What Are the 4 Major Credit Card Brands?

Tamsen Butler
Stack of major credit cards

Of the four remaining major credit card networks - Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express, the oldest brand is American Express. Introduced in 1958, the first American Express cards were charge cards that had to be paid off with each statement cycle. Visa, MasterCard and Discover followed soon thereafter and offered revolving lines of credit, allowing cardholders to finance their purchases over time. American Express later added true credit cards to its offerings as well.

American Express

Boasting the title of the largest card issuer in the world, American Express offers a variety of cards including both revolving credit accounts and charge cards that must be paid in full every month. Their offerings include:

  • Personal credit cards
  • Small business cards
  • Corporate cards
  • Prepaid cards

Their niche is high-spending consumers who desire concierge-type service special access to concert tickets, travel assistance, and other benefits. They even have an exclusive Black Card, which CreditCards.com indicates is "issued by invitation only to the wealthy and famous."

Visa

Visa was quick to offer a card on the heels of American Express' success. First referred to as BankAmericard, this brand was also introduced in 1958. Originally issued solely through Bank of America, it was the first card to offer a revolving line of credit. In 1976, BankAmericard became Visa. Accepted globally, Visa's card offerings include:

  • Personal credit and debit cards
  • Credit and debit cards for small businesses
  • Secured credit cards
  • Prepaid cards
  • Gift cards

Visa also offers "contactless pay," allowing cardholders to make purchases at enabled terminals with a wave of their Visa or by using a smartphone app.

Mastercard

The Interbank Card Association (ICA) formed in 1966 and introduced the Master Charge revolving credit card in 1969. They adopted the name Mastercard ten years later. The first to offer a global online debit program, their innovations include virtual reality shopping and wearable payment devices. Available Mastercards include:

  • Personal credit and debit cards
  • Business credit cards for small and mid-to-large companies
  • Corporate cards
  • Secured credit cards
  • Prepaid cards
  • Gift cards

Mastercard is accepted at more locations globally than any other credit card.

Discover

Discover began in 1985 and was launched nationally a year later. Originally part of Dean Witter Financial Services Group, which was a subsidiary of Sears, Roebuck and Co. until 1993, Discover is now the fourth largest credit card company behind American Express, Visa and Mastercard. Since 1999, the publicly traded company has been named Discover Financial Services. The first Discover cards were issued outside the U.S. in 2012. Discover offers a variety of accounts, none of which has an annual fee. Options are available for:

  • Personal credit cards
  • Secured credit cards
  • Debit cards (Discover Debit was introduced in 2006)

Discover pioneered the "cash-back" rewards credit card in 1986. This is now a common credit card benefit available from a variety of card issuers. They also now offer other rewards programs in addition to cash back. In 2002, they introduced the first keychain credit card.

The Future of Credit Cards

With millions of cardholders spanning the globe, credit card companies continue to finance purchases for consumers. Most estimates predict continued, increased credit card usage among the four major credit card brands or networks. What that will look like in the future is uncertain, in light of advances in payment processing technology and critical concerns regarding credit card security. Using credit cards to make purchases may continue to involve swiping plastic cards as time goes by, but new technology, such as virtual credit cards, is already having an impact on the industry. The future may hold something entirely different when it comes to how credit card transactions will be processed.

What Are the 4 Major Credit Card Brands?