Credit card networks vs. issuers | finder.com
Credit card networks vs. issuers

Credit card networks vs. issuers: What’s the difference?

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Knowing the difference between issuers and networks could help you better understand your credit card choices.

You have many options when it comes to a credit card — big-name brands, rewards and miles, even bank cards. But who issues the cards in your wallet, and why does it matter?

Simply put, a network decides where a credit card can be used, while an issuer distributes its branded cards to customers.

Credit card networks

Credit card networks are the bridge between merchants — the shops that accept your credit card — and the banks that issue the credit cards themselves.

Of the networks, you’ll find four major players: Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover. Visa’s network owns the wide majority of the market share worldwide, followed by Mastercard, Discover and American Express.

Networks set the fees that a retailer pays when you swipe your card for purchases. Called interchange fees, these costs can vary by credit card brand, swipe location and transaction type — for instance, in a store, online or by phone. In the US, merchants typically pay to the network about 2% of your total transaction in fees.

Credit card networks also:

  • Decide where credit cards can be accepted.
  • Approve and process transactions.
  • Facilitate payments among cardholder, merchants and issuers.

Networks don’t determine fees that a cardholder pays, like your card’s annual, overlimit, interest, late or foreign transaction fees. They also are not responsible for customer service.

American Express and Discover: Network and issuer

Unlike Visa and Mastercard, American Express and Discover are both networks and issuers. This means that even if your American Express or Discover card is branded with a bank or company, your card will likely comes directly from them.

As issuers and networks, American Express and Discover set the fees for both the cardholder and the merchants who make sales through their network.

Unlike Visa and Mastercard, American Express and Discover handle their own customer service. If you lose your Amex in France, you’ll contact American Express directly, whereas you’ll have to call your issuing bank if you lose your Visa.

Credit card issuers

A credit card issuer is who you actually get your credit card from.

Visa and Mastercard are networks only, its branded cards issued directly from what we call credit card companies — or the banks and credit unions themselves, like Chase, Capital One and USAA. To learn who issues your card, take a good look at it: You’ll often see the logo of the bank that issues your card somewhere near the Visa or Mastercard logo.

As underwriters, these credit card issuers or companies are responsible for:

  • Reviewing and approving credit card applications.
  • Setting the terms and conditions of individual credit cards.
  • Issuing the physical cards you hold in your wallet.
  • Providing funds up to your credit limit.
  • Answering questions and providing other support to its customers.

How do credit card issuers make money?

Credit card issuers profit from both the cardholder and the merchants who accept payments on its cards. Specifically, revenue can come from:

  • Interest fees charged to the cardholder on purchases and balance transfers.
  • Annual fees cardholders pay to use these cards.
  • Overlimit fees when charges and interest nudge a balance over a cardholder’s credit limit.
  • Late fees when a payment is received after a statement date.
  • Credit monitoring and protection along with other optional services provided to the cardholder for a fee.
  • Swipe fees charged to the merchant, typically split between the issuer and the network.

Visa and Mastercard

Visa and Mastercard are the two of the most popular credit card brands in the world. They don’t directly issue credit cards. Rather, they brand cards issued by banks and credit unions.

Rewards and interest rates are decided by the bank, credit union or other company — for instance, an airline or hotel — they’re working with to issue the card.

Both cards come with global acceptance, but Mastercard is more widely accepted worldwide: It can be used in 210 countries to Visa’s 170, which could be important depending on where you travel.

Card types

Visa and Mastercard come with four general membership cards, each offering such benefits as car rental coverage, fraud protection, emergency assistance, card replacements and extended warranties. Upgraded cards come with travel advisors, extended price protection and hotel or travel upgrades.

