Get to Know the Parts of a Debit or Credit Card

Debit and credit cards are useful tools for spending. They have everything you need to spend money online, overseas, and in your hometown. But how do those little pieces of plastic work?

Get familiar with the features of your card so that you can use it efficiently.

Front of a Debit/Credit Card

Front of Card: Card number, cardholder name, expiration, and smart chip
Justin Pritchard

1. Bank branding: This section identifies your card issuer. Cards typically show your lender’s name, but they may display a logo for a specific program instead. For example, some cards are branded with rewards programs or retailer names.

2. Card number: The card number is one of the most important parts of your card. It's a number that identifies your account with the card issuer, and those are the digits you need to provide when making purchases online or by phone. It's typically 16 digits, though some manufacturers use as little as 14 or as many as 19. 

Keep your card number private. Be careful where you write it down, and limit who you give the number to—whether you type in the number or give your card to somebody, even for a moment. When thieves steal card numbers, they can use that information to make purchases in your account. You might not have to pay for those purchases, but cleaning up the mess can be inconvenient.

To shop online, you usually need more than just a card number. You also need the card’s expiration date, security code, and zip code on file with your card issuer. The security code is typically a three-digit number on the back of the card, but this varies by issuer—read about the security code section below for details. Most systems also ask for the cardholder’s name.

If you’re using a debit card that’s linked to your checking account, your card number is different from your checking account number. This might be confusing because paper checks show your checking account number and the money comes out of checking— but your card number is different.

3. Cardholder’s name: This is the person authorized to use the card. That person didn’t necessarily open the account—they might simply have permission to spend from the account as an “authorized user.” Only authorized card users can make purchases with a debit or credit card, and merchants are encouraged to ask for ID before accepting payment with a card.

4. Smart chips: These tiny metal processors make cards more secure than traditional magnetic-stripe-only cards. Chips make it harder for thieves to use stolen credit card numbers. While common (and sometimes a necessity) overseas, banks in the United States were slow to adopt smart cards. After 2015, banks and retailers got more motivation to add these security features. Those who have yet to embrace chip technology may face more risk of fraud with magnetic stripe transactions.

If your card has a chip, use it whenever possible by inserting your card instead of swiping. The chip adds a single-use code to every transaction, which makes stolen data less useful. Preventing fraud can keep costs down for everybody, and it means you’re less likely to have to replace cards and update card numbers after your information gets stolen. Read more about how chip-enabled cards work.

5. Expiration date: You need to replace your card periodically. The move to smarter cards is just one reason banks issue new cards. Your expiration date is important because vendors may require it when you make purchases online or over the phone—you need to provide the correct expiration date for your payment to be approved. Banks typically mail out new cards shortly before old cards expire.

6. Payment network logo: It’s essential to know what type of card you have. Common examples include MasterCard, Visa, and Discover. When paying online, there’s usually a drop-down menu that requires you to select which network your card belongs to. These logos are also helpful when you plan to use your card to pay for goods or services—merchants often display stickers or placards telling you which cards they accept (you can always just ask about additional cards as well).

Back of a Debit/Credit Card

Back of card: stripe, signature, security code and other features, and bank contact information
Justin Pritchard

There’s more to making payments than reading off a card number. The back of a debit or credit card includes additional important features.

1. Magnetic stripe: This black strip contains information about you and your card, and specialized devices known as card readers gather that information. Every time you swipe your card at a merchant, you run the magnetic stripe through a card reader to provide your payment details. Magnetic stripes include your name, card number, expiration date, and other details. If that information is stolen (whether hackers steal the data or a dishonest merchant runs your card through a card skimming device), the thief can use it to create a fake card with a magnetic stripe that matches your card.

Magnetic stripes occasionally wear down, especially if you’re a heavy card user. Strong magnets can also damage them. If your stripe stops working, merchants may need to punch in your card number by hand, which they may be reluctant to do for several reasons (in addition to the inconvenience), but you can order replacement cards with a new stripe.

2. Hologram: Some cards display a hologram, or a mirror-like area showing a three-dimensional image that seems to move as you change your viewing angle. Holograms are security features which help merchants identify valid cards (holograms are hard to fake). Sometimes holograms appear on the front of your card.

3. Bank contact information: If you need to get in touch with your bank, use the contact information on the back of your card. This is not only convenient—it’s also an excellent way to prevent fraud. When you use the contact information on your card, you know that you’re really talking with somebody from your bank. This is especially important if you receive a call or email that might be from your bank, but might also be from a con artist. Instead of returning the call or email using the contact information they provide, call the number on the back of your card so there’s no doubt that you’re calling a legitimate number.

It’s a good idea to keep your card issuer’s contact information stored separately from your card. If you lose your card, contact your bank as soon as possible. Write the number down in a safe place, or store it in your phone’s contact list.

4. Signature panel: Your card must be signed before you can use it, so sign your name in this area. It’s not easy to fit a signature in that small box, but do your best. Signatures are a requirement for card issuers, and merchants should also verify that you’ve signed the card. Some people write “SEE ID” in this area hoping that merchants will demand identification from anybody who tries to use the card. Technically, that’s usually against your card issuer’s rules, and merchants don’t always notice or honor that request.

5. Security codes: Cards are printed with an additional code to help ensure that anybody using the card number has a legitimate, original card. For payments online or by phone, merchants typically require more than just the card number and expiration date from the front of your card. The security code on the back creates an additional hurdle for hackers who may have stolen your card number from merchant systems or with the help of a skimmer.

Security codes might be referred to as CVV, CVV2, CVC, CSC, CID, or other similar names. Most websites just ask for a “security code” and provide a small box for you to type the code into. On Visa, MasterCard, and Discover cards, the code is a three-digit code on the back of your card. The preceding four digits (“3456” in the image above) are the last four digits of your card number. On American Express cards, the security code is a four-digit code on the front of the card. Look above your card number on the right side of the card.

Your security code, like all the other numbers on your card, is a critical piece of information. Don’t share that code unless it’s necessary for making a payment to somebody you trust.

6. Network logos: Your card might have additional network logos on the back, often in the lower-right corner. These logos help you figure out which ATMs you can use for free. You can, of course, use other ATMs, but you'll most likely pay fees to the ATM operator. Plus, you might pay additional fees to your bank or credit card issuer if you use out-of-network ATMs. If you belong to a credit union, remember that you may be able to use thousands of other credit union branches nationwide.

What Can You Do With Your Card?

Man making online payment with credit card
Westend61 / Getty Images

Your card is a convenient tool for making payments, but you can do more than just take your card shopping with you.

Get cash: You can withdraw cash from debit cards and credit cards, but it’s best to use a debit card for cash withdrawals. Credit card cash advances are costly, and you also pay interest at high rates. If you need more than your bank or an ATM allows you to withdraw, try visiting a branch to get more than the limit.

Buy online: There are several ways to pay for online purchases. When shopping online (or in person), it’s probably safest to use a credit card instead of a debit card. Credit cards provide better consumer protection. Perhaps more importantly, they insulate your checking account from problems. Just pay off your credit card monthly to avoid interest charges.

Send money to friends and family: If you need to pay your share of rent or dinner, or if you’re supporting somebody, you can send funds from your card. Several apps and services allow you to fund payments with debit and credit cards. Square Cash is notable because it’s free to send and receive funds using your debit card. Venmo and others also work.

Pay bills: For quick payments—or if you just like paying all of your expenses from one or two accounts—cards are handy. You can pay by mail, online, or by phone. Again, credit cards can help you avoid a domino effect if there’s a problem as a result of your payment, so they may be safer than debit cards.