How to Pick the Best Credit Card Processor for Your Small Business
The best merchant account providers operate outside of the status quo for the credit card processing industry. They offer competitive pricing that is presented in a transparent way, charge little to no monthly fees, offer month-to-month agreements that can be cancelled without any penalties, and have friendly customer support. They also have up-to-date payment acceptance hardware and secure technology for online-based payments.
The worst merchant service providers charge exorbitant fees that they make nearly impossible to understand, lock unsuspecting business owners into contracts with early termination penalties, and have unhelpful customer service that makes you feel like you are a burden when you call.
Below we've compared merchant account providers that have received the best scores according to our research. The companies in this list supply industry-leading products and services to a wide range of large and small businesses. We compared providers with fair and transparent pricing, positive customer feedback, modern payment technology, and excellent customer service. You can expect the providers below to understand your business and provide the appropriate solutions at a fair price without tricking you with exorbitant junk fees or trapping you into long-term service agreements.
How to Avoid Scammy Credit Card Processing Companies
Finding the best merchant services provider for your business can be a frustrating experience. Hidden fees, fine-print contracts, and shady merchant account providers are everywhere. Even if you read through your merchant account contract before signing, you might find that the rates you end up paying are much higher than you expected. This is because unethical processors pray upon a widespread naiveté of how processing fees are calculated and assessed.
Take time to research any provider that you are considering. Not doing so will make you easy prey for an unscrupulous sales agent or processor. If you are feeling pressure to move quickly, run the other direction. No ethical company will attempt to rush you into signing an agreement. Always read the merchant account agreement thoroughly before signing. The companies below do not hide things in their contracts, but many other companies do. You will want be on the lookout for any kind of cancellation fees or equipment lease agreements. In general, we do not recommend signing any term length agreements or leases for equipment. Both can be very costly.
Here is a list of the worst credit card processors according to our research.
Watch Out For Phony Recommendation Websites
Just like there are numerous unethical credit card processors, there are just as many “rating and review” websites that are in the pockets of these providers. Most of them buy ads in Google search and you will find these ads at the top of the search results page when you research credit card processors. Phony review websites are fairly easy to spot because the pages containing top picks are usually just a list with “rankings” of processors that provide very little justification or reasoning behind their choices.
The content is thin and the worst rated providers (according to our research) are often listed as the best because they pay to be listed at the top. Also be wary of websites or publications that cover numerous other types of services or topics outside of credit card processing. They typically hire freelance writers who do little research, don't actually understand the industry, and are motivated to write articles as fast as possible in order to get paid for more articles. Stick with websites like this one that focus specifically on credit card processing and payment services.
Who We Are
Not only did we originally work in the credit card processing industry prior to leaving it to expose shady merchant account providers, we are business owners ourselves and have monitoring nearly every merchant account provider in operation over the last ten years.
How We Determined Our Picks
Our goal with the picks below is to provide options for a broad range of business industries. The picks have to meet three criteria: 1) The company has to have scored well in our independent review as well as other online reviews. 2) The company has to offer competitive and transparent fees and, 3) the company has to have excellent customer support. From there, the picks below narrow down to specific needs regarding industries served and product/service offerings. If you have any questions or feedback, be sure to leave a comment at the end of this article.
Best Merchant Account Overall
In-Person, Mobile, E-Commerce, Invoicing and More
Helcim has consistently scored as one of the best credit card processors we've reviewed over the last ten years. They offer the lowest and most transparent rate pricing that we have found in merchant services industry. In fact, it is the only provider we've seen that the more you process, the lower your rates automatically become. Helcim also does not charge any monthly or annual fees. Say goodbye to all the junk fees that you see with other providers, such as statement fees and PCI Compliance fees. If you don't process anything in a giving timeframe, you pay nothing.
In addition to having extremely low fees for credit cards, debit cards, and ACH transactions, Helcim has one of the best product and service offerings that we have seen in a long time. The company has solutions for in-person, mobile, point-of-sale, invoicing, inventory management, e-commerce and other online payments. Helcim also has its own virtual terminal that can be used with any device with an internet connection for keyed-in payments or you can pair a wireless card reader to your device to get even lower rates with card-present transactions.
Helcim has also consistently scored exemplary reviews regarding its customer service. The company offers 24/7 support via phone and live chat.
Due to the company's low fees, Helcim only approves businesses for credit card processing that are deemed as “low risk” accounts in the merchant account industry. This means traditional businesses that most of us are used to frequenting, such as retail, restaurant, yoga studios, home services, and traditional e-commerce. The company does not approve any business types that sell weapons, or related products, or any products or service that operate in gray areas of the law. Helcim also will not approve any accounts for products or services that are prone to chargebacks, nor does it approve accounts for business owners with poor credit ratings.
