The Complete Guide To Card Brand Fees For Merchant Accounts

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In this guide, we’re tackling a surprisingly tricky and supremely detail-oriented topic in the world of card payment processing: card brand fees. Navigating these fees on your merchant account statement can feel like you’re on a scavenger hunt you didn’t sign up for — and not the fun kind. There’s no avoiding the fact that the devil’s in the details when it comes to card brand fees, but too many merchants overlook or misunderstand them at their own peril. Fortunately, Merchant Maverick is here to help you:

  • Understand card brand fees and how they apply to your specific merchant account.
  • Identify these fees on your statement with our reference list of commonly-charged card brand fees.
  • Discern if your card processor is ripping you off by messing with these fees.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Table of Contents

Card Brand Fees VS Interchange Fees

Wait, aren’t these the same thing? If you thought so, you’re not the only one. Many merchants are surprised to learn that interchange fees and card brand fees are two completely separate types of fees. If this includes you, then you are about to join the elite class of merchants who understand the difference!

The common conflation of these two fee types stems from the fact that both are considered part of the “wholesale” cost of card processing, as opposed to the “markup.” In processing lingo, “wholesale” simply means that your processor must pay these fees to a separate entity in the processing chain instead of keeping the money for its own use.

The key distinction between these two sub-categories of wholesale fees, therefore, is which link in the chain is owed each fee. Here’s the difference: An interchange fee goes to to the customer’s card-issuing bank, while card brand fees are ultimately paid to the actual card brands themselves (e.g., Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express).

For both of these wholesale costs, card processors and the merchant services providers (MSPs) who manage your accounts are faced with a choice. Do they itemize and “pass-through” these wholesale fees directly to the merchant? Or, do they absorb the wholesale cost into the pricing structure in other ways, perhaps by charging a higher processing rate or monthly fee? Or, do they use some solution in between?

As a merchant, you’re tasked with knowing how your own MSP handles wholesale fees — both interchange and card brand. We’re only addressing card brand fees in this article. For more on interchange fees and how the different pricing models (such as interchange-plus) incorporate them, see our complete guide to rates and fees.

Card brand fees are typically either a percentage of volume charge or a flat amount per instance. Some apply to all your transactions, while others only apply in very specific situations, such as when an authorization is abnormal in some way. We’ll cover these individual fees and their circumstances in the itemized list at the end of this article.

The good news is that card brand fees have set, established amounts across the industry. Like interchange fees, they’re considered non-negotiable, and the processor has no control over the amounts. The bad news is that finding the true wholesale amounts for card brand fees is generally more difficult than looking up interchange rates.

Before we delve into why these fees are so pesky, note that they’re also called card network fees, card association fees, or assessments (although, as you’ll see, an “assessment” is technically a specific sub-category of card brand fee).

Card Brand Fees Are Especially Tricky

Due to several regrettable quirks of the processing industry, card brand fees are particularly complicated and opaque. Here are the primary reasons:

  • They’re not displayed on the card brand websites. By contrast, interchange tables are readily available at the Visa and MasterCard websites.
  • You can’t call the card brands and ask about the fees. You’ll be redirected right back to your own MSP to answer any questions. It’s incredibly frustrating that we can’t rely on the card brands to disclose these base costs, and instead must rely on processors and MSPs to be honest when they pass the fees through.
  • Multiple fees may apply to the same authorization or transaction. For example, transactions paid with a foreign-issued card incur separate international surcharges on top of the regular assessment that’s applied to all your transactions.
  • The fees change (usually increase) over time. And not all at once. While they’re rarely decreased, sometimes particular fees are eliminated and/or replaced with others. Occasionally, a completely new fee is instituted, to which the only fitting response is…

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  • Many of the fees are known by multiple names and abbreviations, and it’s often difficult to match the names on your own statement with any established names.
  • Two or more fees may be combined into one on your statement, making them hard to identify and verify.
  • The fees can be spread throughout multiple sections of your statement — not grouped all together or even labeled properly — just in case you weren’t already driven bonkers by this stuff. Often, I’ve seen them buried inside “interchange” or “authorization” sections.
  • Brazen processors or MSPs may add their own markups to card brand fees without telling you. Or, they may invent fees and give them card-brand-sounding names. Yuck, right?
  • Most of the fees are small, so can be overlooked as inconsequential. They can still add up quite quickly, but the real issue at stake is the overall honesty and transparency of your provider. Regardless of whether an extra fee or markup here and there isn’t costing you that much, wouldn’t you still rather know about it?

