Visa or Mastercard: What's the difference between the credit cards?

Visa and Mastercard are major players in the credit card industry. (iStock)

Visa and Mastercard are two of the big names in credit cards. The truth is the two are so similar that it makes almost no difference which network you use for day-to-day spending. That said, they have a few key distinguishing features. 

Keep reading below to learn about the similarities and differences between the two biggest credit card networks.

What's the difference between a card issuer and card network?

Before getting into the specifics about Mastercard and Visa, it’s important to clarify how credit cards work. There are two separate entities that you need to know about: the credit card issuer and the credit card network.

  • Mastercard and Visa are card networks: Along with American Express and Discover, Mastercard and Visa make up the four major payment networks. They facilitate payments between the banks and the merchants on credit card purchases. They also determine where their cards will be accepted. 
  • Banks like Bank of America, Citi, or Capital One are credit card issuers: Credit card issuers are in charge of determining your eligibility for a card, as well as setting your credit limit. They also set the interest rates, fees and rewards.   


How Visa and Mastercard are similar

To start, they’re accepted almost everywhere. While American Express and Discover have historically had smaller networks internationally, Visa is accepted by 46 million merchants worldwide and Mastercard boasts comparable numbers.

Additionally, both cards make their money in the same manner. While the credit card issuer is allowed to charge you fees for things like late payments, Mastercard and Visa both make their money by charging merchants and businesses another fee for taking their card as a method of payment.


How Visa and Mastercard are different

Though Visa and Mastercard are very comparable to one another, they do have some marked differences. Most of these divergences come in the form of the rewards and protections that they offer the users in their card networks. Here is a selection of what they offer:


Visa offers its consumers three distinct levels of benefits: Traditional, Signature and Infinite.

  • Traditional: 24/7 cardholder information and assistance, lost or stolen card reporting, emergency card replacement and cash disbursement, rental car collision protection, roadside assistance, and zero-dollar fraud liability.
  • Signature: All of the above, plus extended warranty protection, a year-end summary of your spending and benefits, and travel and emergency assistance services.
  • Infinite: All of the above, plus return protection, travel accident insurance, trip delay or cancellation insurance, trip delay protection and lost luggage reimbursement.



Mastercard’s levels of benefits are: Standard, World and World Elite:

  • Standard: 24/7 hotline to call if your card is lost or stolen, ID theft protection and zero-dollar fraud liability.
  • World: All of the above, plus cell phone insurance, trip planning insurance, lowest-rate hotel guarantee, luxury hotel benefits, airport concierge and discounts at Postmates and Shoprunner.
  • World Elite: All of the above, plus discounts at Fandango, Lyft and Boxed. 

How to sign up for a credit card

Unless you have your heart set on a specific card network benefit, you shouldn’t worry about choosing between Mastercard and Visa. Instead, it’s important to research card itself to learn about its interest rate, rewards and fee structure.

Once you’ve done that, follow these steps to sign up for a card:

  1. Determine your eligibility by checking your credit score: Every card has minimum score requirements. You’ll increase your chances of getting approved if you apply for a card within your score range.
  2. Apply for the card: You can apply for the card online. To apply, you’ll need your name, birthdate, social security number and mailing address.
  3. Be approved: Once you’re approved, you should receive your new card in the mail within seven to 14 business days.
  4. Activate it: After your card arrives, you can activate it, set a personal identification number (PIN) number that you can use to get cash advances from ATMs, and start using the card.