Credit Card Processing

Editorial Team

14 min read
Handing over credit card

If you’re interested in taking credit card payments for your small business but not sure where to start, this guide is for you.

Processing credit card payments should be a routine part of business, not a source of stress. We wrote this guide to make it as simple as possible to get you set up for credit card processing.

In this guide:

  • What is credit card processing?
  • How credit card processing works
  • What does credit card processing cost?
  • Selecting a credit card processor
  • Selecting a POS system

What is credit card processing?

Credit card processing at a glance

Credit card merchant account processing refers to the series of operations required to complete payments made with a credit card in person, online, over the phone, or by mail.

Who is involved in credit card processing?

The following entities are central to how credit card processing works to securely capture payments at the point of sale (POS).

Consumer. The cardholder, or the person making the purchase.

Merchant. The person or business selling the product or service the consumer is purchasing.

Payment gateway. The technology that connects a merchant to a payment processor. Typically, a gateway integrates with card-present (e.g., in-store purchases) as well as card-not-present (e.g., online or eCommerce) payment environments, captures payment details for customer transactions and routes them to a payment processor or the merchant bank, and sends an “approved” or “declined” message to the merchant.

Credit card processor. Also known more generally as a “payment processor.” The entity that facilitates communication between the merchant, the credit card network, and the cardholder’s bank. Processors, along with merchants, are responsible for maintaining compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS). Some payment processors provide their own payment gateways, while others, typically the larger processors, have reseller agreements with payment gateways.

Card network. Also referred to as the “credit card network” or “credit card brand.” This is the brand of the customer’s credit card, such as American Express, Visa, Mastercard, or Discover. The credit card networks are responsible for setting interchange and assessment fees, as well as the standards for PCI DSS.

Issuing bank. Also referred to as the “cardholder’s bank” or “consumer bank.” This is the bank that provides the customer with their credit card. One of the primary functions the issuing bank serves in the credit card processing cycle is to determine whether the cardholder’s account holds the funds to complete a transaction, and to release those funds for settlement.

Acquiring bank. Also referred to as the “merchant bank.” This is the bank used by the merchant to hold their business funds and receive money from transactions. It can provide the merchant with card readers and equipment to accept card payments. The acquiring bank can also serve as a credit card processor.

*Please note that “merchant bank” and “merchant bank account” should not be confused with the similarly named “merchant account.” A merchant account, typically created by a merchant services provider, is an account that temporarily holds the funds from processed credit card (and debit card) purchases. As the merchant, you do not have direct access to this merchant account—it is simply a holding account for these funds, which are transferred to your business banking account once the settlement process completes.

How credit card processing works

  1. Credit card processing starts at the consumer level: the customer initiates a payment with their credit card, and the payment information is shared with the merchant.
  2. The merchant accepts and collects the payment information, in one of two ways: a.) in person as a “card-present” transaction or b.) online or via telephone as a “card-not-present” transaction.
  3. Next, the payment information is sent to the credit card processor, who sends it to the card network.
  4. The card network then passes the payment information to the consumer (issuing) bank.
  5. The consumer bank is responsible for verifying that the cardholder has sufficient funds or credit to complete the transaction. The bank may also run security protocols to ensure the purchase is legitimate. It then approves or declines the transaction, and communicates that decision through the credit card processor. The three most common reasons for a declined transaction are a.) insufficient funds; b.) credit limit reached; c.) unauthorized purchase (e.g., if the card has been reported lost or stolen).
  6. If the transaction passes the consumer bank’s verification processes, the funds are released from the consumer bank to the merchant account, and subsequently enter the settlement process (see step 8).
  7. Meanwhile, the notification travels back from the consumer bank to the point of origin of the sale, and typically results in a message on the card reader or the virtual terminal that tells the merchant whether the transaction has been “approved” or “declined.”
  8. The final step in the process is settlement, which can take several days depending on the card network involved in the transaction. Settlement is the official transfer of the transaction amount from the consumer bank to the merchant bank, less applicable processing fees.

What you need to know about bank deposits

As described above, assuming a transaction is approved, the funds are transferred from the cardholder’s bank to the merchant account. Once settlement completes, they’re sent to the merchant bank account. Please note that depending on the terms of your payment processing terms and the frequency with which fees and other charges are deducted, the amount of the sale or transaction may not reflect the amount of the actual bank deposit.

