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Best credit card payment processor 2021: Top picks

Here we take a look at some of the industry's more popular credit and debit card processors.

Whether accepting payments online or in-person, a reliable credit card processing service is essential to the livelihood of a small business. Payment processors serve as the link between a business and the banks, issuers, and credit card networks during every transaction. 

As a business owner, you're not required to understand the ins and outs of credit card processing to be successful -- few people outside of the world of banking and finance can make sense of the technical structure that makes up the payments chain. But it's important to know what factors to consider when comparing the bevy of credit card processing services out there in the market. 

Here we take a look at some of the industry's more popular credit and debit card processors, and then we break down some of the key considerations to keep in mind when choosing a provider. 

Square

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Square is a payments company that serves both businesses and individuals across a range of industries. The company uses a flat-rate pricing model, which means that merchants pay the same rate regardless of the card brand and type. Square charges a 2.6% transaction fee for in-person payments. Manually entered card payments cost a bit more (3.5% plus 15 cents), as online and over the phone transactions demand a higher fee due to greater fraud risks.

Square is a merchant aggregator that sets customers up as submerchants under its master merchant account. In addition to processing credit cards on mobile devices, Square offers a bevy of software tools for running a business, along with e-commerce capabilities and merchant financing. Square's software features include analytics, appointments, invoices, and team management.

Payline

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Payline offers credit and debit card processing services for in-person, online, and mobile transactions, and caters to both small business and enterprise customers. The company offers three payment plans: Start, Surge, and Connect. The Start plan is geared toward smaller merchants and aims to support physical point of sale (POS) terminals and mobile POS devices. It costs 0.5% plus 20 cents per transaction with no monthly fee. The Surge plan costs 0.3% plus 20 cents per transaction and a $9.95 monthly fee. The Connect plan costs 0.3% per transaction plus 20 cents and a $20 monthly fee.

In addition to processing, Payline also offers software for invoicing, recurring billing, and ACH payments, and integrates with most POS systems, shopping carts, and accounting services like Quickbooks. 

QuickBooks Payments

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QuickBooks is known for its small business accounting software, but the company also offers credit card processing -- and it's especially convenient for existing QuickBooks users. QuickBooks Payments lets merchants accept credit cards, debit cards, and ACH bank transfers and charges flat, per-transaction fees that are transparent and clearly laid out. 

For in-person payments, QuickBooks charges 2.4% plus 25 cents per transaction. Invoiced payments cost 2.9% plus 25 cents per transaction fee, and manually keyed payments cost 3.4% plus 25 cents per transaction. Unlike Square, which sets users up under its master merchant account, QuickBooks requires merchants to have their own merchant accounts for credit card processing. 

PayPal

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PayPal is a fintech provider known for offering affordable, transparent pricing for its credit card processing services. For in-person sales, PayPal charges 2.7% per transaction, while online transactions cost 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction. Payments made via PayPal's virtual terminal cost 3.1% plus 30 cents per transaction, and manually keyed transactions cost 3.5% plus 15 cents per transaction.

For in-person card acceptance, PayPal offers Here, a mobile credit card processing and point-of-sale system. In addition to credit card processing, PayPal offers robust customer service and merchant support and a streamlined financing program for merchants. For business services, PayPal integrates with software providers including BigCommerce, Shopify, and QuickBooks.

Helcim

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Helcim is a full-service credit card processor that offers interchange-plus pricing as well as a rate guarantee. Specific rates depend on the amount of payment volume being processed, but generally, more payment volume equates to lower rates. 

For businesses that process $0 to $25,000 in volume per month, in-person payments accepted using a card reader cost 0.30% plus 8 cents, while keyed or online transactions cost 0.50% plus 25 cents above interchange, per transaction.

Businesses with monthly volume between $25,001 to $50,000 per month are charged 0.25% plus 7 cents for in-person payments, and 0.45% plus 20 cents for keyed or online transactions. For businesses with $100,001 to $250,000 in volume per month, the rates drop to 0.18% plus 6 cents for in-person, and 0.35% plus 15 cents for keyed or online.

Helcim does not place its customers under a master merchant account and instead provides customers with individual merchant accounts under which they can accept all major credit and debit cards. Helcim also includes Helcim Commerce, its all-in-one merchant platform, for free with every processing account. 

Adyen

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Adyen is a fintech company and merchant account provider based in the Netherlands that offers a full-stack of payment processing capabilities. The company uses interchange-plus pricing, with all transactions charged interchange plus a 12 cent processing fee. Adyen does not charge merchants monthly fees, setup fees, integration fees, or closure fees. 

Adyen's technology connects directly to Visa, MasterCard, and a range of other payment methods across online, mobile, and in-store environments. In addition to processing, Adyen offers virtual terminal and payment gateway services, along with a point of sale solution, integrated online checkout, and tools for risk and optimization. 

