How to Accept Credit Card Payments – 4 Simple Steps

How to accept credit card payments in the US
Zara Chechi

Only one in five transactions in the US are paid with cash, making it an important time to ensure your business accepts credit card payments.

So just how do you take credit card payments?

We’ve broken it down into four simple steps. Here you’ll find out how to take credit card payments, what you’ll need, who the providers are, and how much it will cost. Let’s take a look.

How to accept credit card payments

Step 1: Choose a POS system

A Point of Sale (POS) system lets you accept card payments at the point of sale, for example through a PDQ machine or mobile card reader. The best POS systems track stock, monitor sales, and provide a seamless customer experience.

Some POS systems come with the built-in ability to process card payments. This type of ‘all-in-one’ POS system offers a simple approach. You get a complete POS system, with card payment processing included, from a sole supplier. These systems usually offer straightforward, flat-rate transaction fees, too.

Card payment processors such as Zettle, Square, and PayPal offer all-in-one POS solutions. They process your card payments through their own merchant account, and provide all the POS hardware you need to start taking credit card payments.

Alternatively, you can choose a traditional POS system and integrate it separately with a merchant account.

To sum up: Choosing an POS system provider is the first step towards taking card payments. Small businesses should consider all-in-one (card payment processing and POS system) providers for their simplicity and value.

How to accept credit cards with a POS system

Step 2: Sign up for a merchant account

However you plan to take credit card payments – online, on the phone, or over the counter – you’ll need some form of merchant account.

Merchant accounts are where credit card payments go to be settled. Banks take a fee, then move the balance from your merchant account to your (separate) business account. You can apply for a merchant account through an acquiring bank or provider (such as Worldpay). Or, you can get one through a third party card payment processor, such as PayPal.

A traditional merchant account works out cheaper if your business has a high sales volume. But it’s more difficult to set up than with an all-in-one provider. For example, you’ll need to face a credit check. However, the low transaction fees make it cheaper in the long run.

Is it possible to get an POS system with my merchant account?

Yes! Most merchant account providers work with POS suppliers to offer their customers a complete card payment solution.

The drawback? You won't be working with the POS supplier directly. That means it's trickier to get the right technical support when you need it.

Merchant account providers that also offer POS solutions:

  • Clover
  • Square
  • Zettle

Costs

How much you’ll pay to take card payments depends on the provider – and the plan – you choose. It’ll also be affected by your card sales volume. Check out our comprehensive merchant account fees breakdown for more info.

To sum up: If you don’t go with an all-in-one POS solution, you’ll need to get a merchant account. Your merchant account provider gives you a card machine that slots into your existing POS system. This works out to be a more cost-effective option for larger businesses wishing to accept card payments.

Step 3: Get a payment gateway and virtual terminal

payment gateway is what you’ll need to take credit card payments online. Acting like a sort of ‘virtual POS system’, it authenticates and secures payments made through your website.

virtual terminal is a secure webpage that lets you take payments over the phone. You just log into the page from your device, enter your customer’s card details, and take the payment.

Both a payment gateway and virtual terminal are add-ons you can opt for when you’re accepted for a merchant account. If you’ve gone for an all-in-one solution for accepting card payments, then a virtual terminal service should be included as standard. However, payment gateways aren’t always included. If this is the case, don’t fret – simply set one up separately, with a third party provider.

Third party payment gateway providers offer a dynamic (but more complicated!) approach to getting paid online. We recommend you entrust your online card payment services to a single merchant account provider. You're now ready to start selling!

Payment gateway providers

  • Authorize.Net
  • Sage Pay
  • Amazon Pay

Costs

Again, the best card payment option for you depends on your sales volume and value. All-in-one providers usually charge a percentage on every ecommerce transaction you take. Traditional merchant account suppliers, on the other hand, charge monthly, so they’re less feasible avenues for smaller businesses.

To sum up: Payment gateways and virtual terminals are provided with your merchant account – if you want them. All-in-one providers, though, don’t always offer ecommerce solutions – so you may need to use a third party provider.

