcio Moreira, on March 13, 2017

    Hi Ben,

    The mouse over resource don’t work.

    • from Ellen, on March 14, 2017

      Thanks for the comment, Marcio. We’ll check into this.

  6. from M. Bynum, on June 18, 2017

    Mouse over resource still does not work.

    • from Ellen, on June 19, 2017

      Thanks, we’ll be sure to update it!

  7. from MrTom, on August 1, 2017

    There’s also more to think about than just credit card processing fees.

    You have to think about the “gravy” the processor gets by charging you for extra services and fees you probably don’t require. If you don’t keep a close eye on this you could be paying hundreds of unnecessary dollars a year or month. But I believe at least Card Fellow helps in this area by watching your statements, and hopefully they watch more than just interchange rates.

    As an example, I’m in the process of signing up with a processor through Card Fellow right now. I read the terms before signing and noticed I would have been signed up for a monthly fee for a “security breach” protection service they provide where they cover you for a lot of money if your credit card data or network is ever breached. But, I have a standalone credit card machine using dial-up. I don’t and cannot store any card data for a breach. Heck, even with EMV I don’t even think the CC# gets transmitted over the phone line anyway, just authentication codes.

    So I encourage everyone to view their statements closely EVERY month.

    My previous processor is famous for slipping in extra “fees” for nothing. Sometimes even auto opt-in me for services I don’t need. I’d have to call to opt-out so I could keep my money. The last straw that made me leave was as of July 1, 2017 they wanted to charge every merchant of theirs a monthly fee of $7.50 for charge backs, even if you never get one or never had one in the years of service with them. They really had no excuse for me when I asked what that was for. How sneaky and appalling is that? Really. I get to pay for all the people in the world who do charge backs to other companies I don’t even know. Just wrong.

  8. from Kelly, on September 28, 2017

    Ellen, i use a cc machine at my business and recently a customer was charged even though she hasn’t seen me in a month. I am the only one who uses the machine and save no numbers, as it is dangerous. I called my cc company and they said the machine doesn’t save cc numbers; how is she getting charged? Losing clients is not going to help my business.

    • from Ellen, on October 2, 2017

      Hi Kelly,
      For whatever reason, there must have been a transaction sent through. I’d suggest contacting your processor to see if they can provide more details about the transaction.

  9. from Brian, on January 3, 2018

    mouse over is STILL not working

    • from Ellen, on January 3, 2018

      Hi Brian,
      Yes, we’re aware of the issue. We’re working on a new platform, so it will likely be updated at that point.

  10. from Sandra Samson, on March 20, 2018

    I purchased services for a custom made kitchen counter top from a merchant and was required to pay one half of the total price with a deposit. I paid the deposit with my Visa credit card. The merchant charged me an additional 3% for using a credit card. I had never heard of the like. Surely this merchant is fleecing me on these charges. Is this legal?