The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Sunday, May 26, 2024

Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover vs. Amex: Who Wins? (May 2024)

Visa Card Vs Mastercard
Brittney Mayer

Written by: Brittney Mayer

Brittney Mayer
Brittney Mayer

Brittney is a Credit Strategist and Finance Expert who has spent years honing her knowledge of the credit industry both personally and professionally. Brittney applies her more than a decade of research experience to crafting in-depth consumer guides designed to help CardRates readers make better, more informed financial decisions.

See full bio »

Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro
Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

See full bio »

Reviewed by: Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker
Ashley Fricker

Ashley Fricker has more than a decade of experience as a finance contributor and editor, and has specialized in the credit card industry since 2015. Her credit card commentary is featured on national media outlets that include CNBC, MarketWatch, Investopedia, and Reader's Digest, among many others. She has worked closely with the world’s largest banks and financial institutions, up-and-coming fintech companies, and press and news outlets to curate comprehensive content and media. Ashley holds a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University.

See full bio »
Advertiser Disclosure

When consumers are in the market for a new credit card and are comparing and contrasting Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover vs. American Express, the major difference may not immediately be obvious. Keep reading to learn more about these key differences and some of the best options available today.

In a marketplace glutted with options for nearly any product, consumers are faced with more choices than ever before. But when lacking any substantial information about a company, many consumers tend to make decisions based on more superficial factors, such as name recognition or brand aesthetics.

For example, when it comes to deciding which network logo should adorn your newest credit card, it can be easy to make a snap decision based on a trivial factor, like that commercial you saw last week. But while the four major credit card networks — Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express — share a lot of similarities, they each also have distinct differences that may impact how (and where) you use your card.

Key Differences | Best Cards | Networks vs. Issuers

The Key Differences Between the Four Networks

When Bank of America distributed the first mass-marketed consumer credit card, the bank, somewhat inadvertently, created the foundation for what would become the Visa credit card network. Since then, three more major credit card networks — and hundreds of issuers — have joined the US credit card market, creating a competition-rich environment for increasingly credit-hungry consumers.

Logos for Four Major Credit Card Networks

But while Visa may have been first, the network’s competitors wasted little time grabbing their own shares of the market, with Mastercard, in particular, vying directly with Visa for the bulk of credit card purchase volume. Sheer size isn’t all that differentiates the four major networks, however, as they also vary in several key areas.

  • Merchant Acceptance: One of the most important differences between the four networks is the number of merchants that allow transactions processed by a particular network. On a global scale, for instance, American Express lags behind its competitors in the number of merchants who accept Amex cards, with the typical merchant roughly 40% more likely to accept Visa, Mastercard, and Discover cards than an American Express. In the US, Amex still falls behind the competition, with only 6 million domestic merchants (compared to the 9 million each that accept Visa, Mastercard, and Discover), though the majority of major retailers accept all four. The exception is in cases where a merchant has a specific contract with a particular issue, such as Costco’s deal to only accept Visa cards.
  • Merchant Cost: For merchants and retailers, the biggest difference between the four networks is how much each costs to support. Each time a customer uses a credit card to make a purchase, the merchant is charged a small fee by the credit card network to process the credit card transaction. The size of the processing fee varies by network and can be a primary factor in whether a merchant accepts certain cards. For example, Mastercard generally charges between 1.55% and 2.6% per transaction, while American Express charges 2.5% to 3.5%. Visa and Discover are about on par with Mastercard, charging 1.43% to 2.4%, and 1.56% to 2.3%, respectively.
  • Issuing Banks/Types of Cards: Another key difference between the four networks is the actual cards you can obtain, which is dependent upon the network’s banking partners. Visa and Mastercard don’t generally issue their own cards, meaning most cards sporting a Visa or Mastercard logo are issued by an outside bank, like Chase or Bank of America. In contrast, American Express and Discover are both issuers and networks, meaning they generally don’t partner with outside banks to issue credit cards. So, if you want a specific credit card for its rewards or other perks, you’re going to get stuck with whatever network the card’s issuer partners with for that card. For example, if you want a Chase Freedom Flex℠ card, then Mastercard is your only network option.
  • Fringe Benefits: The last of the main differences between credit card networks is the package of fringe benefits provided to cardholders by the network. While some of these benefits, like rental car insurance, are common to many of the networks, others can be exclusive to one or two. For instance, cardholders who use a World Elite Mastercard® gain access to a 24/7 concierge service, as well as special travel upgrades and savings. If you’d like your card to have certain benefits, you may need to select a specific network.

As you can see, despite their similarities, the four major credit card networks each have their own features and limitations that may be a vital factor in your decision-making process when it comes time to select a new card. Whether you need a card that is accepted by a large number of merchants, want a card from a specific issuer, or are simply looking for some sweet benefits, your network may make a difference.

The Best Credit Cards for Each Network

For some people, choosing a credit card network may help to narrow down the vast field of credit card options; for others, it may be more a matter of choosing a particular card and, thus, selecting its network by default. Whatever the case, comparing the best cards available from each of the major networks can help you see your options and (hopefully) make the card-selection process that much easier.

