Knowing the lay of the land will help you better identify how to get the best processing solution. Once you’re done reading this article, check out our more detailed breakdown of where credit card processing fees come from. For now, let’s dive in to how credit card processing works.
The bankcard networks that ferry billions of transactions between merchants, processors and banks are truly modern marvels. In just a matter of seconds, your terminal passes transaction information to a processor, and then through the card network to the issuing bank for approval. The issuing bank then sends an authorization back through the card network to your processor before it finally ends up back at your terminal or software.
As involved as the system sounds, obtaining an authorization for a transaction is just the first step. Authorizations must be settled before sales can be deposited into you business’s bank account. Credit card transactions happen in a two-stage process consisting of authorization and settlement. This is important because different fees are incurred at each stage, and a failure (or partial failure) in either step can result in increased costs and/or credit card sales not being deposited.
How Credit Card Processing Works: Key Players
The key players involved in authorization and settlement are the cardholder, the merchant (business), the acquiring bank (the business’s bank), the issuing bank (the cardholder’s bank), and the card associations (Visa and MasterCard.)
If you have a credit or debit card (as most of us do), you’re already familiar with the role of the cardholder. But just to be thorough — a cardholder is someone who obtains a bankcard (credit or debit) from a card issuing bank. They then present that card at a business to pay for goods or services.
Technically, a merchant is any business that sells goods or services. But, only merchants that accept cards as a form of payment are pertinent to our explanation. So with that said, a merchant is any business that maintains a merchant account that enables them to accept credit or debit cards as payment from customers (cardholders) for goods or services provided. You as a business owner are a merchant.
Acquiring Bank (Merchant’s Bank)
An acquiring bank is a registered member of the card associations (Visa and MasterCard). An acquiring bank is often referred to as a merchant bank because they contract with merchants to create and maintain accounts (called merchant accounts) that allow the business to accept credit and debit cards. Acquiring banks provide merchants with equipment and software to accept cards and handle customer service and other necessary aspects involved in card acceptance. The acquiring bank also deposits funds from credit card sales into a merchant’s account.
Interestingly enough, many merchants don’t recognize their acquiring bank as the primary provider of their merchant account. Acquiring banks are playing an increasingly hands-off role as the bankcard system evolves. Acquiring banks often enlist the help of third-party independent sales organizations (ISO) and membership service providers (MSP) to conduct and monitor the day-to-day activities of their merchant accounts.