Taking Credit Card Payments Online: What’s Involved?

An informative article from the Smashing Magazine stable about taking credit card payments online.

If you’re looking to integrate a credit card payment solution onto your website, the following steps are a guide to applying for, enabling and taking payments online.

At first glance, the prospect of integrating a payment solution on a website can seem unwieldy, what with the vast array of payment options and technical acronyms. This article breaks down the entire process into bite-sized pieces, helping you understand the process much better.

Apply For An IMA

When taking any kind of credit card payments connected to a bank account, you must apply for a merchant account with a bank. If the payments will be taken online, you’ll specifically need an Internet Merchant Account (IMA). In addition to banks, in many locations there are dedicated merchant account providers you can use.

Even if you currently take “card-not-present” payments (such as for mail orders) or use in-store payment terminals (such as chip-and-pin), you still have to speak with your bank about taking payments via your website (ask your bank for an additional IMA ID).

As a broad overview, your bank acts as the “acquirer,” which confirms available funds, authorizes transactions and exchanges funds with the issuing bank of the credit card (e.g. Visa, MasterCard), i.e. the card holder’s bank. The funds are then transferred to your account (the merchant), minus the applicable fees. The issuing bank’s charges are called interchange fees, and your bank’s fees are the acquirer’s fees. As the merchant, you should be informed of any fees prior to signing the merchant services agreement with your bank and payment service provider (more about this further down).

MASTER-VISA-CIRRUS in Taking Credit Card Payments Online: What’s Involved?

Your acquiring bank will expect your website to operate within a strict set of rules in order for them to comply with their own security procedures and government legislation (more on that later, too). Some credit card providers have developed the technology to allow card holders to authenticate themselves online. MasterCard’s is called MasterCard SecureCode, and Visa’s is called Verified by Visa.

It’s worth noting that it is possible to process Internet payments manually, using your regular point of sale system. This isn’t recommended, though, partly due to security reasons, and partly because it can quickly become too much work to manually process payments taken through your website (do you really want to have to key in a thousand individual cards if you suddenly have a huge uptick in sales?). Also, some merchant agreements may specifically prohibit this type of payment processing. Even if you do decide to process payments manually, you’ll still need an Internet Merchant Account, because it’s where the transaction is initiated that counts, not where it’s eventually processed.

Select A PSP

In addition to an IMA, you will need to use the services of a payment service provider (PSP). Commonly, PSPs handle the pages on a website where customers submit their payment details. PSPs provide a “virtual” cashier, or point-of-sale terminal, that collects card details, screens for fraud and securely passes the details to your acquiring bank for processing. PSPs are sometimes referred to as payment gateways.

The PSPs offer various packages and rates to suit the requirements of different merchants. The main difference between packages comes down to whether you want to host the secure payment pages on the PSP’s servers or on your own server. Some PSPs also provide tailored solutions.

It’s worth noting that some PSPs also provide IMAs, and some acquiring banks provide PSP services.
Payment-Processing Companies

As is often the case, there are alternatives to the approach outlined above, especially if you want to avoid the challenge of technically implementing one of these solutions. One alternative is to use the services of a payment-processing company. This option eliminates the need to apply for an IMA and PSP separately. The application process of a payment processing service is usually a lot less stringent than that for an IMA, which results in a faster set-up, especially if you have little or no trading history.

The disadvantage is that your customers will be sent to the processing company’s website in order to make their payment. Also, settlement periods can take much longer (up to 60 days), and your overall cost may be slightly higher than if you had gone with an IMA and PSP.

Not all payment-processing companies operate like this, though. Some companies, including PayPal and Google Checkout, remit payment immediately in most cases, directly into your account. In other words, as soon as the payment is made by your customer, the money is deposited into your merchant account.

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