What Is American Express?

A female couple shops online while sitting on the couch with a credit card and laptop
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DEFINITION

American Express is a global payments company that issues prepaid, credit, and charge cards to consumers and businesses. In addition to issuing cards, American Express also processes transactions made with its card, including cards issued by third parties.

Definition and Example of American Express

American Express issues and processes prepaid, gift, credit, and charge cards to consumers, small businesses, mid-sized companies, and large corporations worldwide.

Businesses around the world accept payments on American Express cards, similar to payments processed by Visa, Mastercard, and Discover. However, unlike Visa and Mastercard, American Express is both a card issuer and an acquiring bank, so it receives revenue from cardholders and businesses that accept their cards.

  • Alternate name: Amex

American Express processes transactions made with its logo-bearing cards, including The Platinum Card from American Express, the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express, and the Delta Skymiles Blue Card from American Express. 

How Does American Express Work?

American Express is most known for its credit and charge cards, but the global payments company also offers merchant services and operates a card network.

American Express cards are accepted at 12.2 million businesses in the U.S., according to a February 2022 Nilson Report on the industry. By comparison, Visa and Mastercard are accepted at 12.4 businesses, and 12.2 million businesses accept Discover.

Globally, Visa and Mastercard have a stronger payment footprint, with acceptance at 80 million businesses around the world, according to a December 2021 Nilson Report. Discover, which also issues and processes its own cards, is accepted at 61 million businesses. American Express is accepted at 60 million businesses globally.

Charge cards don’t have preset spending limits, and balances must be paid in full, with no partial payments allowed. 

American Express Businesses

Card Issuing

American Express offers a variety of card products to consumers and businesses. Its card products offer rewards, benefits, and experiences to attract new customers. For example, cardholders can earn cash-back and loyalty rewards, access airport lounges, and receive travel insurance coverage depending on the card.

Merchant Acquiring

Businesses work with American Express to establish a merchant account and begin accepting Amex credit cards. In addition to working with businesses, American Express also partners with other acquiring companies and payment aggregators to make its cards accessible.

Card Network

American Express partners with other banks and financial institutions licensing the brand to offer its own credit cards. For example, its partners in more than 103 countries can launch credits to accept payments in their local currency.

Strategic Partnerships

American Express works with various partners to provide additional benefits and services. Through its partnerships, American Express improves customer reach and provides value to cardholders through co-branded credit card offerings, expanded options for redeeming rewards, or additional credit card perks. Current partnerships include:

  • Delta Air Lines
  • Marriott International
  • Hilton
  • British Airways
  • Amazon
  • PayPal

Types of American Express Cards

American Express issues personal, business, and corporate credit and charge cards in the following broad categories.  

Cash Back

Purchases on American Express cash-back consumer credit cards earn between 1% to 6%. Cash rewards can be redeemed as a statement credit. Higher-earning rewards cards come with an annual fee.

Travel

Travel credit and charge cards earn rewards that can be redeemed for travel, flights, and hotel stays. Co-branded travel credit cards, such as airline and hotel rewards cards, earn rewards in the brand's loyalty program. For example, purchases on Delta SkyMiles American Express cards earn miles that cardholders can use toward Delta flights and upgrades. American Express travel credit card annual fees can be as high as $695, with higher-fee cards offering more rewards and perks.

Business 

American Express offers 14 credit and charge cards for businesses ranging from startups to large corporations. Business card options include cash-back, travel, hotel and airline cards, and co-branded business cards with Lowe’s and Amazon.com. 

Even more general-use American Express cards may come with a slew of perks and benefits for travelers, including credit for airport screening programs, trip delay and cancellation coverage, and car rental loss and damage waiver insurance.

Key Takeaways

  • American Express is a global payments company that primarily offers credit and charge cards to consumers and businesses.
  • American Express is the credit card issuer and processing network for its cards.
  • The company's primary source of revenue is card processing fees charged to businesses that accept Amex.
  • Cardholders can earn rewards on purchases and enjoy various perks and benefits.

Article Sources

  1. American Express. "Annual Report 2020."

  2. American Express. "Annual Report 2021."

  3. American Express. "Cash-Back Cards."

  4. American Express. "Travel Rewards Credit Cards."