What Is a Virtual Credit Card Number?

Virtual Credit Card Numbers Explained

woman shops on laptop with virtual credit card
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A virtual credit card number is a credit card number that is different from the number on your physical credit card. It’s usable when shopping online with any merchant that accepts credit cards. The virtual credit card number is linked to your existing credit card account, but the online store can’t see your actual card number. 

Purchases made with a virtual credit card number are still applied to your credit card balance as though you used your actual credit card. The virtual credit card number can be used one time only, or for purchases that happen regularly.

Learn how they work, the pros and cons, and where you can get a virtual credit card number.

What Are Virtual Credit Card Numbers?

Virtual credit card numbers are card numbers that you can use when shopping online. They’re linked to your existing credit card and purchases will show up on your credit card statement as if you used your actual, physical card. However, the virtual credit card number is different from your actual credit card number.

A virtual credit card number is different from an instant credit card number. An instant credit card number allows purchases with a newly opened credit card using a digital wallet before your physical credit card arrives. A virtual credit card number also differs from a phone-based mobile wallet used in person at brick-and-mortar stores.  

Pros and Cons of Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Pros
  • May help protect your info from data breaches

  • No need to have your physical credit card when making online purchases

Cons
  • May be challenging for individual who aren't tech-savvy

  • Returns may be tougher

  • May only be available to primary authorized users on the credit card

  • Usually can't be used for in-person purchases or those requiring a physical credit card

A virtual credit card number offers protection from having your information exposed in a data breach. You could set restrictions on the number’s use, which prevents hackers from using the card information if they gained access to it. 

Suppose a data breach exposes your virtual credit card information. In that case, you can cancel the virtual credit card number without canceling your primary account number—saving the hassle of getting a brand new credit card and credit card number.

Virtual card numbers aren’t foolproof. Other people may be able to access and use your virtual numbers if your device is hacked, if you share your logins with others, or if you share a device. Don’t share login details, and don’t install virtual card applications on shared devices. 

If you do a lot of online shopping, you won’t have to search for your wallet or hand-enter card information for every purchase either. 

On the flipside, a virtual credit card may be challenging for the non-tech-savvy or those without access to a laptop or desktop computer, or a smartphone. You might need to install a browser extension, an app, or a program to generate and use the virtual credit card number.

The virtual credit card’s browser extension may not work on a mobile device.

Returns may be tougher with a virtual credit card, too, particularly if the virtual card number has expired by the time you’re ready to make a return. Without an active credit card number to process your return, the merchant may only allow returns for store credit.

Additional authorized users on the credit card account might not be able to use a virtual credit card number. It may only be available to those who have their own login credentials with the card issuer site. 

Virtual credit card numbers aren’t ideal for purchases requiring an in-person physical credit card. Use your real, physical credit card number to reserve will-call tickets, a rental vehicle, or a hotel to avoid check-in problems.

How to Set Up Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Currently, only two major credit card issuers offer virtual credit card numbers: Citi and Capital One. If you have a credit card issued by one of these two companies, log into your online account or contact customer service to learn whether virtual credit cards are an account benefit. If you have the Apple Card, you can also access a virtual credit card number for online and mobile purchases.

Citi

Citi’s Virtual Account Number allows select cardholders to generate a virtual credit card number for online and phone transactions. Cardholders can set a purchase limit, expiration date, and the number of uses for each virtual credit card number generated. 

Transactions can even be limited to specific types of merchants. Purchases made with virtual card numbers will appear on your credit card statement, along with other transactions.

Capital One

Capital One cardholders can create virtual credit cards using the browser extension Eno for online shopping. However, not all browsers have Eno extensions. 

The Eno extension generates a virtual, unique credit card number for each online merchant you shop with, including any requiring subscriptions or recurring bills. Eno can also be used to manage, lock and unlock, and delete virtual card numbers. 

When you need to use a virtual number, simply log into the browser extension with your Capital One username and password, and then click the “create” button to generate a number. You can also reuse a number if on a website you’ve previously visited. The Digital Wallet Manager in your Capital One smartphone app can also be used to view, lock, and delete virtual numbers. 

Capital One limits you to 20 numbers per day.

Apple

If you have the Apple Card, you can also access a virtual credit card number via your card in the Wallet app on your iPhone.

In the Wallet app, tap the three dots in the upper-right hand of the screen. Then select Card Information. You’ll see a card number that you can press and hold to copy and paste into the browser on your phone, or that you manually type in for any other online purchase. 

The card number that lives in your Wallet app is different from your physical Apple Card number and can be used over and over again.

Alternatives to Virtual Credit Card Numbers

Card Freeze

Some credit card issuers offer a deactivation or freeze feature that allows you to turn your credit card number on or off through its app or website. This can help protect you against unauthorized charges.

Monitor your account to catch and report any signs of fraudulent activity before any significant damage is done to your account. Your liability (financial responsibility) for fraudulent purchases is limited.

If you report your credit card lost or stolen before it’s used fraudulently, you won’t be responsible for purchases made after that point. If you report it after fraudulent purchases have been made, you’re only liable for $50. Many credit card issuers have zero fraud liability protection, eliminating your liability for any unauthorized charges.

Apple Pay

Apple Pay stores and transmits an encrypted version of your credit card information for purchases, protecting your credit card information from hackers. You can use Apple Pay while shopping online with your iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch or through Safari on Mac models with Touch ID.

Checkout Services

The Visa Click to Pay, Mastercard Click to Pay, and American Express Click to Pay services store your credit card information and allow you to make online purchases with participating merchants by entering a username and password. Similarly, PayPal stores your payment information and processes transactions when you select the option at checkout.

Third-Party Services

There are some fee-based services that “mask” your regular cards with temporary numbers for online shopping, such as Abine Blur and Privacy. 

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual credit card numbers offer protection when you’re shopping online by hiding your actual credit card number.
  • The card numbers are only available with a limited number of issuers.
  • Alternatives include other apps and services like mobile wallets, PayPal, Visa Click to Pay, and more. 

Article Sources

  1. Capital One. "Virtual Numbers FAQ." Accessed Sept. 21, 2020.

  2. Federal Trade Commission. "Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards." Accessed Sept. 21, 2020.