What's the easiest way to get a merchant account for your business? Expanding payment options might be a good plan, but it's not one that's very easy to execute. Bear in mind that many small businesses fail even to secure a good point-of-sale (POS) system—much less a merchant account with reasonable fees.
Luckily, we're here to help. Even as a small business, opening a merchant account is no longer a tall challenge thanks to the alternative payment processors on the market. You just need to know where to look. Keep reading for a full guide on how to equip your business with a working POS and merchant account so you can start accepting debit, credit, and mobile payments.
Processing credit card transactions mainly have three steps: authorization, settlement, and funding.
This is the account between your bank account and chosen payment processors. All processed payments will go directly to your merchant account. From there, you'll have total control over the funds and can choose to withdraw or transfer them to wherever you want.
You need a merchant account to accept debit, credit, and mobile payment options. Payment processors cannot send processed funds directly to your business or personable bank account. This applies to all businesses, regardless if you have a physical store or not.
Generally, a high-risk merchant account is given to businesses deemed to be at risk of financial failure in the short run. Banks set higher discount rates, and merchant account providers charge higher transaction and interchange rates if you are a high-risk business. You might even be charged a fee just to get a merchant account application submitted.
To be deemed a high-risk type of business, institutions will likely judge your venture based on:
The good news here is that merchant account providers specialize in working with this type of business. If you play your cards right, you may be able to get better rates.
Pro Tip: Practice your spiel. You need to convince merchant account providers and banks that your business idea is a good one capable of generating a handsome profit.
An internet merchant account is assigned to e-commerce store owners that primarily take orders and payments online. What sets it apart from your average merchant account are the high fees. Generally, banks and service providers deem internet transactions to be at a higher risk of chargebacks and fraudulent transactions. Hence, the increased fees.
However, this doesn't mean e-commerce entrepreneurs should just accept the high rates. On the other hand, many alternative merchant account providers cater specifically to businesses that operate primarily online. Some of the best options include PayPal, Square, and of course, Shopify. Check out the "Credit Card Readers" section below for more information.
Opening a merchant account for a retail store is essential. Note that around 62% of working American adults have applied for a retail credit card. It's no exaggeration to say that a large percentage of any retail store's sales comes from credit card payments and transactions.
For businesses that are always on-the-go such as food trucks, pop-up stores, small boutiques, and bargain stores, you need a wireless merchant account. Check out mobile options such as PayPal Here and Shopify.
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to set up a merchant account for your large or small business:
Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to work with every single credit card company available on the market. You only need to accept credit card brands that are common among your customers.
Large-scale businesses and companies that cater to a wide market and have enough capital for high account fees can consider working with Visa, American Express, MasterCard, and other less common card brands.
On the other hand, small businesses that normally accept payments solely via cash can filter the credit card companies they choose to work with. You'd want to make sure that the transaction fees don't severely deplete your profits.
There are many payment schemes large and small businesses can explore, but for this guide, we'll be referencing the two most commonly used options among merchants: recurring and one-time payments.
The goal here is to determine what would make it easier for customers to purchase your products. If you sell average-priced, fast-moving goods, you can stick with one-time payments.
However, businesses that offer routine services and high-end, luxury products should definitely accept payments via direct debit or recurring credit card charges. It might be a bit pricey at the start, but you'll be able to attract more customers that way. Make payments as easy for the customer as possible!
Of course, you can accept payments via one-time transactions and recurring charges simultaneously, but it will require a larger investment. Plus, you'll have to confirm which type of payment your bank processes.
Now, it's time for the bank to assess your business. Just because you're ready to accept payments via debit and credit card doesn't mean you'll get a merchant account right away.
Based on other business owners' experience, it could take around two to three days to set up a merchant account. Note, however, that there will be delays if you lack the necessary paperwork. If you want to accept credit card payments and resume operations as soon as possible, then we highly recommend having your bookkeeper prepare all statements from the latest fiscal year.
Once you've made a grounded, educated decision on which merchant account provider to work with—check the "How do I choose a merchant service provider?" section below—it's time to reach out to one.
Back then, both large and small businesses could only apply for a merchant account with their local bank. These days, however, there are now thousands of alternative merchant account providers to consider like PayPal, Square, and Stripe, among others—these are the best merchant services for e-commerce shops. Don't limit yourself to traditional options.
