One of the most common questions we get at NerdWallet is: “Which is better, Visa or Mastercard?” It depends on how you define “better,” but there isn’t much difference between the two — and probably none that you would notice in your day-to-day life.
The first thing to understand is that neither Visa nor Mastercard actually issues or distributes credit cards. Credit cards are issued by banks, and those banks are the ones that set interest rates, charge fees and offer rewards. Visa and Mastercard are payment networks: They process payments between banks and merchants for purchases made with the cards.
Both payment networks offer cardholders certain benefits, such as rental car insurance, fraud protection and extended warranties. But when you’re choosing a card, it’s usually more important to consider what the issuing bank is offering than what you get from the payment processor.
Visa and Mastercard are (almost) equally accepted
Just about every merchant that accepts credit cards takes both Visa and Mastercard, That’s true not only in the United States, but also internationally, where acceptance is lower for American Express and Discover.
There are a few exceptions to this near-universal acceptance. Usually they occur when a merchant has an exclusive deal with one payment network. Probably the best-known such arrangement is at Costco wholesale clubs, which accept only Visa cards. (Prior to mid-2016, they took only American Express.) Similarly, Sam’s Club used to take Mastercard but not Visa, although it now accepts both. Even so, such exclusions are rare.
Differences between Visa and Mastercard
As far as consumer appeal goes, Visa and Mastercard share a lot more similarities than differences. Both offer three tiers of benefits. The higher-level offerings generally include discounted travel and vacation bundles.
Visa: Basic, Signature, Infinite
Visa offers two levels of benefits: base, Signature and Infinite. Most base-level Visa cards come with auto rental collision damage coverage, extended purchases warranties, unauthorized purchase coverage, emergency assistance and urgent card replacement. Visa Signature cards include all of the base-level offerings, as well as a 24/7 concierge service and an online portal that gives cardholders access to discounts and special access to entertainment, sporting events, dining and travel. Visa Infinite provides the same benefits as Signature but also includes a suite of superpremium benefits designed to appeal to high-net-worth individuals. Learn more about Visa Infinite.
Mastercard: Basic, world, world elite
MasterCard offers three tiers of benefits: base, World and World Elite. The base package offers perks similar to Visa’s. These include auto rental collision coverage, fraud liability protection, emergency travel assistance, card replacement and extended warranties. MasterCard offers one notable service that Visa does not: price protection. If you buy an item with a MasterCard and the price is reduced within 60 days, MasterCard will cover the difference, though there are exclusions.
Nerd note: Although Visa itself doesn’t offer purchase protection, some card issuers on the Visa network do offer security on price changes.
MasterCard’s World level includes additional perks such as a dedicated personal travel advisor (similar to Visa Signature’s concierge), longer price protection (120 days) and added amenities at certain hotels (such as complimentary breakfast, late checkout and room upgrades). World Elite, the top level, comes with all the benefits of the lower levels and tacks on discounted service at participating rental car companies, reduced prices on airfare and access to the World Elite Cruise and Vacations programs guide, which provides price cuts on cruises and other package trips.
Learn more about common benefits
Do the differences matter?
Again, when you compare credit card benefits to reach your decision, it’s more important to compare reward and perks offered by the issuer rather than the payment processor. These include: sign-up bonuses; cash-back rewards; points or miles; purchase protections such as extended warranties or price matching; and travel perks such as free checked bags or airport lounge access.
Check out our favorite cards on both networks
Keep in mind that which cards you can qualify for will depend on your credit. The best credit card rewards and perks are generally available to people with excellent credit. But there are decent credit cards for average credit. Even those working to build or rebuild their credit history have good options among credit cards for bad credit.
The bottom line on Visa vs. MasterCard
For some people, choosing Visa or MasterCard may provide a minor feature or two that acts as an added convenience. But most people would be better off spending time comparing what issuers offer, such as cash back and rewards earnings. This is where you’ll find the most value per dollar.
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Updated Oct. 16, 2017.