Step 4: Start processing card payments

Once the customer has paid via their credit card, the merchant's credit card terminal or website sends the cardholder's details to the bank or processor. This data is then sent to the right credit card network (e.g. Mastercard) and then passed on to the customer's bank for the payment to be authenticated.

The bank verifies whether or not the customer has enough in their account to make the purchase. The bank also carries out security measures to check the cardholder's details and any signs of fraud.

If the bank decides that the transaction is genuine, it approves it and sends this approval to the payment processor and the card reader.

Sounds complicated, but as you know this usually happens over a couple of seconds.

The last stage is clearing, this is when details of the transaction are sent to the cardholder and merchant services.

how to accept credit cards with a payment service provider

Our top tips for accepting credit card payments

Ask yourself these questions first

  • Do I want to take payments online, over the phone, or from a physical store?
  • How much do I expect to accept per month with credit card payments?
  • What’s the average value of the sales I’ll be making – high or low?

How you answer the above questions will determine how you accept credit card payments; whether it’s through a dedicated (traditional) merchant account, a payment service provider such as Square, or with an ecommerce solution that slots straight into your business’ website (Shopify). 

Sales environment

Our first tip? Think about where you’ll be accepting card payments from.  Your sales environment is crucial, because where you trade will determine how you take credit card payments.

Mobile card readers are better for remote businesses, as they're able to take card payments without wifi. Countertop card machines are ideal for retail businesses, while restaurants will need a less static solution. And if you only need to take payments online, sign up to a payment gateway provider such as Stripe. It's quick, with little hassle and few checks.

Sales volume

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. When it comes to card payment fees, your sales volume will always make a huge difference. Let’s quickly recap:

Higher sales volume? Go for a dedicated merchant account, as fixed monthly fees (and low transaction fees) make it more affordable in the long run.

Lower sales volume? Try a mobile card reader, such as Square. It also offers POS add-ons, and make great all-in-one solutions for taking face-to-face payments. Card payment fees are higher, but the lack of setup or ongoing monthly costs makes it worth your while.

Customer support

Before you sign up with a merchant account provider or begin browsing POS systems, have a think. Do they offer a dedicated account manager? What about 24/7 customer support? Can you get card payment advice over the phone, or just online? Can you reach them at the weekend?

It may not seem like a big deal now. But when you’re dealing with a long queue and your card machine stops working, you’ll want the best – and the quickest – support available.

Contract length

If there’s one pitfall that claims new merchants when first taking card payments, it’s this one. The less scrupulous merchant account providers will offer amazing deals to rope you into lengthy contracts.

All we’ll say is, no new business should have to put up with massive early termination fees and long contracts. So read the small print carefully. And if you are ready to start taking card payments, we can help.

Just fill out our quick, no-obligation webform today. We’ll do the rest. What that means is that you'll receive tailored quotes, from industry-leading merchant account suppliers.

It's free, takes about 40 seconds, and will empower you to boost sales through accepting card payments. Try it now!

FAQ

What is the easiest way to accept a credit card payment?
The easiest way to accept a credit card payment is by using a payment processor such as Square, Zettle, or Stripe. These providers handle the merchant account for you and tend to offer affordable card readers.
How can I accept credit card payments as an individual?
A lot of payment processors such as Square include payment links and invoices so you can take payments in various forms. You will however need a business account to collect the fund. If you don't have one, PayPal is a good option for individuals to take payments as you can deposit the money into your personal account.
Is there an app that allows me to accept credit card payments?
Mobile payment processors include apps that help you to take payments, this includes providers such as Square, Zettle, Sumup, and Stripe.
How do I receive a credit card payment online?
You'll need a payment provider that includes a payment gateway. This includes providers such as Stripe, PayPal, and Worldpay.
Written by:
Zara Chechi
Zara Chechi Business Services Expert

Zara is a Payments Expert, specialising in writing about Point of Sale systems. With a Law Degree from City University of London, she has used her legally-honed research and analytical skills to develop expertise in the Business Services world. Featured in FinTech Magazine, she quickly became an expert in payroll, POS systems, and merchant accounts.