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Visa and Mastercard are both credit card networks, which means they process credit card transactions. For the average cardholder, there’s not much difference, though one may occasionally provide features the other doesn’t.
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When I worked as the office manager for a sea kayaking company, I took a lot of reservations over the phone. Each time, I had to get the client’s credit card number. I’d always start by asking what type of card he or she had, until eventually I noticed a pattern.
If the card number started with 4, it was a Visa; with 5, it was a Mastercard; with 3, it was an American Express.
That observation only led to more questions: Besides the numbers they start with, what’s the difference between Visa and Mastercard? Which is better: Visa or Mastercard? At long last, I decided to dive into the topic — here’s what I learned.
Visa and Mastercard are credit card networks. Although it’s a common misconception, Visa and Mastercard do not issue credit cards — you wouldn’t, for example, send Visa an application to get approved for a credit card.
That’s why, even if you get a card from your bank, it’ll still have a Visa or Mastercard logo in the bottom corner. Your bank is the one loaning you the money, in the case of credit cards, but Visa or Mastercard is the one transmitting the information that makes your payment go through.
Visa and Mastercard are the largest payment networks in the world. In the United States in 2017, Visa cards accounted for a whopping 53% of credit purchase volume, according to The Nilson Report, followed by Mastercard (22%), American Express (21%), and Discover (4%).
Discover and Amex are unique in the payment processing world because they wear the hats of both credit card network and issuer. In other words, they issue their own cards and also process their own payments.
So what is the difference between Visa and Mastercard? For the everyday user, not a whole lot.
Both types of cards are accepted widely around the globe, at tens of millions of merchants and in more than 200 countries. On rare occasions, certain merchants will strike deals with certain networks: The most famous U.S. example is Costco, which only accepts Visa cards.
In 2016, Visa accounted for $139 billion of worldwide purchase transactions, trailed by Mastercard with $67.3 billion. Since American Express and Discover aren’t accepted as widely, they only accounted for a fraction of that: $7.2 and $2.3 billion, respectively.
But aside from differences in acceptance and transaction volume, the main difference between Visa and Mastercard — and the one you’re most likely to notice — is that they occasionally offer slightly different benefits.
When it comes to Visa vs. Mastercard, you’ll see the biggest differences when it comes to each network’s cardmember tiers. Which tier you qualify for — and which benefits are included — depends on a range of factors, including your income, credit scores, and chosen card. Here’s more information about the differences between Visa Traditional, Visa Signature, and Visa Infinite and Standard Mastercard, World Mastercard, and World Elite Mastercard.
Here’s what Mastercard and Visa have in common:
Here’s where you might find slight differences between Visa and Mastercard:
Is Mastercard or Visa better in Europe? The truth is both types of cards are widely accepted abroad, and are therefore better choices for international travel than Amex or Discover. As noted above, Mastercard may offer a slightly better exchange rate than Visa, but if you don’t travel frequently, it probably won’t make a huge difference. When comparing travel credit cards, look for one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and offers a solid rewards program. For Europe specifically, you also might want to consider chip-and-PIN cards, which work best with the continent’s automated ticket machines.
Neither network is better than the other. Both offer extensive worldwide acceptance, as well as many of the same perks. To the average credit card user, you’re not going to notice much of a difference.
The main thing to keep in mind is that, in some cases, card benefits (learn more about Visa benefits and Mastercard benefits) and certain fees can vary between the two. For example, Mastercard is known for offering lower currency conversion rates, which may be important if you travel or make international purchases frequently.
As for perks, make sure to check the card’s benefits before applying; you should be able to find them online pretty easily. You’ll likely see a lot of similarities and only minor differences.
There’s no reason not to have both a Visa and a Mastercard, but you don’t need a card that uses each network. Just apply for which credit cards make the most sense for your spending, and go from there.
There may very well be situations in which you’d want both a Visa and a Mastercard. Say, for example, you’re an avid international traveler — you might want the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review) (a Visa card) to rack up travel rewards on domestic purchases, then something like the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer (Review) (a Mastercard) to save on exchange fees while still earning cash back on every purchase.
Generally speaking, you’ll find more co-branded Visa cards — with airlines and hotels, for example — and more secured Mastercards, for people with limited or poor credit. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, we wouldn’t say there are make-or-break differences between Visas and Mastercards.
So, rather than focusing on the network, we’d recommend focusing on the perks and benefits that each specific card offers. Look for low or no annual fees, high-quality customer service, and easy-to-use rewards.
|Limited credit||Journey Student Rewards from Capital One (Review)||Capital One Platinum Credit Card (Review)|
|Cash back||Chase Freedom Unlimited® (Review)||Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer (Review)|
|Travel or dining||Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (Review)||Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card (Review)|
|High-end travel rewards||Chase Sapphire Reserve® (Review)||Citi Prestige® Card (Review)|
Despite the name, you can get this intro-level credit card even if you’re not a student. We love that this Visa offers cash back rewards, and a bonus for on-time payments.
This easy-approval Mastercard is great for brand-new credit users because you can get a credit limit increase consideration after your first six months. Combined with a lack of fees, and a rewards system that incentivizes responsible card use, it’s a solid choice for a first credit card.
Are you the weekly shopper in the family? Then this card might be right for you. You’ll get one of the highest cash back rates for grocery store purchases, an easy win with the signup bonus, and a long 0% intro rate for purchases. For no annual fee, what more could you ask for?
If you’re not interested in rotating categories — and just want easy-to-earn cash back — this is one of the simplest rewards cards to use. You’ll get 2% cash back on everything; no need to sign up, and no need to track categories. With no annual fee and a 0% introductory APR for 18 months on Balance Transfers, it might be our favorite cash back card ever.
This is one of the best Visa credit cards for foodies and travel fanatics. Not only does it earn valuable UR points, which can be transferred to more than a dozen different airline and hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio, but it also comes with a slew of perks, such as primary car rental insurance and lost baggage protection.
This card is a fun choice (and a fun color!). Aimed at foodies, it earns 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, and 2% at grocery stores. Whereas most cards are made for either restaurants or groceries, we like that this card offers solid rewards for both. Compounded with the fact it has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, this is a snappy option for anyone who loves living the good life.
This card is one of a handful of Visa Infinite cards available to Americans — and its exclusivity shows in its rewards and perks. If you have the credit needed to qualify for this card, and travel enough to warrant its annual fee, then the Reserve is a killer choice.
This high-end card is quite similar to the Reserve, albeit with a lower annual fee and smaller travel credit. Depending on your travel style, that difference might be offset by the fourth night free you’ll get when booking eligible hotel stays with the card. Capped at twice per year. All in all, the Prestige is worth a look, especially when considering it employs Mastercard’s superior exchange rate.
While the cards above are a selection of our favorite Visas and Mastercards, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. If you didn’t see a card that fits your needs, check out the best cards for rebuilding credit, the best cards for balance transfers, and the best cards for gas and groceries.
And remember: Though you’ll see some small differences when it comes to Visa vs. Mastercard, it’s fees, rewards, and responsible credit behavior that matter far more.
Still haven’t found what you’re looking for? See our picks for the Best Credit Cards for a mix of purposes and lifestyles — you’re sure to find the right card for you.
Susan is a freelance writer who specializes in turning complex financial topics into engaging and accessible articles. She's been writing about personal finance for six years, and was previously the senior writer at The Penny Hoarder and a staff writer at Student Loan Hero. Her personal finance writing has also appeared in publications like MarketWatch and Lifehacker.
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