Visa

  • Visa Traditional
  • Visa Signature
  • Business Visa
  • Professional visa

Mastercard

  • Standard Mastercard
  • Gold Mastercard
  • Platinum Mastercard
  • World and World Elite Mastercard

Compare credit cards

Name Product APR for Purchases (Purchase Rate) Intro APR for Balance Transfer Annual Fee
14.74%, 18.74% or 24.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.74%, 18.74% or 24.74% variable)
$0
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash rewards on purchases. See Rates and Fees
12.74%, 16.74% or 20.74% variable
0% for the first 18 months from account opening (then 12.74%, 16.74% or 20.74% variable)
$0
An 18-month 0% Intro APR period on both purchases and balance transfers, plus zero foreign transaction fees, makes this is a strong well-rounded card. See Rates and Fees
16.74% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.74% variable)
$495
Mastercard Black Card members receive an annual $100 air travel credit toward flight-related purchases including airline tickets, baggage fees, upgrades and more.
16.74% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.74% variable)
$195
Enjoy unique excursions, privileged access to exclusive events and insider opportunities.
16.74% variable
0% for the first 15 billing cycles (then 16.74% variable)
$995
Earn points every time you spend. Luxury Card enhances your purchasing power by providing you with one (1) point for every one dollar ($1) you spend. Every purchase gets you closer to the rewards you want.
24.74% variable
$39
Designed to help build credit history with no deposit required and access to benefits.
23.9% variable
$75 annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
With this card you get a 23.9% Variable APR.
19.74% to 25.74% variable
$0 to $99
Get 1% cash back rewards on eligible purchases including gas, groceries, and services such as mobile phone, internet, cable and satellite TV, terms apply.
14.74% to 25.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.74% to 25.74% variable)
$0
Earn 10,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
14.99% to 24.99% variable
0% for the first 12 statement closing dates (then 14.99% to 24.99% variable)
$0
Earn more cash back for the things you buy most.
14.74% to 25.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.74% to 25.74% variable)
$0
Earn $200 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. You will receive the $200 back in the form of a statement credit.
17.74% to 24.74% variable
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
Earn 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of your account opening, and an additional 30,000 points when you spend a total of $30,000 on purchases within the first year of your account opening.
17.74% to 24.74% variable
$450
Earn 50,000 BONUS POINTS after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening* — that's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
14.74% to 24.74% variable
0% for the first 12 months (then 14.74% to 24.74% variable)
$95
15,000 Membership Rewards points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account
16.74% to 25.49% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 16.74% to 25.49% variable)
$0
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase - it's automatic. No minimum to redeem for cash back.
17.74% to 24.74% variable
$95
Earn unlimited 2 points for every $1 spent on travel and dining purchases and 1.5 points for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
14.74%, 20.74% or 24.74% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 14.74%, 20.74% or 24.74% variable)
$0
Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
16.74% to 25.49% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 16.74% to 25.49% variable)
$0
Earn 5% Cash back in bonus categories up to $1,500 every quarter. Earn 1% Cash back on all other purchases.
16.74% to 24.74% variable
$0
20,000 online bonus points offer. Ditch the restrictions of typical airline rewards cards. Any airline, any hotel, anytime. No blackout dates.
16.74% to 25.49% variable
0% for the first 15 months (then 16.74% to 25.49% variable)
$0
Jumpstart your financial fitness! 60 day introductory balance transfer offer, save on interest, and get your free monthly credit score.
14.74%, 21.24% or 24.74% variable
$0 annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
Earn 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.

Compare up to 4 providers

Major differences among networks and issuers

Visa Mastercard American Express Discover
Nationwide acceptance
Global Acceptance

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Variety of choices cross-icons cross-icons
Network
Issuer cross-icons cross-icons

What is an issuing bank?

An issuing bank is the bank, credit union or other financial institution that provides its branded credit card to a cardholder. The bank determines a cardholder’s line of credit and shares any liability for default with the acquiring bank — or the bank or financial institution that actually processes payments on behalf of a merchant.

Bottom line

It can be hard enough to narrow down your options when it comes to choosing a credit card. Knowing the difference between a network and an issuer can help you better understand how you ultimately use and benefit from your choice.

Frequently asked questions

Megan Horner

As the assistant publisher of credit cards at finder.com, Megan is passionate about helping you compare and find the best credit cards for your situation, whether that is earning great rewards or improving your credit score. In her previous position, Megan worked as an assigning editor at Credit Karma, where she focused on editing and publishing educational articles on credit cards. Megan started her career as a writer at a comparison website, so she has a longstanding background in surfacing the best deals and helping people make decisions. In her spare time, Megan likes to hike, camp, surf, and read.

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