If you are ready for your small business to accept credit cards, then it is important to understand what merchant accounts are and how they work. Most merchants who accept credit cards have one, although some use payment facilitators – also called payment aggregators, such as PayPal and Square. These companies place merchants under their master merchant account as submerchants to do their credit card processing.
What is a merchant account?
A merchant account is a relationship your business has with a merchant services provider, also known as a credit card processor. A narrower definition of a merchant account is a temporary account that holds the money from your credit card sales before it transfers to your bank account. Funds from the merchant account are automatically moved in one or two business days. Typically, when people use the phrase "merchant account," they mean all of the services provided by the merchant services provider – including the merchant account itself, the actual processing of the payments, customer service, and software.
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All merchant service providers set up an account for each of their merchants to facilitate payment flow. In addition to enabling your business to accept credit and debit cards, a merchant account may let you accept these other forms of payment:
- Apple Pay
- Google Pay
- Samsung Pay
Why should you consider a merchant account for your business?
The more you make payments effortless for customers, the more sales you will generate. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have at least one credit card, which means fewer and fewer consumers are walking around with cash. This makes credit and debit cards the number one way to make purchases.
How do merchant accounts work?
These are the steps to complete a credit card transaction:
- A consumer offers their card to make a purchase.
- The card information is either captured by a physical card reader or POS device for an in-person sale. The data is taken by the merchant services provider's software after the customer enters their information into an online e-commerce payment form, or an employee manually inputs it into a web-based virtual terminal software interface for phone or mail sales.
- This card information, plus the purchase amount and merchant identifier, go to the merchant services provider, which sends it to the bank that issued the customers' card.
- The issuing bank looks at the customer's account to see if there is enough credit or funds to cover the transaction amount.
- If not, the bank sends the processor a message that the transaction is declined.
- If it is approved, the issuing bank transfers the funds to the merchant account where it is held temporarily.
- The merchant services provider accumulates the funds from the company's credit card sales in the merchant account, and automatically transfers the balance to the linked bank account every one or two business days.
You can see all of your transactions in the software from the merchant services provider, and use it to create sales reports and issue refunds. Some merchant software also enables you to schedule staff, manage inventory and keep customer records.
Merchant account fees and rates
All credit card processors charge a rate based on sales volume. This is a percentage of the purchase amount and sometimes a flat amount per transaction. Transaction rates range from 0.5% to 5% of the purchase amount, plus up to 30 cents per transaction.
Some credit card processors also charge a monthly fee, which includes customer service, statements and, sometimes, advanced software or security features such as PCI compliance (a security requirement). There are also incidental fees when chargebacks take place.
If you have an in-person business such as a store, restaurant or food truck, you will probably want to get card processing hardware like a mobile card reader, fixed card reader or point-of-sale (POS) system. These must be purchased, although some credit card processors have special deals for new merchants that eliminate or reduce the cost of a basic card reader.
How to obtain a merchant account
There are many merchant services providers – including banks and credit unions. See our best picks for merchant services providers for options. To obtain a merchant account, do some research online to find out rates and fees, what is included, the type of hardware available and the types of payments each provider enables you to accept. When you find one that meets your company's needs, you can apply online. Not all businesses are accepted for a merchant account, here is what most providers look for:
- Good credit – both business and personal
- Established business – preferably at least three years
- An existing business bank account
- A good record with a previous merchant account
Some merchant service providers avoid high-risk accounts, such as cannabis dispensaries, collection agencies and online gambling.
Alternatives to merchant accounts
Although a merchant account is an important element in the whole payment process, it is not absolutely necessary to have one. There are several credit card payment facilitators that use a different business model from traditional merchant services companies. Rather than setting up a merchant account for each business, they have one giant merchant account, so your company can be set up as a submerchant under that. All money coming in from the submerchants goes into this account, and then is divided up into separate ones for each merchant, which can then be transferred to your company's bank account.
Here are some advantages and disadvantages to this approach:
Pros of submerchant account
- It's easy to get approved, especially if your business is a startup or very small and does not have much credit history.
- All PCI compliance is taken care of without additional costs.
- It's easy to integrate with online platforms, like shopping carts and marketplaces.
- There are no monthly fees (this also goes for some merchant services providers).
Cons of submerchant account
- It has higher transaction rates.
- It's more sensitive to potential fraud, which may result in freezes and holds of your funds.
- It has higher chargeback fees.
Here are some of the major credit card facilitators:
PayPal was the original credit card facilitator and, as the oldest, has some advantages. One of those is that many online platforms already offer PayPal as a payment option; all you have to do is input your PayPal business account information. PayPal also has a huge user group, with over 392 million active users. Customers with PayPal accounts often prefer it as a payment method. Of course, when you have a PayPal business account, you can accept not only credit and debit cards, but also PayPal accounts. For e-commerce, PayPal has an intuitive interface, and displays payment buttons for payment types that it knows the customer has – such as Venmo and PayPal.
Another plus is that PayPal credit card processing allows you to accept Venmo, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and PayPal Credit (Buy Now, Pay Later), making it more convenient for your customers. PayPal is used across the globe in 22 currencies, so it is a good solution for international sales.
On the negative side, PayPal is known for freezing and holding merchant funds whenever it suspects credit card fraud. Its customer service is not rated particularly well, partly because of this issue. Additionally, its rates can be high, especially for online transactions and invoicing. However, its rates through the Zettle program for in-person and multichannel sales are competitive.
Square's offerings in the credit card processing arena are similar to PayPal's. Its rates for online sales and other card-not-present transactions are lower than PayPal's, but higher than PayPal Zettle's. Square has multiple plans, most of which involve a monthly fee, unlike PayPal, which has no monthly fee.
Square has hundreds of integrations with other platforms and robust software, including industry-specific versions for complete management of retail and restaurant businesses. E-commerce setup for Square requires a web developer for most companies, whereas PayPal benefits from prebuilt installations with a variety of partners.
Square is much less likely than PayPal to freeze or hold merchant funds, but it refuses service to merchants in a long list of prohibited industries. Learn more in our full review of Square.
Stripe is another credit card facilitator, but it is geared toward online sales. It has little software, hardware, or support for point-of-sale or mobile transactions. It does require a web developer to set it up, so it is not suited for nontechnical entrepreneurs on tight budgets. On the plus side, its security is stellar. Stripe's rates are comparable to Square's, without the monthly fee. International transactions incur an extra 1%, plus another 1% if it is a different currency, so it is not the best choice for international sales. Learn more in our complete review of Stripe.