Types of Fuel Card: How to Choose the Right Card for Your Fleet

A trucker holds a fuel card in his hand.

Fuel cards – also known as gas cards – make it easier for your employees to buy gas for your business fleet and give you more control over fleet spending. Some even offer discounts on fuel.

However, choosing the right fuel card for your business can be challenging. There are many different types of fuel cards, and competing offers from providers can make it more difficult to evaluate what you need. If you choose incorrectly, you could have a hard time managing fuel payments or end up paying unnecessary fees.

In this guide, we’ll explain the different types of fuel cards and how they work. We’ll also offer tips on how to choose the right type of card for your business.

Short on Time? Here Are the Key Takeaways

  • A fuel card is a credit or debit card that you can give to your employees to purchase fuel and pay for other expenses for your fleet.
  • The most common types of fuel cards are fuel credit cards and prepaid cards. Unsecured fuel credit cards require a credit check, while secured fuel credit cards and prepaid cards do not.
  • Branded fuel cards and cardlock fuel cards can only be used at brand-specific fueling stations, while universal cards can be used at any gas station.

What Is a Fuel Card?

A fuel card, also known as a fleet card, is a commercial credit or debit card that enables you and your employees to buy fuel for your fleet. Fuel cards can be issued by banks, gas and fuel card companies, or third-party providers that build their own networks of participating gas stations.

You can authorize employees as cardholders on your account and give each of them their own fuel card. Fuel purchases on employees’ cards will be reported to your account.

Many fuel cards can be used to purchase more than just gas. You can authorize employees to make other fleet-related purchases such as maintenance, parking, tolls, and more. Different cards give you varying degrees of flexibility to control what your employees can buy.

Importantly, fuel cards also give you insights into your business’ fleet expenses. You can see how much drivers are spending on fuel and other fleet purchases. Some cards even integrate with your fleet telematics software so you can compare fuel costs with fuel efficiency, driving behavior, and other data.

The Different Types of Fuel Cards Explained

We’ll break down the different types of fuel cards and how they work so you can decide which type is best suited for your business.

Fuel credit cards

Fuel credit cards work similarly to business credit cards, except they can typically only be used for fuel and fleet-related purchases. You can authorize employees as cardholders and give each driver their own card. All cards are connected to a single account for your business, so you’ll receive a statement at the end of the month that includes all the purchases your employees made across all your cards.

Many fuel credit cards offer discounts on gas purchases. Some cards give you cashback at all gas stations, while others offer discounts at in-network stations.

There are two subtypes of fuel credit cards: unsecured and secured cards.

Unsecured fuel credit cards

Unsecured fuel credit cards work like traditional cards. At the end of each month, you must make a minimum payment toward your statement balance, but you’re not required to pay off your entire balance. Any remaining balance will be charged interest.

In addition, unsecured cards have a credit limit set by your card issuer. Your balance can never exceed this amount.

You’ll need to undergo a credit check to qualify for an unsecured fuel credit card. If you have poor credit or your business is new, you may have difficulty qualifying.

Secured fuel credit cards

Secured fuel credit cards are designed for businesses with poor credit. You normally don’t have to submit to a credit check to qualify for these cards.

Secured cards require a deposit before you can use them. Your credit limit is equal to your deposit. You’ll still pay your balance every month and can carry a balance from one month to the next. As long as you pay off your balance, your deposit will be returned to you when you decide to close your account.

Payments on a secured fuel credit card are usually reported to credit agencies, so using one of these cards can help you build your business’ credit score.

Pros

  • No need to pay for fuel upfront
  • Can make purchases up to your credit limit
  • Typically offer discounts on gas
  • Allows you to carry a balance from month to month
  • Secured fuel credit cards can help your business build credit

Cons

  • Unsecured fuel credit cards require a credit check
  • Can have high interest rates on carried balances

Best for:

  • Companies with limited cash flow that don’t want to pay for gas upfront
  • Companies with strong credit (unsecured fuel credit cards)
  • Companies that want to build credit (secured fuel credit cards)

Prepaid fuel cards

Prepaid fuel cards are cards you load money onto and then give to your drivers to pay for fuel and other fleet expenses. You can reload cards at any time, usually through an online portal.

One of the benefits of prepaid fuel cards is that since they’re not credit cards, they don’t require a credit check. Many of the best business fuel cards with no credit check are prepaid cards.

However, it’s important to monitor the balances on your prepaid cards. Otherwise, your employees could be left stranded without funds to pay for fuel.

