How Are Physical Credit Cards Made?

How Are Physical Credit Cards Made?

credit card advice

Mike Randall
By: Mike Randall
Posted: July 7, 2016
Our personal finance experts dish out the most trusted credit card advice on the web, including juicy tips, tricks and secrets from inside the credit card industry.

For more than half a century, credit cards have been allowing consumers to buy now and pay later for the goods and services they want. In fact, credit card purchases account for more than $2.5 trillion of personal debt in the U.S. alone. So, with all of their popularity and utility, have you ever stopped to consider how credit cards are made?

We’ve done a little research into just how those rectangular pieces of plastic get their start and eventually end up in your wallet. If you’re even a slight bit curious about the process, here’s how a typical credit card is manufactured.

What’s in a credit card?

The primary component that makes up a credit card is, of course, plastic – but not just any plastic. In order to ensure a credit card is lightweight and flexible while remaining durable enough for years of use, a special polymer blend was developed.

Polyvinyl chloride acetate

A diagram of polyvinyl chloride acetate, the material used to make credit cards.

The polymer used in credit cards is called polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA) and is made by combining vinyl acetate and vinyl chloride and then adding some special chemical plasticizers for flexibility. The result is a plastic that’s dense, water resistant and durable. Sheets of PVCA are made and sent to special manufacturing facilities to be turned into individual cards.

The other component found on a credit card is the magnetic strip, which is comprised of an iron oxide coating which is magnetized before being applied. Recently some credit cards have begun using RFID chips, small power sources and other metallic components.

Assembling a credit card

When the sheet of PVCA material is ready to be made into credit cards, it is run through a dye machine that applies the text and graphic designs for the particular credit card company.

Next the sheet is sandwiched between two very thin pieces of laminate that contain the magnetic strip and a hologram security design in some cases. Then it’s put into a heated press that delivers 166 psi of pressure for up to three minutes.

Once the sheet of cards is printed, it’s time to put it through another machine that embosses the raised letters on each card and programs the individual information onto each magnetic strip. This process also records the unique identifying information for each card printed. Finally, when everything is in place, the sheet is put into another machine which cuts it into individual cards.

Credit card security

As you might imagine, credit card security is a concern throughout the manufacturing process. Each card is tracked as securely as if it was U.S. currency rolling off the printing press. Every card that’s printed is accounted for and securely logged into the database.

Of course, new security features are being introduced onto credit cards, altering the manufacturing process slightly. The new EMV or chip-and-pin technology requires that cards be milled after lamination so the chip can be inserted. This process raises the cost of producing each card from right around 10 cents for a standard card, to upward of $1 or more per card.

The acceptance of EMV technology by the credit card companies has been slow in the U.S., but legislation has encouraged more rapid adoption.

Beginning in October 2015, a new law will assign liability for credit card fraud to the party with the least secure mechanisms in place. This means if a retailer has EMV readers and the card is not equipped, the credit card company would be liable for the fraudulent charges.

So the next time you pull a card out of your wallet, whether you swipe it or wave it in front of a reader, you now know exactly how that card came into existence. And just maybe you’ll have a little extra appreciation for what it took to make.

Photo credits: trinityfinancialmission.org, wikimedia.org