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Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover:
an overview of the three major credit card networks

The content is accurate at the time of publication and is subject to change.

A card payment network isn't likely the key criteria to consider when choosing a credit card. But sometimes a credit card network may play an important role in where and how you can use your card.

The four major credit card networks in the U.S. are Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express. Here, we review three networks and explain the difference between the card payment networks and card issuers.

What is a credit card network?

Card networks work behind the scenes - they facilitate transactions between merchants and card issuers. When you pay with your debit or credit card, a payment transaction does not go directly from a merchant to your card issuer and back. It first has to go through a credit card network. Credit card networks pass information between banks to verify it and decide if you can make a purchase or not. The verification may also include the 3-D Secure protocol (Visa Secure, Mastercard SecureCode or Discover's ProtectBuy), which is additional verification of identity. The whole process happens in seconds.

Card networks are different from card issuers in the way that they do not issue credit cards. However, two credit card networks are also credit card issuers. Thus, American Express also issues credit cards, charge cards, prepaid debit cards, and gift cards, and Discover offers credit cards, debit cards, and gift cards. Other issuers (like Bank of America, Chase, Citi, or Wells Fargo) partner with other two card networks, Visa or Mastercard, and their cards display a logo of the network along with the issuer name.

Here's a quick comparison of three credit card networks: Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover

Visa
Visa
Mastercard
Mastercard
Discover
Discover
Processor
Credit Card Issuer
Worldwide Acceptance Over 200 countries 210 countries More than 190 countries and territories
US Acceptance Most US merchants that take cc Most US merchants that take cc 99% of US merchants
Contactless Payments
Tiers/Levels Traditional
Signature
Infinite
Standard
World
World elite
Network Benefits
Additional Perks
Avaliability of Network Benefits Depends on issuer, tier & card type Depends on issuer, tier & card type All benefits available
Online Shopping Security
Annual Fees Up to $595 Up to $995 Doesn't charge
Foreign Transaction Fees 0% to 3% 0% to 3% 0% or $0
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Mastercard, Visa and Discover acceptance

Card networks also determine where your card is accepted. Discover, Visa and Mastercard operate globally. They process payments connecting consumers, banks, merchants, and businesses worldwide.

According to Visa, there are 3.3 billion Visa cards in use, as of September 2018. Visa cards are accepted in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide. If you need to use an ATM, simply look out for ATMs that carry the Visa or PLUS mark.

Mastercard cards are accepted in more than 210 countries and territories worldwide. The company has a family of well-known, widely accepted payment card brands, including Mastercard®, Maestro®, and Cirrus®.

Discover offers acceptance in 200 countries and territories, and this number is still growing. Discover has international partnerships with other card networks to increase acceptance as in the U.S. as internationally. Discover partners include Diners Club International, UnionPay, and JCB. There is a convenient map that allows you to check acceptance and search ATM locations.

As you can see, the acceptance of all three card networks is more or less the same. However, their popularity in different countries differs significantly. If a retailer accepts card payments, it likely takes Visa or Mastercard. You are likely to run into trouble finding merchants who accept Discover cards. So, if you prefer Discover, it would be better to have a Visa or Mastercard card as a backup when traveling abroad.

What benefits do card networks offer?

Card networks do not control the card fees you pay as a cardholder. Fees like interest rates, annual fees, foreign transaction fees, and penalty fees are set by the issuer. However, card networks do offer some benefits. And you've probably heard of Priceless Cities from Mastercard and Visa Offers that are available to various cardholders regardless of the issuing bank. Still, in most cases, the set of card benefits will vary based on the type of card you have and the issuing bank.

Visa credit cards typically come in three tiers - traditional, Signature, and Infinite. Mastercard also has levels starting from standard, then World Mastercard, and World Elite. Discover does not differentiate benefits.

Here are the basic benefits you can get as a Visa, Mastercard, or Discover cardmember.

Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover: Core Benefits

Visa
Visa
Mastercard
Mastercard
Discover
Discover
Zero Fraud Liability With the Visa Zero Liability benefit, Visa cardholders are not liable for unauthorized purchases - they pay nothing. With Zero Liability Protection you won't be responsible if someone makes unauthorized purchases with your card. Discover cardholders are never responsible for unauthorized purchases on their credit cards with the $0 Fraud Liability.
SSN Alerts The ID Navigator Powered by NortonLifeLock will monitor the dark web and private forums looking for your personal information, and if it finds any, will notify you with suggested steps. The Mastercard ID Theft Protection™ service allows monitoring suspicious activity related to the personal information like your name, email address, social security number or other sensitive data. Discover cardholders can activate free Social Security Number Alerts to get notified when their SSN is found on any of Dark Web sites.
Credit Monitoring The ID Navigator Powered by NortonLifeLock will monitor your credit report in one credit bureau and alert you when key changes are made to your credit file. The Mastercard ID Theft Protection™ service monitors your credit file for changes like new credit inquiries, address change, or a new account opened. With Inquiry and New Account Alerts, Discover will monitor your Experian credit report and notify you if anyone pulls your credit or opens a new account.
Online Shopping Security Verified by Visa or Visa Secure is a service offered through participating merchant sites. It provides an additional layer of protection when you shop online. SecureCode is a service that protects you from any unauthorized card usage when you shop online by sending you a one-time password to verify the transaction. ProtectBuy® is Discover's Three Domain Secure (3DS) customer authentication that helps validate your identity when you shop online.
Free Credit Score Discover's FICO® Credit Scorecard allows you to check your FICO Score anytime for free with no effect on your credit.
Instant Account Off/On The ID Navigator Powered by NortonLifeLock can provide instructions and links so you can quickly freeze credit, bank and utility fees with each consumer reporting company. The Freeze it® service allows you to turn off/on your account in seconds in case your card is lost or stolen
Spending Analyzer Discover's Spend Analyzer helps you track your spend, view rewards and build your budget.
Account Alerts Discover offers to set up Account Alerts to get notified when a purchase is made, when payment is due and more.
Contactless Payments If a Visa card features a contactless indicator or Visa payWave, it can be used to tap to pay where contactless payments are accepted. PayPass Mastercard or a contactless indicator on a card shows that it be used to tap to pay where contactless payments are accepted. With a Discover credit card, you can check out by simply tapping and paying with your contactless card.
Pay with Rewards Discover allows using cashback or miles at Amazon.com and with PayPal.
Digital Wallets Eligible Visa cards can be loaded into your payment-enabled phone or wearable device. Eligible Mastercard cards can be loaded into your payment-enabled phone or wearable device. You can add your Discover card to Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Google Pay.
Customer Service Visa offers Cardholder Inquiry Service that provides support for general inquiries and provides products or service information. Mastercard can help you connect to your financial institution. Discover offers 100% US-based customer service that is available 24/7 via phone or online chat.
Lost/Stolen Card Reporting Visa offers assistance via the phone in the event of lost or stolen card. With Mastercard Assistance Center, you will get assistance with filing a lost or stolen card report. Discover offers Free Overnight Card Replacement in the event of a lost or stolen credit card.
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World Elite vs. World Mastercard: how do they differ?

World Mastercard is the mid-tier level for Mastercard benefits, and World Elite is the highest tier. Both World and Elite include standard Mastercard benefits and have some additional benefits, including Mastercard Priceless. World Elite also includes all the benefits of the World tier and offers some extra perks. However, the set of perks and benefits available to Mastercard cardholders will still depend on the issuer, as many issuers limit the number of available Mastercard benefits.

The major difference between World and World Elite cards is the annual fee (which is set by the issuer and not by the payment network). World Elite Mastercard cards tend to be much more expensive than World Mastercard cards, especially if the issuer gives access to premium perks and VIP services.

Visa Signature vs. World Elite Mastercard

Many Visa top cards are Visa Signature Cards, while Mastercard top cards are World Elite Mastercard cards. To see what benefits you may have with World Elite Mastercard and Visa Signature and how they compare to each other, check out the comparison table below.

