What are virtual cards and when should you use them?

Google says using a virtual card number can help you keep your payment information safe. Here's how you can use one.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Credit card transaction
Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Let's be real. Sometimes, suspicious online websites have the best deals or the items we need. When you feel hesitant about entering your card information, you could use a virtual card -- not to be confused with a digital wallet

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In observation of Financial Literacy Month, Google shared ways users can protect their payment information when using Google Pay. Unsurprisingly, given their ability to protect your card information easily and efficiently, virtual cards made the list.

So, what are virtual cards?

A virtual card is a unique credit card number you can enter on a site to complete a transaction. The technology masks your actual card information, keeping it hidden from businesses and protecting you against fraud.

Some virtual cards expire after every transaction, so if anyone accesses your card information, that number would be useless to them. Other virtual cards, like Google Pay, have a longer duration.

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If someone steals your virtual card's payment information, you can cancel just that virtual card instead of your entire credit card. Once you cancel the virtual account, the thief no longer has access to your credit card, which you can continue using. 

Creating a virtual card is free and easy, and there are multiple ways to do so, regardless of the type of phone, browser, or card you use.

How can you create a virtual card?

Google Pay 

One way to create a virtual card is by using Google Pay. When you check out from Chrome desktop or mobile, if you have an eligible American Express, Capital One, or Citi card, you have the option to save your card as a virtual card. 

Google Pay Virtual Card
Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Then, every time you autofill your card information using Google Play, your virtual card information will be inputted automatically. If you don't use Google Pay, don't worry -- there are other options. 

Your credit card 

Many major credit card companies offer virtual cards within their platform to users free of charge, including American Express, Capital One, Mastercard, or Citi. For example, as a Citibank credit card holder, I can go into the app and generate a virtual card number simply by tapping the quick action. 

I often use this feature when I try to place an online order, am nowhere near my wallet, need to enter my credit card information, and have no desire to get up. While this isn't the intended use case, it's still a big plus.

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CNET has a comprehensive list of the best credit cards with virtual card numbers. You can cross-reference this list to see if your card is included. You can also see credit cards with the feature that you might want to consider in the future. 

Third-party payment sites

Many popular third-party payment sites offer virtual cards, including Wise, Stripe, and PayPal. These cards function a little differently: you can choose what funds get added and create separation between your personal account and your virtual card. 

For example, with the PayPal Debit Card, you can spend your PayPal balance online and in stores. You can load money onto that card from an eligible bank account or debit card. This approach gives you control over how much money someone can access if the payment information is stolen and makes it easier to cancel the account if needed.

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