The names of credit card payment networks like Visa and American Express are familiar the world over. We regularly talk about using a Visa card or Mastercard, but at the same time, many of us don’t understand what those brands represent, and how they affect what we can do with our cards.
Difference between a credit card network and a credit card issuer
Credit card networks provide the service which makes it possible for you to use your card to pay or get cash. Major credit card networks include Mastercard, Visa, UnionPay, American Express, Diners Club International, Discover and JCB. Other networks – like Mir, BC Card and Rupay – are less established. The payment card network logo on a card shows which payment network manages the settlement of payments made with that card.
For example, if your credit card uses the Visa payment network, you will only be able to use that card at merchants which have a partnership with the Visa network.
The credit card issuer, on the other hand, is the financial services provider which manages your credit card account, often in collaboration with your bank. The credit card issuer detemines what benefits you will receive with your card, how much you will pay in the way of fees, and what interest rate will be used.
In Switzerland, major credit card issuers include UBS, Conèrcard, Viseca, Swisscard, Cembra Money Bank, PostFinance, BonusCard (belongs to Cornèrcard), TopCard (belongs to UBS) and Swiss Bankers. Some of these issuers (Viseca, for example) issue credit cards on behalf of many different Swiss banks. Credit Suisse credit cards are issued by Swisscard AECS, which also issues American Express cards and the Coop Supercardplus.
Does the payment card network matter?
Most Swiss credit card terminals accept Visa, American Express and MasterCard credit cards, in addition to Maestro and PostFinance debit cards. Acceptance of Diners Club is somewhat more limited. As long as you only use your credit card in Switzerland, you will not likely notice much difference.
However, even in Switzerland there are a few exceptions, with certain merchants only accepting cards from specific credit card networks. Online shoppers in particular may find themselves limited to using credit cards from just one or two payment networks.
Credit cards running on the UnionPay, JCB, Discover and Mir credit card networks are not yet issued in Switzerland, but UnionPay and JCB are accepted by a fairly large number of merchants (particularly in touristic areas). Discover credit cards can be used at merchants which accept Diners Club.
Payment networks by numbers
Which credit card network would work best for you depends on where you plan to use your card. Some credit card networks are more widely used in certain countries and regions than others. In some cases, payment networks have deals with merchant acquirers or other payment networks so that you can use their cards at terminals or ATMs which would normally only accept other networks.
1. Visa is a U.S. company and is one of the largest and most widely accepted payment networks. Cards powered by Visa are accepted in around 200 countries worldwide by approximately 29 million merchants and around 2.2 million ATMs on the PLUS network. While Visa is well established in many countries, they are particularly useful for travel to many African countries where they are more widely accepted than MasterCard, American Express and other payment networks.
2. MasterCard operates a worldwide network. Aside from its home market in the U.S., MasterCard is particularly strong in Europe, having taken over the Eurocard credit card network in 2002. According to MasterCard’s estimates, its credit cards are accepted at approximately 33 million merchant outlets worldwide and can be used to get cash advances at around 1.9 million ATMs on the Cirrus network.
3. American Express is widely accepted in the U.S., Canada and Australia. It also has a solid merchant network in the UK and many other European countries. In Asia, American express cards can be used at many locations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Japan, and (to a lesser extent) in India and the Philippines. They are less widely accepted in China and other southeast Asian countries. In total, American Express cards can be used to get cash at 1.2 million ATMs worldwide. Although the number of merchants which accept American Express worldwide runs into the millions (6.9 million in the U.S. alone), it is substantially lower than the number of merchants which accept Visa or MasterCard.
4. Diners Club may not be as large as other card payment networks, but its unique partnerships give it an advantage in specific countries where other payment networks do not have a major presence. For example, a partnership with UnionPay lets you use your Diners Club card to pay at millions of merchants across China, where most merchants do not accept Visa and MasterCard but do accept UnionPay. You can also use your card to pay at any locations in Japan that accept JCB credit cards, at South Korean merchants which accept BC Card, and at merchants in Balkan countries which accept Dinacard. A partnership with India's NPCI allows you to use Diners Club cards at terminals and ATMs on the RuPay card network.
Because the Diners Club International network is owned by Discover, you can also use a Diners Club card to pay at 9.3 million merchants in the U.S., close to the same number that accept Visa and MasterCard. You can also get cash advances at any ATM displaying the PULSE or Diners Club network logos (over 1.8 million ATMs in 125 countries). Taking all partner networks into account, Diners Club cards are accepted by around 30 million merchants in 185 countries - close to the acceptance levels of Visa and Mastercard.
5. Credit card networks which, unfortunately, are not yet available to Swiss credit card users include: UnionPay, the main Chinese operator and the world’s fastest growing network; Discover, a major U.S. credit card network; JCB, the main Japanese credit card network; MIR, a Russian payments network; Rupay, a new Indian card network; Hipercard and ELO, both from Brazil; Dinacard, which is limited to Serbia; BC Card, used in South Korea. Thanks to partnerships, you can pay at merchants which accept many of these networks using specific Swiss credit cards (Diner’s Club, for example).
If you want to stay on the safe side, Visa or MasterCard have the largest networks and broadest acceptance. You will likely find at least some merchants and ATMs that accept cards running on one of those networks in most countries. These two networks are also widely accepted by online stores. However, if you use credit cards primarily as a means of paying for hotels, restaurants and airline bookings, an American Express card will likely work just as well.
Diners Club is accepted by a fair number of merchants in Switzerland, North America and the middle-east, but you may battle to use your card in some European countries and particularly at online merchants. For those traveling to China, Diners Club cards are currently the only Swiss credit cards that can be used to pay at China UnionPay terminals.