Pro Tip: We highly suggest going with a merchant account provider that accepts both digital and credit card payments. There's a growing number of consumers who use e-wallets for their day-to-day transactions.
Have your website developer inspect the site for defects and flaws. Make sure your site and payment gateway complies with the regulations of your chosen bank or credit card company.
Note: This is exclusive for online businesses and brick-and-mortar businesses that accept orders through their site.
Finally, it's time to submit your application to your chosen merchant account provider. Once you get approved, the next steps will consist of paying the application fees, transaction fees, and other charges for the provider's merchant services. After that, your business will be officially ready to accept credit cards.
Before applying for—or even considering—a merchant account, you need to understand all the fees you'll have to shoulder in the process. This will heavily affect your profits. Calculate your average sales, deduct the estimated fees, and see if the loss is worth it for a shot at expanding your target market.
An application is what merchants pay to apply and file for a merchant account. Some merchant account providers charge application fees, while others don't.
Ideally, merchant account providers shouldn't charge high application fees because there's no guarantee that the applicant will even pass the screening. If there is an application fee, it should be very minimal and must only cover the essentials.
This is the upfront fee business owners shell out to have their merchant account made. Note that the exact amount you'll have to pay varies from brand-to-brand. In fact, it can range anywhere from a few hundred bucks to several grand. A good approach here would be to survey different merchants and ask how their experience was with setup fees.
Pro Tip: Don't easily give in to merchant account providers that charge zero setup fees. Yes, the promo might seem alluring at the moment but bear in mind that many of these providers offset the discount they offer by pumping their clients' accounts with unreal monthly and annual fees. Read and understand the contract multiple times.
Monthly fees are what businesses pay for regular payment processing services. Your merchant account provider can either charge a fixed fee—it's usually somewhere around $50—or a percentage of your total monthly sales.
Merchant Discount Rates (MDR) are fees the bank charges businesses for processing credit and debit card payments. The actual amount depends on different factors and varies on a case-by-case basis. However, as a general rule, business owners should prepare to shoulder at least 1% to 3% per transaction.
Only the bank can tell you what the discount rate you have to pay is, but you can get a good idea of how much it would range if you knew what factors affected the cost:
There's a meager chance for banks to work with high-risk businesses. They are often given a high discount rate as the institution does not see them operating for too long.
The factors for a business to be considered high risk constantly change. Generally, however, these businesses operate in every niche, are in a risky industry, and have a high chance of financial failure. Small startups that provide fancy, handmade jewelry are considered high risk.
Another high-risk venture would be one in the clubbing scene. Since there's a pandemic, many banks and financial institutions see night clubs and pubs as risky ventures. However, if you came to those same banks years ago with the proposal of a night club at a high-foot traffic area, payment processing providers would've lined up to work with you.
Visa, Mastercard, or American Express, what card type would the transaction involve? Note that banks charge varying rates for different card brands.
To encourage the use of card brands with low discount rates, create special promos. For example, if your bank charges a low rate for Visa transactions, offer a small discount when customers choose to pay with their Visa card. Just make sure the discounts or promos won't offset the amount you save on discount rates.
Discount rates also vary depending on the average sales transaction. Essentially, this is the average amount one customer spends at your shop or store. Higher average rates may convince banks that you're running a good business and can be granted a lower discount rate.
Note: Why do banks charge lower discount rates to businesses with a high average sales transaction? Shouldn't it be the other way around?
The discount rate is a percentage, not a fixed fee. That means businesses with higher gross sales will be paying more. Meanwhile, a small business that barely makes a profit won't generate enough to shoulder what banks spend on converting and processing card payments.
Merchant account providers charge businesses per transaction. The actual rate depends on several factors, including the:
Most merchant account providers follow a tiered, flat-rate, or interchange plus rate pricing system when charging their transaction fees.
Essentially, a tiered pricing system categorizes rates based on card types. Flat-rate pricing systems charge flat rates on all transactions processed—no matter what cart type is used. And interchange plus pricing is based on multiple variables, including card type and transaction manner.
Many service providers have varying rates and fees for different types of credit cards. Some of the most popular brands in the country today include Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.
To save on unnecessary fees, especially if you run a fairly new small business, survey customers, see what cards they usually use, and only apply for the most popular/common brands. For example, if your customers primarily use Visa and Mastercard, then work with a provider that supports those brands. You can forego getting an American Express payment processing system for now.
