Find the Best Credit Card Processor for your small business.
Compare features, processing rates, and reviews from our in-depth guide to choosing the processor / merchant account provider that best suits your business’ needs.
A GUIDE TO CREDIT CARD PROCESSORS FOR SMALL BUSINESS
Like most small business owners today, you’re probably planning on accepting credit card payments in your day-to-day operations. However, choosing a credit card processor you’ll actually be happy with might be more daunting than you think. That is why we strongly encourage our readers to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of credit card processors to choose one that meets their needs.
WHAT ARE CREDIT CARD PROCESSORS & HOW DO THEY WORK?
Think of a credit card processor as a phone operator patching together a handful of people. As a small business owner (aka the merchant) you are interested in accepting credit card payments as compensation for your goods or services. Once you open a merchant account with your preferred merchant bank, your customers (aka the cardholders) can use credit cards as a way to pay you for said goods or services. This may sound pretty straightforward at first, but there is still a lot going on that you don’t see, which is where credit card processors come in.
The credit card processor accepts the payment via a POS system or credit card terminal, and communicates this information to the given card associations (i.e. VISA, Mastercard, etc.). These associations inform your customers’ banks (aka the issuing bank) about their transactions, where they are then approved or denied. If approved, the issuing bank transfers the funds to your merchant bank (after subtracting interchange fees – more on that later), and the money is finally deposited to your merchant account.
Voilá, you finally have your money.
A great amount of data actually flows through credit card processors during any given transaction. With that data comes several other factors that any merchant should consider when exploring credit card processors.
HOW DO CREDIT CARD PROCESSORS DIFFER?
For many people, the payment processor topic just sounds like fees, fees, and more fees. The truth is that merchants are stuck paying a ton of fees when handling card payments. There’s usually no way around fees, so the fee costs tend to be a major deciding factor when choosing between services. These fees include the following:
- Interchange Fees: The amount charged after every transaction processed by the processor to the issuing bank. The standard amount charged is usually 3% or less; however, this can vary depending on what type of card the customer uses or how the transaction is processed. If you plan on processing card payments only in-store, your interchange fees will usually be less due to a lower risk for fraud. But if you’re an e-commerce merchant or someone who handles both in-store and online orders, then interchange fees are definitely something you will want to look into.
- Application/set up fees: Some processors will charge merchants a fee for just applying to use their services (yes, you heard correctly). Set up fees are also a potential expense when a processor requires specific hardware or software to process payments. If you want to rid yourself of the hassle, processors usually offer installation services, for a fee, of course.
- Monthly minimum fees: Some payment processing companies have a minimum amount they need to collect from each merchant on a monthly basis. If you don’t meet this minimum, the service will charge you to cover the difference. For example, if you process $1800 in payments one month but your credit card processor’s monthly minimum is $2000, you’ll be charged the $200 difference at the end of the month. Depending on what your projected profits are or if your service is seasonal, monthly minimum fees might be something important (and expensive) to consider.
- Monthly gateway access fees: For the sake of throwing another term at you, a payment gateway is a service that provides your transaction information to credit card companies. While payment gateway providers are a separate service altogether, some credit card processors offer merchants this feature as part of their plan – for a price, of course.
- Monthly statement fees: If you request a monthly statement from your credit card processor, the service will likely charge you an additional cost for sending it to you.
- Early termination fees: If you are unsatisfied with your service or want to cancel your contract before its expiration, credit card processors might charge merchants an early termination fee. However, merchants should be warned because termination fees usually come at a hefty price.
Hardware and Software Setup
Most card processors will offer merchants the necessary hardware and software to process their payments. Depending on how tech-savvy you are, a plan’s simplicity might be a big deciding factor when choosing between processors.
Here are some examples of hardware and software offered by processors:
- Card Readers: Also known as MSRs, mag stripe readers are used to read magnetic stripes on various types of cards, including credit cards, forms of ID, gift cards, and more.
- Pin Pads: Widely identifiable for their keypads and small screens, these card readers allow customers to view card transactions in-person and insert their own pin code.
- Wireless Terminals: These easy-to-use terminals do not require an internet connection, therefore making it possible for merchants to process card payments anywhere, anytime. Merchants just need to connect these terminals to a computer or cellular device to process card payments.