Visa | Mastercard | Discover | Amex

Best Visa Credit Cards

The first consumer credit card issuer — and still the largest — Visa has a huge range of credit card options from a variety of third-party issuing banks, including many of the top card issuers like Chase, Bank of America, Capital One, and Wells Fargo. Your specific Visa card benefits will vary by the type of Visa card, with the entry-level Visa® cards having the fewest perks, the mid-range Visa Signature® cards having a few more, and the elite Visa Infinite® cards offering the widest range.

Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card Review

at Bank Of America'ssecure website

VISA® RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • $200 online cash rewards bonus after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.
  • Earn 3% cash back in the category of your choice, automatic 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases) and unlimited 1% on all other purchases.
  • Choose 3% cash back on gas and EV charging station, online shopping/cable/internet/phone plan/streaming, dining, travel, drug store/pharmacy or home improvement/furnishings purchases.
  • If you're a Bank of America Preferred Rewards® member, you can earn 25%-75% more cash back on every purchase. That means you could earn 3.75%-5.25% cash back on purchases in your choice category.
  • No annual fee and cash rewards don’t expire as long as your account remains open.
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days. After the Intro APR offer ends, a Variable APR that’s currently 19.24% - 29.24% will apply. A 3% Intro balance transfer fee will apply for the first 60 days your account is open. After the Intro balance transfer fee offer ends, the fee for future balance transfers is 4%.
  • Contactless Cards - The security of a chip card, with the convenience of a tap.
  • This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases
0% Intro APR for 15 billing cycles for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days (Balance Transfer Fee 3% for 60 days from account opening, then 4%)
19.24% - 29.24% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
$0
Excellent/Good

Additional Disclosure: Bank of America is a CardRates advertiser.

VISA® RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's over $900 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.
  • Enjoy benefits such as 5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases, $50 Annual Chase Travel Hotel Credit, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Travel℠. For example, 75,000 points are worth $937.50 toward travel.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get complimentary access to DashPass which unlocks $0 delivery fees and lower service fees for a minimum of one year when you activate by December 31, 2024.
  • Member FDIC
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
21.49%-28.49% Variable
$95
Good/Excellent
VISA® RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,125 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Travel℠ immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Travel℠. For example, 75,000 points are worth $1125 toward travel.
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™; Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
22.49%-29.49% Variable
$550
Good/Excellent

+See More Visa Credit Cards

Best Mastercard Credit Cards

Mastercard is the second-largest credit card network in the world, with a portfolio of major-bank issuing partners that includes Barclays, HSBC, and Capital One, among many others. As with Visa, Mastercard’s benefits will vary based on the level of card you have, with the most basic benefits awarded to entry-level Mastercard® cardholders, more awarded to the mid-range World Mastercard® cardholders, and the most benefits given to the top-tier World Elite Mastercard® users.

EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Enjoy up to 6 months of complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024
  • Earn unlimited 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options. Terms apply
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus, cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$0
Excellent, Good
EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®), plus 1% on all other purchases
  • Earn 10% cash back on purchases made through Uber & Uber Eats, plus complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024
  • Earn 8% cash back on Capital One Entertainment purchases
  • Earn unlimited 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options. Terms apply
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$0
Excellent, Good
EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
  • Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your miles to get reimbursed for any travel purchase—or redeem by booking a trip through Capital One Travel
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$95
Excellent, Good

+See More Mastercard Credit Cards

Best Discover Credit Cards

While younger than Visa and Mastercard, Discover has closed the acceptance gap, and is now accepted in as many (if not more) locations than its elder competitors. Unlike Visa and Mastercard, Discover is both a credit card processing network and an issuer, with Discover® Bank acting as the issuing bank rather than partnering with outside banks. In another difference, Discover cards only have one level of benefits, available to all cardholders.

Discover it® Cash Back Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match for all new cardmembers – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • Get a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases. Then 17.24% to 28.24% Standard Variable Purchase APR applies, based on credit worthiness.
  • No annual fee.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 15 months
0% Intro APR for 15 months
17.24% - 28.24% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good
Discover it® Miles Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • UNLIMITED BONUS: Unlimited Mile-for-Mile match for all new cardmembers—only from Discover. Discover gives you an unlimited match of all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. You could turn 35,000 Miles to 70,000 Miles. There’s no signing up, no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a Miles-for-Miles match.
  • Automatically earn unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar of every purchase
  • No annual fee
  • Turn Miles into cash. Or redeem as a statement credit for your travel purchases like airfare, hotels, rideshares, gas stations, restaurants and more.
  • 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases. Then 17.24% - 28.24% Standard Variable Purchase APR will apply.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 15 months
0% Intro APR for 15 months
17.24% - 28.24% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good
Discover it® Chrome Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

EXPERT'S RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match for all new cardmembers – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
  • Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, automatically. Plus earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • No annual fee.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
0% Intro APR for 18 months
17.24% - 28.24% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good

+See More Discover Credit Cards

Best American Express Credit Cards

While American Express is less widely accepted than its competition, that difference is often negligible for domestic US cardholders; furthermore, Amex is frequently rated number one in customer service, which can make up for the limited acceptance for some consumers. American Express offers the same basic card benefits to all cardholders, but the Platinum and Premier cardholders may receive more inclusive benefits.

