What Is an Embossed Card?

Embossed Cards Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

A man uses a credit card with his phone.
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An embossed card has raised alphanumeric characters on the front in order to convey account information to a merchant. The embossed information includes account numbers, names, and expiration dates that a merchant can copy with a mechanical imprinting device. 

Learn more about what embossed cards are, how they work, and how they compare to printed cards.

Definition and Examples of an Embossed Card

An embossed card is an electronic payment card with machine-readable characters created through the process of embossing, or punching, alphanumeric characters from the back of the card so they’re raised on the front of the card. 

The most common application for an embossed card is a credit or debit card. Many credit card issuers still use embossing for the account number, name, and expiration date, though this information can also be printed on the card.

The three- or four-digit security (or verification) number on a credit card is always printed and never embossed on the card. It’s also never included on a receipt.

How Does an Embossed Card Work? 

Embossed cards have been around since 1928. In the past, merchants would use them to make copies of the customer’s account information with a mechanical imprinting device.

As time went on and credit card usage increased, retailers used rectangular manual card imprinters for credit card transactions. Your embossed card would lay down on the imprinter’s rectangular base, the cashier would place a sales slip containing a carbon-paper layer over the card, then whip the imprinter’s slider over the sales slip and card. The raised characters were the key, as they’d push the carbon paper against the sales slip and leave an imprint of all its information after the slider passed over it. This method replaced manual, hand-written ledgers made by store clerks.

Embossing is no longer necessary as a result of electronic card processing. These days, if your card is embossed, it’s more for design purposes.

Examples of cards that can be embossed include:

  • Credit cards
  • Debit or bank cards
  • ATM cards
  • University student IDs
  • Gift cards
  • Employer identification badges
  • Access or key cards
  • Membership ID cards
  • Loyalty cards

Embossed credit cards are regulated and must have standard fonts, sizes, and colors.

Visa is a good example of a credit card issuer that uses embossed and unembossed cards. Unembossed Visa cards started appearing at least as far back as 2007, when Commerce Bank made mention of the novel cards in an exclusive merchant newsletter it sent out. Today’s unembossed Visa cards feature a thermal- or laser-printed card numbers, expiration date, and security code. 

Do I Need an Embossed Card?

Embossed cards were invented before electronic transactions took place to relay account information to store owners. Now, account information is encoded on magnetic stripes and EMV chips, making the embossed account information more for informational purposes of the customer.

Because the embossed account information is not the way transactions are processed, account information can also be printed onto a card. Many credit cards issued today are laser-printed with account information on the back.

Embossed Card vs. Unembossed Card

While embossed cards have been the norm for nearly a hundred years, unembossed thermal- or laser-printed card numbers with encoded account information are taking their place. There are some key differences between the two. 

Embossed Card Unembossed Card
Can be manually run Can only be run electronically
Numbers and letters are only on the front and in standard form Can have numbers and letters printed on the back
Account information can be more easily stolen from the carbon copies made from an imprint Account information printed on a card is harder to steal
Card is reshaped by the embossing Card has no raised characters

Embossed cards still hold the ability for a transaction to be processed manually, whereas a card with laser-printed account information can only be processed electronically. However, this is unlikely to be an issue.

Key Takeaways

  • Embossed cards have raised alphanumeric characters on the front in order to convey account information to a merchant.
  • Embossing is no longer necessary as a result of electronic card processing, and many have been replaced by cards with printed and encoded information.
  • Embossed cards may be less secure than laser-printed cards.