How Credit Card Transactions Work

A lot of things happen between the time you swipe your credit card and sign the credit card slip. Everything that happens behind the scenes makes it possible for you to make purchases with your credit card instead of having to go to the bank every time you want to spend money from your credit limit.

A few people/entities are involved in each credit card transaction:

  • The customer (you) who presents the credit card for payment.
  • The merchant sells you goods or services.
  • The merchant's bank sends credit card transactions for approval.
  • The credit card payment network is a liaison between the merchant bank and the credit card issuer.
  • The credit card issuer approves and pays transactions.

Swipe Your Credit Card for Approval

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You present your card for payment by swiping your credit card through the payment terminal. The payment terminal communicates with the merchant bank to ask whether you can make the credit card purchase.

Credit Card Authorization

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The merchant bank contacts the appropriate credit card network (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover) to get authorization for the credit card purchase. Then, the payment network contacts the credit card issuer to make sure the credit card is valid and there's enough available credit for the transaction.

American Express and Discover are the payment network and the credit card issuer, so they approve credit card transactions themselves. Visa and MasterCard, however, do not issue credit cards and must contact the credit card issuer.

The credit card issuer sends back an authorization code for the transaction. If your credit card is declined, you won't get a reason at the point of sale, just a message that the card was declined. You'll have to contact your card issuer directly to find out why your card was declined.

The store’s bank sends their communications electronically either through the phone line or through the internet. You may have been to a store or restaurant and heard the screeching and static from the credit card terminal communicating with the merchant bank. Now you know what’s going on.

Credit Card Approval

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The merchant bank sends the approval message for your credit card purchase, the receipt prints, you sign, and you can leave with your purchase.

When you sign the receipt and leave the store with your purchase, your credit card has only been authorized for the payment. The merchant hasn’t actually been paid and your credit card hasn’t been charged. If you check your credit card online right after you’ve made a purchase, the payment probably hasn’t shown up in your transaction list just yet. Some credit card issuers have more sophisticated reporting systems that will show authorized transactions and may even reduce your available credit by the amount of your recent purchase. It’s more likely that you won’t see the charge for a few days.

Batch Processing

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At the end of the day, the merchant prints a list of all the credit card transactions that have been made that day and sends them to their bank. The merchant’s bank then sends the transactions to the appropriate payment network for processing.

The Credit Card Issuer Sends Payment

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The credit card network lets each credit card issuer know what payments are due. The credit card issuer keeps a fee, the interchange fee, as part of its agreement with the merchant. Credit card issuers share the interchange fee with credit card networks. Since American Express and Discover are both the credit card network and the credit card issuer, they get to keep a higher percentage of the fee.

The Merchant Gets Paid

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The credit card network sends payment to the merchant bank who collects its own fee before depositing the credit card charges in the merchant's account.

The Credit Card Issuer Bills You

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Each month, the credit card issuer sends a bill for the charges you made during the month. Then, you pay some or all the charges. If you choose to pay only a portion of the charges, you'll pay interest on the amount that you don't pay. The credit card issuer uses the money and interest you pay to pay merchants as new transactions are made.