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A payment processor is a vendor businesses use to manage the logistics of accepting card payments. It shuttles card data from wherever customers tap, swipe or enter their card details to the payment networks — such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover — and banks involved in the transaction.
If your business wants to accept card payments, having a payment processor is a must. Some companies, like Square, combine payment processing with point-of-sale systems and hardware. Others, like Payment Depot, focus on payments. The best option depends largely on your business' sales volume and method of accepting payments.
How payment processing works
When a business accepts card payments, a payment processor works in the background to finalize those transactions and move money from the customer's card account to the merchant's account. Here's what the process looks like:
A customer gives the merchant their card information. This can be at a terminal in a store, a payment page online or through another method. The information is submitted through the payment gateway, which is a payment processing portal that sometimes comes bundled with payment processing services.
The payment gateway sends the information to a payment processor, which initiates the transaction by sending the information to the card network, such as Mastercard or Visa, for approval.
The card network informs the payment processor whether the payment request is approved.
The merchant completes the transaction with the customer.
Once the transaction is complete, the payment processor informs the bank that issued the customer’s card (the issuing bank) to send funds to the merchant’s bank (the acquiring bank).
The merchant gets access to the funds from the sale. This can happen immediately or within a few business days, depending on the payment provider and the type of account where the funds are sent.
The cost of card transactions
It costs money to build, maintain and operate the networks along which the data and money flow. The companies that do this work — card issuers, networks and payment processors — charge merchants for using these networks and services.
The fees for each transaction are collected from the merchant's sales by the payment processor, which takes a cut and passes the remainder along to the various intermediaries. The total fee, called the merchant discount rate, is generally 2% to 3% of the total purchase and includes:
Interchange fees make up the majority (about three-quarters) of the total fees incurred during a card transaction. Card networks set the rates, and the fees go to the issuing bank. For example, if the customer used a Citi Mastercard credit card, the interchange fee would be set by Mastercard and would go to Citi. The fee for each transaction varies depending on a variety of factors, including the type of card used, the industry the merchant is in and whether the card was used in person or online. Because of the many variables, there are more than 700 interchange rates, though the differences can be just a fraction of a percent.
Assessment fees and dues are paid to the card network, like American Express or Discover. The amount owed is a percentage of the month’s gross sales, with some variance for international sales, whether a transaction was paid with a debit or credit card and other factors.
Processor/acquirer fees compensate the payment processor.
How to choose a payment processor
Before choosing a payment processor, consider these questions.
Does the pricing structure make sense for your business?
The best pricing structure for your business depends on the industry, sales volume and trade-offs you're willing to make. There are three common types of pricing:
Interchange-plus pricing consists of the interchange rate plus a defined markup. The markup can be a percentage, a fixed amount or both. For example, you might pay the interchange rate plus 15 cents on all transactions.
Benefit: This pricing can often be less expensive than flat-rate or tiered pricing, especially for businesses with large sales volumes.
Disadvantage: With hundreds of interchange rates, merchants will likely see variability in their costs as interchange rates can vary from one transaction to the next.
Flat-rate pricing consists of a single rate for all transactions accepted a certain way, regardless of the specific interchange rate. For example, you might pay 2.3% plus 15 cents for in-person transactions and 3% plus 30 cents for online transactions.
Benefit: Flat-rate pricing is straightforward and predictable.
Disadvantage: The overall costs can be higher than interchange-plus costs, especially for businesses with high sales volumes.
Tiered pricing combines elements of interchange-plus and flat-rate pricing. Interchange rates are sorted into a few broad groups. Payment processors assign a different cost to each tier. For example, you might pay 1.7% plus 25 cents for debit cards and 3% plus 30 cents for a high-end rewards card.
Benefit: Costs are more predictable than interchange-plus costs, and rates can be more competitive than flat-rate pricing for certain types of transactions.
Disadvantage: The overall costs can be higher than interchange-plus costs, especially for certain transactions that are higher-risk for processors, such as online payments.
Other pricing details to consider:
Some payment processors have prices posted on their websites. Others offer quote-based pricing only.
A single payment processor might offer a variety of rates based on subscription level, industry type or sales volume.
Many payment processors charge a higher fee for online transactions to accommodate the increased risk of fraud.
Point-of-sale terminals can add to your overall costs. Some companies allow you to use your own tablet or phone while others have proprietary devices. Some companies allow you to buy the devices outright or through a payment plan while others lease the equipment.
» MORE: See our picks for POS systems
Where do you do business?
Do your customers pay online? At a checkout counter? Do you take your business on the road? Some payment processors, like Stripe, are designed primarily for e-commerce. Others, like Square, have several hardware options for in-person businesses. While the differences here are more with the payment gateway rather than the payment processing itself, this can be an important deciding factor.
What's your industry?
Some payment processors won’t provide services to businesses because of the regulatory or financial risk involved in accepting certain payments. Industries that sometimes are sometimes excluded in payment processors’ terms of service include those with:
High rates of fraudulent card transactions, such as gas stations.
High rates of chargebacks, like infomercial or telemarketing sales.
Sales that are regulated under federal or state law, such as firearms or marijuana.
If your business is in such an industry, your payment processor choices might be more limited.
Payment service providers vs. merchant acquirers
The final step of the transaction process is getting paid. There are two types of accounts you can choose from: a merchant account (provided by a merchant acquirer) or an account with a payment service provider.
When money changes hands during a card transaction, it goes from the customer’s bank (the issuing bank) to a merchant account, a bank account where the business that made the sale can access the funds received. It can take a few days for funds to become available to the business’ account holder, though some financial institutions allow advance access.
Hundreds of banks offer merchant accounts, ranging from large banks, like Chase, to institutions that specialize in merchant account services, like Payment Depot. Businesses of any size can open up a merchant account, but larger businesses often find this type of account to be most cost-effective and scalable.
Payment service provider accounts
If you use a payment service provider account, such as Square or Toast, you don’t have ownership of a merchant account directly. Instead, the payment service provider maintains its own merchant account, which collects the payments on behalf of your business and many others. Your funds get routed to a subsidiary account you maintain with the payment service provider.
Many popular payment service providers include features you might not get with a merchant account, like instant access to funds. However, because the payment service provider is ultimately the owner of the merchant account, you cede certain aspects of control. For example, if a payment service provider deems your business too risky, your account access can be disrupted.
How likely are you to change payment processors?
Some payment processors offer no-contract relationships without cancellation fees while others don’t. With some services, you’ll own your customer data if you choose another vendor in the future; with others, you won’t. That could mean you’ll have to start a new loyalty program from scratch if you switch, for example.
Our Nerdy Picks
Top payment processing companies
Square: Good all-in-one solution
Square’s payment processing services, which come included with its point-of-sale system, stand out with its easy-to-understand pricing. It charges 2.6% plus 10 cents per in-person transaction and 2.9% plus 30 cents for online transactions. Prices for restaurants or if you're using Square’s free version vary slightly.
Payment Depot: Good for low-cost payment processing
Payment Depot likens its pricing structure to a Costco membership. Payment Depot doesn't mark up the network interchange rates, but users pay a monthly membership fee, which starts at $79. It works with a variety of terminals or point-of-sale systems.
Stripe: Good for online businesses
If you do most or all of your business online, it’s useful to have a processor that specializes in e-commerce transactions. Stripe is a highly customizable option that also functions as a payment gateway and merchant account. It’s easy to use, too: You can customize a Stripe Checkout template and add it to your website. Stripe Checkout includes online-friendly features like real-time card validation and address auto-complete. It charges 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction for online payments and 2.7% plus 5 cents for in-person transactions.