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How to Accept Credit Cards Online, In-Store or Anywhere

How to Accept Credit Cards Online, In-Store or Anywhere
Credit: Hamik/Shutterstock

Choosing a company that helps you accept credit cards can be challenging, and there are several factors to consider before selecting a service. To find the most convenient and least expensive route between your customer's credit card and your bank account, you want to look for low rates, few fees and month-to-month service contracts.

First, identify how you do business with your customer:

  • Card present: In-person transactions that use a POS system, credit card terminal or mobile card reader
  • Card not present: Remote transactions conducted online or over the phone

Once you decide that, you can determine what type of processor to work with:

  • ISO/MSP or direct processor: These companies can set you up with a merchant account. ISO/MSPs include companies such as Payline Data, Flagship Merchant Services and Helcim. Direct processors include Chase Paymentech, Vantiv and Elavon. This type of processor is a good choice for a business that processes more than $3,000 per month.
  • Payment facilitator or merchant aggregator: These companies sponsor merchants under their master merchant accounts and are often classified as mobile credit card processors. Generally, this type of processor works best for very small businesses that process less than $3,000 per month. If you process more than that, you may qualify for better rates from an ISO/MSP. Payment facilitators include Square and PayPal.

If you already know what you need and just want to see our recommendations for the best credit card processing services, visit our best picks page here.

Next, you need to decide how you're going to accept payments and what type of processing equipment you need. Here are four basic ways to accept credit cards:

  • A complete checkout terminal typically includes a tablet or touchscreen, a cash drawer and a receipt printer. Barcode scanners and other peripherals may also be added.
  • It connects to or is used alongside a credit card reader.
  • Best for businesses with a physical location, particularly those that want to connect to other business systems such as accounting or inventory.
  • A portable device and/or app that lets you accept credit cards anywhere using a smartphone or tablet.
  • Can be used as a stand-alone device or connect to a point-of-sale system.
  • Best for businesses that sell in a variety of places, want to process transactions from anywhere in the store or only run a few transactions each day at a physical location.
  • A piece of hardware used exclusively to accept credit cards. It is usually provided by or purchased from a merchant account provider.
  • Should be able to read both EMV chip and magnet stripe cards and include NFC technology so you can accept mobile wallet payments.
  • Best for businesses that need a card reader to connect to or work alongside a POS system, or a business that doesn't need its credit card processing system to do anything but accept payments. [See Related Story: Credit Card Machines: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions]
  • An e-commerce solution that you use with shopping cart software or an e-commerce platform to accept payments through your website, blog or online store.
  • Is available from most processors. If you already accept cards at a physical location, check with your processor before signing up with another service for your online processing.
  • Best for businesses that sell goods or services online.

Editor's Note: Are you trying to choose a credit card processor? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site BuyerZone provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

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Now that you've got the basics, you might be ready to make some decisions. If so, check out our best picks for credit card processors here or our best picks for POS systems here.

Still not sure? No problem. Here's everything you need to know about different types of credit card processing and how it all fits together.

What is it? Merchant account service providers are independent sales organizations, merchant service providers (ISO/MSPs) or direct processors. They provide you with a merchant account and then act as middlemen between your business and your customer's credit card company or bank. They process payments and make sure the money is appropriately withdrawn from a credit card account and placed into your business's merchant account. Once the money clears all of the processing protocols, it can be transferred from your merchant account to your business's regular bank account. [See our pick for best credit card processor for small business here.]

Who should use it: Businesses processing more than $3,000 per month, including brick-and-mortar, mobile and online businesses.

Equipment: Merchant services providers offer businesses a variety of equipment for accepting debit and credit cards, including point-of-sale systems, PIN pad and wireless payment terminals, and mobile card readers. Most processors give businesses the option to rent, lease or buy processing equipment. Business owners can often also purchase the equipment from third-party vendors or use the POS hardware they already own, though the processor may need to reprogram terminals and may charge a fee for this service.

Cost: Merchant accounts are more costly than aggregated credit card processing accounts, and they typically charge several monthly fees in addition to per-transaction rates. Because the rates can vary widely among providers, it's important that business owners shop around for the best deal. For each transaction, you'll pay a percentage of the sale (anywhere between 0.5 percent and 5 percent) plus a per-transaction fee (usually between 10 and 30 cents). Most processors use the tiered pricing model to calculate your processing costs, but industry experts recommend the interchange-plus pricing model, as it's more transparent. You want to ask which pricing model the company uses when you call for a pricing quote.

