Advertiser Disclosure

Many of the credit card offers that appear on this site are from credit card companies from which we receive financial compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). However, the credit card information that we publish has been written and evaluated by experts who know these products inside out. We only recommend products we either use ourselves or endorse. This site does not include all credit card companies or all available credit card offers that are on the market. See our advertising policy here where we list advertisers that we work with, and how we make money. You can also review our credit card rating methodology.

Visa vs. Amex vs. Mastercard [Differences, Acceptance & Perks]

Christy Rodriguez's image
Christy Rodriguez
Christy Rodriguez's image

Christy Rodriguez

Travel & Finance Content Contributor

88 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 36U.S. States Visited: 31

After having “non-rev” privileges with Southwest Airlines, Christy dove into the world of points and miles so she could continue traveling for free. Her other passion is personal finance, and is a cer...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
Keri Stooksbury's image

Keri Stooksbury


38 Published Articles 3331 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 47U.S. States Visited: 28

With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...
& Kellie Jez
Kellie Jez's image

Kellie Jez

Director of Operations & Compliance

6 Published Articles 1182 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 10U.S. States Visited: 20

Kellie’s professional experience has led her to a deep passion for compliance, data reporting, and process improvement. Kellie’s learned the ins and outs of the points and miles world and leads UP’s c...

We may be compensated when you click on product links, such as credit cards, from one or more of our advertising partners. Terms apply to the offers below. See our Advertising Policy for more about our partners, how we make money, and our rating methodology. Opinions and recommendations are ours alone.

Upgraded Points: Expertise You Can Trust

Our seasoned and experienced team brings years of expertise in the credit card and travel sectors. Committed to integrity, we offer data-driven guides to help you find the card(s) that best fit your requirements. See details on our intensive editorial policies and card rating methodologies.

  • Content by Leading Industry Experts
  • Routine Updates and Fact-Checks
  • First-Hand Credit Card Experience
  • Shared Across 200+ Top Outlets
  • Methodical “U.P. Rating” System
  • 1050+ Expert Credit Card Guides

You probably factor in a number of things when picking your next credit card, including the card’s travel rewards, cash-back potential, interest rates, and more. But looking at a card’s particular processing network? It’s probably not even on your radar! But which network your card is backed by — Visa, Mastercard, or American Express — has implications for where and how you can use it.

These 3 credit card processors oversee every part of the purchase process, including approving or declining a transaction, protecting you from fraud, providing travel benefits or other protections, and finally, making sure that money flows to and from the correct accounts behind the scenes. Some networks are more widely accepted, some offer better customer service, and others might be the best choice if you have less than stellar credit.

Here’s everything you need to know about these 3 credit card processors and the main differences between them.

Quick Facts Comparing Visa, MasterCard & American Express





American Express

Domestic Acceptance

10.7 million

10.7 million

10.6 million

International Acceptance

200+ countries and territories

210+ countries and territories

160+ countries and territories

Cards in Circulation in the U.S. in 2019

333.1 million

243 million

54.7 million

Purchase Volume (Debit/Credit) in 2019

8.945 trillion (4.890 credit, 4.055 debit)

4.767 trillion (3.015 credit, 1.752 debit)

1.225 trillion (credit only)

Card Transactions in 2019

185.5 trillion

108.4 trillion

8.8 trillion

Fraud Liability

Zero liability for:

  • Credit card transactions
  • Signature debit card transactions
  • PIN debit card transactions (if processed by Visa)

Zero liability for:

  • Credit card transactions
  • Signature debit card transactions
  • PIN debit card transactions (if processed by Mastercard)

Zero liability for:

  • Credit card transactions

Card Terms

Visa doesn’t set APRs, fees, or rewards.

Mastercard doesn’t set APRs, fees, or rewards

Refer to American Express’s terms and conditions

Card Issuing

When comparing all 3 networks, there is 1 main difference between American Express and Mastercard/Visa. American Express is both a card issuer AND a payment network. Mastercard and Visa are only payment networks. So what does that mean for you?

Card Issuer

The card issuer is the one that actually extends credit to consumers. When you use your card, the card issuer pays for the transaction upfront and gets reimbursed once you pay off your bill each month.

When you are issued an American Express card, you will only deal with American Express.

With Mastercard and Visa, you will also have a card issuer — which is typically a bank. For example, Chase credit issues cards with Visa will have both the Chase and Visa logos on them.

Payment Network

A payment network processes transactions, meaning it transfers funds from the card issuer to the merchant.

In the example noted above, Chase is the credit card issuer and Visa is the payment network.

American Express processes transactions for both its own American Express cards and cards from other issuers that use the American Express network. Examples of other companies that use the American Express payment network include Bank of America, BBVA Compass, Citigroup, U.S. Bank, USAA, and Wells Fargo.

