Credit cards are issued after an account has been approved by the credit provider, after which cardholders can use it to make purchases at merchants accepting that card.
When a purchase is made, the credit card user agrees to pay the card issuer. The cardholder indicates his/her consent to pay, by signing a receipt with a record of the card details and indicating the amount to be paid or by entering a Personal identification number (PIN). Also, many merchants now accept verbal authorizations via telephone and electronic authorization using the Internet, known as a 'Card/Cardholder Not Present' (CNP) transaction.
Electronic verification systems allow merchants to verify that the card is valid and the credit card customer has sufficient credit to cover the purchase in a few seconds, allowing the verification to happen at time of purchase. The verification is performed using a credit card payment terminal or Point of Sale (POS) system with a communications link to the merchant's acquiring bank. Data from the card is obtained from a magnetic stripe or chip on the card; the latter system is in the United Kingdom and Ireland commonly known as Chip and PIN, but is more technically an EMV card.
Other variations of verification systems are used by eCommerce merchants to determine if the user's account is valid and able to accept the charge. These will typically involve the cardholder providing additional information, such as the security code printed on the back of the card, or the address of the cardholder.
Each month, the credit card user is sent a statement indicating the purchases undertaken with the card, any outstanding fees, and the total amount owed. After receiving the statement, the cardholder may dispute any charges that he or she thinks are incorrect (see Fair Credit Billing Act for details of the US regulations). Otherwise, the cardholder must pay a defined minimum proportion of the bill by a due date, or may choose to pay a higher amount up to the entire amount owed. The credit provider charges interest on the amount owed (typically at a much higher rate than most other forms of debt). Some financial institutions can arrange for automatic payments to be deducted from the user's bank accounts, thus avoiding late payment altogether as long as the cardholder has sufficient funds.
For example, if a user had a $1,000 transaction and repaid it in full within this grace period, there would be no interest charged. If, however, even $1.00 of the total amount remained unpaid, interest would be charged on the $1,000 from the date of purchase until the payment is received. The precise manner in which interest is charged is usually detailed in a cardholder agreement which may be summarized on the back of the monthly statement. The general calculation formula most financial institutions use to determine the amount of interest to be charged is APR/100 x ADB/365 x number of days revolved. Take the Annual percentage rate (APR) and divide by 100 then multiply to the amount of the average daily balance (ADB) divided by 365 and then take this total and multiply by the total number of days the amount revolved before payment was made on the account. Financial institutions refer to interest charged back to the original time of the transaction and up to the time a payment was made, if not in full, as RRFC or residual retail finance charge. Thus after an amount has revolved and a payment has been made, the user of the card will still receive interest charges on their statement after paying the next statement in full (in fact the statement may only have a charge for interest that collected up until the date the full balance was paid...i.e. when the balance stopped revolving).
The credit card may simply serve as a form of revolving credit, or it may become a complicated financial instrument with multiple balance segments each at a different interest rate, possibly with a single umbrella credit limit, or with separate credit limits applicable to the various balance segments. Usually this compartmentalization is the result of special incentive offers from the issuing bank, to encourage balance transfers from cards of other issuers. In the event that several interest rates apply to various balance segments, payment allocation is generally at the discretion of the issuing bank, and payments will therefore usually be allocated towards the lowest rate balances until paid in full before any money is paid towards higher rate balances. Interest rates can vary considerably from card to card, and the interest rate on a particular card may jump dramatically if the card user is late with a payment on that card or any other credit instrument, or even if the issuing bank decides to raise its revenue.
Low interest credit cards or even 0% interest credit cards are available. The only downside to consumers is that the period of low interest credit cards is limited to a fixed term, usually between 6 and 12 months after which a higher rate is charged. However, services are available which alert credit card holders when their low interest period is due to expire. Most such services charge a monthly or annual fee.