  • Tiered pricing is a good option if your customers typically pay in person using debit cards, though it can be expensive if they prefer to use premium rewards or corporate credit cards. You want to ask how many tiers there are, the rate for each tier, and which type of card and acceptance method are grouped into each tier. There are usually three tiers: qualified, mid-qualified and non-qualified.
  • Interchange-plus is a good option if your customers typically pay using credit cards. With this model, the processor passes on to you the published interchange rates the credit card network charge and adds a markup percentage and per-transaction fee. Keep in mind that when you receive a quote for this pricing model, it's the markup percentage and per-transaction fee only that you'll receive, and for each transaction, you'll pay this amount on top of the interchange rate.

Additionally, you'll pay regular fees for your account. These typically include the following:

  • Monthly statement fee ($10 on average)
  • Monthly minimum fee ($25 on average)
  • Monthly gateway fee (usually $5 to $15)
  • Annual PCI compliance fee (usually $99)

Scott Blum, vice president at Total Merchant Services, said there are three areas small businesses should consider: upfront costs, processing rates and contracts.

"All three should be evaluated before settling on a credit card processor," Blum said. "Small businesses need a clear understanding of the upfront cost to get the equipment they need, such as a terminal, then ongoing processing rates should be affordable. These are typically expressed as a percentage of sales. Finally, small businesses should not be locked into a long-term contract."

In terms of rates, Benny Silberstein, chief operating officer at Benchmark Merchant Solutions, said a swipe rate of 1.79 percent and a keyed-in rate of 2.25 percent (for e-commerce) are considered affordable rates for small businesses.

Silberstein advises, however, that businesses should sacrifice small percentage rate savings for higher flat fees.

"The math won't add up," he said. "Once your business starts doing enough volume where the percentages are significant, it's time to renegotiate!"

Additionally, Silberstein recommends that small business owners ask vendors what other businesses in their industry are currently paying, if there are any setup or equipment costs, and whether their rates will change anytime soon.

Security: Blum said that providers should be EMV-compliant and adhere to the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards, the debit and credit card industry's rules and regulations for how credit card information should be handled, used and stored. The standards set the framework for prevention, detection and reaction to security incidents. Businesses that don't comply with the PCI security standards face significant fines from the networks they accept cards from, such as Visa and MasterCard. Silberstein adds that credit card processors should also offer end-to-end (E2E) encryption, which ensures that data is protected as it travels from the credit reader to its destination.

Pros and cons: The benefit of using a merchant services provider is that it can fulfill your business's credit card acceptance needs and continue to do so as your business grows. Merchant services providers also offer necessary tools, such as merchant account management and fraud protection. As it's an all-in-one solution, the main drawback is its costs, which is one of the reasons some businesses don't accept credit cards. Businesses should do their research and make sure they get the most cost-effective merchant account rates and fees, with low upfront equipment costs and a flexible contract with month-to-month terms.

What to look for: When we spoke to small business owners about credit card processing and merchant accounts, the best advice they gave is to look for a vendor with simple, upfront pricing and to always read the fine print. This means that swipe fee percentages and per-transaction rates, monthly fees and minimums, the annual PCI compliance fee, and other numbers should be crystal clear so you're not faced with any unpleasant surprises.

Knowing your contract terms is also critical. Make sure the vendor makes the terms clear so you don't end up in a multiyear contract with a steep early-termination fee. Other factors to consider include the merchant account approval process, the startup costs for processing equipment, and the customer service options provided. For businesses that want to sell products or services via their website, it's important to make sure the merchant services provider has all the internet-based features you need, such as virtual terminals and payment gateways.

Blum added that small businesses should also look for well-rounded solutions that allow you to accept payments from all channels: online, face-to-face and mobile payment apps. They should also ask vendors if they're set up to take new payment types – specifically, NFC for mobile wallets such as Apple Pay – and if they offer value-added components, such as growth capabilities and features like special offers, gift cards and loyalty programs.

Who should use it: Mobile credit card processors are best suited for merchants who want to be able to accept credit cards anytime, anyplace. Some examples are repair people, food trucks and street vendors, as well as brick-and-mortar stores that want the option to accept credit and debit cards away from the cash register. [See our pick for best mobile credit card processor here.]

Merchant account: Both merchant aggregators and merchant account service providers can set you up with mobile credit card processing. If you process less than $3,000 per month, merchant aggregators may be less expensive, since they usually don't charge monthly and annual account fees. If you process more than $3,000 per month, a merchant services provider (ISO/MSP or direct processor) may be more cost-effective, despite monthly and annual account fees, as their processing rates are lower. You may also prefer to work with a merchant account services provider for your mobile credit card processing if you have irregular sales ticket sizes.

Equipment: Mobile businesses need their own equipment to swipe credit cards, just as retail stores do. To accept credit cards via mobile devices, you'll need a compatible smartphone or tablet, a card reader that plugs directly into the device or connects via Bluetooth, and the accompanying app from the provider. The smartphone or tablet then functions as a credit card payment terminal.