Stripe

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Stripe is a developer-friendly online payment processing company that offers fixed pricing for its card processing services. Online credit card transactions cost 2.9% plus 30 cents. In-person card payments cost merchants 2.7% plus 5 cents. 

Stripe's APIs allow businesses to customize their payments experience, making it ideal for subscription services, marketplaces, e-commerce stores, and B2B platforms. In addition to processing, Stripe also offers a range of software add-ons, including the Stripe Dashboard, Stripe Terminal, Stripe Checkout, Stripe Billing, and Stripe Connect.

Payment Depot

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Payment Depot is a payment processor that uses membership-based pricing with wholesale credit card processing rates set by the card brands. Payment Depot does not charge an additional percentage above interchange fees. 

Instead, the company uses the cost-plus pricing model, along with a flat monthly fee. Membership prices range from $79 plus interchange for the starter processing package to $199 plus interchange for the enterprise-level package. It's worth noting that this model is not ideal for small businesses, as it tends to favor bigger businesses with high processing volume and large transaction totals.

National Bankcard

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National Bankcard is a payment processor that offers in-person and online payment capabilities, as well as a range of hardware. The company uses both tiered and interchange-plus pricing, but its exact fees are not listed on its website. 

In addition to debit and credit card processing, National Bankcard offers electronic check acceptance and compatibility with gift and loyalty programs. Its platform also integrates with QuickBooks for bookkeeping and financial management, and the company has a robust set of security and anti-fraud services.  

GoDaddy Payments

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GoDaddy started off as a domain registrar and web hosting provider, but its services have expanded to include a broader set of commerce tools, including payment processing. GoDaddy Payments is the company's built-in payment service for its Online Store and Managed WordPress Ecommerce products. 

In terms of rates, GoDaddy charges 2.9% plus 30 cents above interchange, per transaction, with no monthly minimums. GoDaddy does not charge setup fees or require long-term contracts for payments processing. 

GoDaddy Payments integrates with Websites + Marketing and GoDaddy-powered Managed WordPress and WooCommerce sites. The integration lets customers manage orders, payments, and refunds, alongside other aspects of their online business, all from one dashboard.

How do I choose a payment processing provider?

There are a number of important factors to consider when comparing credit card processing providers. For most business owners, it's helpful to narrow things down to the essentials: Cost, fraud prevention and security, payment method coverage, interoperability, and customer support. 

Monthly fee vs per transaction fee: What's better?

When looking at cost, a good place to start is figuring out whether a payment processor charges a monthly fee or a flat per-transaction fee. The argument for a flat, fixed fee boils down to transparency: Without a fixed rate, processors are able to charge different rates for different card types. However, depending on the average size of each transaction, per-transaction fees can add up and start biting into profits over time. 

It's also important to note that most processors, regardless of fee structure, distinguish between card-present (CP) and card-not-present (CNP) transactions. CNP transactions occur when a merchant keys in a credit card number by hand, and they are always more expensive because they carry an increased risk for fraud. 

What equipment do I need for processing payments?

Another cost to consider is the price of equipment. If you want to process credit card payments in-person, your business will need at least one credit card reader. Some providers offer credit card readers for free, while others charge based on a reader's capabilities.

Are there any additional fees?

As you begin researching credit card processors, be on the lookout for how fees are structured by your chosen provider. Aside from transaction fees, other processing fees to watch for include compliance fees, interchange fees, statement fees, cancellation fees, and gateway access fees. Not every provider tacks on every fee, and some are not automatically transparent if they do, so ask questions.

What security do payment processors offer?

Most payment processors have fraud prevention and security services baked into their system. Fraud solutions for in-store transactions are based on EMV standards and chip card acceptance. For online transactions, the payment processor should be compliant with PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) regulations, which stipulate that a merchant's payment ecosystem must be inventoried, documented, and secured.

What about payment coverage?

Payment method coverage is also a consideration. Traditional credit and debit cards are the most common payment method used in the US, but digital wallets and contactless alternatives are gaining in popularity. When you're equipped to accept contactless payments, you are, by default, able to accept all forms of Near Field Communication (NFC)-based payments, including payment made with cards, smartphones, and wearables. Contactless payments can also provide an additional layer of transaction security.

Interoperability is an important factor for ease of use and reporting reasons, especially if you want to connect your processing network directly to your point of sale system. Some processors offer POS software that integrates natively into their system and hardware, while others build out a network of partners for merchants to choose from. It really boils down to the needs of your business and the complexity of your inventory when deciding what POS software to go with.

Finally, it's wise to look for a processor that offers customer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, preferably with direct help from an account representative.

Our process

The payment processing providers included in this list were chosen based on an analysis of popular reviews combined with years of experience reporting on and writing about the payments space and its key players.