Usually, if a customer is late paying the balance, finance charges will be calculated and the grace period does not apply. Finance charges incurred depend on the grace period and balance; with most credit cards there is no grace period if there is any outstanding balance from the previous billing cycle or statement (i.e. interest is applied on both the previous balance and new transactions). However, there are some credit cards that will only apply finance charge on the previous or old balance, excluding new transactions.
For merchants, a credit card transaction is often more secure than other forms of payment, such as checks, because the issuing bank commits to pay the merchant the moment the transaction is authorized, regardless of whether the consumer defaults on the credit card payment (except for legitimate disputes, which are discussed below, and can result in charges back to the merchant). In most cases, cards are even more secure than cash, because they discourage theft by the merchant's employees and reduce the amount of cash on the premises. Prior to credit cards, each merchant had to evaluate each customer's credit history before extending credit. That task is now performed by the banks which assume the credit risk.
For each purchase, the bank charges the merchant a commission (discount fee) for this service and there may be a certain delay before the agreed payment is received by the merchant. The commission is often a percentage of the transaction amount, plus a fixed fee. In addition, a merchant may be penalized or have their ability to receive payment using that credit card restricted if there are too many cancellations or reversals of charges as a result of disputes. Some small merchants require credit purchases to have a minimum amount (usually between $5 and $10) to compensate for the transaction costs, though this is not always allowed by the credit card consortium.
In some countries, for example the Nordic countries, banks guarantee payment on stolen cards only if an ID card is checked and the ID card number/civic registration number is written down on the receipt together with the signature. In these countries merchants therefore usually ask for ID. Non-Nordic citizens, who are unlikely to possess a Nordic ID card or driving license, will instead have to show their passport, and the passport number will be written down on the receipt, sometimes together with other information. Some shops use the card's PIN for identification, and in that case showing an ID card is not necessary.
The flow of information and money between these parties — always through the card associations — is known as the interchange, and it consists of a few steps.
A secured credit card is a type of credit card secured by a deposit account owned by the cardholder. Typically, the cardholder must deposit between 100% and 200% of the total amount of credit desired. Thus if the cardholder puts down $1000, they will be given credit in the range of $500–$1000. In some cases, credit card issuers will offer incentives even on their secured card portfolios. In these cases, the deposit required may be significantly less than the required credit limit, and can be as low as 10% of the desired credit limit. This deposit is held in a special savings account. Credit card issuers offer this because they have noticed that delinquencies were notably reduced when the customer perceives something to lose if the balance is not repaid.
The cardholder of a secured credit card is still expected to make regular payments, as with a regular credit card, but should they default on a payment, the card issuer has the option of recovering the cost of the purchases paid to the merchants out of the deposit. The advantage of the secured card for an individual with negative or no credit history is that most companies report regularly to the major credit bureaus. This allows for building of positive credit history.
Although the deposit is in the hands of the credit card issuer as security in the event of default by the consumer, the deposit will not be debited simply for missing one or two payments. Usually the deposit is only used as an offset when the account is closed, either at the request of the customer or due to severe delinquency (150 to 180 days). This means that an account which is less than 150 days delinquent will continue to accrue interest and fees, and could result in a balance which is much higher than the actual credit limit on the card. In these cases the total debt may far exceed the original deposit and the cardholder not only forfeits their deposit but is left with an additional debt.
Most of these conditions are usually described in a cardholder agreement which the cardholder signs when their account is opened.
Secured credit cards are an option to allow a person with a poor credit history or no credit history to have a credit card which might not otherwise be available. They are often offered as a means of rebuilding one's credit. Secured credit cards are available with both Visa and MasterCard logos on them. Fees and service charges for secured credit cards often exceed those charged for ordinary non-secured credit cards, however, for people in certain situations, (for example, after charging off on other credit cards, or people with a long history of delinquency on various forms of debt), secured cards can often be less expensive in total cost than unsecured credit cards, even including the security deposit.