To learn more about bank deposits, check out our guide.

What does credit card processing cost?

Credit card processors typically charge a processing fee for every credit card payment you accept. Depending on your processor, you may be charged additional fees depending on what pricing model the processor uses.

Processing fees

Transaction fees can be broken down into two primary kinds: wholesale and markup. Wholesale fees, also known as “interchange” fees, are charged by the issuing bank and the card network. Markup fees are charged by the credit card processor and the payment gateway. Unlike wholesale fees, markup fees can be negotiated.

There are three types of credit card processing fees you should be aware of:

Interchange Fee. The interchange fee is the wholesale fee mentioned above. This is a standard, non-negotiable fee that covers the costs of processing the transaction, the risk of payment approval, and the risks of fraud and bad debt. Collected by the consumer (issuing) bank, the interchange fee is a percentage of the purchase total plus a set transaction fee that’s determined by each card network. This fee represents the largest cost of credit card payment processing, and is typically impacted by the type of credit card involved in the transaction. The average interchange rate in the U.S. is approximately 1.8% for credit cards and 0.3% for debit cards, but the actual rate a merchant will pay varies greatly. For example, interchange fees on premium or rewards cards are generally higher.

Assessment or Service Fee. This is another non-negotiable fee, but this time it’s the card network that charges it. This fee is typically a small percentage and can be affected by your transaction volume and your risk level as assessed or calculated by the card networks.

Processing Fee. Each payment processor charges their own fees. This is known as the payment processor markup, and it varies depending on the pricing plan of the processor.

Types of payment processor pricing models

Payment processors leverage a variety of pricing models. These are the four you are likely to come across when selecting a payment processor:

Flat rate. The processor charges a simple fixed fee for all credit and debit card transactions regardless of the card used for payment. Note that card-present transactions often have a lower flat rate than card-not-present transactions, as they carry less risk. This can be structured as a simple base rate (for example, 2.9%), or a base rate plus a small per-transaction amount (for example, 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction). This model merges the wholesale and the markup fees instead of splitting them out.

Tiered. The processor charges a fee based on the card type used in the transaction, how much risk is associated with the transaction, and the overall transaction volume of the business. This model is considered to be the most complex and potentially most confusing to merchants.

Interchange Plus. The Interchange Plus is the most common pricing model, and often considered the most transparent and cost-effective. Here, the merchant is charged a percentage of the transaction plus a fixed per-transaction fee. In this way, the wholesale fee (the “interchange” part) and the markup fee (the “per transaction” part) are distinctly and clearly separated. For example, a $100 payment made with a Visa Rewards credit card might carry a total (effective) rate of 2.13%, which includes the interchange fee, the card network fee, and any other fees charged by the credit card processor.

Subscription. The processor charges a flat monthly service fee, along with a small per-transaction fee. The wholesale fee is charged separately from the markup fee.

No matter which pricing model your business selects, note that not all transactions clear at the same rate. A qualified transaction will process at a lower rate than a non-qualified transaction.

Selecting a credit card processor

Your credit card processor is just as important to your business as the banks you work with. Whether you run a restaurant, hair salon, or retail store, the institutions and service providers underpinning your payments systems need to be rock solid. But it’s about more than just the fees or what cards you can accept. The best credit card processor for small business owners is one that provides reliable, secure, cost-efficient service that you almost never have to think about.

As you determine which credit card processor to engage for your business, we recommend you keep the following considerations in mind:

  • The costs of working with a credit card processor
  • Credit card fraud protection and security
  • Merchant services
  • Customer support
  • Additional services

The costs of working with a credit card processor

We’ve discussed the types of fees and pricing models you’re likely to come across in your search for a credit card payment processing solution. It can be a bit time-consuming to decide which specific processor and plan is right for you; there is no right answer, and the outcome depends on the type and size of your business, your cash flow, level of re-investment, payroll, expenses and other outflows. In other words, the best credit card processing for your small business isn’t necessarily what will appeal to other business owners – even if you all service the same types of customers.

We do recommend taking the time to become familiar with the fees and pricing models, and to talk to the processors to see how flexible and willing they are to work with your needs and requests.