Cost: Merchant aggregators usually charge a higher swipe rate, and although some don't charge a per-transaction fee, those that do may charge a higher amount as well. However, most don't charge monthly fees, monthly minimums and PCI compliance fees. Merchant account services providers change the same rates and fees for mobile credit card processing as they do for card-present processing at brick-and-mortar locations. If you already accept credit cards at your business, you can talk with your processor about purchasing mobile card readers to add to your system.

Security: In addition to obeying the PCI Data Security Standards, the best mobile credit card apps encrypt card data as soon as it's received. The apps are password-protected and include additional safety measures in case the mobile device is lost or stolen.

Pros and cons: The ability to accept credit cards anywhere benefits both businesses and consumers. Not only does it promise significant revenue streams, but the convenience also enables businesses to provide better and faster customer service. By having mobility options, you're free to collect payments from anywhere in the store, not just at the cash register – Apple and Nordstrom do this, for example. The major drawback is that there are still costs to consider; in addition to processing costs, you'll need to provide a smartphone or tablet to use with each mobile card reader. Business owners need to weigh their need for accepting credit and debit cards wirelessly versus the cost to do so.

What to look for: Both merchant aggregators and merchant service providers offer mobile credit card processing, so it is important to compare your options before choosing a processor. According to the small business owners we spoke with, important considerations include transaction rates and monthly fees, and the type of equipment the processor offers. If you already have iOS or Android tablets and phones you intend to use, you need to make sure the app and the card readers are compatible. The transaction features mobile business owners should look for include the ability to capture signatures directly onto a mobile device, calculate sales tax, accept tips, manage customer contact and sales information, and email or text receipts.

What is it? POS systems use a combination of a payment processing, software and equipment to accept credit card and cash payments, manage inventory and customer contact data, generate sales reports, and more. POS systems can be stationary or mobile, and many are now tablet-based. [See our recommendations for the best POS systems here.]

Who should use it: POS systems are ideal for businesses with physical locations that have medium- to high-volume sales, such as retailers, restaurants, spas and salons.

Payment processing: Most POS system vendors allow you to choose which payment processor you use; however, while some work with nearly every U.S.-based processor, others give you limited options. Some POS companies, such as Square and Harbortouch, also provide credit card processing services and require you to use them in order to use their POS systems. Others that provide processing may allow you to work with another processor, but charge either a monthly fee or a per-transaction surcharge for the privilege. If you're under contract with a processor or there's a specific processor you want to use, you should ask them which POS systems they're compatible with. Alternatively, you can use the processor alongside the POS system of your choice, though this isn't as convenient as using one that integrates with the system.

POS software: Cloud-based software as a service is the most popular option for POS systems. Although you pay a monthly fee, you receive regular updates and can access the back office from any browser, allowing you to check on your sales and run reports when you're away from the office. Some companies still offer software licenses, which have a one-time or annual fee, and this can be a good option if you don't have reliable internet service.

POS equipment: There are two types of POS systems: traditional and mobile. Traditional POS systems typically come with some combination of a credit card reader, touchscreen monitor, receipt printer and cash register. Mobile POS systems allow you to use your own iPad or tablet and come with a tablet stand and a card reader that plugs into a headphone jack or connects via Bluetooth. You can also add receipt printers and cash registers to these systems.

Cost: The cost of POS systems varies depending on the type of POS software you choose, whether you purchase or lease your hardware, and which processor you work with. Here are the different costs to keep in mind:

  • Equipment costs (varies, may be purchased or leased): Industry experts recommend purchasing hardware outright, as leasing can be extremely expensive and most leasing contracts are noncancelable, which means you're on the hook for lease payments until the contract expires, even if your business closes.
  • Setup and installation fees (if applicable): Most POS companies don't charge for remote setup assistance, but it can be expensive if you need the company to provide on-site installation and training.
  • Monthly software subscription fee or software license purchase
  • Early-termination fees: If your credit card processing service or POS software has a lengthy contract, this can cost up to several hundred dollars. The best companies offer month-to-month service, allowing you to cancel at any time without incurring this fee.
  • Credit card processing rates and fees

Security: Like other credit card processing services, POS systems include security protocols that support PCI compliance. Mobile POS systems have even more stringent security. They encrypt card and transaction data, regularly back up data, and protect the apps with passwords. They also have remote wiping in the event that devices are stolen.

Pros and cons: The biggest benefit of using a POS system is that it offers an all-in-one solution for processing transactions, managing sales, and running the front and back end of your business. They often come with robust software that lets you sync data – such as inventory, financial reports and customer information – with other software your business already uses, saving you the time of manual data entry. You also have mobile options, so you can take your POS system with you wherever you go. Additionally, there are POS systems designed for specific types of businesses – whether you own a restaurant, shop, salon or spa, there's a POS system for you.

