How to Accept Credit Card Payments

How to accept credit card payments in the US

By Rob Binns | Senior Writer | Updated: 23 March 2020

Accepting card payments isn’t as tough as it used to be. Understanding them, though? That’s a different matter. But that’s where we can help…


There’s never been a better time to start accepting credit card payments.

And we’re not just saying that, either. Ten years ago, applying for a merchant account was a nightmare fees were opaque, contracts were long, and there was a limited range of merchant services providers you could choose from. 

2020 is a new era, though, and businesses looking to boost sales by accepting card payments can benefit. Credit card processing fees are cheaper and more transparent. More companies offer pay-as-you-go rates, and all the gear you need to take payments – such as a Point of Sale (POS) system – looks better, works faster, and is easier to use than ever.

So just how do you accept credit card payments? We’re going to tell you. But in order to get the most out of all the juicy advice coming up, you’ll first need to consider three things:

  • 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 such as Helcim, a payment service provider such as Square, or with an ecommerce solution that slots straight into your business’ website (Shopify is good). 

Confused? Don’t be. We’ve put together this not-at-all-confusing flowchart to help you decide how you should accept credit card payments:

How to accept credit card payments

Alright… it is a little confusing. But all that terminology will be explained. 

Jump into the list below to navigate to the section you’re most interested in (or where the flowchart is telling you to go), and start browsing what kind of kit your business will require to take credit card payments.


POS system

What is it?

A Point of Sale (POS) system lets you accept card payments at the point of sale (i.e. the location where goods are sold, and where money changes hands). POS systems also track stock, monitor sales, and remember your customer’s card details and past purchases. Basically, they help you provide a seamless experience at the register.

A POS system includes hardware components for accepting credit card payments, including:

  • Your cash register
  • The screen you use to log transactions
  • A receipt printer
  • A barcode scanner
  • A card machine for swiping or dipping credit cards
How to accept credit cards with a POS system

POS systems also contain software elements, such as:

  • Inventory management
  • Customer loyalty discount schemes
  • Integration with your ecommerce sales and accounting programs

If you want to accept face-to-face card payments, then, choosing a POS system has to be your first point of call. But how come?

Well, a POS system determines the look of your counter. It’s what your customers will see when ordering, and what your staff have to be able to use day in, day out – with plenty of ease and comfort.

Plus, it’s not enough to just accept your customer’s money – you’ve got to give them an experience worthy of coming back for. Anyways, how will you know how much you’ve sold, or who your most productive member of staff is? How else will you stay on top of your inventory, and ensure that you’re keeping up with demand?

How do you get a POS system?

Some POS systems, such as Toast POS and Square, come with the built-in ability to process card payments. This type of ‘all-in-one’ POS system offers a simple approach; a complete POS and credit card payment processing solution from a sole supplier. 

Alternatively, you can apply for a dedicated merchant account first, and then build a POS system around it. How? Find out below.


Dedicated merchant account

What is it?

A merchant account is a type of bank account that allows you to accept credit and debit card payments. However you plan to take credit card payments – whether online, on the phone, or over the counter – you’ll need some form of merchant account.

‘Dedicated’, as used here, means that your merchant account is solely for accepting credit card payments for your business. To learn more about aggregated merchant accounts, head to our section on payment service providers below.

You can think of a merchant account as a kind of holding pen. It’s where funds go to be settled, before they arrive in your business bank account. You can apply for a merchant account directly through an acquiring bank, such as Chase or Bank of America. Your other option comes in the form of companies called ISOs (Independent Service Organizations).

As the name suggests, ISOs are independent companies offering merchant services directly to businesses. They still work with the banks, but are generally cheaper, and offer superior customer support. Our top ISOs are:

Fattmerchant: Subscription-based model suited to large value transactions

Flagship Merchant Services: Offers short contracts suitable for small merchants

Heartland Payment Systems: Low processing rates for SMBs

Helcim: Fair, transparent pricing for businesses of all sizes. Try it now?