Visa Signature
Visa Signature
World Elite Mastercard
World Elite Mastercard
Concierge Services Visa Signature Concierge is complimentary assistance anytime, anywhere. The service will help you to plan your travel from research to booking airline tickets, or you can use it to get tickets to sold-out shows or season tickets. Other services may include finding a gift or sending flowers, and reserving dinner at a restaurant. Mastercard offers various concierge services. World Elite Concierge is a complimentary 24/7 concierge service that acts as a personal assistant. The service will help you reserve a table in a restaurant, book a hotel room or buy tickets. Mastercard Airport Concierge™ helps to arrange for a personal meet-and-greet agent to escort you through the airport on departure, arrival or any connecting flights.
Luxury Hotel Collection With Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection, you can enjoy automatic room upgrades, complimentary in-room wi-fi, complimentary breakfast for two, VIP guest status, late check-out at more than 900 properties worldwide. With Mastercard luxury hotel and resorts portfolio, you can enjoy complimentary room upgrades, early check-in and late check-out, daily breakfast for two and preferred amenities at more than 2,000 properties around the globe.
Travel and Emergency Assistance Visa's Travel and Emergency Assistance Services provide medical referral assistance, emergency transportation assistance, emergency message service, prescription assistance, legal referral assistance, emergency ticket replacement assistance, lost luggage locator service, and emergency translation service. The program provides assistance only. Mastercard offers Global Emergency Services that provide emergency assistance anytime, anywhere, and in any language. The service helps you with reporting a lost or stolen card, obtaining an emergency card replacement or cash advance, finding an ATM location, and answering questions on your account.
Purchase Security The Purchase Security benefit allows you to safeguard your new item against theft or damage due to a covered circumstance for the first 90 days. Some exclusions may apply. In case a purchased item is damaged or stolen, you can get covered with Purchase Assurance. For those who love shopping online, Purchase Assurance Plus will also provide protection for delivery complications of purchased items.
Lost Luggage Reimbursement With Lost Luggage Reimbursement, when you charge your entire common carrier ticket to your Visa card, your checked or carry-on luggage is covered if lost or stolen and you can receive reimbursement. Mastercard's Lost/Damaged Luggage insurance reimburses you for the actual cost of repairing or replacing your checked or carry-on luggage if it is lost or damaged by the common carrier.
Baggage Delay Visa's Baggage Delay Reimbursement benefit provides up to $300 reimbursement of necessity expenses if your checked baggage is delayed or misdirected for more than four hours. The Baggage Delay benefit reimburses you for essentials you have to purchase when your checked bags come to your destination late.
Special Offers Visa allows taking advantage of exclusive offers and everyday savings. The offers may change daily and may include dining credits at hotels, free nights at select hotels, discounts at preferred hotels, discounts at select online shops, discounts on rental car services, and more. Mastercard cardholders get preferred access to an array of valuable offers, upgrades and experiences. You can take advantage of exceptional offers from upscale retailers and world-class hotels and resorts. You can enjoy unique Mastercard experiences through Mastercard Priceless: Priceless Cities and Priceless Golf.
Price Protection Visa's Price Protection can reimburse you for the difference if you find an item purchased with a Visa Signature card at a lower price. With Mastercard's Price Protection you can get reimbursed for the price difference if you buy an item with your Mastercard card and find a lower price.
Return Protection Visa's Return Protection provides extra return protection any time you make an eligible purchase of an item up to $250. If within 90 days you become dissatisfied with the purchase and the merchant will not accept it back, the protection will get you covered. With Mastercard's Satisfaction Guarantee, if you become dissatisfied with a product you purchase within 60 days of purchase, and the store will not accept a return, you may be eligible for a refund for the cost of the product up to $250.
Cell Phone Protection Visa's Cell Phone Protection provides coverage when you pay your monthly wireless bill with your Visa Signature card. You can get reimbursed if your cell phone is stolen or damaged. Mastercard's Cellular Telephone Protection Program provides reimbursement for damage or theft of a cell phone when the monthly cellular bill is paid using the eligible Mastercard card.
Extended Warranty Visa allows getting double time period of the original manufacturer's warranty up to one year on warranties of 3 years or less. Mastercard doubles the original manufacture or store brand warranty for up to one year.
Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver When you use your covered Visa Signature® card to rent a vehicle, you'll get built-in Auto Rental Coverage. You're covered for physical damage, theft, reasonable and customary towing and loss-of-use charges. MasterRental® may provide coverage for covered damages (physical damage and theft) to a rental vehicle when your eligible Mastercard is used to initiate and pay for the entire rental transaction.
Trip Delay Reimbursement Visa's Trip Delay benefit covers you when you are stuck for more than twelve hours due to a covered hazard. The Trip Delay Protection benefit may reimburse you for additional expenses you incur as a result of common carrier delays or cancellations.
Trip Cancellation/Interruption Reimbursement The Trip Cancellation / Trip Interruption Reimbursement provides reimbursement for the nonrefundable cost of your passenger fare. The benefit may also apply to travel via ferry, rail, bus, or cruise ship. Trip Cancellation/Interruption Protection provides reimbursement for you and your family for any nonrefundable cancellation or change fee if your trip is interrupted or canceled.
Travel Accident Insurance Visa's Travel Accident Insurance covers you from common carrier accidental death or dismemberment, at no extra cost. Travel and Emergency Assistance Services allow you to get help and services while you are away from home. Mastercard provides Travel Accident Insurance that covers you and your family against accidental death or dismemberment. When you need assistance in case of emergency, you can use Mastercard Global Service.
Lounge Access Some Visa credit cards may come with a VIP Priority Pass access to over 850 airport lounges worldwide. Some Mastercard credit cards may provide complimentary lounge access through Priority Pass™ or Mastercard Airport Experiences programs.
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Visa Infinite benefits