Credit card fraud protection and security

To protect yourself and your customers from credit card fraud, you’ll need a processor that provides ample security for your transactions. This means:

  • PCI compliance
  • EMV compliance
  • The option to enter additional card information, such as a security code or the customer’s zip code
  • Proven track record of staying on top of evolving security technologies, such as biometrics, tokenization, and end-to-end encryption
  • Insurance to cover worst-case scenarios

Merchant services

Merchant services are the various services and equipment businesses rely on to accept and process payments from their customers via credit cards, debit cards, and electronic payment methods. Some credit card processors provide these services as part of their suite of offerings.

To learn more about merchant services, please see our handy Merchant Services Guide.

Customer support

Good customer support should be responsive, readily available, and allow you to communicate with real people with working knowledge of the company’s products and services. While it’s fairly common for companies to provide some form of support via chat or international call centers, many of the best credit card processing providers for small business go above and beyond troubleshooting to offer enhanced assistance. At Clover, we provide 24×7 customer support via chat, email, and telephone for all of our U.S. merchants; our support staff are located in the U.S. We also offer multiple levels of support including onboarding and activation, and regularly conduct merchant interviews as part of our proactive merchant support.

Additional services

As with any service your business utilizes, credit card processors do offer additional services you might want to consider as you determine which processor is best for you. For example, the processor might give you:

  • Credit lines, loans, or other advances
  • Payroll management
  • Inventory organization
  • Employee management
  • Customer engagement programs

At the end of the day, however, what’s important is that the services you need for your business work well and come with the features and functionalities you are looking for, regardless of whether it’s your credit card processor or your POS system that provides them. Clover, for example, provides a number of related services on top of payment processing, including capital advances, employee management, and customer engagement programs. For those services we do not offer directly, we integrate with world-class partners, such as Gusto, ADP, and Paychex for payroll.

Selecting a POS system

What is a POS system?

The “point of sale” is the place where a transaction occurs, be it physical or digital. A Point-of-Sale (POS) system is, first and foremost, the combination of software and hardware businesses use to run transactions and accept payments. A top-of-the-line POS system, however, performs on a much higher level. It brings in a variety of other business management functions, such as inventory, reporting, employee and customer management, and many others. It should not be confused with the credit card processing system, which is, in fact, a component of the POS system.

What to consider when choosing a POS system

Consider how you run your business, what types of payments you accept, and the software services and hardware devices you’ll need to run your business smoothly. In today’s world, it’s no longer enough to accept only credit cards in person. Consumers expect the flexibility of paying in person, be it via credit, debit, or mobile (e.g., Apple Pay®, Google Pay™, Samsung Pay); over the phone; or online.

Accordingly, your POS system should enable you to take payments at all those touchpoints, and in whatever way the customer wants to pay. This means having the right software and hardware. For example, it may mean having access to things like a virtual terminal – a web-based credit and debit card processor that allows you to take payments from a desktop, laptop, or mobile device. (Learn more about Clover’s Virtual Terminal.)

Or, it may mean being able to take payments from your mobile device when you are on-the-go or on-location. (Learn more about Clover Go).

Ideally, you want a POS system that lets you get started quickly and helps you take payments easily, run your business more efficiently, and identify opportunities for growth.

Such a POS system may provide:

  • Payment terminal
  • Cash drawer
  • Mobile payment services and a credit/debit card reader
  • Receipt printer
  • Barcode scanner
  • Business management tools, such as sales tracking and inventory
  • Employee management tools, such as scheduling and payroll integration
  • Virtual terminal
  • Customer rewards program
  • Gift card program
  • Specialized tools for your business

The core elements of a POS system, in particular payment processing, should function the same way regardless of your line of business. Restaurants need to take payments from customers just as quickly, securely, and reliably, and in just as many forms, as retail stores and car mechanics. But a truly top-notch POS system does much more than that—it’s tailored to the way your business runs and responds to your unique needs. For example, at Clover we have developed Clover Dining for full-service restaurants. Designed with the direct input of restaurant owners, Clover Dining offers customizable floor plans, tableside service, and other features for full-service dining. Other examples of tailored POS features and tools might include specialized reporting functions, payroll integration, multi-location options, and promotional programs.

The content provided in this credit card processing guide is for informational purposes only.

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