Network Acceptance Rates

Another important factor to consider when comparing networks is how widely accepted it is. In short, it won’t do much good to have a credit card if it’s not accepted at the retailers you plan to visit.


To put it simply, the more merchants that accept your card, the better the card’s network. Visa and Mastercard have traditionally been the main contenders with acceptance at 10.7 million U.S. retailers.

But in the February 2020 Nilson Report, it was reported that 99% of credit card-accepting merchants in the U.S. can now accept American Express, meaning 10.6 million retailers now accept American Express. This is a huge change from 5 years ago when American Express was only accepted at 3.7 million.

Hot Tip: Just in the last year, almost a million new U.S. locations began accepting American Express.

It seems likely that a huge reason for this increase is due to the fees between the networks becoming closer aligned. In February 2020, Nilson reported that Visa and Mastercard swipe fees had a weighted average of 2.26% compared to American Express’s average fee of 2.3% — making this only a 0.04% difference.


Unfortunately, American Express’s international acceptance is much lower than its competitors. For example, American Express cards are accepted in more than 160 countries worldwide, which lags behind Visa and Mastercard that are both accepted in more than 200 countries.

While it’s easier to find places in countries like Canada or Australia that accept American Express, it is harder across Europe and Asia. Just to be safe, the best bet when traveling abroad is to have a Visa or Mastercard in your wallet.

Network Benefits

Your card’s network offers benefits based on the service level of your card, though not every card is guaranteed to include every benefit by level and issuers could offer any combination of available benefits across levels. It is likely that your card will offer additional benefits in addition to these network benefits, but the following includes the minimum benefits that may be offered.


Visa offers 3 levels of benefits for its cards. These levels include the following benefits:

Visa Traditional Benefits

  • Zero liability for fraudulent charges
  • Cardholder inquiry service
  • Roadside dispatch
  • Emergency card replacement
  • Emergency cash disbursement
  • Auto rental collision damage waiver

Visa Signature Benefits

Visa Signature offers all of the benefits of Visa Traditional plus:

  • Travel and emergency assistance services
  • Lost luggage reimbursement
  • Fine wine and food discounts
  • Golf discounts
  • Visa Signature Concierge
  • Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection

Visa Infinite Benefits

Lastly, Visa Infinite offers all of the perks of Traditional and Signature, in addition to:


Mastercard also offers 3 levels with each offering different minimum benefits. Here are the primary benefits at each level.

Standard Mastercard Benefits

World Mastercard Benefits

World Elite Mastercard Benefits

  • Extra levels of travel insurance
  • World Elite luxury travel benefits
  • Personal travel advisor
  • Mastercard Global Service Premium
  • Lyft credit
  • Boxed discount
  • Fandango discount

American Express

Specific benefits for American Express vary by card, but some common benefits offered include things like:

Hot Tip: It is important to reference the benefits for your specific card to get a full picture of all of the benefits your card provides. These additional items might include things like Global Entry statement credits, additional travel insurance coverage, increased warranty protection, and access to special events, among others.


There are all sorts of credit cards on the market — including cash-back cards, rewards cards, business cards, etc. Each of these credit cards that you apply for has its own set of eligibility requirements related to credit score, credit history, and income levels.

In general, the more benefits a card provides, the harder it is to qualify for. But in terms of comparing eligibility requirements for Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, American Express may be the hardest issuer to qualify for as most cards require applicants to have a “good” credit score of at least 670 to qualify.

In contrast, many cards offered by Visa and Mastercard only require a “fair” credit rating of 630. This is because Visa and Mastercard aren’t the issuers, thus they don’t control the minimum requirements. Banks and other card issuers can set these levels independently and aren’t as stringent with their requirements.

This means that if you are an applicant who has defaulted on a loan or has a limited credit history, you are more likely to get approved for a card in the Visa or Mastercard network.

Card Selection

There’s just not as wide a selection of cards issued by American Express compared to the number of cards that hold the Visa or Mastercard logo. This is because, as the card issuer, it offers its own cards and only a limited selection of cards with other card issuers on the American Express payment network. 

If you want a wider selection of cards to choose from, you’d be better off picking a card in the Mastercard or Visa network.

Hot Tip: Check out our guides to the best Mastercard, Visa, and American Express cards for rewards, perks, and cash-back.

Customer Service

American Express has an excellent reputation when it comes to customer service. In the 2020 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study by J.D. Power, American Express came in first in overall customer satisfaction. It has also done well consistently year over year.

JD Power Customer Satisfaction 2020
Image Credit: JD Power

With Visa and Mastercard, you won’t interact with Visa or Mastercard for customer service issues. Instead, you’d contact the credit card company that issued the card, like Bank of America, Chase, etc. There are many different companies that issue cards, so ultimately Visa and Mastercard don’t have control over the quality of the customer service you receive. 

Card Features May Be More Important

Choosing a credit card based on the credit card issuer along with the features of the individual card is more important than choosing based on the credit card’s network.