National Processing: Ideal for retailers, with a sumptuous price match guarantee

Is a dedicated merchant account right for you?

A dedicated merchant account works out cheaper if your business has a high sales volume. However, it’s more difficult to set up (and understand!) than with an all-in-one provider – you’ll face a credit check, for instance. But its low transaction fees do make it cheaper in the long run.

If your business expects only small transaction volume and value, then a dedicated merchant account isn’t for you. And if you’re in a higher-risk industry, or just want to forgo a long application and thorough examination of your credit score, it’s definitely not for you. Skip straight to our section on payment service providers if you fall into this bracket.

What do you get with a dedicated merchant account?

Typically, dedicated merchant accounts come with one of three types of card machine:

Countertop card machine: For retail businesses, these devices plug into the wall and let you accept credit card payments from one place.

Portable card machine: For hospitality businesses that need to take payment directly to the customer.

Wireless/mobile card machine: For tradespeople and micro-merchants accepting credit card payments on the go.

How do you apply for a dedicated merchant account?

You’ll have to go to a bank or ISO, and provide key information about your business. This will include your tax returns, business activities, payment model, and banking information. No stone will be left unturned.

Is it possible to get a POS system with your merchant account?

Yes! Most merchant account providers work with POS suppliers to offer their customers a more complete card payment solution. Flagship Merchant Services and Fattmerchant, for instance, both outsource to highly regarded POS system provider Clover to offer merchants the whole package.

The drawback? You won’t be working with the POS supplier directly. That means it can be more difficult to get the right technical support when you need it.


Payment service provider

What is it?

Payment service providers (also known as payment facilitators) are companies offering ‘all-in-one’ POS solutions. They’ll handle your credit card payment processing by funnelling your transactions through their own, ‘aggregated’ merchant account. This can save you money and hassle, but puts you in a less flexible, less negotiable situation.

What do you get?

A payment service provider will equip you with a card reader to accept swiped, dipped, and contactless card transactions.

how to accept credit cards with a payment service provider

That card reader pairs with an app on your smartphone or tablet to form the skeleton of a basic POS system (pictured). For a more expansive solution, however, you’ll still be able to purchase all the rest of the equipment (barcode scanners, receipt printers, and cash registers) directly through the payment service provider.

How do you apply?

It’s actually pretty easy. Many payment service providers don’t require a credit check, and the application process is far less rigorous than with an ISO or bank. 

The reason for this is that, with a payment service provider, you won’t get your own, dedicated merchant account. Rather, your transactions will be ‘batched’ together with those of thousands of other merchants. For you, this means:

You’ll have a better chance of being accepted

Fees are simpler to understand – you’ll pay just a flat rate per transaction

However, opting to go with a payment service provider means you’ll have to forgo a greater degree of control over your account. What that means is:

X Your provider is liable to close your account, without notice, at the first sign of suspicious-looking activity

X It’s more expensive in the long run

On the whole, though, opting for a payment service provider has huge benefits for small businesses. Remember, it’s really easy to sign up – you can apply online with Square, for instance, in just a few minutes, and get your first card reader for free.

Ecommerce solutions

Just looking to accept credit card payments online? You’re in the right place…

What ecommerce solutions are available?

Payment gateway

A payment gateway is what you’ll need in order to accept credit card payments online. It’s a piece of software that authenticates and secures payments made through your website. A payment gateway is hosted either on your website (to help maintain a consistent customer journey) or on the website of your payment gateway provider (cheaper and more compliant, but potentially disruptive to the user experience).

Wondering what compliance looks like when it comes to accepting credit card payments? Check out our guide to credit card processing rules, regulations, and laws to find out.

how to accept credit card payments with a virtual terminal

Virtual terminal

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

Virtual terminals aren’t just for phone payments, either. You can use them to process orders received by mail, or as a backup for face-to-face payments if your regular card machine is on the fritz.

Virtual terminals can also be used to process invoices, and you can save customer card details for speed and simplicity.