After purchasing the card, the cardholder loads the account with any amount of money, up to the predetermined card limit and then uses the card to make purchases the same way as a typical credit card. Prepaid cards can be issued to minors (above 13) since there is no credit line involved. The main advantage over secured credit cards (see above section) is that you are not required to come up with $500 or more to open an account. With prepaid credit cards you are not charged any interest but you are often charged a purchasing fee plus monthly fees after an arbitrary time period. Many other fees also usually apply to a prepaid card.
Prepaid credit cards are sometimes marketed to teenagers for shopping online without having their parents complete the transaction.
Because of the many fees that apply to obtaining and using credit-card-branded prepaid cards, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada describes them as "an expensive way to spend your own money". The agency publishes a booklet, "Pre-paid cards", which explains the advantages and disadvantages of this type of prepaid card.
As well as convenient, accessible credit, credit cards offer consumers an easy way to track expenses, which is necessary for both monitoring personal expenditures and the tracking of work-related expenses for taxation and reimbursement purposes. Credit cards are accepted worldwide, and are available with a large variety of credit limits, repayment arrangement, and other perks (such as rewards schemes in which points earned by purchasing goods with the card can be redeemed for further goods and services or credit card cashback).
Some countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, limit the amount for which a consumer can be held liable due to fraudulent transactions as a result of a consumer's credit card being lost or stolen.
An additional feature to secure the credit card transaction and prohibit the use of a lost credit card is the MobiClear solution. Each transaction is authenticated through a call to the user mobile phone. The transaction is released once the transaction has been confirmed by the cardholder pushing his/her pincode during the call.
The PCI DSS is the security standard issued by The PCI SSC (Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council). This data security standard is used by acquiring banks to impose cardholder data security measures upon their merchants.
The low security of the credit card system presents countless opportunities for fraud. This opportunity has created a huge black market in stolen credit card numbers, which are generally used quickly before the cards are reported stolen.
The goal of the credit card companies is not to eliminate fraud, but to "reduce it to manageable levels". This implies that high-cost low-return fraud prevention measures will not be used if their cost exceeds the potential gains from fraud reduction.
Most internet fraud is done through the use of stolen credit card information which is obtained in many ways, the simplest being copying information from retailers, either online or offline. Despite efforts to improve security for remote purchases using credit cards, systems with security holes are usually the result of poor implementations of card acquisition by merchants. For example, a website that uses SSL to encrypt card numbers from a client may simply email the number from the webserver to someone who manually processes the card details at a card terminal. Naturally, anywhere card details become human-readable before being processed at the acquiring bank, a security risk is created. However, many banks offer systems where encrypted card details captured on a merchant's webserver can be sent directly to the payment processor.
Controlled Payment Numbers are another option for protecting one's credit card number: they are "alias" numbers linked to one's actual card number, generated as needed, valid for a relatively short time, with a very low limit, and typically only valid with a single merchant.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Postal Inspection Service are responsible for prosecuting criminals who engage in credit card fraud in the United States, but they do not have the resources to pursue all criminals. In general, federal officials only prosecute cases exceeding US $5000 in value. Three improvements to card security have been introduced to the more common credit card networks but none has proven to help reduce credit card fraud so far. First, the on-line verification system used by merchants is being enhanced to require a 4 digit Personal Identification Number (PIN) known only to the card holder. Second, the cards themselves are being replaced with similar-looking tamper-resistant smart cards which are intended to make forgery more difficult. The majority of smartcard (IC card) based credit cards comply with the EMV (Europay MasterCard Visa) standard. Third, an additional 3 or 4 digit code is now present on the back of most cards, for use in "card not present" transactions. See CVV2 for more information.
The way credit card owners pay off their balances has a tremendous effect on their credit history. All the information is collected by credit bureaus. The credit information stays on the credit report, depending on the jurisdiction and the situation, for 1, 2, or even 10 years after the debt is repaid.
In recent times, credit card portfolios have been very profitable for banks, largely due to the booming economy of the late nineties. However, in the case of credit cards, such high returns go hand in hand with risk, since the business is essentially one of making unsecured (uncollateralized) loans, and thus dependent on borrowers not to default in large numbers.