Helcim does not offer any free hardware such as credit card readers or POS systems. That said, “free” is rarely free in the merchant services industry, so be wary of any offers for free equipment as there are often strings attached. Helcim's hardware costs are much lower than industry averages with a basic card reader coming in at about $100. However, it's possible to do processing with Helcim on your own devices without any extra hardware costs. If you would like a deeper dive into the company, see our Helcim review.
Compare Quotes From CDG and Helcim
CDG Commerce has consistently ranked as one of our top choices for nearly a decade. The company has simple, straight-forward, transparent Interchange pricing with a small markup or zero-markup monthly-fee-based pricing for larger businesses. This makes it an excellent choice for high volume businesses that want affordable and transparent rates.
Personalized Service & Support
At CPO we prefer smaller credit card processing providers because they have better service and support. Large corporate credit card processors use call centers with anonymous customer service representatives who may not even be based in your country. With CDG Commerce, you have the same person available to you for your customer service calls. This means getting your questions answered quickly so that you can get back to making sales.
Services & Hardware for Most Needs
CDG does a great job serving various business types using modern payment hardware and technology, both its own proprietary systems as well as offering integrations with over 350 apps and platforms. They have solutions for virtually any processing requirement.
What is a “high risk” credit card processing?
Businesses that need “high risk” merchant accounts are ones that either operate in a gray area of government regulations or legality, or fall outside of bank policies regarding the type of business for which they will approve merchant accounts. For example, adult entertainment, debt related services, CBD, kratom, cannabis, health supplements, or businesses that have an elevated risk of customer chargebacks or fraud. Additionally, business owners who have poor credit histories may also be required to use a high-risk credit card processor.
High risk credit card processing is more expensive with processing rates often exceeding 5% per transaction. Often though, these rates can be negotiated down after the business has gained several months of processing history with a merchant account provider. If you are currently under a high-risk merchant account, contact us for help negotiating your rates before you switch processors. Not only can we often help you achieve lower rates than you can on your own, but we have often obtained retroactive refunds for our clients. Additionally, the newly negotiated rates can be used as leverage with a new processor before you make the switch.
Based in Woodland Hills, California, PaymentCloud is a merchant account provider that specializes in serving businesses of nearly any type. This includes “high-risk” industries such as CBD, firearm sales, kratom, and adult entertainment. The company’s products and services include point-of-sale solutions, mobile phone swipers, an online payment gateway and virtual terminal, EMV-compatible terminals, and merchant cash advances. PaymentCloud also provides a dedicated account rep to all of its customers for the life of the account, which means top-notch customer support.
Compare PaymentCloud With Host Merchant Services
Host Merchant Services has consistently scored as top performing merchant account provider for several years in our review of the company. This processor has consistently achieved high marks on everything from fast account approval, low rates and fees, and solid customer support. Host Merchant Services also offers a wide array of software integrations with customer relationship management systems, and open source e-commerce platforms. Not only does the company offer these integrations, but can also implement such needs for its merchant customers with a dedicated technical team, thereby making setup seamless and easy.
Host Merchant Services Pricing
Host Merchant Services has received only positive feedback on public forums, with most reviewers singling out the company's customer service for praise. Host offers interchange-plus pricing with no early termination fees to all of its merchants, meaning that users will enjoy the most transparent pricing model and can cancel service without a penalty. The BBB gives Host an “A+” rating, and we also gives the company an “A+.”
New Ventures & Low Volume Processing
We often get asked why we recommend Square when the company has thousands of complaints from users on our very own review of the company. The reason for this is, despite having numerous complaints, Square is still one of the best options for brand new first-time businesses ventures. This is especially true when starting revenues will be very low or hard to predict. Square is the easiest card acceptance option when it come to sign-up and approval. The service has simple pricing and enables almost anyone to accept credit cards quickly, if not immediately. Generally speaking, Square is a great service to test the waters of your card payment needs. However, once you are processing over $120,000 per year, seeking out a traditional credit card processing company with almost guarantee lower fees and better support. Be sure to bookmark this page for when your business is ready to move to the next level.
Square Offers Ease and Flexibility
Square's ease of sign-up comes with some drawbacks. Aside from higher than average processing fees, many users have reported processing with Square without first understanding the company's policies regarding funding or the types of businesses that are permitted to accept card payments through its services. When these users run afoul with such policies, they are often surprised and file complaints in anger. Though Square is not truly at fault in many of these cases, it could do a better job preemptively guiding users away from such pitfalls. With millions of users, the company has struggled with providing high-quality customer support as well as effectively communicating its policies.
Beware Funding Holds
Before signing up with Square, we highly recommend reading Square's prohibited industries list (found below) as running afoul with this policy can cause a business owner a great degree of grief and frustration.
