Best Practices for Credit Card Processing

Credit Card Processing

At a glance, processing a credit card payment couldn’t seem more straightforward. The card goes in the slot, the terminal does some behind-the-scenes communication with the credit card mothership, the customer scribbles a rough approximation of their signature on the screen, and presto—a transaction has occurred.

For the layperson, this explanation may be sufficient, but merchants need a better understanding of the technical details of credit card processing in order to protect themselves from fraud and chargebacks. What do merchants need to know about how credit card processing works, and how can this inform the best practices for handling transactions?

New call-to-actionThe simplicity of credit card processing on the consumer end is highly dependent on choices the merchant makes: which payment processor to use, what protocols to observe, and how to configure the payment terminal to balance ease-of-use versus security.

Creating a streamlined, friction-free experience for the customer can come at the cost of minimizing the risk of fraud and other negative consequences. This is especially true in card-not-present environments, where merchants cannot rely on physical security features like the EMV chip.

The choices merchants make about things like how to handle various authorization messages, or when to re-run a declined transaction, can have a big impact on the outcome of disputes that involve these transactions.

In order to make the best and most informed decisions about credit card processing, let’s take a closer look at all of the steps involved in it.

How Does Credit Card Processing Actually Work?

Many steps are involved between the initiation of the transaction and the moment when the buyer’s funds actually land in the merchant’s bank account.

Processing begins when the customer provides their payment card credentials to the merchant. In a card-present setting, this means inserting the card into a chip reader or swiping it. For card-not-present merchants, the credentials must be submitted electronically. The merchant may receive this information directly (when taking an order over the phone, for example) or it may be sent to a secure payment gateway.

The following details are typically required for authorization:

  • The full account number
  • The expiration date
  • The transaction amount
  • The cardholder’s billing address
  • The Card Verification Value (CVV) code 

The terminal or gateway then sends this information to the merchant’s acquiring bank, which passes it on to the credit card network in charge of the customer’s card brand. The card network, in turn, contacts the cardholder’s issuing bank to request payment authorization.

The issuing bank will authenticate the transaction by verifying that the account number is valid, that the billing address and CVV match, and that the customer has sufficient funds or credit in their account. Based on these factors, they will then provide an “approve” or “decline” response by sending an authorization message back through the same channels.

Once the merchant receives this response, they can go ahead and finalize the transaction. The issuer will place a hold on the cardholder’s account for the purchase amount. The merchant can then request a customer signature and provide a receipt.

What about Clearing and Settlement?

As every merchant knows, a completed transaction doesn’t mean the money is in their account yet—clearing and settlement have to happen before that can occur.

Download the eGuide, 4 Reasons to Hire a Chargeback Management CompanyMerchants add completed transactions to batches that are submitted to their payment processor or acquiring bank, usually once at the end of each business day.

Again, the acquirer or processor will hand these off to the card networks, which will forward each transaction to the issuing bank to which it belongs.

The issuers submit the funds for these transactions back to the card networks. Both the issuers and the card networks deduct their interchange fees at this point. This is the clearing phase, which should take no more than one to two business days, Dynamic currency conversion, if necessary, will also take place during this phase.

The card network then sends the funds to the acquirer and pay the processor any fees to which they are entitled. The acquirer will credit the remaining funds to the merchant’s account after deducting their own fee, often referred to as the Merchant Discount Rate. Once the funds are in the merchant account, settlement is complete.

What are Best Practices for Credit Card Processing?

One of the most important things a merchant can do to keep their payment processing smooth, secure, and affordable is to choose a good payment processor.

This is one of the biggest reasons why it’s so important to keep your chargeback rate down: if you’re classified as a “high risk” merchant due to excessive chargebacks, you may be blackballed by mainstream payment processors and forced to deal with the ones that accept high-risk merchants. These processors charge significantly higher fees and their service quality may not be as good.

The ideal payment processor should offer a fast, reliable network; an affordable and transparent pricing structure; and attentive, 24/7 customer support.

For their own part, merchants should process transactions in a way that eliminates the possibility of fraud and chargebacks as much as can reasonably be achieved.

Merchants should always require address verification and CVV matching and should never force a transaction that received a “decline” response by attempting to resubmit it until it goes through. Many chargeback reason codes are specifically tied to authorization issues, and merchants rarely have good standing to fight a chargeback filed on these grounds.

Merchants should always be careful to avoid processing EMV cards by swiping the magnetic stripe instead of using the chip, and should obtain signed receipts whenever possible. These actions can help you avoid liability and fight fraudulent chargebacks.


Credit card processing may look simple on the surface, but it really is a complex multi-step affair that involves many parties beyond just the merchant and customer.

Choosing a reputable and reliable payment processor and following the guidelines and best practices for transaction procedures can save you money and protect you from fraud, chargebacks, and customer friction.

Just remember that a strong chargeback defense strategy is essential if you want to be able to choose from among the best payment processors—let your chargeback ratio get too high, and you could end up stuck paying exorbitant fees to a high-risk processor.

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