The Platinum Card® Review

at the issuer’ssecure website

CATEGORY RATING

★★★★★
4.9

OVERALL RATING

4.7/5.0
  • Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new card to make $8,000 in purchases in your first 6 months of Card Membership
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® points for flights booked directly through airlines or American Express Travel, on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. Also earn 5X Membership Rewards® points on prepaid hotels on AmexTravel.com. Earn 1X points on all other purchases.
  • $200 annual hotel credit, $200 annual airline fee credit, $25 monthly Equinox credit, $15 monthly Uber cash credit, $50 bi-annual Saks Fifth Avenue credit, and more.
  • Platinum Card Members have unlimited complimentary access to all locations of The Global Lounge Collection, including 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries.
  • Automatic Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status and Hilton Honors Gold Status. Enrollment required.
  • Choose among three card designs
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
21.24% – 29.24% Pay Over Time
$695
Excellent
American Express® Gold Card Review

at the issuer’ssecure website

CATEGORY RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

4.8/5.0
  • Earn 90,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new card in your first 6 months of card membership
  • Earn 4X Points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases. Also earn 4X Points at restaurants, including takeout and delivery, and 3X points on flights when booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com. All other eligible purchases earn 1X point.
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Delight your senses when you book The Hotel Collection with American Express Travel. Get a $100 experience credit to use during your stay. Minimum 2-night stay is required.
  • $250 Annual Fee
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
21.24% – 29.24% Pay Over Time
$250
Excellent
The Business Platinum Card® Review

at the issuer’ssecure website

CATEGORY RATING

★★★★★
4.8

OVERALL RATING

4.6/5.0
  • Earn 120,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with your Card within the first 3 months of card membership
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, 1.5X points on business categories and purchases of $5,000 or more on up to $2 million per calendar year, and 1X point for each dollar you spend on other purchases.
  • Get up to $400 back per year toward U.S. purchases with Dell Technologies, up to $360 back per year for purchases with Indeed, and $120 back per year for wireless telephone service purchases on the Business Platinum Card, plus additional credits. Enrollment is required for all.
  • Access to more than 1,400 lounges across 140 countries and counting with the American Express Global Lounge Collection®
  • Select one qualifying airline and then receive up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year when incidental fees, such as checked bags and in-flight refreshments, are charged by the airline to your Business Platinum Card® Account.
  • $695 Annual Fee
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
19.49% – 28.49% Pay Over Time
$695
Excellent

+See More American Express Credit Cards

The Difference Between a Network and an Issuer

If all this talk of networks and issuers has you turned around, here’s a breakdown of the differences between the two. Essentially, credit card networks simply process the transaction; they do the heavy lifting, so to speak, of actually moving the money to and fro. The credit card network, not the issuer, determines where your card will be accepted.

Chart from Nilson Report Showing Top US Credit Card Issuers
This chart from the Nilson Report shows the top credit card issuers in the US.

On the other hand, the money that is used to make the transaction belongs to the issuing bank, or issuer. For instance, suppose Pretend Pete makes a purchase with his Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card card, which operates on the Mastercard network. The money Pete borrows to make the purchase comes from Capital One, but the money is transferred from Capital One to the merchant by Mastercard’s processing network.

Additionally, since the issuer is the one providing the money you borrow to make credit card purchases, your credit card bills are sent by — and paid to — the issuer, not the network. In Pete’s case, he would make his credit card payments to Capital One, not to Mastercard.

And, of course, as it’s the issuer’s money on the line, it’s the issuer who gets to set most of the terms of your credit card. In other words, the issuer determines the specifics of your credit card, including the rewards, annual fees — and credit requirements. The more money the card can potentially cost the issuer, the higher those credit requirements tend to climb.

What can add to the complication is that some credit card networks also operate as the issuing bank for their own cards, such as is the case with American Express and Discover. For example, the Discover it® Cash Back card is issued by Discover® Bank, and processed on the Discover credit card network.

Is There a “Best” Credit Card Network?

When it comes time to select a new credit card, the obvious question is, which network is the best? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. As with the related question of which issuer is the best, finding the best credit card network is more a matter of finding the best network for you.

In general, the only time most cardholders need to worry about their network is if they travel frequently abroad — some networks may be more widely accepted in certain countries than others — or simply prefer one network over the other (hopefully for reasons better than their “awesome” commercials).

For the majority of consumers, most of the differences between credit card networks can often be negligible, particularly if they primarily make domestic US purchases. The best strategy is likely to choose the card that best suits your need and spending habits, regardless of the network its on.

Advertiser Disclosure

CardRates.com is a free online resource that offers valuable content and comparison services to users. To keep this resource 100% free, we receive compensation for referrals for many of the offers listed on the site. Along with key review factors, this compensation may impact how and where products appear across CardRates.com (including, for example, the order in which they appear). CardRates.com does not include the entire universe of available offers. Editorial opinions expressed on the site are strictly our own and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by advertisers.