- IP Terminals: These terminals are similar in appearance to pin pads and wireless terminals, but they process card payments via an Ethernet cable instead.
- Contactless Payment Reader: Currently the newest way to process card payments, these terminals do not require swipe readers or pin pads to accept a transaction. Customers simply “tap” their credit card or digital wallets on the contactless payment reader, and their information instantly transfers to your merchant account.
- Processing Software: Once downloaded to your computer or a smart device, processing software can transform your preferred technology into a fully operating POS system. Besides allowing merchants to accept payments, processing software can also allow you to conduct invoicing, create sales reports, and manage your database. As a small business owner, it’s in your best interest to find a processing software that simplifies your business operations so you can focus your attention elsewhere with little worry.
- Virtual Terminals: Virtual terminals are essential for merchants offering their goods and services online. By allowing you to process credit card payments from any computer with access to internet connection, virtual terminals make it easy for merchants to validate credit cards from just about anywhere. Once your merchant account is paired to a secured payment gateway, you can accept payments through a standard web portal. This is also a great option for merchants who conduct most of their business over the phone rather than in-person.
- Mobile Device Software: With the development of mobile card readers, merchants can now process card payments anywhere with their smartphone devices. After downloading the app approved by your card processor, you can immediately begin taking payments at your convenience.
As you can see by all the hardware & software combinations on the market, merchants are left with lots of options to choose from. But with all these options comes the task of setting them up and troubleshooting when things go array. That’s why it’s important not to skip out on customer service and support when deciding on a card processor.
Merchants should look for card processors that offer 24/7 support to resolve any issues that occur outside of normal business hours. While some services offer automated messaging to answer merchants’ questions online, others connect clients to account representatives that can answer their specific questions. Working with an account representative also provides merchants the opportunity to ask questions regarding certain fees or technical issues that they come across when using the service. Some card processors charge extra for their customer support, however, it’s usually worth an extra fee if you’re receiving quality support.
Accepts new technology
Near-field communication (NFC), also known as “touch payments”, refers to customers being able to “tap” their smartphones or credit cards on a contactless payment reader to make a payment. If you’re a merchant whose clientele is up to date with the latest technology, being able to accept these kinds of payments is definitely something you’ll need. Digital wallets like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Android Pay are commonly used by smartphone users today; therefore, it’s likely to be a customer’s preferred method of payment when shopping in-person.
ARE ALL CREDIT CARD PROCESSORS SUITABLE FOR SMALL BUSINESS?
Some would think that choosing a credit card processor is all about personal preference or saving money. Well, if that was the case, then everyone would choose the standard processor with the lowest fees. The truth is, the ideal card processor for your small business really depends on a variety of factors, some of which we have already covered. For starters, what kind of payments you’re processing, customer service options, flexibility for sales growth, and the volume of sales you’re taking in all play a role when choosing a service.
If your small business is processing less than $3,000 per month, third-party payment processors and popular mobile card processors like Paypal, Stripe, and Square are suitable options because of their minimal fees. Costs like set up fees, or PCI compliance fees will not be expenses you’ll have to budget for when using one of these services.
Small businesses processing more than $3,000 per month will probably want to look into companies listed as ISOs (independent sales organizations) & MSPs (merchant service providers). Although you’ll notice a much higher level of fees from using these companies, they are still cheaper in the long run due to lower rates when processing large volumes of transactions.
Once you’ve weighed the cost of using some services over others, remaining factors like easy setup, functionality, and customer service can help guide you in your decision-making. Choosing a credit card processor for your small business is a major financial decision, but it’s important to note that almost all businesses undergo change over time. Taking into account what your current needs are is important, but some merchants should consider what service will best suit their business in the long run.
WHAT ABOUT SECURITY?
Processing card payments, whether online or in-person, always comes with a certain level of risk. Although it’s the merchant’s responsibility to ensure their equipment is secure and up-to-date, credit card processors are still expected to properly handle card and payment information for merchants on their end. That is where PCI-DSS comes into play. PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard), or often referred to as PCI compliance, are standard anti-fraud practices that both merchants and card processors must follow. Issuing banks can actually fine card processors for failing to protect merchants from fraud, which explains why some processors charge their clients a PCI compliance fee.
