American Express vs. Visa: Which Should You Choose?

Their differences go beyond just where they’re accepted

Woman holding a credit card while ordering something on her laptop
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Betsie Van Der Meer / Getty Images

When comparing credit cards, there are many different factors to consider, including the companies behind the card. While American Express acts as both a credit card issuer and a payment network, Visa only works with various card issuers as a payment network. 

That difference alone can impact your experience as a credit card user because it will affect your card's acceptance, benefits, and other features.

What’s the Difference Between American Express and Visa?

  American Express Visa
Card Issuer American Express and others Various
Payment Network American Express Visa
Market Share 19.4% 52.9%
Acceptance by Merchants 11.8 million merchants in the U.S., 44 million globally  11.9 million merchants in the U.S., 70 million globally 
Qualifying Requirements Generally good to excellent credit for cards issued by Amex, but some other issuers accept fair credit Poor to excellent credit, depending on the card issuer and card

Card Issuer

A card issuer is a financial institution that provides credit card accounts to consumers with a revolving line of credit. Issuers are typically banks, credit unions, and other lending institutions. When you owe money on a credit card, it's the card issuer that collects payments, charges interest, and provides customer service.

While American Express is a card issuer, Visa doesn't issue its own credit cards.

Payment Network

Credit card payment networks facilitate transactions between merchants and credit card issuers. So instead of a merchant accepting credit cards based on the institutions that issue them, they accept based on the payment network.

American Express functions as a card issuer and a payment network, while Visa is a payment network only. 

The other two major payment networks in the U.S. include Discover and Mastercard. Discover is also a card issuer, while Mastercard is only a network.

Market Share

American Express primarily functions as a payment network for its own credit cards, though there are other card issuers that offer Amex-branded cards. In contrast, Visa partners with many credit card issuers, and processes the payments made by those cards. 

As a result, Visa has a much larger share of the payments processing market than American Express. According to Nilson Report, Visa processed 52.9% of total dollar volume across all U.S. credit cards during the first quarter of 2021. American Express processed just 19.4% of the total dollar volume.

Acceptance by Merchants

In the U.S., both American Express and Visa are widely accepted by merchants, though roughly 100,000 more merchants accept Visa credit cards than Amex.

International acceptance is a different story, however. If you're planning to travel abroad, it's better to have a Visa than an American Express. According to the latest figures, Amex is accepted at only 62% of the number of places that take Visa worldwide.

Qualifying Requirements

As a card issuer, American Express generally requires you have good or excellent credit to get approved. Other card issuers may vary, though. For example, the Credit One Bank American Express Card is available to borrowers with average credit.

In contrast, credit score requirements for a Visa card can range from poor to excellent, depending on the card issuer and the credit card. For example, you could apply for the Credit One Bank Unsecured Visa if you're looking to build or rebuild your credit history or the Chase Sapphire Reserve if your credit score is in excellent shape.

Before you apply for any credit card, check your credit report and credit score to see where you stand and what your odds are of getting approved.

Card Benefits

Credit card benefits can also vary by credit card.

Visa offers three tiers, including Visa Traditional, Visa Signature, and Visa Infinite, each with its own set of perks.

 Benefits Standard Visa  Visa Signature Visa Infinite
Return Protection N/A N/A Get up to $300 if you try to return an item within 90 days and the merchant won't accept it
Purchase Security N/A N/A Get up to $10,000 per claim if something you bought is stolen or damaged within 90 days
Travel and Emergency Assistance N/A Hotline to get help if you're traveling  Hotline to get help if you're traveling 
Travel Accident Insurance N/A N/A Get up to $500,000 if you get hurt or die on a trip
Trip Cancellation and Interruption Insurance N/A N/A Get reimbursed if your prepaid travel is canceled or interrupted
Trip Delay Insurance N/A N/A Get up to $500 if your trip is delayed
Lost Luggage Reimbursement N/A N/A Get up to $3,000 if your luggage is lost on a trip
Roadside Dispatch Hotline that can help you get help, but you still have to pay for it Hotline that can help you get help, but you still have to pay for it Hotline that can help you get help, but you still have to pay for it
ID Theft Protection ID Navigator from NortonLifeLock  ID Navigator from NortonLifeLock  ID Navigator from NortonLifeLock 

With American Express, benefits vary by card. 

Common retail perks:

  • Extended Warranty
  • Purchase Protection 
  • Return Protection
  • Cellphone Protection

Common travel benefits:

  • Baggage Loss Insurance
  • Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance
  • Trip Delay Insurance
  • Trip Cancellation Insurance
  • Trip Interruption Insurance
  • Global Assist Hotline

Coverage levels are also based on the Amex card type. For instance, if you have the Platinum Card from American Express, you qualify for trip delay insurance up to $500 per trip (maximum two claims per eligible card) vs. $300 for those with an American Express Gold Card.

Issuers may also add or subtract benefits from their cards, so check out the webpage or enrollment materials for an individual card you have or are considering, to be sure what perks are provided. For example, premium cards from Amex and Visa include airport lounge access, reimbursement for expedited airport security clearance services (Global Entry or CLEAR), and annual statement credits to help pay travel expenses. 

Which Is Right for You?

There's no single best credit card out there for everyone, so it's important to consider your situation and preferences to determine whether it makes sense to choose Amex or Visa.

In general, it's best to focus more on the card's APR, rewards program, and benefits instead of its payment network, especially if you do most of your spending in the U.S. If you travel abroad, however, it's typically better to have a Visa credit card.

You’ll also want to consider the credit score requirements of each card you consider. Because American Express generally requires good to excellent credit, a Visa card may be more accessible if your credit score is less than stellar.

A Best-of-Both-Worlds Option

It's not necessary to limit yourself to choosing one option over the other. If you like the idea of maximizing rewards and benefits from multiple cards, it may make sense to have both an American Express and a Visa credit card.

The Bottom Line

In a lot of ways, American Express and Visa are very different. While American Express functions as both a card issuer and a payment network, Visa only processes credit card transactions. 

But when it comes to the types of credit cards that are available and their acceptance—especially abroad—Visa will generally give you a wider selection of options.

If you're considering a new credit card, shop around and compare several cards to find the right one for you. And if you want to enjoy the best of both worlds with Visa and American Express, consider using multiple cards to get the most value out of each. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Where is American Express accepted?

In the U.S., American Express is accepted by 99% of merchants, which means you generally don't have to worry about needing a backup card. Internationally, acceptance can vary by country. It's generally best to have a Visa as a backup if you plan to travel abroad since its global acceptance exceeds that of American Express.

Where is the security code on American Express located?

While most credit card issuers list a three-digit security code on the back of the card, American Express credit cards have a four-digit security code on the front of the card. You may need this card when you're shopping online or paying certain bills where the merchant requires it.

What’s the difference between a charge card and a credit card?

American Express offers both charge cards and credit cards. The primary difference between the two is that with a charge card, you're generally required to pay your balance in full every month. In contrast, credit cards give you the option to carry a balance in exchange for paying interest. That said, the Pay Over Time feature on American Express charge cards allows cardholders to pay eligible purchases over time with interest.