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What Exactly Is Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, and Which One Is Best?
What Exactly Is Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, and Which One Is Best?
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What Exactly Is Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, and Which One Is Best?

Doris Kendi
March 4, 2022

If you have a credit card or are looking into obtaining one, there are probably several factors you will need to consider. You may want to compare the interest rates, the travel perks and other rewards, the credit limit, among other things. 

But have you thought about the card payment network?

The network your card is backed by determines where and how you use your card. Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are 3 of the 4 dominating card networks globally. 

But how do these three affect your usage? Which one of the three is better than the other? Do they offer different perks or benefits? Wait, is there even any difference between all three? Which one should you choose?

Before you get all confused and overwhelmed, here is all you need to know about these three card networks.

Learn more: ABCs of Credit Cards: What to Know About Credit Cards in Kenya

Main Differences

Here are the key main differences between the three payment networks:

Processing vs. issuing

All three focus mainly on maintaining the technical back-end that comes with managing a global network of merchants who accept their cards. This includes transmitting transaction data and authorizing the payments movements.

In addition to managing the overall back-end of the credit and debit card transactions, American Express (abbrv. Amex) also issues and manages actual credit cards. 

Visa and Mastercard do not issue cards and instead rely on third parties - banks and other credit card companies - to issue the cards. For example, Absa Bank issues a Visa credit card with both Absa and Visa card logos. 

Acceptance worldwide

The next important difference is how widely the card under the payment network is accepted. It won’t do you much good if the card of your choice is not accepted at your favorite retailer, right?

In general, the more merchants that accept your card both locally and internationally, the better for you.

Although American Express is generally recognized and accepted in Kenya and Africa, it lags behind its competitors. It might be recognized, but it is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard. According to a Nilson Report, Visa and Mastercard are accepted in more than 200 countries, while American Express is accepted in over 170 countries. 

One of the reasons Amex may not be accepted by as many outlets as compared to Visa and Mastercard, might be because American Express charges merchants a higher processing fee than its competitors. 

For clarity, note that all credit card issuers will charge a merchant a fee to accept their credit cards. 

Fees and charges

Typically, it takes a series of companies, transactions, and resources to complete a credit card transaction. In fact, not many credit card users have a full grasp of the costs associated with processing a transaction. 

For example, there is a fee that merchants have to pay to accept credit cards; some banks also charge an additional processing fee on top of the interchange fee, etc. 

Visa and Mastercard have almost the same rates, while American express’s interchange rate may be slightly higher. 


Lately, there are a variety of credit cards in the market for you to choose and pick - there are airline and travel cards, reward cards, etc. Every card you apply for has its unique eligibility requirements, including your income levels, credit history, and other parameters. 

Typically, the more benefits the card offers, the harder it is to qualify. Comparing the three contenders, American Express might be one with the most stringent requirements for eligibility. 

This might be because, unlike Visa and Mastercard who do not directly issue their cards, American Express is both the issuer and the management behind Amex credit cards. Thus they have some level of control over the minimum requirements. 

Other Network Benefits You Might Need to Consider

The payment network you choose can affect which perks you get. You might need to consider other factors more than choosing based on the payment network. 

  • Specific card benefits. If you are getting a credit card for a specific benefit, e.g., cash backs, you will need to find a card that matches your needs irrespective of the payment network. 
  • Hotel and airline partners. If you are looking for a card so you can get to enjoy great perks while flying, you might be restricted to a certain network. For example, American express only partners with Delta airlines. 
  • Transferable point currency partners. You will need to choose a network whose points you will be able to redeem at your favorite merchants.

Learn more: Ten Reasons to Use A Credit Card

Which one to Choose?

Putting all this together, it is clear that whichever payment network you choose depends on your eligibility and personal needs. So. before you make a decision, you should carefully consider: 

  • Income and credit history. Check your income and credit history and see which cards you are eligible for. 
  • Rewards. Determine what rewards you want and then check which card offers these rewards. 
  • Where you want to spend your money. If you want to swipe your card at specific merchants both locally and internationally, first check which cards are accepted by these merchants.

Learn more: Who Qualifies for Credit Cards in Kenya (And What to Do If You Don’t)


Typically, choosing a card based on the credit card issuer and the general features of the card is more practical than choosing based on the payment network. However, it is not always as simple as it may sound. 

For example, if you travel outside the country frequently, you will need a card that is accepted in most countries if not by most merchants. In such a case and depending on your location intentionally, Visa and Mastercard might be the most preferred. 
If you are still unsure of which network to choose, visit our credit card comparisons page to see some of the main credit card issuers in Kenya today. From here you can get more information on each specific payment network to help you make an informed decision.

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Doris is a finance professional, freelance writer and SEO expert. She has experience helping businesses of all sizes create content that helps improve their site quality and increase their online traffic. She is a personal finance and wealth creation enthusiast and a frequent contributor to Money254. Visit Doris' personal website to learn more about her work.

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