Not all credit card processors will charge merchants for PCI compliance, but if yours does, make sure you research what the benefits are (if any). In an ideal scenario, your processor will offer the necessary support to ensure your business remains PCI compliant; however, there’s always the chance you get charged the fee and receive nothing at all.
If you’re interested in avoiding these fees altogether yet still remain PCI compliant, you can do so by filling out a Self-Assessment Questionnaire once a year. In this form, you’ll be asked standard questions like what type of business you are, what forms of payments you accept, how many locations you own, and more. E-commerce merchants must undergo one extra step by being scanned for fraud vulnerability through a PCI SSC Approved Scanning Vendor every quarter. If your business is approved for all of the mentioned criteria, you could find yourself avoiding yet another recurring fee.
THE BEST CREDIT CARD PROCESSORS FOR SMALL BUSINESS
Here is our selection of the best credit card processors for small businesses
- ELECTRONIC PAYMENTS INC.
- MERCHANT FOCUS
1. ELECTRONIC PAYMENTS INC.
Electronic Payments Inc., also known as EPI, offers a wide variety of services besides processing card payments. The service currently comes paired with ProCharge, a plug-in that simplifies merchants’ accounting process and provides integration with QuickBooks. ProCharge also acts as an in-house payment gateway that allows EPI merchants to process a full range of card payments, including magstripe, EMV chip, and contactless.
In regards to equipment, EPI has several options to choose from and can even reprogram your current equipment if you’re interested in hanging on to it. The ProCharge gateway also serves as a virtual terminal where you can input transactions and set up recurring payments via the internet. And last but not least: mobile payments. The ProCharge app offers the payment gateway’s full-service but from the convenience of a mobile phone or tablet.
Here are some pros and cons that come with using Electronic Payments, Inc.:
- Processes all major credit card brands
- Streamlined accounting process with ProCharge
- American Express OptBlue Program offers low American Express transaction rates and provides users with combined daily deposits, next day funding, and integrated statements.
- Electronic Payments offers business loans and merchant cash advances if you’re in need of working capital.
- Customizable gift cards and loyalty programs via eGiftSolutions
- Offers services to ensure PCI compliance. Compliant merchants are not charged additional fees.
- Merchants must commit to a lengthy 3 year contract
- This processor is generally considered more expensive than others
- Higher than average early termination fees
- Minimum processing fee can be costly for small businesses that process a low volume of transactions
- Online complaints suggest independent sales agents have the freedom to alter contract terms
Fattmerchant is an appealing option for small businesses for a variety of reasons. The processor promotes a subscription-style membership that promises no excessive fees or percentage-based rates. While this proves to be partially true, how much money you actually save is dependent on several factors.
At first glance, Fattmerchant appears to be an all-in-one platform for merchants looking to process different types of payments and effectively manage their business. By including third-party products into its services, FM offers customizable, full-service merchant accounts. Options to choose from include a virtual terminal for e-commerce merchants, a mobile app for Android & iOS, customizable shopping carts, Dejavoo terminals for brick and mortar locations, and plenty more at an additional cost to your monthly flat rate.
That is the beauty (and potential issue) with Fattmerchant: you can use as many of their services as you’d like, but it will always come at an extra cost. In regards to rates and fees, merchants pay no statement fees, PCI compliance fees, batch fees, annual fees, or monthly minimum fees. However, users still pay interchange fees per transaction. Fattmerchant also promotes no early termination fees or cancellation penalties, with the option to choose between two membership models. Merchants can either commit to a three-year agreement with a two-year automatic renewal or a month-to-month contract with no cancellation fees. After you’ve chosen your plan and what features you’d like to use, the entire cost will be consolidated into one rate for predictable billing. The downside to the service is how easily additional costs can pile up, especially if you’re a small business processing a low volume of payments. And to make matters more interesting: Fattmerchant’s plans scale with volume.
Crunch the numbers, see which of Fattmerchant’s services appeal to you, and make an honest assessment of whether this processor’s flexibility is worth the potential expense.
Here are the listed pros and cons of using Fattmerchant as your credit card processor:
- Flat monthly fees with a fixed per-transaction fee and no percentage based rates
- Fattmerchant’s Omni Payments platform connects merchant accounts to QuickBook for streamlined accounting at no cost, as well as two-way integration that regularly updates customer databases, invoices, and payments.