How To Stay On Top Of Card Brand Fees

It’s a shame that merchants can’t rely on Gandalf’s wizardry for this quest. Instead, we suggest you follow our tips for navigating these fees:

  • Be aware that you may be charged only some, or even none, of these fees. This depends on several factors, including 1) your pricing model, 2) what your MSP decides to pass through versus absorb, and 3) what happens with your transactions and authorizations in a given month. With many blended, tiered or flat-rate plans, all or most of the card brand fees are absorbed into the overall cost of your account instead of itemized and passed through to you. There are no guarantees with any pricing model, however, so check your statements anyway!
  • Obtain a list of card brand fees from your merchant account provider. If they’re passing these fees through to you, they should provide a detailed list with the specific names and abbreviations they’re using.
  • Use a secondary, neutral source to confirm fee amounts. Our list below is a great place to start.
  • Keep a running list of the card brand fees you’ve seen on your own statements, along with the amounts. Reference lists are handy, but a personalized list is easier to use and track over time than a litany of every possible fee for every possible circumstance.
  • Processors shouldn’t mark up these fees without clearly informing you. And really, they should leave these fees alone completely. If the fee is charged at all, it should be passed through at cost.
  • Trust the amount more than the name. Identifying a fee on your statement is often more about looking at the rate or amount charged, as well as the specific number/volume/type of transactions to which it was applied. The process of elimination can be very effective here.
  • Definitely be suspicious if you spot extra fees that aren’t on the reference list, any that seem like duplicates or that can’t be matched with established values, or those that look too high. Don’t worry too much if a fee seems too low; it’s possible your processor is just absorbing or redistributing some of the cost.
  • Be on the lookout for fee change notifications. October and April are common transition points, but the fees can change at any time. Good processors will notify you (sometimes on the statement itself) when a card brand fee is set to increase or change. If your processor doesn’t fall in this camp, it’s all the more important that you bookmark this article.
  • Ask before you sign. If you’re just signing up for an MSP or changing providers, ask how it handles card brand fees in addition to interchange costs. Be very clear that you know the difference and want the specifics. Remember, not all customer service reps are created equal in their knowledge of this topic. Ask to be transferred up the chain if you’re not satisfied.

Final Thoughts (Let’s Crowdsource This!)

As merchants, you are on the front lines for tracking card brand fees. We believe your input will be key in keeping our reference list up to date. Some of you have processors who actually do a good job organizing and displaying card brand fees on statements, as well as notifying you of any upcoming changes. Is a fee on our list is no longer accurate? Are we missing a new, legitimate fee? Together, we can also help other merchants whose processors are abysmal at communicating fees, or even cheating business owners. Let’s all team up on this — leave a comment below!
International Service Assessment (ISA)

  • Surcharge owed on transactions that are processed in the US on a card issued outside the US.
  • 1.20% – International Service Assessment (ISA) – Non-US currency
    • Same fee as above, but incurs this higher rate when the transaction is settled in the cardholder’s local currency.
    • 0.45% – International Acquirer Fee (IAF)
      • Applies in same circumstance as the International Assessment above.

    Per-Item:

    • $0.0195 – Acquirer Processing Fee (APF): Credit
      • Owed on all credit transactions for US-based businesses, irrespective of where cardholder/issuer is located.
    • $0.0155 – Acquirer Processing Fee (APF): Debit
      • Owed on all debit transactions for US-acquired businesses, irrespective of where the cardholder/issuer is located.
    • $0.0195 – Credit Voucher Fee (Credit)
      • Owed on all refunds issued in the US via credit card.
    • $0.0155 – Credit Voucher Fee (Debit)
      • Owed on all refunds issued in the US via debit card.
    • $0.0018 – System File Transmission Fee / Base II Fee
      • Owed on all authorized transactions submitted for settlement (in addition to the above transaction fees). Base II refers to Visa’s settlement network.
      • Outdated Visa settlement fees:
        • $0.0025 – Settlement Network Access Fee. Base II fee may still be called by this name but should be $0.0018.
        • $0.0047 – Kilobyte (KB) Access Fee. Should not be charged in addition to the above.
    • $0.10 – Transaction Integrity Fee (TIF)
      • Owed on a debit or prepaid Visa transaction that fails to meet CPS requirements (e.g., not settled in 24 hours, no AVS submitted on a keyed transaction).
    • $0.09 – Misuse of Authorization Fee
      • Owed when a transaction is authorized, but not followed by a matching cleared transaction, or when a canceled or timed-out authorization is improperly reversed.
    • $0.20 – Zero Floor Limit Fee
      • Owed when the merchant submits a settlement transaction without an authorization.
    • $0.025 – Zero Dollar Verification Fee
      • Owed when the merchant verifies a cardholder’s information (e.g., AVS, CVC2) without authorizing a transaction.

    Other:

    • Varies – Fixed Acquirer Network Fee (FANF)
      • A flat fee based on your volume per month, type of business (Merchant Category Code or MCC), number of locations, etc. Typically charged quarterly or monthly. Learn more about the FANF here.

