Credit cards are an incredibly popular form of payment, and it’s easy to see why. They’re convenient for both in-person transactions and online shopping. Credit cards also offer better consumer protections than debit cards do, and many let users earn cash back, travel rewards or other types of points for each dollar they spend.
But a December 2021 survey conducted by Bankrate showed that consumers appreciate some credit card perks more than others—especially cash. Specifically, 41 percent of cardholders loved earning cash back on their purchases the most. Following that was acceptance at most places (14 percent), low interest rate offers (9 percent), potential for travel rewards (6 percent), low fees (5 percent) and travel perks (4 percent).
Whatever you love most about your favorite piece of plastic, it’s still important to understand the different credit card issuers and networks before you choose a new card for your wallet. This guide will explain what credit card networks issuers are, how they’re different and the features that help each one stand out.
Credit card companies: issuers vs. networks
As you compare credit card offers, you’ll notice a few key players. Each credit card has both a network and an issuer. In some special cases, the network and the card issuer can be the same.
Credit card networks
The credit card network is the company that helps process each of your transactions. When you make a purchase with your credit card, the network is the one that handles all communications between the merchant and the bank to facilitate the transaction.
There are four major credit card networks currently operating in the United States. These include:
- American Express: This credit card network offers the world’s largest integrated payments platform. American Express also doubles as a credit card and charge card issuer.
- Discover: The Discover Global Network operates within 200 countries and territories with a reach of more than 270 million cardholders. Discover is also a credit card issuer.
- Mastercard: This card network operates in more than 210 countries and territories worldwide, making Mastercard credit cards some of the most widely accepted and used.
- Visa: Visa credit cards are accepted in more than 200 countries and territories around the world, with more than 3.6 billion Visa cards currently in circulation.
Visa and Mastercard are the credit card networks that are the most widely accepted worldwide. However, American Express and Discover have been working on expanding their footprints.
Discover reports that, at the moment, their cards are accepted at 99 percent of places where credit cards are accepted nationwide. In the meantime, the latest Nilson report shows that American Express cards are also accepted at 99 percent of places that accept credit cards around the U.S.
While half of the credit card networks work with various credit card issuers to offer card products, two card networks—American Express and Discover—issue their own. That’s why you won’t see Amex or Discover cards offered by card issuers like Bank of America, Capital One or Chase.
Here are some examples that show how several popular cards fall within network and issuer categories:
|Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express||American Express||American Express|
|Discover it® Cash Back Credit Card||Discover||Discover|
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||Visa||Chase|
|Chase Freedom Flex℠||Mastercard||Chase|
|Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards credit card||Visa||Bank of America|
Credit card issuers
The card issuer is the bank that extends the line of credit to the consumer. In other words, the card issuer is the financial institution that can approve you (or issue a denial) when you apply for a new credit card.
Credit card issuers also manage and oversee your credit card account, and they’re the company you deal with if you have a customer service inquiry or if you have trouble repaying your credit card balance.
So, what are the main card issuers? The top ten financial institutions that issue credit cards in the U.S. are as follows:
- American Express
- Bank of America
- Capital One
- U.S. Bank
- Wells Fargo
American Express was originally founded in 1850 as a freight forwarding company, but they have dramatically changed course since those early days. As of late 2020, Amex had the fourth largest credit card portfolio worldwide, according to the Nilson Report. The company’s offerings include credit cards and charge cards for individuals and businesses, as well as various banking products like their high-yield savings account.
As we mentioned already, American Express is a credit card network and a card issuer.
Popular American Express credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: American Express stands out due to the sheer number of credit cards offered through the company. And while some Amex cards only let you earn cash back, many others let you earn Amex Membership Rewards points, which are incredibly versatile and valuable.
For example, consumers can use Membership Rewards points for merchandise, gift cards, travel through the Amex travel portal or transfers to Amex airline and hotel partners.
J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction ranking: #1
Bank of America
Bank of America’s roots extend as far back as 240 years, although the bank didn’t begin offering credit cards until 1958. These days, Bank of America offers a range of popular personal and business credit cards, as well as home loans, auto loans, checking and savings accounts and other financial products. Bank of America also offers secured credit cards for bad credit.
According to the latest Nilson report, Bank of America has the 7th largest credit card portfolio around the world.
Popular Bank of America credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: Bank of America may not be as popular as some other credit card issuers, but they offer a range of popular rewards cards for people with every type of credit profile. This includes a few secured credit cards that are ranked as some of the best available, specifically the Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards Secured.
Having a Bank of America Credit Card can be especially advantageous if you already have a banking relationship with the company, thanks to the Preferred Rewards program. When your qualified accounts reach certain balances, you’ll be eligible for boosted credit card rewards (among other perks, like lower interest rates on loans and higher interest rates on savings accounts).
J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction ranking: #5
Barclays (formerly known as “Barclaycard”) was originally founded in London in 1736, and the bank has grown by leaps and bounds since then. While still based in the U.K, Barclays offers a range of banking products in the United States. Options include credit cards for consumers, high-yield savings accounts and more.
