Published in: Credit Cards | Dec. 13, 2018

Visa vs. Mastercard: What's the Difference?

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

The differences between Visa and Mastercard are trivial for most people, as no network is always better than another for all use cases.woman looking at red phone and blue phoneImage source: Getty Images.

Visa and Mastercard are the two largest payments networks, both of which have billions of cards that bear their label all around the world. With global reach, they help connect millions of retailers, banks, and other financial institutions to one another, helping money move from one account to the next.

If you’re trying to decide between a Visa or Mastercard, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you shop around. Here’s the comparison from top to bottom.

Acceptance -- Where can you use your card?

The most important thing for any card is that you can actually use it where you want to. That’s one benefit of having a Mastercard or Visa card in comparison to… say, an American Express or Discover card. Both Visa and Mastercard are accepted by millions of businesses in more than 200 countries around the world.

If a company takes cards, it likely takes Visa and Mastercard. That’s simply an artifact of their massive size. According to recent regulatory reports, there are nearly 3.3 billion Visa cards in circulation around the world. Roughly 2.4 billion cards bare the Mastercard brand name.

There are some notable exceptions, though. For example, Costco only accepts Visa cards due to a special deal it carved with the payments network and bank issuer (Citi). That said, it’s pretty rare for any retailer to pick and choose one network to accept, and most major companies accept cards on all four major networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover).

Card issuers

If you’re loyal to a particular bank, you may have to be loyal to Visa or Mastercard, too. Some of the largest card issuers only issue cards on one network, or favor one over another. We looked at some of the largest card issuers to see which networks they favor, if any.

  • Bank of America -- This megabank doesn’t seem to pick favorites, offering various cash-back and travel cards on Visa and Mastercard’s network. It’s kind of interesting, since the predecessor bank of Bank of America spawned the company that became Visa as we know it today.
  • Citi -- This big bank has a clear preference for Mastercard. Of the cards in its lineup, only one, the co-branded card with Costco, is a Visa card. Its premier travel cards are all issued as World Elite Mastercard®s.
  • Chase -- One of the biggest card issuers on the block, Chase issues Visa cards almost exclusively, save for one hotel co-branded card. Visa and Chase have a long established relationship, one that seems unlikely to change any time soon.
  • Capital One -- Visa and Mastercard split the duty of helping Capital One cardholders make payments by plastic. The notable exceptions are its business credit cards, all of which are issued on the Visa network.
  • U.S. Bank -- Visa cards take the top spot at U.S. Bank, but this card issuer also has a couple of American Express cards up its sleeve.
  • Wells Fargo -- When it comes to the stagecoach, you’ll only find Visa or American Express cards inside.

Understandably, some card users prefer to keep all of their accounts in one place, and thus favor one bank over another. Others are familiar with how a certain banks’ card benefits work and naturally want to use one issuer to maximize their rewards and benefits.

Types of Visa cards

Visa cards generally come in three different types, easily identified by the branding that appears on the card.

  • Visa Traditional -- This is the “basic” Visa tier that you’ll find most frequently on credit cards that offer lower credit limits and limited rewards programs.
  • Visa Signature® -- Generally speaking, the Visa Signature® branding is typically found on higher-tier cash-back and travel cards. Whether or not you receive a Visa Signature® often depends on the credit limit of the card. Some issuers, such as Chase, specifically mention in their terms and conditions that Visa Signature® cards are only issued when an applicant is approved for a credit line of $5,000 or more.
  • Visa Infinite® -- This branding is reserved for the highest-tier credit cards, often those that dole out high rewards, but typically carry lofty ($400 or more) annual fees. Cards that carry Visa Infinite® logos generally offer credit limits that start at $10,000 and up.

The primary difference between the branding is the benefits you receive when you use the card. Some select benefits are detailed in the table below.

Benefit Visa Traditional Visa Signature® Visa Infinite®
Auto rental collision damage waiver
Zero liability for fraud
Extended warranty manager  
Trip cancellation insurance    

Data source: Visa.

Importantly, the specific benefits depend more on the card issuer (the bank) than the Visa branding. There can be substantial differences between the extended warranty protection between two Visa Signature® cards issued by two different banks, for example. That said, as a very broad rule of thumb, a Visa Infinite® card will typically offer more perks than a Visa Signature®, which will offer more perks than a Visa Traditional card.

Types of Mastercard cards

Like Visa, Mastercard also has three tiers of cards that offer varying levels of perks and benefits, and different card branding depending on the type of card.

  • Mastercard Standard -- You’ll typically find the standard Mastercard branding on credit cards that offer lower credit limits and little to no rewards for ordinary spending.
  • World Mastercard® -- These cards are the middle tier of Mastercards’ lineup, boasting more benefits, many of which are focused on travel. Similar to the Visa Signature® tier, an applicant must get approved for a credit limit of $5,000 or more to get a World Mastercard®.
  • World Elite Mastercard® -- This is the most premium type of Mastercard, typically associated with high-end travel rewards credit cards. Data points suggest that World Elite Mastercard®s typically require a credit limit of around $10,000 or more.

The benefits you receive with a Mastercard vary based on the branding that appears on the card. The table below summarizes some of the benefits you can expect at certain tiers.

Benefit Standard World Mastercard® World Elite Mastercard®
Zero liability for fraud
Price protection
Extended warranties
Trip cancellation insurance    

Data source: Mastercard.

Keep in mind that card benefits can also be set by the issuer, which may offer better perks than what come standard on a particular type of Mastercard. But, as a rule of thumb, the higher the tier of the card, the more likely it is to offer special perks.

Visa vs. Mastercard: No clear winner

As much as we’d like to say that there is an obvious winner in a comparison of Visa vs. Mastercard, it isn’t that clear. Aside from Costco stores, which only accept Visa cards, these cards have virtually identical acceptance in the United States and abroad. And because benefits you get with the card have as much to do with the issuer as the network, it’s not as simple as saying a Visa is always better than a Mastercard, or vice versa.

Instead, we’d encourage you to shop based on the benefits you need most, and filter by card issuer after that. For instance, in cards that offer 0% intro APRs on purchases, you’ll find that all of the payments networks (including Discover and American Express) score at least one spot in the category.

Our #1 cash back pick has a surprise bonus

This may be the perfect cash back card! That's because it packs in $1,148 of value. Cardholders can earn up to 5% cash back, double rewards in the first year, and avoid interest well into 2020. With such a deep bench of perks you'll wonder how this card packs in a $0 annual fee. Best yet, you can apply and get a decision in two minutes. Learn more with our in-depth review.

Find the right card for you

Cash Back & Rewards