Hotel & Airline Partners

If you want a card specific to the hotel or airline you frequently use, you might be restricted to certain networks. For example, American Express is the only network that offers Delta and Hilton cards. United and Southwest cards are only offered on Visa. And if you want an IHG or Hawaiian Airlines card, this will be with Mastercard.

Transferable Point Currency Partners

For example, Chase Ultimate RewardsCapital One Miles, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Amex Membership Rewards each have different transfer partners. Transferable points currencies should be a huge factor when determining the best card for you. Racking up points that you can use for your next hotel stay or flight will surely be more valuable than points or miles that you will never use.

For example, if you’re hoping to use your points to get a flight on AerLingus, you’d want to go with a card that can get you Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards. Check out our Transfer Partner Tool Calculator to help you easily sort through the best options.

Store-Branded Cards

If you want a store card, you may not have any say in what network you use. For example, the Capital One Walmart Rewards® card is a Mastercard, the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi is on the Visa network, and the Macy’s Credit Card is processed by American Express.

Specific Card Benefits

We briefly discussed the benefits above, but you need to decide what you are looking to get back from a credit card. For example, are you looking for a card that can get you into airport lounges (like Priority Pass or Centurion lounges), give you cash-back on certain spending categories, or offer 0% APR balance transfers?

Finding a card that matches your requirements might be more important than picking a card network.

How Do You Choose Between American Express, Visa & Mastercard?

Putting this all together, there are a few important items to consider when deciding between these 3 major credit card networks.

  1. Credit Score — You should first check your credit and see which types of accounts you’re likely to qualify for before you apply. If you have good to excellent credit, you have the ability to pick your favorite network and card. If your score is lower, you may need to apply for a Visa or Mastercard that will help increase your score.
  2. Where You Spend Money — If you plan on using your credit card primarily in the U.S., you won’t run into much trouble using a credit card from any of these 3 processing networks. However, if you plan to travel internationally, a Visa or Mastercard may be a better option since they are accepted more places. In addition, you should consider that some retailers only accept cards from certain networks (like Costco only accepting Visa).
  3. Travel Rewards — As we discussed above, certain issuers have relationships with specific travel companies and travel rewards partners. If you have a preference for companies, you will want to pick the network that benefits you the most.
  4. Diversification — You might want to consider carrying cards from multiple credit card networks/issuers. This would be a good idea if you have run into a retailer that only accepts certain networks or if you have a problem with a particular credit card issuer cutting your credit limits or closing your accounts.

Final Thoughts

If most of your transactions will be made in the U.S., you shouldn’t really run into any issues with your card being accepted. However, if you plan to travel internationally, a Visa or Mastercard may be a better option for you. At a minimum, it might be a good idea to keep cards with different networks to cover you in all circumstances.

We know that choosing a credit card based on the credit card issuer and the features of the specific card is probably a bigger consideration than choosing based on the credit card processing network. But as you can see, each network offers different protections, levels of customer service, and even different types of rewards, so it’s important to factor this into your decision as well.

The information regarding the Capital One Walmart Rewards® card, and Macy’s Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer. 

The information regarding the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Visa and Mastercard?

Visa and Mastercard are accepted at roughly the same number of retailers domestically (99% for both) and internationally (210+ countries and territories for Visa vs. 200+ for Mastercard).

The benefits that each network offers are slightly different, with Mastercard offering a higher level of benefits with its World Elite card offerings.

Since Visa and Mastercard are only payment networks, you will find different card issuers for each card. If you have a specific card in mind, you will not have a choice as to which network your card will be in.

Is Mastercard accepted everywhere?

Mastercard is accepted at 99% of retailers in the U.S. This means that virtually anywhere that accepts credit cards will accept Mastercard.

In addition, Mastercard is accepted in over 200 countries and territories throughout the world.

What is the difference between Visa and American Express?

The main difference between American Express and Visa is that American Express is both a card issuer and a payment network. Visa is only a payment network and has cards issued by other banks, like Chase, Bank of America, etc.

Mainly this means that you will contact American Express’ customer service department for any issue you have with your card, but if you have a Visa, you will contact your card’s issuer if you have any issues.

How widely accepted is American Express?

In the U.S., American Express has virtually the same network size as Mastercard or Visa. This means that anywhere that accepts credit cards usually accepts cards from all 3 networks — American Express, Visa, and Mastercard.

However, internationally, American Express cards are accepted in 160 countries worldwide, compared to Visa and Mastercard that are both accepted in more than 200 countries.

Christy Rodriguez's image

About Christy Rodriguez

After having “non-rev” privileges with Southwest Airlines, Christy dove into the world of points and miles so she could continue traveling for free. Her other passion is personal finance, and is a certified CPA.

The Ultimate Lounge Playbook!

Discover the exact steps we use to get into 1,400+ airport lounges worldwide, for free (even if you’re flying economy!).

playbook cover Protection Status