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Credit Card Basics

A credit card system is a type of retail transaction settlement and credit system, named after the small plastic card issued to users of the system. A credit card is different from a debit card in that the credit card issuer lends the consumer money rather than having the money removed from an account. It is also different from a charge card (though this name is often used to describe credit cards by the public) in that charge cards do not extend the user credit -- the charges must be paid each month in full. Most credit cards are the same shape and size, as specified by the ISO 7810 standard.

Credit Card Numbering
The numbers found on credit cards have a certain amount of internal structure, and share a common numbering scheme.

The card number's prefix is the sequence of digits at the beginning of the number that determine the credit card network to which the number belongs. The card number's length is its number of digits.

The prefixes and lengths for the most common card types are:

Card Type Prefix(es) Length
American Express 34 or 37 15
Bank Card 560-561 16
Diners Club / Carte Blanche* 300-305, 36 or 38 14
Discover Card 6011 16
JCB 3 16
JCB 1800, 2131 15
MasterCard 51-55 16
Visa 4 13 or 16

*US cards are now being issued as MasterCards and using their numbering scheme.

In addition, the first 6 digits of the credit card number are known as the Bank Identification Number (BIN). These identify the institution that issued the card to the card holder.

Some credit card issuers choose to restrict the card numbers they issue to those which pass a checksum test, where the final digit of the card number is used to confirm the initial digits. This has two benefits of preventing casual attempts to invent credit numbers (only one in ten will be valid), and also prevent mistakes when the card number is manually recorded. The checksum test for credit card numbers is the Luhn formula, described in Annex B to ISO/IEC 7812, Part 1.

Potential Benefits of Credit Cards
As well as convenient, accessible credit, the cards offer consumers an easy way to track expenses, which is necessary both for monitoring personal expenditures and the tracking of work-related expenses for taxation and reimbursement purposes. They have now spread worldwide, and are offered in a huge variety of permutations with differing credit limits, repayment arrangements (some cards offer interest-free periods, while others do not but compensate with much lower interest rates), and other perks (such as rewards schemes in which points "earned" for purchasing goods with the card can be reclaimed for further goods and services).

In addition, some countries such as the United States limit the amount that a consumer can be held liable for fraudulent transactions, which shifts the liability to the merchant. This encourages the use of credit cards for electronic and mail order transactions, collectively called "card not present" transactions. For further security, some banks are offering one-time numbers for use in these transactions. They have spread far and wide beyond their initial market of the wealthy businessman and are now ubiquitous amongst the middle class of most Western countries.

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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