    MasterCard Network Fees

    Volume-Based:

    • 0.12% – Assessment / Acquirer Brand Volume Fee – Transactions <$1,000 and all Signature Debit
      • Owed on gross commercial and consumer credit transactions less than $1,000, as well as all signature debit.
    • 0.14% – Assessment / Acquirer Brand Volume Fee – Transactions >$1,000)
      • Owed on gross commercial and consumer credit transactions exceeding $1,000; excludes signature debit. Note: May be listed as 0.02% surcharge over the above assessment.
    • 0.0075% – Acquirer License Fee (ALF) / License Volume Fee 
      • Owed on gross transaction volume. Increased from 0.0045% Oct. 2017. Note: sometimes combined with the above assessments, bringing the totals to 0.1275% and 0.1475%, respectively.
    • 0.60% – International / Cross-Border Assessment Fee (Domestic)
      • Surcharge owed by US-based merchants on transactions on a card issued outside the U.S. settled in USD. (Similar to Visa’s ISA.)
    • 1.00% – International / Cross-Border Assessment Fee (Foreign)
      • Same fee as above, but incurs this higher rate when the transaction is settled in the cardholder’s local currency. (Similar to Visa’s ISA.)
    • 0.85% – International Acquirer Program Support Fee
      • Applies in same circumstance as the Cross-Border Assessment above. (Similar to Visa’s IAF.)
    • 0.01% – Digital Enablement Fee
      • Owed on all card-not-present transactions for signature debit, consumer credit, and commercial credit cards.
    • 1.57%Global Wholesale Travel Transaction B2B
      • Owed instead of regular assessments, international surcharges, and NABU fees when the MasterCard B2B (MSB) card product has been used. Applies to a specific set of Merchant Category Codes (MCCs) in the travel and entertainment sector.

    Per-Item:

    • $0.0195 – Network Access and Brand Usage Fee (NABU Fee)
      • Owed on all US-based authorizations, regardless if settled. (Similar to Visa’s APF, Discover’s Data Usage Fee.)
    • $0.0044 – Kilobyte (KB) Access Fee
      • Owed on each authorized transaction submitted for settlement. Note: we’re in the process of checking to see if it’s still charged.
    • $0.01 – AVS Fee (Card-Not-Present)
      • Owed on card-not-present transactions processed using Address Verification Service (AVS). Often shows up on a statement under “Authorizations.”
    • $0.005 – AVS Fee (Card-Present)
      • Owed on Card-Present transactions processed using AVS. Often shows up under “Authorizations.”
    • $0.0025 – Card Validation Code Fee
      • Owed on all transactions involving CVC2 authorization.
    • $0.025 – Account Status Inquiry Fee
      • Owed when a merchant verifies AVS or CVC2 without authorizing a transaction.
    • $0.03 – SecureCode Transaction Fee
      • Owed on all MC SecureCode verification attempts (SecureCode service requires merchant signup).
    • $0.055 – Processing Integrity Fee
      • Owed for transactions that do not comply with best practices for transactions (i.e., not properly cleared/settled/reversed within MasterCard’s time frames for the type of transaction). Below are similar fees for other types of authorization integrity issues:
        • $0.045 – Processing Integrity Fee, Pre-Authorization
        • $0.045 – Processing Integrity Fee, Undefined Authorization
        • $0.040 minimum, or 0.25% – Processing Integrity Fee: Final Authorization
    • $0.012 – Processing Integrity Fee Detail Reporting
      • Owed on any authorization that generates a processing integrity fee for pre-authorization, undefined authorization, or final authorization.

    Other:

    • $1.25/mo. ($15 per year) – Merchant Location Fee
      • $15 annually for each location with traditional MSPs/processors ($3 annually for payment facilitators like Square). Not applicable to merchants processing under $200/month, nor to charitable or religious organizations.
    • $500 – Yearly Registration Fee
      • For online e-cigarettes/vaping businesses.

     Discover Network Fees

    Volume-Based:

    • 0.13% – Assessment
      • Owed on gross transaction volume.
    • 0.55% – International Processing Fee
      • Owed on US-based transactions processed with a card issued outside the U.S.
    • 0.80% – International Service Fee
      • Applies in same circumstance as the International Processing Fee above.

    Per-Item:

    • $0.0195 – Data Usage Fee
      • Owed on all authorized transactions. (Similar to Visa’s APF and MasterCard’s NABU Fees.)
    • $0.0025 – Network Authorization Fee
      • Owed on all authorized transactions. Replaced the Data Transmission Fee in 2013, which only applied to settled transactions.

    American Express OptBlue Network Fees

    American Express OptBlue

    Volume-Based:

    • 0.15% – Assessment
      • Owed on gross transaction volume.
    • 0.40% – International Assessment / Inbound Fee
      • Surcharge owed on transactions involving a card issued outside the US.
    • 0.30% – Card-Not-Present Surcharge
      • Surcharge owed on any transactions considered CNP, including keyed and ecommerce transactions.
    • 0.75%Technical Specification Non-Compliance
      • Owed on transactions that do not meet Amex standards, such as an authorization not obtained at the same time as a sale. Much rarer than Visa and MasterCard fees for transaction integrity problems.

    Per-Item:

    Rose Holman

    Rose’s eclectic professional background includes teaching, research, retail, non-profits and music. Upon returning to her Pacific Northwest roots following a four year stint in the tiny country of Luxembourg, she immediately applied her innate curiosity and lifelong love of explaining stuff to the world of merchant accounts. Her hobbies include devouring podcasts, practicing minimalism, and singing four-part harmony with her husband and two kids.

    Rose Holman

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