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A credit card is a payment card issued to users (cardholders) as a method of payment. It allows the cardholder to pay for goods and services based on the holder’s promise to pay for them. The issuer of the card (usually a bank) creates a revolving account and grants a line of credit to the cardholder, from which the cardholder can borrow money for payment to a merchant or as a cash advance.
A credit card is different from a charge card: a charge card requires the balance to be repaid in full each month.In contrast, credit cards allow the consumers a continuing balance of debt, subject to interest being charged. A credit card also differs from a cash card, which can be used like currency by the owner of the card. A credit card differs from a charge card also in that a credit card typically involves a third-party entity that pays the seller and is reimbursed by the buyer, whereas a charge card simply defers payment by the buyer until a later date.
The size of most credit cards is 3 3⁄8 in × 2 1⁄8 in (85.7 mm × 54.0 mm), conforming to the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-1 standard. Credit cards have a printed or embossed bank card number complying with the ISO/IEC 7812numbering standard. Both of these standards are maintained and further developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 17/WG 1. Before magnetic stripe readers came into widespread use, plastic credit cards issued by many department stores were produced on stock (“Princess” or “CR-50”) slightly longer and narrower than 7810. Many modern credit cards have a computer chip embedded in them for security reasons.
A credit card issuing company, such as a bank or credit union, enters into agreements with merchants for them to accept their credit cards. Merchants often advertise which cards they accept by displaying acceptance marks – generally derived from logos – or this may be communicated in signage in the establishment or in company material (e.g., a restaurant’s menu may indicate which credit cards are accepted). Merchants may also communicate this orally, as in “We take (brands X, Y, and Z)” or “We don’t take credit cards”.
The credit card issuer issues a credit card to a customer at the time or after an account has been approved by the credit provider, which need not be the same entity as the card issuer. The cardholders can then use it to make purchases at merchants accepting that card. When a purchase is made, the cardholder agrees to pay the card issuer. The cardholder indicates consent to pay by signing a receipt with a record of the card details and indicating the amount to be paid or by entering a personal identification number (PIN). Also, many merchants now accept verbal authorizations via telephone and electronic authorization using the Internet, known as a card not present transaction (CNP).
Electronic verification systems allow merchants to verify in a few seconds that the card is valid and the cardholder has sufficient credit to cover the purchase, allowing the verification to happen at time of purchase. The verification is performed using a credit card payment terminal or point-of-sale (POS) system with a communications link to the merchant’s acquiring bank. Data from the card is obtained from a magnetic stripe or chip on the card; the latter system is called Chip and PIN in the United Kingdomand Ireland, and is implemented as an EMV card.
For card not present transactions where the card is not shown (e.g., e-commerce, mail order, and telephone sales), merchants additionally verify that the customer is in physical possession of the card and is the authorized user by asking for additional information such as the security code printed on the back of the card, date of expiry, and billing address.
Each month, the cardholder is sent a statement indicating the purchases made with the card, any outstanding fees, and the total amount owed. In the US, after receiving the statement, the cardholder may dispute any charges that he or she thinks are incorrect (see 15 U.S.C. § 1643, which limits cardholder liability for unauthorized use of a credit card to $50). The Fair Credit Billing Act gives details of the US regulations. The cardholder must pay a defined minimum portion of the amount owed by a due date, or may choose to pay a higher amount. The credit issuer charges interest on the unpaid balance if the billed amount is not paid in full (typically at a much higher rate than most other forms of debt). In addition, if the cardholder fails to make at least the minimum payment by the due date, the issuer may impose a “late fee” and/or other penalties. To help mitigate this, some financial institutions can arrange for automatic payments to be deducted from the cardholder’s bank account, thus avoiding such penalties altogether, as long as the cardholder has sufficient funds.
Many banks now also offer the option of electronic statements, either in lieu of or in addition to physical statements, which can be viewed at any time by the cardholder via the issuer’s online banking website. Notification of the availability of a new statement is generally sent to the cardholder’s email address. If the card issuer has chosen to allow it, the cardholder may have other options for payment besides a physical check, such as an electronic transfer of funds from a checking account. Depending on the issuer, the cardholder may also be able to make multiple payments during a single statement period, possibly enabling him or her to utilize the credit limit on the card several times.
Credit card issuers usually waive interest charges if the balance is paid in full each month, but typically will charge full interest on the entire outstanding balance from the date of each purchase if the total balance is not paid.
For example, if a user had a $1,000 transaction and repaid it in full within this grace period, there would be no interest charged. If, however, even $1.00 of the total amount remained unpaid, interest would be charged on the $1,000 from the date of purchase until the payment is received. The precise manner in which interest is charged is usually detailed in a cardholder agreement which may be summarized on the back of the monthly statement. The general calculation formula most financial institutions use to determine the amount of interest to be charged is APR/100 x ADB/365 x number of days revolved. Take the annual percentage rate (APR) and divide by 100 then multiply to the amount of the average daily balance (ADB) divided by 365 and then take this total and multiply by the total number of days the amount revolved before payment was made on the account. Financial institutions refer to interest charged back to the original time of the transaction and up to the time a payment was made, if not in full, as a residual retail finance charge (RRFC). Thus after an amount has revolved and a payment has been made, the user of the card will still receive interest charges on their statement after paying the next statement in full (in fact the statement may only have a charge for interest that collected up until the date the full balance was paid, i.e. when the balance stopped revolving).
The credit card may simply serve as a form of revolving credit, or it may become a complicated financial instrument with multiple balance segments each at a different interest rate, possibly with a single umbrella credit limit, or with separate credit limits applicable to the various balance segments. Usually this compartmentalization is the result of special incentive offers from the issuing bank, to encourage balance transfers from cards of other issuers. In the event that several interest rates apply to various balance segments, payment allocation is generally at the discretion of the issuing bank, and payments will therefore usually be allocated towards the lowest rate balances until paid in full before any money is paid towards higher rate balances. Interest rates can vary considerably from card to card, and the interest rate on a particular card may jump dramatically if the card user is late with a payment on that card or any other credit instrument, or even if the issuing bank decides to raise its revenue.