Credit card processing may seem simple. However, in the few seconds it takes to make a purchase with a credit card, there are several steps that occur behind the scenes.

How exactly does the payment process work?

From start to finish, here are the basics of how credit card processing works with an integrated payment system.

Meet the Players

One of the keys to understanding how credit card processing works is understanding all of the players involved. Even though a credit or debit card transaction only takes seconds to approve or deny, there are several players in the game. The customer and the merchant are only the starting and end points.

  • The customer: The person whose card is swiped.
  • The merchant: The business that ends up with the money in exchange for the goods or services provided to the customer.
  • The ERP/accounting softwareThe resource a business uses to record and report financial transactions.
  • The integrated payment system: The system that automates payments and allows you to accept credit cards within your ERP/accounting software.
  • The payment gateway: The virtual equivalent of the point-of-sale (POS) machine you’d swipe your card in if you visited a traditional brick-and-mortar store.
  • The card issuing bank: The bank that issued the customer’s credit card. For example, a customer who has a Visa® may have it issued from one of many local or national banks such as Chase or Wells Fargo.
  • The credit card network: The place where everything comes together for credit card processing and collection of fees, such as First Data.
  • The merchant’s acquiring bank: The bank that issued the merchant account, where the merchant can withdraw funds.

The Credit Card Transaction Process: Step-by-Step

  1. The bank issues a credit card to a customer
  2. The customer purchases products from the merchant
  3. The merchant creates an invoice
    • The invoice includes details of the transaction, including the customer’s payment information.
  4. The merchant enters the customer’s payment information into their accounting software, such as QuickBooks or Sage
    • Without an integrated payment system, the merchant would have to open a separate web browser and reenter all of the payment information into a virtual terminal. Then, they would have to go back into their accounting software and manually post every transaction to each invoice. With an integrated payment system, merchants can skip this process.
  5. Payment information is sent from the integrated payment system to the payment gateway
    • The payment gateway provides merchants with a list of transactions. A secure payment gateway will also tokenize credit card numbers to allow the gateway to store sensitive information for future transactions.
  6. The payment gateway sends credit card information to the Credit Card Network, such as First Data
    • The Credit Card Network reaches out to the card issuing bank to find out if the credit card has acceptable funds to purchase goods.
    • The Credit Card Network communicates back to the payment gateway to approve the credit card transaction.
  7. The payment gateway communicates back to the accounting software to let it know that the card is preauthorized or authorized to make the charge
    • The merchant can either authorize or preauthorize a charge.
      • An authorization means that funds are transferred directly from a customer’s bank to a merchant’s account. This happens after a batch closes.
      • During a preauthorization, funds are not charged immediately. Instead, they are put on hold. When a merchant is ready, they can capture those funds. If a merchant is unable to fulfill an order, they can release funds back to the customer instead of having to process the charge and issue a refund.
      • The Credit Card Network communicates with the payment gateway to inform the merchant that funds are ready to be captured. After a preauthorization is approved, merchants must capture the money within 7 days.
      • When the authorization is captured, all of this information is transferred to the payment gateway for settlement in a batch
  8. At the end of the day, a batch settles within the payment gateway
    • During this process, funds are finally routed from the customer’s bank to the merchant’s bank

When Payments are Denied

Another important aspect of understanding how credit card processing works is the denial process. The credit card processing network is completely computerized, but as such, is programmed with certain “triggers” that will cause transactions to deny, even if there are enough funds available to process the transaction.

The most common triggers for payment denial, other than a lack of available funds are:

  • Unusual spending habits: If a cardholder rarely uses their card, and then suddenly starts using the card multiple times per day, then this is going to send a signal to the system that someone other than the cardholder may have the card. It freezes spending on the card long enough for the issuing bank to get in touch with the cardholder to let them know what’s going on. In most cases, this stops fraudulent transactions from occurring, but also gives the cardholder a chance to say, “No, it’s me, I am doing this on purpose” so the bank can allow the transactions to take place.
  • Purchases of products or services in the “high fraud” category: If you’re making purchases of products that fall into this category, the network will freeze the card to prevent fraudulent activity from taking place, just as if you were engaging in unusual spending habits.
  • Purchases made outside of the cardholder’s country of residence: This is a good sign that a card has been lost or stolen. If you plan on traveling out of the country, it’s a good idea to call your issuing banks and let them know, so you’re not accidentally triggered.