Visa's highest tier credit cards are Visa Infinite cards. This tier includes all core and Signature benefits. The only difference from the Visa Signature version is the level of protection.

For example, Visa Signature cardmembers receive return protection on eligible items up to $250, whereas Visa Infinite cardmembers receive coverage on items up to $300. Another example is with trip delay reimbursement, which is available on both Signature and Infinite tier. However, Signature members got covered after 12 hours of delay, and Infinite members are covered if their flight is delayed for more than six hours.

Check with your credit card issuer to see what benefits and protection are available to you and their details.

Which is more expensive: Visa vs. Mastercard?

Since none of the Discover cards charges an annual fee no matter what benefits are available to you, we removed them from the consideration.

Visa and Mastercard cards are issued by different banks and have different sets of benefits. Therefore, their annual fees may vary considerably. Visa and Mastercard cards may have various features, benefits and perks. They may be just cards that simply allow you to purchase items on credit, or may also reward you for purchases, offer 0% APRs for a limited period, and give access to card network benefits.

While you can find no annual fee Visa and Mastercard cards, those cards will have minimum benefits. The average low annual fee among Visa and Mastercard cards that charge annual fees is around $125. And the maximum annual fees can be extremely high.

Here's a list of some expensive Visa and Mastercard credit cards:

- Chase Sapphire Reserve®: $550 annual fee

- JP Morgan Reserve® Card: $595 annual fee

- Stratus Rewards Visa: $1,500 annual fee

- Dubai First Royale Mastercard: ~$2,000 annual fee

- Mastercard® Gold Card™: $995 annual fee

- Luxury Card™ Mastercard® Black Card™: $495 ($195 for each Authorized User added to the account)

- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®: $450 annual fee

Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Discover: who gives better exchange rates?

A foreign exchange rate is how much your country's currency is worth in a foreign currency. You'll usually pay a different currency exchange rate depending on the card network because Visa, Mastercard, and Discover determine exchange rates when you use a credit or debit card to pay for purchases abroad.

You cannot know the exact exchange rate in advance (and not even at the point of the purchase). However, when compared to historic Visa vs. Mastercard exchange rates, Mastercard generally provides better exchange rates. If we add Discover to the comparison, then it will land between Mastercard and Visa.

Another way to save on exchange rates is to pay in a foreign currency when using your card overseas. Shops usually use the most unfavorable exchange rates if you choose to pay in US dollars, while your bank will use the best rate. If you are curious about exchange rates, you can check exchange rates online using the Visa exchange rate calculator or Mastercard exchange rate calculator. Other networks do not have such online tools.

Which is better: Visa, Mastercard, or Discover?

There is no one answer to this question. What matters most are fees, interest rates, rewards, bonus offers and other benefits that are determined by issuers and not by credit card networks.

For some people, Visa and Mastercard may provide additional features that act as additional perks. But most people don't even need to waste their time comparing card networks. What they need to focus on is what banks offer.

However, frequent travelers may want to have a Visa or Mastercard card in their pocket, especially if they travel abroad a lot. Even if they prefer a Discover card, having a Visa or Mastercard as a backup option is a good move as worldwide acceptance of credit cards is uneven, even for Visa and Mastercard.

Keep in mind that the cards you can qualify for will depend on your credit. The best credit card offers (including benefits and perks) are offered to people with good and excellent credit. People with average credit can also find decent credit card offers. Even if you build credit, you may also have good options among credit cards for bad credit.

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Disclaimer: This editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer(s). Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer(s), and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer(s). Reasonable efforts are made to present accurate information, however all information is presented without warranty. Consult a card's issuing bank for the terms & conditions. All rates and fees, and other terms and conditions of the products mentioned in this article/post are actual as of the last update date but are subject to change. See the current products' Terms & Conditions on the issuing banks' websites.

Mastercard® is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated. World Elite is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.
Visa is a registered trademark of Visa International Service Association.
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