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MasterCard vs. Visa: What's the Difference?

Jason Steele

It can be hard to keep straight all of the companies whose logos may appear on your credit card. First, you always have the issuing bank or credit union, such as Chase or Capital One. Then you may have a company that may be co-branding your reward cards, such as United Airlines or Hilton hotels. Finally, you have the payment network that the credit card belongs to, such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover.

MasterCard and Visa are the most popular networks, and most credit card users find them to be indistinguishable. Although nearly all American merchants that accept one accept the other, there are some key differences that cardholders need to be aware of:

1. Acceptance

Visa has a network of more than 28 millions merchants, and 2 million ATMs in 200 countries and territories. MasterCard features more than 30 million merchants, but people rarely come across merchants that take one and not the other. In my experience, for example, there was only one occasion where I was able to use a Visa card, but not a MasterCard, which was with a Canadian services company.

2. Benefits

Both Visa and MasterCard each offer benefits, but it all depends on which card you have. Different cards frequently offer different benefits, despite being part of the same payment network.

For example, there can be some significant differences between the car rental coverage offered by the two card networks. Visa has its standard cards, which come with some benefits, while its Visa Signature line features enhanced purchase protection and travel insurance policies. For example, cardholders can access the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection and enjoy complimentary room upgrades, Internet service, breakfast and late checkouts.

Likewise, MasterCard offers additional benefits to customers who have World or World Elite MasterCards. Their World Elite Hotels and Resorts Portfolio also offers guests complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, late checkouts and Internet service. It also features its Priceless Cities program that offers cardholders access to sports, entertainment, shopping and culinary events at select cities around the world.

3. Discount programs

If you use a business credit card, you can be entitled to save money on various purchases. Visa offers its Visa SavingsEdge program which features discounts of up to 15% (or more) on qualifying merchants that are automatically refunded to cardholders’ statements. Participating merchants include gas stations, hotels and car rental agencies.

MasterCard offers its similar Easy Savings program with discounts for qualifying purchases from gas stations, hotels and car repair chains. In both cases, cardholders must enroll their cards in order to realize these savings.

Can you choose which network your card is a part of?

I recently contacted Chase in order to have my Sapphire Preferred Visa re-issued as part of the MasterCard network. I did this after learning that the Visa’s benefits excluded rental car insurance in certain countries, while the MasterCard version offered me the coverage that I needed. Other cards, like the Citi American Airlines/AAdvantage cards are available as Visa, MasterCard or American Express cards.

Which should you choose?

Ultimately, most credit card users may find the differences between MasterCard and Visa to be minor. Nevertheless, cardholders should take the time to examine the different features offered by each network and the precise benefits available for particular cards in order to get the card that best meets their needs.

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