- Ability to customize shopping carts for e-commerce businesses
- Mobile apps for iOS & Android can be used as a standalone solution or with FM’s omnichannel platform. All data collected on the mobile app is also automatically synced across all devices in the merchant’s account.
- No early termination fees or cancellation fees make subscription a flexible option for merchants
- Minimal fees, but interchange fees still apply.
- Provides necessary equipment to merchants and can reprogram your existing devices for free. A protection plan is also offered for support regarding your terminals.
- Virtual terminal can connect to Fattmerchant’s card readers to utilize in-person rates
- 24/7 support via telephone or email
- Fattmerchant does not have an extensive list of third-party integrations
- Plans scale with volume
- Fees can add up quickly and become expensive for small businesses that process a low volume of payments
- Additional add-ons like same-day transfers, advanced reporting, advanced customization, terminal protection, and ACH payments are not included in subscription and come at an additional price.
It’s difficult to find a credit card processor that’s as easy to use, simple to set up, low-cost, and multi-faceted as Square. With very affordable pricing and a massive list of features to choose from, Square is a go-to for many small businesses. Its ability to process payments both in-person and online with incredible ease has given the processor a reputation for being a one-stop-shop. With no monthly fees, statement fees, monthly minimums, and a flat-rate price for most of its services, users can create a well-rounded business model by just using Square. And yes, flat rates are consistent regardless of the type of transaction, its size, or what industry you’re in.
Square’s features include a free virtual terminal, invoicing, recurring billing, several third-party app integrations, advanced analytics, and capabilities for card storage and online ordering. Square also has different POS apps to choose from depending on your given industry and the services you’ll require. These include the general Square POS app, Square appointments for bookings, Square for Retail with inventory management capabilities, Square for Restaurants with team management features, and Square Online for e-commerce merchants and online orders. Square’s e-commerce platform provides merchants with necessary tools like web store hosting, payment gateways, and online checkout capabilities. We could keep going into immense detail about everything that Square can possibly offer you, but the list really goes on and on (we’ll include it below). But what’s so great about Square, other than its wide range and affordability, is its flexibility with no early termination fees and countless free trials on services and equipment. Most products offered by Square have a 30-day free trial attached to them, therefore making the processor super easy to try out.
Here are the pros and cons associated with using Square as your credit card processor:
- Very easy to use and set up for merchants with varying tech savviness
- No business history required to open an account
- Free email marketing
- No monthly fees, statement fees, or monthly minimums.
- Merchants are offered a flat-rate price for Square’s services and products
- Free virtual terminal, invoicing, recurring billing, detailed analytics, several third-party app integrations, and capabilities for card storage & online ordering.
- Various POS apps to choose from depending on your given industry and the services you require.
- Web store hosting, payment gateways, and online checkout capabilities within Square’s e-commerce platform.
- No early termination fees and 30-day free trials on most services and equipment.
- Zero-risk customer financing at checkout offered through the Square Installments feature
- Instant pay or same-day deposit available on request
- Limited calling hours for customer service support, except with Square for Restaurants.
- No micropayment plans available to merchants
- Rates can be high for very low-volume merchants
- Potential suspension or account termination due to a sudden high-volume of transactions
4. MERCHANT FOCUS
Merchant Focus is the straightforward processor that promotes its services to high risk merchants; however, someone’s monthly rate can vary depending on the volume of transactions you take in. Offering payment processing for retail, mobile, and e-commerce sales, Merchant Focus provides the standard services that all merchants need. The processor’s e-commerce services are done through Authorize.Net, and can safely accept forms of payment that range from credit cards to e-checks. The company’s app on Google Chrome also provides merchants with a virtual terminal, whereas its mobile app, TakeCharge Mobile, offers a free card reader, automatic tax calculation, 24/7 tech support, and much more.
Once you purchase a terminal or reprogram your current equipment with Merchant Focus, you can begin processing payments as well as access your transaction history, integrate with QuickBooks, and set up recurring billing cycles.