Credit card issuers (banks) have several types of costs:
Banks generally borrow the money they then lend to their customers. As they receive very low-interest loans from other firms, they may borrow as much as their customers require, while lending their capital to other borrowers at higher rates. If the card issuer charges 15% on money lent to users, and it costs 5% to borrow the money to lend, and the balance sits with the cardholder for a year, the issuer earns 10% on the loan. This 5% difference is the "interest expense" and the 10% is the "net interest spread".
This is the cost of running the credit card portfolio, including everything from paying the executives who run the company to printing the plastics, to mailing the statements, to running the computers that keep track of every cardholder's balance, to taking the many phone calls which cardholders place to their issuer, to protecting the customers from fraud rings. Depending on the issuer, marketing programs are also a significant portion of expenses.
When a consumer becomes severely delinquent on a debt (often at the point of six months without payment), the creditor may declare the debt to be a charge-off. It will then be listed as such on the debtor's credit bureau reports (Equifax, for instance, lists "R9" in the "status" column to denote a charge-off.) The item will include relevant dates, and the amount of the bad debt.
A charge-off is considered to be "written off as uncollectable." To banks, bad debts and even fraud are simply part of the cost of doing business.
However, the debt is still legally valid, and the creditor can attempt to collect the full amount for the time periods permitted under state law, which is usually 3 to 7 years. This includes contacts from internal collections staff, or more likely, an outside collection agency. If the amount is large (generally over $1500 - $2000), there is the possibility of a lawsuit or arbitration.
In the US, as the charge off number climbs or becomes erratic, officials from the Federal Reserve take a close look at the finances of the bank and may impose various operating strictures on the bank, and in the most extreme cases, may close the bank entirely.
Many credit card customers receive rewards, such as frequent flier points, gift certificates, or cash back as an incentive to use the card. Rewards are generally tied to purchasing an item or service on the card, which may or may not include balance transfers, cash advances, or other special uses. Depending on the type of card, rewards will generally cost the issuer between 0.25% and 2.0% of the spread. Networks such as Visa or MasterCard have increased their fees to allow issuers to fund their rewards system. However, most rewards points are accrued as a liability on a company's balance sheet and expensed at the time of reward redemption. As a result, some issuers discourage redemption by forcing the cardholder to call customer service for rewards. On their servicing website, redeeming awards is usually a feature that is very well hidden by the issuers. Others encourage redemption for lower cost merchandise; instead of an airline ticket, which is very expensive to an issuer, the cardholder may be encouraged to redeem for a gift certificate instead. With a fractured and competitive environment, rewards points cut dramatically into an issuer's bottom line, and rewards points and related incentives must be carefully managed to ensure a profitable portfolio. Unlike unused gift cards, in whose case the breakage in certain US states goes to the state's treasury, unredeemed credit card points are retained by the issuer.
Offsetting costs are the following revenues:
In addition to fees paid by the card holder, merchants must also pay interchange fees to the card-issuing bank and the card association. For a typical credit card issuer, interchange fee revenues may represent about a quarter of total revenues..
These fees are typically from 1 to 6 percent of each sale, but will vary not only from merchant to merchant (large merchants can negotiate lower rates), but also from card to card, with business cards and rewards cards generally costing the merchants more to process. The interchange fee that applies to a particular transaction is also affected by many other variables including the type of merchant, the merchant's total card sales volume, the merchant's average transaction amount, whether the cards are physically present, if the card's magnetic stripe is read or if the transaction is hand-keyed or entered on a website, the specific type of card, when the transaction is settled, and the authorized and settled transaction amounts.
Interchange fees may consume over 50 percent of profits from card sales for some merchants (such as supermarkets) that operate on slim margins. In some cases, merchants add a surcharge to the credit cards to cover the interchange fee, enouraging their customers to instead use cash, debit cards, or even cheques.
The Government of Canada maintains a database of the fees, features, interest rates and reward programs of nearly 200 credit cards available in Canada. This database is updated on a quarterly basis with information supplied by the credit card issuing companies. Information in the database is published every quarter on the website of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC).
