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A credit card is a payment card issued to users (cardholders) to enable the cardholder to pay a merchant for goods and services based on the cardholder's promise to the card issuer to pay them for the amounts plus the other agreed charges. The card issuer (usually a bank) creates a revolving account and grants a line of credit to the cardholder, from which the cardholder can borrow money for payment to a merchant or as a cash advance.

A credit card is different from a charge card, which requires the balance to be repaid in full each month. In contrast, credit cards allow the consumers to build a continuing balance of debt, subject to interest being charged. A credit card also differs from a cash card, which can be used like currency by the owner of the card. A credit card differs from a charge card also in that a credit card typically involves a third-party entity that pays the seller and is reimbursed by the buyer, whereas a charge card simply defers payment by the buyer until a later date.

The size of most credit cards is 85.60 mm × 53.98 mm (3 3⁄8 × 2 1⁄8 inches) and rounded corners with a radius of 2.88–3.48 mm, conforming to the ISO/IEC 7810 ID-1 standard, the same size as ATM cards and other payment cards, such as debit cards.

Credit cards have a printed or embossed bank card number complying with the ISO/IEC 7812 numbering standard. The card number's prefix, called the Bank Identification Number (known in the industry as a BIN), is the sequence of digits at the beginning of the number that determine the bank to which a credit card number belongs. This is the first six digits for MasterCard and Visa cards. The next nine digits are the individual account number, and the final digit is a validity check code.

Both of these standards are maintained and further developed by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 17/WG 1. Credit cards have a magnetic stripe conforming to the ISO/IEC 7813. Many modern credit cards have a computer chip embedded in them as a security feature.

In addition to the main credit card number, credit cards also carry issue and expiration dates (given to the nearest month), as well as extra codes such as issue numbers and security codes. Not all credit cards have the same sets of extra codes nor do they use the same number of digits.

Credit card numbers were originally embossed to allow easy transfer of the number to charge slips. With the decline of paper slips, some credit cards are no longer embossed and in fact the card number is no longer in the front.

The concept of using a card for purchases was described in 1887 by Edward Bellamy in his utopian novel Looking Backward. Bellamy used the term credit card eleven times in this novel, although this referred to a card for spending a citizen's dividend from the government, rather than borrowing, making it more similar to a Debit card.

A credit card issuing company, such as a bank or credit union, enters into agreements with merchants for them to accept their credit cards. Merchants often advertise which cards they accept by displaying acceptance marks – generally derived from logos – or this may be communicated in signage in the establishment or in company material (e.g., a restaurant's menu may indicate which credit cards are accepted). Merchants may also communicate this orally, as in "We take (brands X, Y, and Z)" or "We don't take credit cards".

Visa, MasterCard, American Express are card-issuing entities that set transaction terms for merchants, card-issuing banks, and acquiring banks.

The credit card issuer issues a credit card to a customer at the time or after an account has been approved by the credit provider, which need not be the same entity as the card issuer. The cardholders can then use it to make purchases at merchants accepting that card. When a purchase is made, the cardholder agrees to pay the card issuer. The cardholder indicates consent to pay by signing a receipt with a record of the card details and indicating the amount to be paid or by entering a personal identification number (PIN). Also, many merchants now accept verbal authorizations via telephone and electronic authorization using the Internet, known as a card not present transaction (CNP).

Electronic verification systems allow merchants to verify in a few seconds that the card is valid and the cardholder has sufficient credit to cover the purchase, allowing the verification to happen at time of purchase. The verification is performed using a credit card payment terminal or point-of-sale (POS) system with a communications link to the merchant's acquiring bank. Data from the card is obtained from a magnetic stripe or chip on the card; the latter system is called Chip and PIN in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and is implemented as an EMV card.

For card not present transactions where the card is not shown (e.g., e-commerce, mail order, and telephone sales), merchants additionally verify that the customer is in physical possession of the card and is the authorized user by asking for additional information such as the security code printed on the back of the card, date of expiry, and billing address.

Each month, the cardholder is sent a statement indicating the purchases made with the card, any outstanding fees, the total amount owed and the minimum payment due. In the US, after receiving the statement, the cardholder may dispute any charges that he or she thinks are incorrect (see 15 U.S.C. § 1643, which limits cardholder liability for unauthorized use of a credit card to $50). The Fair Credit Billing Act gives details of the U.S. regulations.

Many banks now also offer the option of electronic statements, either in lieu of or in addition to physical statements, which can be viewed at any time by the cardholder via the issuer's online banking website. Notification of the availability of a new statement is generally sent to the cardholder's email address. If the card issuer has chosen to allow it, the cardholder may have other options for payment besides a physical check, such as an electronic transfer of funds from a checking account. Depending on the issuer, the cardholder may also be able to make multiple payments during a single statement period, possibly enabling him or her to utilize the credit limit on the card several times.

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