Merchant Focus appears to offer its users a month-to-month plan with no cancellation fees. If you’re ultimately not satisfied with the service, the company requires a written statement that states you wish to discontinue your membership. The flexibility Merchant Focus offers its users is great, but it’s pricing is still a bit unpredictable. Because the company’s pricing is solely based on credit card sales, low volume and high volume merchants are subject to two different pricing models. Low-volume merchants, or those who process under $250,000, are offered tiered pricing, while merchants who process more receive interchange-plus pricing. What qualifies a merchant to receive interchange plus instead of tiered pricing is unclear, mostly because Merchant Focus doesn’t really promote this model. Another unclear topic is high-risk merchants, which appear to be a target demographic for the processor. It’s unknown what rates are offered to high-risk merchants, but it can be assumed that it’s different from other users.
A unique perk that comes with using Merchant Focus is its Card Discount Program. Non-cash transactions processed by registered merchants will carry an extra surcharge between 1% to 4%. The purpose of this model is to allocate these revenues to cover a merchant’s fees for processing electronic payments.
These are some pros and cons associated with Merchant Focus:
- Easy integration with QuickBooks for streamlined taxing process
- Virtual Terminal offered through Merchant Focus’ Google Chrome app.
- Safe payment gateway and e-commerce processing through Authorize.Net
- Works with high-risk merchants
- Mobile processing comes with various features like 24/7 support, tip acceptance, and more.
- Card Discount Program available to cover card processing fees.
- No cancellation fees
- Unknown pricing for high-risk merchants
- Unclear standards for qualifying for interchange-plus pricing
- Separate approval needed to process American Express & Discover Card
- Common complaints online include poor customer service, difficulty with canceling service, and the holding of funds.
Another company that promotes doing business with high-risk merchants is Maverick, a full-service payment processor that covers everything from card processing to PCI compliance and ACH payments. The processor is extremely versatile and can take payments via POS systems, virtual terminals, and even kiosks, while also providing additional features like loyalty card programs, API integrations, business funding, and recurring billing.
If you are accepting B2B transactions, Maverick might be a great option for your business. The company offers a secure gateway to process both Level 2 & Level 3 data and works to find the best possible pricing for you.
Maverick’s reporting dashboard Bizlitix is one of the company’s main selling points. Coming at no additional cost, Bizlitix offers a singular dashboard for detailed reporting and easy chargeback management. Merchants can now analyze the entirety of their payment information alongside their transaction history, sales, competitor insight reports, and more.
Cost for Maverick Payments’ services will vary greatly from business to business, with rates for high-risk merchants being likely to change based on various factors. Besides unknown pricing, other costs like transaction fees, statement fees, and internet gateway fees may still apply.
Here are the pros and cons of using Maverick for your credit card processor:
- Open to doing business with high-risk merchants
- Processes e-checks and B2B transactions
- API integrations available for real-time transaction processing
- Processor can take payments via POS systems, virtual terminals, and kiosks
- Loyalty programs and Gift Card services included in plan
- Business loans and cash advances available to merchants looking for capital
- Bizlitix dashboard provides detailed reporting and easy chargeback management
- Equipment available at wholesale prices
- 24/7 customer support, 365 days a year
- Pricing not disclosed and contingent on various factors, especially for high-risk merchants
- Undisclosed fees like statement fees, transaction fees, internet gateway fees, and more.
- Online complaints suggest potential holding of funds, account freezes, and inadequate customer support.
If there’s one main takeaway for merchants reading this review, it should be that choosing a credit card processor for your small business is highly dependent on your unique needs, the volume of transactions you’re processing, and what your priorities are as a business owner.
Some services can promote themselves as low-cost, but additional features could ramp up your expense. Others come with less robust features, but it might tick all your boxes.
Overall, doing your research, crunching the numbers, and thinking about how a processor can aid your business down the road is crucial when making this big decision.
If you’re processing a smaller volume of payments both in-person and online, or you’re looking for a processor that’s easy to use, affordable, and comes with flexible contracts, then Square might be the right option for you. If your volume of transactions is on the higher end, but you’re still interested in lower fees and a large selection of additional features, Fattmerchant might be a great option.
And lastly, if you’re a high-risk merchant looking for a processor open to doing business with you and provide full-service, then we recommend giving Merchant Focus or Maverick a look.
Remember that merchant services is a notoriously clandestine industry with lots of hidden fees or unclear information surrounding rates, so don’t shy away from requesting a quote before signing up to a new credit card processor.