Information in the database is published in two formats. It is available in PDF comparison tables that break down the information according to type of credit card, allowing the reader to compare the features of, for example, all the student credit cards in the database.
The database also feeds into an interactive tool on the FCAC website. The interactive tool uses several interview-type questions to build a profile of the user's credit card usage habits and needs, eliminating unsuitable choices based on the profile, so that the user is presented with a small number of credit cards and the ability to carry out detailed comparisons of features, reward programs, interest rates, etc.
The modern credit card was the successor of a variety of merchant credit schemes. It was first used in the 1920s, in the United States, specifically to sell fuel to a growing number of automobile owners. In 1938 several companies started to accept each other's cards. Western Union had begun issuing charge cards to its frequent customers in 1914. Some charge cards were printed on paper card stock, but were easily counterfeited.
The Charga-Plate was an early predecessor to the credit card and used during the 1930s and late 1940s. It was a 2 1/2" x 1 1/4" rectangle of sheet metal, similar to a military dog tag, that was embossed with the customer's name, city and state (no address). It held a small paper card for a signature. It was laid in the imprinter first, then a charge slip on top of it, onto which an inked ribbon was pressed. Charga-Plate was a trademark of Farrington Manufacturing Co. Charga-Plates were issued by large-scale merchants to their regular customers, much like department store credit cards of today. In some cases, the plates were kept in the issuing store rather than held by customers. When an authorized user made a purchase, a clerk retrieved the plate from the store's files and then processed the purchase. Charga-Plates speeded back-office bookkeeping that was done manually in paper ledgers in each store, before computers.
The concept of paying different merchants using the same card was invented in 1950 by Ralph Schneider and Frank X. McNamara, founders of Diners Club, to consolidate multiple cards. The Diners Club, which was created partially through a merger with Dine and Sign, produced the first "general purpose" charge card, and required the entire bill to be paid with each statement. That was followed by Carte Blanche and in 1958 by American Express which created a worldwide credit card network.
Bank of America created the BankAmericard in 1958, a product which, with its overseas affiliates, eventually evolved into the Visa system. MasterCard came to being in 1966 when a group of credit-issuing banks established MasterCharge; it received a significant boost when Citibank merged its proprietary Everything Card, launched in 1967, into Master Charge in 1969. The fractured nature of the U.S. banking system meant that credit cards became an effective way for those who were traveling around the country to move their credit to places where they could not directly use their banking facilities. In 1966 Barclaycard in the UK launched the first credit card outside of the U.S.
There are now countless variations on the basic concept of revolving credit for individuals (as issued by banks and honored by a network of financial institutions), including organization-branded credit cards, corporate-user credit cards, store cards and so on.
In contrast, although having reached very high adoption levels in the US, Canada and the UK, it is important to note that many cultures were much more cash-oriented in the latter half of the twentieth century, or had developed alternative forms of cash-less payments, such as Carte bleue or the Eurocard (Germany, France, Switzerland, and others). In these places, the take-up of credit cards was initially much slower. It took until the 1990s to reach anything like the percentage market-penetration levels achieved in the US, Canada, or the UK. In many countries acceptance still remains poor as the use of a credit card system depends on the banking system being perceived as reliable.
In contrast, because of the legislative framework surrounding banking system overdrafts, some countries, France in particular, were much faster to develop and adopt chip-based credit cards which are now seen as major anti-fraud credit devices.
The design of the credit card itself has become a major selling point in recent years. The value of the card to the issuer is often related to the customer's usage of the card, or to the customer's financial worth. This has led to the rise of Co-Brand and Affinity cards - where the card design is related to the "affinity" (a university, for example) leading to higher card usage. In most cases a percentage of the value of the card is returned to the affinity group.
A 2006 documentary film titled Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders deals with this subject in detail. The nonprofit group Americans for Fairness in Lending works with Maxed Out to educate Americans about credit card abuse.