Merchant account providers vary rates based on the transaction manner. For example, some providers charge a higher rate with online payments than in-store card swipes—and vice versa.
There are service providers that vary their rates depending on the financial statements of the applicant. This is a good opportunity for small business entrepreneurs who are just starting. Prepare your statements and negotiate with your merchant account provider to land a good, cost-efficient plan.
These are the fees merchant account providers charge businesses that accept payments from customers in another country. Note that the fees are set by card brands, not payment processors, so it's highly unlikely for merchants to renegotiate on the terms and haggle for a lower rate.
Some scenarios where cross border fees may apply include:
With the accessibility of payment processors and site builders such as Shopify and WooCommerce, selling products to overseas customers has never been easier. If done properly, this may allow you to enter untapped markets.
Your bank won't stop you from accepting overseas payments, but they might charge you a higher rate. That's why business owners who decide to venture into international sales should research the cross border fees their merchant account provider charges are. You'll have to set your pricing accordingly.
Note: The fees may vary depending on what country the payment will come from. To avoid shelling out unnecessarily high fees, focus on selling in countries and areas with the lowest cross-border fees.
Let's say you run a hotel in California. You get in touch with a traveler from the Philippines who wants to stay at your place while they tour the area. If they decide to pay in advance using their local bank or card, your business will have to pay a cross border fee.
Keep in mind that these fees will be charged if your merchant account—for any reason at all—has to receive payments from anyone from another country. It doesn't matter whether you sell products or offer local services.
Generally, credit card terminals cost up to half a grand. If this isn't something your small business could afford at the moment, consider leasing one instead. On average, it costs around $50 per month to lease a credit card terminal. You can save money, but make sure you'll be able to make use of this payment processing tool for at least around two years.
Merchants are free to choose from as many credit card processors/credit card processing systems as they want. There are thousands available online. The freedom to choose might be great, but it can also be quite intimidating, especially for small businesses.
Luckily, we've trimmed the list down for you. If you're looking for the best credit card processing services, check out these options:
PayPal Here is the best credit card processing for small business ventures that are looking for the cheapest, most cost-efficient options on the market. They have low transaction fees, affordable POS systems, and versatile hardware systems.
One main advantage of using PayPal Here is that it has versatile Bluetooth hardware that accepts various types of payments within a wide range. It processes debit, credit, and mobile transactions. Of course, you can also use their hardware for PayPal-to-PayPal transactions at no additional cost.
Sales organizations that opt for PayPal Here should seriously consider their other products such as the customizable receipt printers, POS device stands, and cash drawers.
Clients can choose from three PayPal credit card readers:
PayPal Here charges a flat 2.7% transaction fee. This jumps to a 3.5% rate plus a $0.15 fee for keyed or manually entered transactions. Merchants won't need to pay a monthly fee to use their services.
Square definitely deserves a spot as one of the best credit card processing services small startups as they have low fees, fast funding, and easy-to-set-up hardware devices. It's a very user-friendly option for many budding entrepreneurs.
Businesses that sign up for Square will have access to their card reader and mobile POS system. These can process debit, credit, and mobile payments.
Square charges 2.6% rates plus $0.10 fees on swiped transactions. This is about the same as what PayPal, the other cheapest card reader on the market—offers. Meanwhile, manually keyed transactions jump to a 3.5% rate plus a $0.15 fee. Users won't have to pay any monthly or subscription fee to use Square.
Pro Tip: If your server goes offline because of technical difficulties or server problems, keyed transactions will have the same rate as swiped transactions.
Shopify is known to be the ultimate paradise for e-commerce store owners. What some clients don't know, however, is that they also offer physical POS systems.
Their mobile POS and swipe card reader accepts all major credit and debit cards and mobile wallet payments. You can use these systems for both online and in-person transactions. Shopify is perfect for e-commerce store owners who want to try opening their online shop's physical location.
What sets Shopify apart from other credit card readers is its responsive 24-hour customer service team. Just give them a call, and a customer service agent should be ready to hear you out.
Shopify provides clients with a swipe card reader that you can connect to up to two users. This works well for entrepreneurs who run both an online and brick-and-mortar business.
