What are they?
There is now little between Visa and MasterCard apart from small differences in:
Where they are accepted
Their security schemes
Their card benefits
Visa and MasterCard are companies that process the transactions you make when you spend on your credit, debit or prepaid card.
Although their logos appear on these cards, you will probably never need to deal with Visa or MasterCard yourself. Neither company provides you with a card, lends you money, runs your account or takes monthly payments from you.
Visa and MasterCard provide their services to your card issuer, which is the bank or other company that is named on your card and dealt with your application. It is your card issuer that deals with you as a customer and sets your card's terms.
This is what Visa or MasterCard do when you use your card:
They check with your card issuer if the transaction should be accepted or declined
They confirm to the company accepting your payment if it can be made
They process the payment between your card provider and the retailer
Where can you use MasterCard or Visa?
They are both accepted by more than 20 million merchants in more than 150 countries.
It is very rare to find a location where one is accepted but not the other. Both can be used almost anywhere that accepts card payments in the UK and online.
If you travel frequently and want to use your card abroad, check if your destination country tends to favour one card type over another, although most places accept Visa and MasterCard equally.
Do they offer protection online?
Both Visa and MasterCard offer protection when you shop online.
Both allow you to set up a password that must be entered along with your card details to complete the transaction when you shop online.
Do they offer any benefits?
If you have a credit card, most of its benefits like cashback or air miles come from your card issuer rather than MasterCard or Visa.
However, both offer deals and promotions that are only available to people who use their debit, credit or prepaid cards:
Visa offers benefits like travel, dining and shopping discounts with their premium products
What is American Express?
American Express (Amex) is another company that offers a payment network to card issuers, providing the same service as Visa and MasterCard. However, they issue their own prepaid and credit cards too.
This means you can take out a card from American Express directly, or you can take out an Amex card from another card provider.
Why choose American Express?
They can offer these rewards because they charge retailers a higher transaction fee than Visa or MasterCard. However, this means Amex cards are not accepted for payment everywhere, especially by smaller businesses.
You could use your American Express card wherever possible to collect cashback or air miles, and use a Visa or MasterCard as backup where your Amex is not accepted.
Some air miles card issuers offer an Amex and a Visa or MasterCard linked to the same account.
Discover Cards and Diners Club charge cards are accepted for payment by some UK businesses, but are generally not given to UK customers by card issuers.
Which card should you choose?
There is a wide variety of Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards offered by prepaid, credit and debit card issuers. They come with a range of features and benefits, so look at these instead of whether the card has a Visa or MasterCard logo on it.
If you want a credit card, choose one that fits your circumstances; here is what you can use each type of credit card for.
If you need a debit card, you should base your choice on which current account offers what you need.
Here are the features that come with prepaid cards that you should look for.
How to get a MasterCard or Visa
Once you have chosen the card that fits your needs, you can apply through the card issuer or bank - not through Visa or MasterCard.
Can you choose if you get a MasterCard or Visa?
Most cards are only available as a Visa or MasterCard and do not let you choose one or the other.
However, if you want a credit card that uses a specific payment network, use our comparisons that separate Visas and MasterCards:
How much do Visa and MasterCard cost?
The charges, fees and interest you will pay on your card are set by the issuer, not by Visa or MasterCard. Here are the charges that come with credit cards.
Do they all offer contactless payments?
Visa, MasterCard and American Express all offer contactless payments, although some card issuers do not yet provide contactless cards.
Do they all work with mobile payments?
Visa, MasterCard and American Express all work with Apple Pay, although not all banks and card providers currently offer the service.