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What Separates MasterCard from Visa?


At this point in American history, exposure to the marketing slogans of credit card giants MasterCard and Visa is basically co-extensive with being exposed to any kind of commercial media. But, with all this information surrounding us, it is still an open question to many Americans exactly what different products and services are being offered under the umbrella designations of these major brands.

Generally, receiving a credit card offer from you bank means ending up with either a Visa or MasterCard, while Discover and American Express constitute growing, though still less frequently available, options. This is due to the fact that agreements that tie a bank to one credit company are going out of fashion.

This, in turn, can be traced to the 2004 decision made by the Department of Justice to prohibit the guidelines forming Visa and Mastercard’s Competitive Programs Policy or CPP, which required that banks only provide their customers with cards from one network. In other words, banks providing Discover or American Express cards couldn’t issue Visa or MasterCard cards and, because of the relative commercial dominance of the latter, Discover and AmEx were effectively blocked from providing cards through banking institutions.

Since the policies guiding this practice have been eliminated, there are new choices available to consumers, and new questions as well. It’s fairly well known that MasterCard and Visa have a greater number of merchants accepting their cards than Discover or AmEx. Less clear is what the differences are between the products offered by Visa and MasterCard. Are there differences worth knowing about?

The quick answer is, there are indeed. But, to gain perspective on these differences, some quick background information to start.

You Can’t Get a Visa or MasterCard from Visa or MasterCard

To begin with, neither MasterCard nor Visa will give you a credit card. Rather, they profit from handling the exchange between your banking institution and the places where you swipe your card. As a result your bank, rather than these companies, is the organization actually managing the rewards, helping clients, setting rates of interest, and assessing fees on late payments.

MasterCard and Visa then provide the mechanisms connecting the credit card machines in just about every American locale to the credit card department of your card issuer. This is preferable for many banks because the cards they issue will be so widely accepted. AmEx and Discover’s model, where the companies issue their own cards, have also been very successful, though clearly not as omnipresent as Visa and MasterCard.

Is a Visa or MasterCard the best for me?

All this is not to say that there’s no difference between what Visa and MasterCard have to offer. In fact, various fringe benefits serve to differentiate the cards since they’re provided by the credit card company rather than a bank.

Due to rules like Regulation EFTA, all credit card companies need to back their cards up against identity theft and other malfeasance. But, non-mandatory extras, such as providing insurance for a rented automobile, can prove to be areas of real difference. Plus, different card plans offer different extras. Visa, for example, offers cards like Visa Signature and Visa Classic while MasterCard can provide the MasterCard World and World Elite.

Most of the areas of contrast are in the realm of return protection and purchase protection, as well as insuring a rented car, insuring against surprise travel expenses, and concierge options.

For the most part, Discover is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to these extras, with no concierge, rental insurance, or coverage for purchases and returns made using the card. AmEx has the most extras, especially on premium cards like the AmEx Platinum, and MasterCard and Visa are about in the middle. Visa has a somewhat nicer offering, since Visa’s protection for car rental insurance is superior and more Visa cards have return coverage for items purchased with the card.

AmEx, however, has both of the market leaders beat on both insurance offered and coverage for returned items, both in terms of the amount of insurance cardholders receive and the proportion of their products covered by such protection. AmEx has also introduced premium return protection, which further extends available coverage for returns even to the point of applying to non American Express-issued cards.

Tim Chen is founder and CEO of NerdWallet.com, a site dedicated to helping consumers understand the ins and outs of credit card offers.


  |     |   Comment #2
Weirdly enough, in Canada, sometimes they only take Mastercard.
  |     |   Comment #3
A good article, but the content does not actually match the title. You have presented some information that is especially useful to those who have little knowledge of credit cards and their issuers, but you spend more time on that and providing a comparison between Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express cards overall than on establishing distinctions between Visa and MC.
  |     |   Comment #4
The information on Discover is incorrect. My discover card has always had rental car insurance and recently they added purchase protection too.
  |     |   Comment #5
Fluff/filler article that really didn't accomplish a thing. I had to double check that I wasn't on yahoo finance...lol
  |     |   Comment #6
If you travel internationally, there IS a difference. I know people will post that they've had no problems with Visa cards overseas in Country X or Country Y, but it depends what regions of the world you go to. There are MAJOR problems with using a Visa card in certain countries and areas overseas that MasterCard has NO problem with. I have both a Visa and MasterCard, and in the US, I use my Visa most of the time (both work fine in the US, but use primarily my Visa). However when I travel overseas, there IS a difference. Visa is nothing but headaches in certain parts of the world (certain European countries, and Africa) where MasterCard is NEVER a problem. Even as recent as last year, trying to use my Visa in Danish countries for example (Denmark, Greenland, Faroe Islands) was a joke. It would NOT work at any of the terminals in hotels, restaurants, gas stations -- no where. However my MasterCard worked perfectly at all such places. (Finally one lady at a hotel showed me a long printout she received from Visa a few months back, showing something like a 12-step proceedure to get a Visa card to work -- a proceedure that no one else knew about, and that was so cumbersome it was an absolute joke). I had NO such problems with my MasterCard. Also in the past when travelling in Africa, I found MC to be much more accepted (and working) than Visa. The US credit card companies refuse to pay for chip & pin cards like the rest of the world has -- so when US citizens travel, we're stuck with old outdated "swipe" cards. I can tell you firsthand that while Visa works just fine in the US, there are a lot of countries overseas where it WILL NOT WORK with any kind of terminal. I have no "need" for two credit cards, but have kept my MasterCard for all these years specifically because Visa can be a major headache in many countries (see above example, which was only about 8 months ago). If I didn't have my MasterCard I would've been stuck so many places, from automated gas pumps to grocery stores. Thankfully the MasterCard worked just fine (as long as you assign a PIN before you leave) and the Visa card didn't work once -- except when that lady took out the 12-step proceedure she managed to find tucked away somewhere that no one else knew about or would even attempt to try. And you certainly couldn't do that proceedure if you were at a gas pump, for example, and needed gas.

If you never travel outside of the US, either card is fine and there's not much of a difference (except whatever terms or features your bank has with the cards). In the US my Visa is my primary card. But if you travel internationally, I highly suggest you have both a MasterCard with you. Take my word, there's a HUGE difference between acceptance in certain countries and regions between MasterCard and Visa. If you travel overseas and only want one credit card, ditch the Visa and go with a MasterCard.
  |     |   Comment #7
I have traveled to Asia  a few times several years ago and I have come across local stores that only display the VISA logo on the window.  VISA and MasterCard are two different processing networks.  To say that they are similar to to say that Coke and Pepsi sell the same product.
  |     |   Comment #8

To say that they are similar is to say that Coke and Pepsi sell the same product.

VISA (or BankAmericard) began at the Bank Of America in San Francisco .  MasterCard (or Master Charge) began at Citibank in New York.
  |     |   Comment #13
one point you missed is that the better AEx features aew not free while V.D & MC are free.
  |     |   Comment #14
@13 - V.D. is sometimes free, but not if you get it from a hooker.

  |     |   Comment #15

Thanks for the correction.  I got Citibank mixed up with Master Charge.  It was linked to the Diner's Club card which was supposedly the first "credit" card that was issued.
Chandan Seo
  |     |   Comment #18
Excellent blog article. Here have many different between mastercard from visa.

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