Prepaid cards may also be difficult to manage if your business has intermittent cash flow. You’ll have to pay for fuel ahead of time, which means you can’t postpone paying for fuel until the end of the month after your customers have paid their invoices.

Pros

  • No credit check required
  • May offer discounts on gas at in-network stations
  • Reload your cards at any time

Cons

  • Requires you to pay upfront for fuel
  • Funds can run out, leaving your drivers without a way to pay for gas

Best for:

  • Businesses with steady cash flow
  • New businesses or businesses with poor credit

Branded fuel cards

Major oil companies offer their own branded fuel cards that can be used at their gas stations. For example, Shell offers a fuel card that can be used at Shell stations nationwide and ExxonMobil offers a similar fuel card that’s good at nearly all ExxonMobil stations.

Branded fuel cards are usually a type of unsecured credit card and require a credit check to qualify. They also have credit limits and interest rates on unpaid balances just like unsecured credit cards.

The upside to using a branded fuel card is that they offer deep discounts on gas at the provider’s gas stations. For example, Shell’s fuel card offers a discount of up to $0.06 per gallon every time you fill up.

The downside is that most branded fuel cards can only be used at the provider’s gas stations. That is, you can’t use a Shell card to pay for gas at an ExxonMobil station or vice versa.

Pros

  • Deeper discounts on gas compared to unbranded fuel cards
  • Some cards offer discounts on other fleet services

Cons

  • Can only be used at a specific gas station brand
  • Requires a credit check

Best for:

  • Businesses willing to be loyal to a specific gas station brand in exchange for discounts
  • Businesses that prefer a fuel credit card over a prepaid card

Universal fuel cards

Universal fuel cards can be unsecured or secured credit cards or prepaid fuel cards. They can be used at any gas station, but offer discounts on fuel if you visit in-network gas stations.

Different providers have networks of varying sizes that include different gas station brands. As an example, AtoB offers a universal fuel card with discounts at more than 30,000 Kwik Trip, Sheetz, TA, and Speedway-branded gas stations around the country.

Universal fuel cards usually provide smaller discounts compared to branded fuel cards, but the advantage is that you can use them at more gas stations. These cards typically carry activation and monthly fees, so keep in mind the costs can outweigh your savings if your fleet doesn’t use a lot of gas.

Pros

  • Credit card and prepaid card options available
  • Multiple discount networks that include different gas station brands
  • Can be used at any gas station (including out-of-network stations)

Cons

  • Smaller discounts compared to branded fuel cards
  • May have activation and monthly card fees

Best for:

  • Businesses that have distributed fleets using many different gas stations
  • Businesses that purchase large quantities of gas each month

Cardlock fuel cards

Cardlock fueling stations are commercial-only gas stations designed to accommodate large commercial vehicles and trucks. Examples include Pacific Pride and CFN.

Cardlock fueling stations typically only offer diesel fuel and aren’t open to the public. You must have a cardlock fuel card to use these fueling stations. Cardlock fuel cards don’t offer discounts on gas, but cardlock fueling stations typically have reduced prices compared to standard gas stations.

Pros

  • Cardlock fueling stations accommodate large trucks
  • Reduced fuel prices compared to standard gas stations

Cons

  • Cards can only be used at cardlock fueling stations
  • Many cardlock stations don’t offer unleaded gasoline

Best for: 

  • Businesses with large commercial vehicles and trucks

Business credit cards with fuel rewards

You can use any business credit or debit card to buy fuel for your fleet. Many business cards offer rewards specifically for fuel purchases, such as bonus points or cashback on your next credit card statement.

However, most businesses with fleet vehicles opt for dedicated fuel cards over business credit cards with fuel rewards. That’s because these general-purpose credit cards aren’t limited to being used for fleet expenses. So, you have less control over your employees’ spending.

In addition, general-purpose business credit cards may not integrate with your fleet management software or your fleet’s telematics devices, making it more difficult to track fuel economy.

Pros

  • Can be used for all types of purchases, not just fuel
  • Integrate with business accounting software

Cons

  • Don’t integrate with fleet management software or telematics devices
  • Less control over spending on fleet expenses
  • Fuel rewards are usually worth less than discounts on every gallon

Best for:

  • Businesses that need general-purpose spending cards for employees

Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing a Fuel Card

It’s important to think carefully about your company’s needs when choosing a fleet card. Here are some questions to ask yourself to decide what card type is best.

How much do you spend on gas each month?