Another controversial area is the universal default feature of many North American credit card contracts. When a cardholder is late paying a particular credit card issuer, that card's interest rate can be raised, often considerably. With universal default, a customer's other credit cards, for which the customer may be current on payments, may also have their rates and/or credit limit changed. This universal default feature allows creditors to periodically check cardholders' credit portfolios to view trade, allowing these other institutions to decrease the credit limit and/or increase rates on cardholders who may be late with another credit card issuer. Being late on one credit card will potentially affect all the cardholder's credit cards. Citibank voluntarily stopped this practice in March 2007 and Chase stopped the practice in November 2007. The fact that credit card companies can change the interest rate on debts that were incurred when a different rate of interest was in place is similar to adjustable rate mortgages where terms of a contract are changed after the contract has been formed (i.e. after the transaction is completed and the debt incurred).
Another controversial area is the trailing interest issue. Trailing interest is the practice of charging interest on the entire bill no matter what percentage of it is paid. U.S Senator Carl Levin raised the issue at a U.S Senate Hearing of millions of Americans whom he said are slaves to hidden fees, compounding interest and cryptic terms. Their woes were heard in a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing which was chaired by Senator Levin who said that he intends to keep the spotlight on credit card companies and that legislative action may be necessary to purge the industry.
In the United States, some have called for Congress to enact additional regulations on the industry; to expand the disclosure box clearly disclosing rate hikes, use plain language, incorporate balance payoff disclosures, and also to outlaw universal default. At a congress hearing around March 1, 2007, Citibank announced it would no longer practice this, effective immediately. Opponents of such regulation argue that customers must become more proactive and self-responsible in evaluating and negotiating terms with credit offerers. Some of the nation's influential top credit card issuers, who are among the top fifty corporate contributors to political campaigns, successfully opposed it.
In the United States, until 1984 federal law prohibited surcharges on card transactions. Although the federal Truth in Lending Act provisions that prohibited surcharges expired that year, a number of states have since enacted laws that continue to outlaw the practice; California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas have laws against surcharges.
The card number's prefix, called the Bank Identification Number, is the sequence of digits at the beginning of the number that determine the bank to which a credit card number belongs. This is the first six digits for MasterCard and Visa cards. The next nine digits are the individual account number, and the final digit is a validity check code.
In addition to the main credit card number, credit cards also carry issue and expiration dates (given to the nearest month), as well as extra codes such as issue numbers and security codes. Not all credit cards have the same sets of extra codes nor do they use the same number of digits.
Many credit cards can also be used in an ATM to withdraw money against the credit limit extended to the card, but many card issuers charge interest on cash advances before they do so on purchases. The interest on cash advances is commonly charged from the date the withdrawal is made, rather than the monthly billing date. Many card issuers levy a commission for cash withdrawals, even if the ATM belongs to the same bank as the card issuer. Merchants do not offer cashback on credit card transactions because they would pay a percentage commission of the additional cash amount to their bank or merchant services provider, thereby making it uneconomical.
Many credit card companies will also, when applying payments to a card, do so at the end of a billing cycle, and apply those payments to everything before cash advances. For this reason, many consumers have large cash balances, which have no grace period and incur interest at a rate that is (usually) higher than the purchase rate, and will carry those balance for years, even if they pay off their statement balance each month.
Credit cards are a creative, yet often risky way for entrepreneurs to acquire capital for their start ups when more conventional financing is unavailable. It is rumoured that Larry Page and Sergey Brin's start up of Google was financed by credit cards to buy the necessary computers and office equipment, more specifically "a terabyte of hard disks". Similarly, filmmaker Robert Townsend financed part of Hollywood Shuffle using credit cards. Director Kevin Smith funded Clerks in part by maxing out several credit cards. Actor Richard Hatch also financed his production of Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming partly through his credit cards. Famed hedge fund manager Bruce Kovner began his career (and, later on, his firm Caxton Associates) in financial markets by borrowing from his credit card.