Credit card payment processing simplified


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We answer frequently asked questions about credit card processing and how to prevent fraud without losing customers.

You may have heard the terms ‘card transaction lifecycle’, ‘transaction processing’ or ‘payment lifecycle’. These terms all describe what goes on behind the scenes in the milliseconds before a card payment is approved.

There are more than 22.8 billion credit cards in circulation worldwide and by 2025 this number is set to increase to 30.6 billion. If you accept payments online, you need to accept credit cards. Learning what happens when a customer pays using a credit card will demystify the process giving you more control. Ultimately, more control will allow you to increase your card approval rates and your conversions.

In this article, we explain:

  • How credit card processing works
  • How credit card processing differs to debit card processing
  • How digital wallets work
  • How to optimize your checkout

How does credit card processing work?

There are various parties involved in credit card payment processing, but the four main ones are:

  • The merchant: Who accepts cards to make sales
  • The acquirer: Who enables merchants to accept payment for goods and services
  • The cardholder: Who uses the card to make purchases 
  • The issuer: Who provides customers with cards.

That’s why you’ll often hear the terms ‘four-party’ or ‘four-corner’ model in this context. Visa and Mastercard operate a four-party model. As card schemes, they sit at the center of their networks, connecting participating issuers and acquirers.

When the credit cardholder enters their card details into the online checkout page and clicks ‘pay’, what happens next?

First, this information goes to the merchant’s acquirer or merchant’s bank. Then, the acquirer forwards this message to the relevant card scheme. The card scheme passes this to the cardholder’s issuer, who has two important questions to answer.

  1. Is the cardholder who they say they are? (authentication)
  2. Are they good for the money? (authorization)

If the cardholder is legitimate and funds are available, the issuer confirms this to the card scheme, who passes the approval response to the acquirer.

Finally, the acquirer passes this message on to the merchant, who confirms a successful payment to their customer, dispatches the goods or provides the service.

How does credit card processing differ to debit card processing?

Debit card processing works in a very similar way to credit card processing. The principles are the same, however the execution may differ locally. 

Some domestic debit cards are co-badged with international card schemes, which enables the cards to be used outside their home market. In these instances, they are generally processed via their domestic card networks for purchases at home. And via the international card networks for purchases abroad or for ecommerce purchases when the merchant is in a different country to the cardholder.

Another difference is that credit cards may be blocked by country or sector. UK credit cards are not allowed to be used for gambling, for example. Card issuers and local law determine how and where cards are blocked.

Generally speaking, though, cards, both credit and debit, allow businesses to sell to anyone, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be paid, provided they’ve done things right.

How do digital wallets work?

Digital wallets, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and PayPal, are becoming increasingly popular ways for consumers to initiate credit card transactions — especially with smartphones or other mobile devices. Our research finds that 50% of European consumers used a digital wallet at least once last year. And 80% said they planned to use one in the next 12 months – with 40% suggesting that they planned to do so regularly.

How can you optimize credit card processing?

Offering credit card payments is only one part of giving your customers the best possible experience. Ensuring that customers are able to successfully checkout is the other part.

Online merchants in the US, UK, Germany and France lose a staggering $20.3 billion at the checkout each year due to false declines. Optimizing your credit card processing requires taking practical steps to block fraudsters, not customers.

Benchmark your authorization rates and fraud ratios to put your performance in context. How do these KPIs compare with industry peers? Your payments provider should be a great source of insights into what those with solid performance are doing that you’re not.

You should also take action by analyzing failed transactions grouped by rejection reason. You can then explore each group to see whether the systems have correctly rejected the transactions. If they have, you can start to make the tweaks required to minimize false declines and A/B test repeatedly to drive continuous improvement. 

Optimizing credit card processing will also mean optimizing the checkout process. Sixty-five percent of shoppers abandon their carts when shopping online. The choices that you make when setting up your checkout can influence customers’ behavior and help to avoid cart abandonment. For example, removing unnecessary steps in the process and offering a guest checkout option.

Keep up-to-date with all things payments

Written on Nov 09, 2021 by

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Laura Quijano

Product Manager,

Keep up-to-date with all things payments

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