Knowing how much you spend on gas each month is important for figuring out whether a fuel card will positively impact your fuel economy or not. Many cards that offer fuel discounts also have monthly fees. So, if you have a small fleet and don’t use much gas, you may be better off with a fuel card that has no fees instead of seeking out the deepest discount.

On the other hand, if you purchase a lot of gas, it makes sense to prioritize fuel cards that offer the most money off on every gallon. Keep in mind that some fuel cards offer different discount rates for unleaded gas and diesel fuel.

What kind of vehicles does your business have?

The type of vehicles your business owns will also impact what type of fuel card makes the most sense. If you mainly have light-duty vehicles like pickup trucks and vans, look for cards that offer discounts on unleaded gas at regular gas stations.

If your business operates large commercial vehicles and trucks, it’s worth considering a cardlock fuel card or a card that offers fuel discounts at truck stops.

It’s also worth noting that while gasoline and diesel fleets will have a wide range of fuel cards to choose from, there are also fuel cards for electric vehicles.

Where does your fleet operate?

Thinking about where your fleet operates can help you decide between a branded fuel card and a universal fuel card. If your employees mostly drive in a small area, you might be able to get deeper discounts on gas by choosing a branded card for a gas station in your area.

More distributed fleets can benefit from universal fuel cards because they give you more flexibility to use different gas stations. If your fleet vehicles spend a lot of time on interstate highways, look for branded or universal cards that offer discounts at truck stops.

Do employees need to make purchases other than fuel?

Your fleet expenses include more than just fuel. Drivers may also need to pay for maintenance, parking, tolls, and more.

Some types of fuel cards, including fuel credit cards, prepaid cards, and universal cards, enable employees to make purchases from a wide range of vehicle-related vendors. Cardlock cards and many branded fuel cards, on the other hand, can only be used to buy fuel.

Do you have good credit?

It’s also important to consider your credit and your business’ credit before choosing a fuel card. Unsecured credit cards, branded fuel cards, and cardlock cards all require a credit check, and you may need fair credit or better to qualify.

If you have poor credit or your business is new and has no credit history, you can typically qualify for a prepaid fuel card or secured fuel credit card with no credit check. Many prepaid cards and secured credit cards report your payments to credit bureaus, so they can help your business build credit.

Opting for a prepaid or secured fuel card to avoid a credit check can also make sense if you’re planning to take out a business loan in the near future. That’s because credit checks can negatively impact your credit score, and you want your score to be as high as possible before applying for a loan.

Do you need telematics integration?

Integrating your fuel card with your fleet’s telematics devices can help you track changes in fuel efficiency and identify maintenance issues early.

Most types of fuel cards support telematics integration or integration with your fleet management software. However, integration may not be available if you choose a general-purpose business credit card that offers fuel rewards.

Verdict

Choosing the right type of fuel card can help you save money on gas and control your fleet spending. Fuel credit cards typically offer discounts and don’t require you to pay upfront for gas, while prepaid cards offer similar discounts and don’t require a credit check.

Branded fuel cards and cardlock fuel cards usually offer the deepest discounts, but can only be used at in-network gas stations. Universal fuel cards and business credit cards with fuel rewards can be used anywhere.

When choosing what type of fuel card to use, be sure to consider how much you spend on gas, what types of vehicles are in your fleet, where your fleet operates, and whether you can pass a credit check. To save even more money on fuel, check out our guide to improve fleet efficiency.

FAQs

Is a fuel card the same as a fleet card?
The terms fuel card and fleet card are often used interchangeably. Both refer to credit and debit cards you can give employees to buy fuel and pay for other vehicle-related expenses.
Should I use a fuel card?
If your business operates a fleet of vehicles, a fuel card is probably a good idea. These cards offer discounts on gas and give employees a way to pay for fuel when they’re on the road. You can monitor employees’ expenditures on fuel and don’t need to worry about reimbursing them for fuel purchases.
How much does a fuel card cost?
Many free fuel cards don’t have account fees or transaction fees. However, these free cards typically offer limited discounts and features. Fuel cards with more discounts typically charge a $25 to $50 account setup fee and then a monthly fee between $3 and $6 per card.
Written by:
Michael is a prolific business and B2B tech writer whose articles have been published on many well-known sites, including TechRadar Pro, Business Insider and Tom's Guide. Over the past six years, he has kept readers up-to-date with the latest business technology, corporate finance matters and emerging business trends. A successful small business owner and entrepreneur, Michael has his finger firmly on the pulse of B2B tech, finance and business.