Shopify charges a 2.7% fee for in-person transactions and a 2.9% rate plus a $0.30 fee for online transactions. For monthly fees, the basic plan only costs $29 per month and includes detailed retail reports, shipping label customer service, and a two-use swipe card reader. If you want to lower the transaction fees, you can consider upgrading to a more advanced Shopify plan.
A merchant account provider is a company that equips merchants and business owners with the payment processor and business tools needed to accept credit cards, debit cards, and even electronic payments. Businesses in the country have the freedom to choose from thousands of merchant account providers.
Your merchant account type will vary depending on the merchant services you incorporate into it. Remember: not all services are required. For example, a brick-and-mortar business that doesn't take orders online won't need a payment gateway.
Some of the most common merchant services popular merchant account providers offer include:
No matter what type of business you run or whether you accept one-time or recurring payments, you'll need a merchant account. This is basically where all the funds processed by your chosen payment processor go. Once the funds are in your merchant account, you can choose to withdraw them, transfer them to your business bank account, or leave them there in the meantime.
A Point of Sale system is a modern credit card terminal that allows businesses to monitor sales and business performance on one device. The software for the POS system will come from your chosen merchant account provider.
What sets the POS apart from a normal credit card payments terminal is its simplicity. Gone are the days where you'll have to operate different devices when processing credit card payments, managing inventory, and keeping track of sales. With a POS, you can do all that on your favorite tablet!
Plus, POS systems offer clients a wider range of payment options. Apart from allowing your business to accept credit card payments, many modern POS systems also process digital payments.
Note: Ask your merchant account provider whether their software is supported by Apple and Android products. Some POS systems don't work well on specific devices.
These payment processors have been around since credit cards were first introduced to the public. They are small devices—a bit larger than a fully grown adult's hand—that read credit/debit card information then transfer these details to your payment service provider in real-time. The transaction won't push through if there's an issue with the card used.
This is an excellent option for credit card processing for small business ventures such as boutiques and diners because it's not as pricey as a POS system. You can consider upgrading later on when you have sufficient funds and want to accept digital payments as well.
If you want to accept payments through your website, then you need a payment gateway. This is one of the best merchant services for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores that transact orders online.
It's essentially a software program that connects your website to your merchant account provider's payment processors. Here's how the payment process goes:
Digital shopping carts are one of the best credit card processors/credit card processing systems for e-commerce entrepreneurs.
A virtual shopping cart contains all the items your customer wishes to purchase in a single transaction. Every item selected while the customer browses your site goes straight to the cart. Once they are finished shopping, they can head over to their virtual shopping cart, check the total purchase amount, and input the necessary card details to cover the bill.
One of the benefits of this type of payment processing system is it improves user experience and encourages buyers to purchase multiple products per transaction.
There are generally three different ways how your merchant account provider will charge transaction fees:
Interchange-plus rates are very technical and vary on a case-by-case basis. For the exact transaction fees charged, businesses will have to consult their chosen merchant account provider. Factors that affect pricing include card type and transaction manner, among others.
Basically, the idea here is that an interchange rate is charged per transaction and a small fee called the discount rate. Hence, the name interchange plus rate.
The interchange plus rate type of pricing is ideal for businesses willing to spend a reasonable amount of time on accounting and market research. You'll have to determine what type of credit card your customers prefer, what the fees are, and how they affect profits. If done properly, business owners may be able to increase their profits.
A tiered pricing system charges merchants based on the tier of the current transaction. Your merchant account provider can have different tiers for debit/credit cards, reward cards, debit cards, and each one will have a different per-transaction fee. Going by the given example, transactions paid with gift cards would have a different rate than those paid with credit cards.
This type of payment method is ideal for businesses who know exactly what cards their customers patronize. If they often use cards classified under a tier with a low per-transaction fee, tiered pricing may work for you. However, if you are unsure of what transactions customers prefer or if they often opt for high fees per transaction, explore other payment methods such as flat-rate pricing.
The idea here is businesses will have to pay a flat rate—which is usually somewhere around 1.75% to 3%—plus a per-transaction fee on all credit card payments made through their processor.
Many first-time small business entrepreneurs go for the flat-rate pricing system because of its ease. There's no need to spend hours calculating the fees paid per transaction because they don't change—no matter who the customer is, what card type is used, and how the transaction was made.