Popular credit cards from this card issuer:
Advantages of this card issuer: Barclays is known for offering a broad range of co-branded credit cards alongside travel brands like JetBlue, Carnival Cruises, Choice Privileges and Frontier Airlines.
Capital One has only been around since 1994, so this company is one of the newer financial institutions that issue credit cards. Since the company’s inception, Capital One has grown to have the 8th largest credit card portfolio worldwide.
Capital One has branched out to offer various financial services and products, including checking and savings accounts, auto loans, business loans and more.
Popular Capital One credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: Capital One offers a range of credit cards geared to nearly any type of consumer. In fact, this card issuer offers both credit card and charge card options for businesses, cash back credit cards, travel credit cards, secured credit cards for bad credit and card options geared to people with fair credit.
J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction ranking: #3
Chase was founded in 1799, and both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are a part of its storied history. When it comes to credit card issuers, Chase is a force to be reckoned with.
Not only does this financial institution boast the largest credit card portfolio of any card issuer worldwide, but they also have more than 4,700 physical bank branches nationwide. Chase credit card products are also some of the most popular of all time. The institution also offers a range of financial products, including home loans, auto loans and checking and savings accounts.
Popular Chase credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: Chase credit cards are some of the most coveted out there, and it’s mostly due to their affiliation with the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. This versatile program lets cardholders redeem their rewards for cash back, statement credits, gift cards or travel through the Chase portal. Premier Chase travel credit cards also let users transfer their points to Chase airline and hotel partners like British Airways, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt.
J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction ranking: #4
Citi was founded in 1811, so the financial institution has been in operation for more than 200 years. The bank also has the third-largest credit card portfolio in the world and the second-largest portfolio in the U.S., behind Chase.
Citi offers personal credit cards, banking and wealth management services and more. They’re known for their high-yield online savings accounts in addition to their card offerings.
Popular Citi credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: Citi offers one of the most popular cash back credit cards today, the Citi® Double Cash Card. The card issuer also offers cards that earn points in the popular Citi ThankYou Rewards program, which lets cardholders use points for cash back, gift cards, travel through the Citi portal or transfers to Citi airline and hotel partners.
Discover was established in 1985 and is both a card issuer and a credit card network. Since the company’s inception, Discover has expanded to offer personal credit cards, business credit cards, online banking products, personal loans, home loans and even student loans.
When it comes to Discover credit cards, this issuer stands out because they let you get pre-qualified for all their card products without a hard inquiry on your credit report.
Popular Discover credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: All Discover credit cards come with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, which is a major plus. Discover’s Cashback Match program also doubles the rewards new cardmembers earn during their first year.
J.D. Power 2021 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction ranking: #2
Synchrony Bank’s history dates to 1932 when General Electric began offering credit to families who wanted to finance their new appliances. Since those early days, Synchrony has expanded to offer numerous co-branded credit card products alongside brands like Lowe’s, Ashley HomeStore, Gap, Sam’s Club and more.
Synchrony Bank also offers money market accounts, Certificates of Deposit (CDs), savings accounts and other financial products.
Popular credit cards from this card issuer:
Advantages of this card issuer: Synchrony Bank offers mostly co-branded store credit cards that let you finance purchases with major retailers. Their cards can help you pay off your purchases over time while potentially earning rewards on your purchases.
U.S. Bank history goes back to 1863 when Abraham Lincoln provided its predecessor (First National Bank) a license to operate. Today, U.S. Bank has branches all over the U.S., and the bank offers financial products and services to individuals, businesses and major corporations.
Popular credit cards from this card issuer:
Advantages of this card issuer: U.S. Bank credit cards may not be as popular as options from issuers like American Express and Chase, but they still offer exceptional rewards and benefits.
For example, the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card boasts one of the longest 0 percent APR offers on the market today, and the U.S. Bank Altitude® Reserve Visa Infinite® Credit Card advertises a welcome offer worth $750.
Wells Fargo was founded in 1852, and they have grown since then to become a major issuer of mortgage loans, car loans, credit cards and more. That said, Wells Fargo didn’t expand into the credit card industry until the 1960’s.
Popular Wells Fargo credit cards include:
Advantages of this card issuer: Wells Fargo has released some exceptional card offerings over the last two years. This includes the Wells Fargo Reflect℠ Card, which has the potential to extend 0 percent APR for up to 21 months if you meet basic requirements. The new Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card also created a splash in the cash back card market since it offers a flat 2 percent back on all purchases with no annual fee.
Smaller credit card issuers
In addition to major financial institutions, there are plenty of smaller banks and credit unions offering credit cards on the market today.
Credit unions are financial institutions that are owned by their members instead of shareholders. This often means credit unions can offer better loan terms and rates, as well as better credit card offers, to their customers. Some credit unions that offer credit cards include:
Some smaller banks with a regional footprint also offer credit cards, although their benefits and rewards vary widely.
The bottom line
Your credit card options are plentiful, and that’s true whether you want a card from a major card issuer, a card issuer that also operates as a credit card network or a smaller bank or credit union.
While the information above can help you narrow down card issuers to focus on, make sure to compare the best credit card offers on the market today before you decide.
*All information for these cards have been collected independently by Bankrate and have not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.