If you’ve ever turned on a television or opened a magazine, you’ve probably seen advertisements for MasterCard (Priceless) and Visa (Life Takes Visa). But what do these companies actually do and what’s the difference, anyway?
MasterCard and Visa don’t issue credit cards
First, it’s important to understand that MasterCard and Visa do not issue credit cards. Instead, they make money by processing transactions between your point of purchase and your bank. They have nothing to do with your rewards programs, interest rates, late fees or customer service issues. Simply put, they are payment networks that connect merchant payment terminals with your bank’s credit card department. Because millions of merchants accept huge amounts of credit card purchases every day, banks prefer to use one of these third party networks to process credit transactions.
So should I get a Visa or MasterCard? And does it matter?
Though networks have nothing to do with fees or rewards, they arrange most non-reward “perks.” Your bank (Chase, Bank of America, etc.) is in charge of things like cash back programs and airline miles. But the networks (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, etc.) add perks like fraud protection, car rental insurance, travel insurance, purchase protection and more. When choosing a network, you need to determine which offers the most generous and relevant perks. Visa and MasterCard are pretty similar, but Visa is just a little better. Its advantage is twofold. First, Visa has better “Loss of Use” coverage on car rental insurance. Second, MasterCard offers “Return Protection” on very few cards, whereas Visa Signature offers the service broadly. With exclusivity arrangements falling by the wayside, you are now more likely to be given a choice between networks when approved for a credit card. If your choice is between Visa and MasterCard (and it often will be), we recommend Visa, especially if the card falls under the Visa Signature category.
on Capital One's
on Capital One's
Citi Simplicity is pretty much the best low APR/balance transfer offer out there: 18 months interest-free, with a low 3% balance transfer fee. It also has no annual fee, but what sets it apart is that it has neither a late fee nor a penalty APR, so you won’t see your interest rate jacked up to 30% if you miss a payment. It’s ideal for anyone who needs to make a big purchase and pay it off over time, or for anyone who’s already got some credit card debt.
Of course, Visa and MasterCard aren’t the only networks out there. Discover and American Express are the main competitors. Generally, Discover offers the worst perks (no purchase/return protection, no loss of use coverage on rental cars, and no concierge services). American Express has the best perks but is not, unfortunately, as widely offered or accepted as Visa or MasterCard. American Express has better insurance coverage on both return and purchase protection and offers the same protection on all cards—not just premium offerings. For a good American Express rewards credit card, check out the Starwood American Express. It offers big earnings on hotel stays and some great signing bonuses. But if you’re like most people, you’ll stick with the big guys—Visa and MasterCard—simply because they are so universally accepted.