Pictured: A screenshot of PayPal’s virtual terminal, where you enter your customer’s card details to accept payment.

Ecommerce platform

You can also use an ecommerce platform – such as Etsy, BigCommerce, or Shopify – to manage your sales, marketing, and operations all from one place. 

Ecommerce platforms let you build a website from scratch, then start selling through it. Use drag-and-drop functionality to design your product pages with ease, and customize the entire look and feel of your site. Better still, ecommerce platforms integrate with the tools you use every day – meaning they can slot straight into your business.

How do you get an ecommerce solution?

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 more dynamic (but more complicated!) approach to getting paid online. So, if this is your first time accepting credit card payments, we recommend keeping it simple. How?

By entrusting your online card payment services to a single merchant account or payment service provider. Everything will be in one place, and you won’t have to go flipping through a big book of contacts every time you need technical support.

Our top tips for accepting credit card payments

Where do you sell? How much do you sell? What kind of customer support do you require? Before you jump straight into a contract, read on for our top four tips for accepting credit card payments.

Sales environment

First off, have a think about where you’ll be accepting card payments from. Purely online? From a bricks and mortar establishment, or maybe at a market stall? Your sales environment is crucial, because where you trade will determine how you take credit card payments.

Payment service providers such as Square typically offer more flexible, portable card readers. They plug straight into your phone and pair with an app on your device via Bluetooth. These kind of card readers are also able to take card payments without wifi, meaning they’re a great fit for remote businesses.

The countertop card machines offered by ISOs are ideal for retail businesses, while restaurants will need a less static solution. And if you just want to sell online (and already have a website you’re proud of), you can sign up to a payment gateway provider such as Stripe. It’s quick, with little hassle and few checks.

If you don’t have a website, though, an ecommerce platform is a better option. Create a stunning website with Wix, put together some enticing product pages, then… start selling!

Sales volume

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

Higher sales volume? Go for a dedicated merchant account with Heartland Payment Systems or Fattmerchant. Trust us; in the long run, their low transaction fees and better customer support will make them a safer (and cheaper) bet.

Lower sales volume? Try a mobile card reader – Square and PayPal both work well. They also offer POS add-ons, and make great all-in-one solutions for accepting face-to-face payments. Processing fees are higher, but the lack of setup or ongoing monthly costs makes it worth your while.

Customer support

This one’s a biggie. Before you sign up with a merchant account provider or begin browsing POS systems, ask these questions; 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 support staff at the weekend, or after hours?

It may not seem like a big deal now. But when you’re grappling with a big queue in your store 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 the most new merchants when first accepting card payments, it’s this one. Be warned – the less scrupulous merchant account providers will offer amazing deals to rope you into lengthy contracts

No new business should have to put up with massive early termination fees and long contracts. So read the small print carefully. 


Summary

How do you accept credit card payments? Let’s summarize.

1. First, you’ll require a merchant account. Contact your bank or an ISO for a dedicated merchant account, or apply online with a payment service provider such as Square for an aggregated solution.

2. Next, you’ll need a POS system – if you plan to take face-to-face payments, that is. A POS system will help you keep track of inventory and manage staff, and process sales in a smoother, more efficient manner. POS hardware can be provided with a merchant account, purchased separately and integrated in, or bought from a payment service provider as an add-on.

3. To accept credit card payments online, you’ll need a payment gateway for your website, or a virtual terminal to take payments over the phone. If you don’t have a website, it’s easy to set one up through an ecommerce platform such as Shopify or Wix, then begin selling through it.

That’s all from us! To further discuss the weird and wonderful world of accepting credit card payments, tweet @robdbinns or email us with your own experiences at the till. Thanks for reading!

Rob Binns
Rob Binns Senior Writer

Rob writes mainly about the payments industry, but also brings industry-specific knowledge of CRM software, social media monitoring, and invoice finance. When not exasperating his editor with bad puns, he can be found relaxing in a sunny corner, with a beer and a battered copy of Dostoevsky.

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