Payments 101 – What is Credit Card Processing

Credit card processing involves several key players and a number of steps before the correct amount is delivered to you, the merchant. The following blog walks you through how the information you collect from your customers eventually delivers money into your bank account.  

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Payments 101 – What is Credit Card Processing?

Oct 21, 2019

Payments 101 – What is Credit Card Processing

Credit card processing involves several key players and a number of steps before the correct amount is delivered to you, the merchant. The following blog walks you through how the information you collect from your customers eventually delivers money into your bank account.

Overview of the Process

There are three main processes that ensure a successful sale.

  • The first is called authorization. During this process it is confirmed that the credit card is valid and has sufficient credit to purchase goods or services.
  • The next process is called settlement. Here the electronic payment transactions are managed so they can clear and be funded.
  • The final stage of a successful credit card processing transaction is funding. Here the processor deposits money into your bank account to compensate you for the transactions processed.

The Key Players

There five key players that have a role in the process. They are:

The customer or card holder: Typically this is the individual who actually buys goods or services from a business, but it can also refer to an individual authorized to use the card to make a purchase.

The merchant: The legal entity authorized to accept the card for the goods sold or services rendered by the business.

The processor: The merchant service provider that sends the details of the processing card transaction among the merchant, bank, and card issuers.

The card payment brand: A consumer payment system with financial institution members who issue payment cards and sign the merchants to accept these cards. Common brands include Visa®, Mastercard®, and American Express®.

The card issuer: The financial institution that issues payment cards and maintains a contract with the cardholder for repayment.


You can obtain authorizations through options such as a point-of-sale terminal, virtual terminal, smartphone swiper, e-commerce website, or over the phone. Generally, the entire process occurs within a matter of seconds and follows these steps:

  • First, depending on how you run the card, the information is transmitted to a processor.
  • Next the processor forwards your request to the card payment brand, such as Visa® or Mastercard®.
  • From there, the payment brand sends your request to the card issuer (the bank that issued the card to the customer).
  • The issuer will then approve or decline the transaction, and sends this response back to the card payment brand. Next the card payment brand sends the response to the processor.
  • The processor then forwards this response to you so you can complete the transaction.
  • The card will then be approved, declined, or “referred” for the purchase.
  • An approval means that the dollar amount you specified will be reserved from the cardholder's available credit limit for future settlement.
  • A decline means that the customer's card cannot be used to complete the purchase.


If you receive a decline notification, be aware that it may be for one of any number of reasons—perhaps the cardholder has spent more than their credit limit, or the credit card has been reported lost or stolen.

It is not your responsibility to explain to the cardholder why their card was declined—the actual reason for the decline notification is not transmitted to you. If a customer requests more information about the denial, direct them to the customer service contact information on the back of the credit card.


A referral is a request for additional information before an authorization can be issued. This request can be for information from either the merchant or the cardholder. An issuer may send a referral response as a security measure.

If a referral is received, the processor will contact the issuer directly and request authorization on your behalf. The issuer may request to speak with you or the cardholder over the phone to confirm the legitimacy of the transaction before the issuing the authorization.

Referrals are sometimes requested when a cardholder is trying to make a purchase in a foreign country. Other instances include when a cardholder is using their card more than usual in a short period of time or has reached the credit limit on the card.


Settlement is the process of managing electronic payment transactions so they can clear and be funded. Depending on your business, your customer likely considers the sale complete once they have left your store, logged off your website, or hung up the phone. For you, however, the transaction is still in process, since it must now be settled.

To make this happen, the approved card transaction must be presented to the processor. The processor then submits those approved transactions to the payment brands for clearing through interchange. You may hear these transactions referred to as “deposit” transactions.

The settlement process typically goes as follows:

  • Typically, your terminal or point of sale device automatically triggers, or "batches" a settlement, unless further steps are required - such as tip adjustment in a restaurant.
  • The processor then forwards your settlement request to the appropriate credit card payment brand for confirmation with the cardholder's issuing bank.
  • The payment brand receives the settlement request and does two things. First, issuing a credit to the processor to reimburse you for the amount of the settled transaction. The issuer then pays the processor for the transaction.
  • After that the payment brand issues a debit to the card issuer to charge for the settled transaction.
  • The issuer then posts the transaction to the customer or cardholder's account. At the end of the billing period, the issuer sends the cardholder his or her monthly statement.
  • The cardholder receives his or her credit card statement and pays the bill to the card issuer.


Interchange fees are fees that a merchant acquirer or merchant services provider pays to card-issuing banks. The interchange category under which any single transaction falls will depend on various factors.

The processing environment of the business: The location of card processing is just one of the factors in determining the fees applied against the transaction. Card issuers consider purchases that occur in physical stores as less risky than those made online or over the phone, and fees are adjusted accordingly.

The merchant’s card acceptance method: Retail locations that physically swipe cards through their processing equipment are charged lower fees than those that type or “key in” the information.

Security information sent along with the transaction: When the card information is collected, a merchant can also collect additional data points to help decrease the risk associated with the transaction. Getting the cardholder’s address and/or zip code as part of an Address Verification System (AVS) can help assure the card issuer that an authorized cardholder is using the card, rather than a third party for a fraudulent purchase.

The card brand and type: A massive number of interchange rates exist among card brands and transaction types. Each card has its own associated rates, which vary based on the previously noted factors. The highest rates are often associated with corporate and rewards cards, as the card issuers leverage the higher fees on these cards to finance the rewards and offers that the cardholders receive. The lowest rates are historically associated with debit cards.


The final part of the process is funding, when the processor deposits money into your bank account to compensate you for transactions processed.

The funding process is really an extension of settlement, and sometimes the terms "settlement," "batching," and "funding" are used interchangeably regarding this process. Funding happens when the payment brands, such as Visa® or MasterCard®, reimburse the processor for your customer transaction, allowing them to send these funds to you.

Generally, merchants receive their funds within one to two business days. However, it is important to note that funding does not occur on weekends or on certain holidays, particularly federal banking holidays.


If you would like to learn more about how this process works for your individual business or how TSYS can help your business, please contact us today.

Interested in learning more about payments? Check out our other Payments 101 blogs, like our What is a Recurring Transaction post.

TSYS® is a federally registered service mark of Total System Services, Inc. All rights reserved. All trademarks contained herein are the sole and exclusive property of their respective owners. Any use of those marks without the express written consent of their owners is prohibited.

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