There are some drawbacks, however. As with some credit card processors, you may have to sign a long-term contract that comes with a hefty early-termination fee. You'll also have to consider setup and training time, especially for teaching employees how to use the software and equipment. And because there are several types of POS systems and features, you'll need to do your homework to figure out which types of equipment and software are right for your business.

"Before deciding on a POS system, it's important to determine your small business's needs and make sure that your POS has what you need to succeed," said John Shapiro, director of product management for Payments at Intuit.

Shapiro says there are three things to look for in a POS system:

  1. Determine the needs of your business: It's important that the POS has the capabilities and features that matter to you. You also want to ensure that your POS system provides an integrated solution by syncing with the other sources of data in your business, like your accounting software, to give you a consolidated view of your sales, payments, inventory, CRM and payroll.
  2. Anytime, anywhere access: Unless you want to be chained to your store, pick a solution that allows you to connect from wherever you are, whenever you want. You may want to view your sales, inventory or even staffing data from the office, at home or on the road.
  3. Know who you're working with: Your POS is going to be a business-critical part of your life. Make sure you select a trustworthy vendor and confirm how your POS processes credit card transactions, since that's often done by a third party.

We also asked small business owners what to look for in a POS system. They said the "perfect" POS system saves you time and makes it easier to run your business. This means looking for transaction rates that are affordable and suitable for your sales volume, using equipment and software that are easy to use and train employees on, ensuring seamless integration with other parts of your business (e.g., apps or processes), and choosing the type of POS system that's best suited for your type of business, business goals and customer preferences.

Who should use it: Any type of business that sells goods and services online. [See our pick for the best online credit card processor here.]

Cost: Most processors, including both merchant aggregators or merchant account service providers, can provide credit card processing services to online businesses. A merchant aggregator charges higher transaction fees, but usually doesn't charge monthly or annual fees; this type of processor can be cost-effective for businesses that process a low volume of transactions (under $3,000) each month. However, if you process more than this, a merchant account services provider can save you money because transaction rates are lower, even though it charges monthly and annual fees. No matter which type of processor you work with, transaction rates are higher for online processing (also called card-not-present processing) because you aren't physically accepting the credit card in person and the risks of fraud are greater.

Security: Credit card processors are proactive with their online security measures and have encryption protocols in place to keep your data secure. As with card-present processing, you're required to abide by the PCI Data Security Standards, and you'll need to establish your compliance if you work with a merchant account services provider.

Connecting to your online store: You can connect the payment processing service to your website in a few different ways. Some processors provide a hosted payment page that you can link to from your website. Others offer shopping carts or gateway APIs that your developer can use to integrate payment acceptance with your website. Alternatively, some processors offer online stores with integrated payment processing that you can customize and use as your website.

Pros and cons: The major benefit of accepting credit cards online is that it makes it easy for your customers to do business with you. If you already have a retail presence, it gives you another revenue stream. The drawback is that transaction fees are higher for online sales than for card-present transactions, no matter which type of processor you use. E-commerce businesses also have an increased chance of chargebacks, since typical reasons that a customer will dispute the charge include delivery failures, technical errors and dissatisfaction.

What to look for: Small business owners said there are four main things to look for in an online credit card processor:    

  • Easy to integrate into an online store. There should be no tech skills required; you should be able to cut and paste a code to integrate the processing service with your online store, blog or website.
  • Provides e-commerce solutions. The vendor should make it easy to run your online business by providing a shopping cart, buy buttons and, if you don't already have a website, even a website builder or customizable online store.
  • Easy for customers to use. Because customers are inputting their own information and doing checkout themselves, the checkout process should be easy, seamless and done in as few steps as possible. Additionally, customers should be able to enter their credit card information immediately and not be required to set up an account before they can make a purchase.
  • Offline capabilities. If you also sell in person, the best online credit card processors offer card-present processing as well so you can use the same company for both the online and brick-and-mortar or mobile sides of your business.

As with any type of processing, price is an important consideration. Because both the monthly and transaction fees can vary greatly, you need to research your options so you can determine which one is the most cost-effective for your specific business, based on your monthly sales volume. You also want to select a processor that provides its services on a monthly basis so you can cancel your account without penalty if the service doesn't meet your expectations or you find a better deal elsewhere.

Ready to choose a credit card processor? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

Editor's Note: Are you trying to choose a credit card processor? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site BuyerZone provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

buyerzone widget

Additional reporting by Sara Angeles and Chad Brooks.

Lori Fairbanks

Lori Fairbanks has years of experience writing and editing for both print and online publications. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts in English, she worked as an editor for Creating Keepsakes magazine and then as a freelance writer and editor for a variety of companies, including marketing firms and a medical university. She joined Purch in 2014 as a senior writer for Top Ten Reviews and now writes for Business.com and Business News Daily.