There are thousands of merchant service providers in the country. Options range from modern digital payment processing brands such as PayPal, Stripe, and Square to globally renowned bank-operated merchant accounts like Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
This is good news for many brick-and-mortar and online businesses as they won't have to limit themselves to just one or two merchant account providers. However, this freedom can also be quite intimidating—especially for small business owners.
When canvassing for a reliable merchant account provider, a good approach is to create a unique, customized list of requirements based on your specific business needs. Some factors to consider include:
Business owners that plan to start accepting credit card payments for the first time may want to recalculate exactly how much their businesses make.
Bear in mind that credit card transactions aren't free. Merchants have to pay a per-transaction fee. There are also the merchant account fees, monthly fees, and cancellation fees you'll have to consider if you plan on incorporating credit payment processing into your long-term business plan.
Small businesses on a tight budget should think twice before going with a credit card processor that charges insanely high fees. If possible, go with one that has no monthly fees and costly transaction fees. If you're not careful, these charges could pile up and drastically cut your business profits.
A merchant account provider that charges a low, flat rate for credit card transactions is great, but you also need to know the processing volume capacity as well. Make sure the merchant account service provider you choose takes no longer than one to three days when processing credit card transactions. Any longer than that and your business might start losing profits.
It's best to open a merchant account with a reputable brand backed by years' worth of experience in providing merchant services to various large and small businesses.
Also, don't forget to check if they've been adhering to the PCI compliance regulations. As a general rule, stay away from merchant account providers involved in suspicious, disreputable transactions—no matter how many years of experience they have.
Set up a merchant account with a provider that works with the major debit and credit card brands—preferably Visa, Mastercard, American Express, among others. This is solid proof that your merchant account provider is legitimate and reputable.
Plus, having a payment processor that allows you to accept credit card transactions is virtually useless if it doesn't support the major card brands your customers often use.
Perhaps the most crucial factor for business owners to consider when looking for a merchant account provider is security. You need to make sure your customers' credit and debit cards are safe.
There are many ways you can protect your business from credit card processing scams.
First, if you've just decided to start accepting credit card payments, limit your payment processing options to legitimate brands. Stay away from scammers that are out to rob you of your money. Make sure to check if the payment processors you're canvassing are in line with the PCI compliance operating regulations.
Secondly, do some research about data breaching. You need to know how crooks steal credit/debit cards and what puts your payment processor at high risk of data breaching.
Lastly, go with a merchant account provider that has a reliable customer support system. It's normal for merchants to encounter a few issues with their payment processor from time to time. These happen to everyone whether you run a large corporation or a small business. What's important is having a dependable customer support team to rely on.
If you're planning on using merchant account to accept online credit card payments for your e-commerce store, we highly encourage testing their payment gateway server beforehand. Take note of bugs and defects.
Firstly, check their security. You'd want to keep your customer's credit card details secure and not at risk of any data breaches.
Next, assess how fast their server is. A slow payment gateway negatively affects user experience and gives them an opening to ditch their shopping cart.
As we said, there are many factors to consider if you want to make a merchant account for your large or small business. Ask yourself if your business is ready to accept new payment methods. If not, then stick with cash payments in the meantime and work your way up.
However, if you do choose to integrate credit and debit card payments into your business model, what you need to look for is a reputable, reliable merchant account provider. You can reach out to your local bank or popular modern options such as Paypal and Stripe. It all really depends on what your long-term business plans are.
A merchant account stands in between your business bank account and credit card processor. Payment processors can't credit the money directly to your bank account.
When your customers pay using their credit cards, the transaction will go through your chosen payment processing system. Once the funds are cleared, these will be transferred to your merchant account in two to three days. Afterward, it's up to you to choose which bank account you'll transfer the funds to.
If you're planning to open a merchant account, do a bit of research first on the credit card usage trends of the average American. Understanding how consumers use their credit cards to purchase specific products will aid you in deciding whether your business would benefit from a POS system or not.
Processing and interchange fees vary based on the credit card brand involved in the transaction. If you want to avoid unnecessary charges, we suggest studying the most popular credit card brands in the country and limiting your business to accepting options with low transaction fees. You can upgrade your POS once your business starts generating profit from credit card payments.
Do you think your business is ready to have its own merchant account? Let Processing Card help you find the ideal merchant account. Contact Processing Card today!
Florence Carpenter is passionate about ensuring that the process of opening merchant accounts is as straightforward as possible. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing.
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