Square Doesn't Serve These Industries
- Any illegal activity or goods
- Paraphernalia that may be used for illegal activity
- Buyer or membership clubs, including dues associated with such clubs
- Credit counselling or credit repair agencies
- Credit protection or identity theft protection services
- Direct marketing or subscription offers or services
- Infomercial sales
- Internet/mail order/telephone order pharmacies or pharmacy referral services (where fulfilment of medication is performed with an Internet or telephone consultation, or a physical visit with a physician including re-importation of pharmaceuticals from foreign countries)
- Unauthorised multi-level marketing businesses
- Inbound or outbound telemarketers
- Prepaid phone cards or phone services
- Rebate based businesses
- Up-sell merchants
- Bill payment services
- Betting, including lottery tickets, casino gaming chips, Fantasy Football, off-track betting and wagers at races
- Financial institutions offering manual or automated cash disbursements
- Prepaid cards, cheques, insurance or other financial merchandise or services
- Sales of money-orders or foreign currency by non-financial institutions
- Wire transfer money orders
- High-risk products and services, including telemarketing sales
- Service station merchants
- Automated fuel dispensers
- Adult entertainment oriented products or services (in any medium, including Internet, telephone or printed material)
- Sales of (i) firearms, firearm parts or hardware, and ammunition; or (ii) weapons and other devices designed to cause physical injury
- Internet/mail order/telephone order of age restricted products (e.g., tobacco, alcohol)
- Occult materials
- Hate or harmful products
- Escort services
- Bankruptcy lawyers or collection agencies engaged in the collection of debt
- Airlines, air carriers, cruise ships and steam ships, with the exception of (a) small charter airlines that (i) only use small propeller driven aircraft with fewer than 15 seats per aircraft and (ii) are not used in connection with corporate aviation programmes and (b) on-board purchases,
- Car rentals, including construction equipment rentals
- Branded accommodation
- Unsolicited vendors that require immediate payment for the future provision of products or services (e.g. door-to-door salesmen)
- Use of transaction proceeds as investment in the future maturity or value of goods
Compare Square with Helcim
Although you will see Helcim listed as our top choice choice for established businesses, Helcim's lack of monthly fees makes it an attractive option for new ventures. The company is also an excellent choice for better customer service than Square.
High Volume Bar and Restaurant Point-of-Sale
Toast makes our top pick for restaurants due to this company's technology forward philosophy, which has enabled it to quickly serve the critical need of a touchless payments. With Toast, restaurant owners can shield their customers and employees from contagions through the elimination of passing menus and cards back and forth. Not only does the company serve this need with an easy-to-use platform, but also does it in a very cost effective manner without sacrificing quality in its services or customer support. Restaurant owners should feel confident that their POS expectations will be met and exceeded with Toast.
International & Cross-Border Payments
eMerchant Broker has remained one of our top recommendations for international and cross-border credit card processing for several years. In addition to facilitating payments across the globe, the company can also approve numerous “high-risk” domestic and international business types. If you are having trouble getting a merchant account, especially with domestic credit card processors, eMerchant Broker may be your best and only option to get the card processing services you need.
Compare eMerchant Broker with Helcim
Again Helcim makes a great company to compare, although readers should keep in mind that Helcim will only approve international credit card processing for “low risk” businesses.
Canadian Merchant Accounts
Helcim has consistently ranked as our top Canadian merchant account providers for nearly a decade running. The company is technology forward and focused on customer experience. In addition to offering hardware and services tailored to a wide array of common industries, the company offers a flexible virtual terminal, online store builder, e-commerce tools, and invoicing tools. Helcim offers some of the most competitive pricing found in the industry. Due to the smaller pool of Canadian credit card processors, we don't have any comparable processor options for Canadian businesses.
E-Commerce Store Builders
Bring Your Business Online Quickly
Gone are the days of hiring expensive web developers to build an e-commerce store for your business or idea. Shopify ranks as our top pick for creating professional online stores quickly and at just a fraction of the cost of custom web development. This service can be used for the sale of a single product via easy-to-create “Buy Now” buttons all the way up to selling thousands of products requiring enterprise level software integrations.
Shopify can integrate with various merchant account providers or you can quickly start accepting payments through the company's own “Shopify Payments” service, which integrates seamlessly. Shopify Payments is also available to businesses outside the United States including Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Belgium, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Compare Shopify With Helcim and Square
Helcim also offers an e-commerce store builder but lacks in the number of plugins for easy intergrations that comes along with Shopify. That said, Helcim has dedicated phone support that may make it a better option for many businesses. If you are unsure of your potential revenues, or just want to test out an idea, Square may be the best option for ease of signup and rapid testing.