The Best First Data Credit Card Processing Alternatives

First Data logo on the websiteIf you’re a business owner searching for a merchant account provider, you’re going to hear about First Data sooner or later. They’re rather hard to ignore, as they’re the largest provider in the United States. The company currently processes 45% of all credit and debit card transactions in the US, either directly or through a network of sub-ISOs and third-party partners. There are several really large providers in the processing industry, but First Data is simply huge.

The company dominates the processing industry in the same way that Amazon and Walmart dominate the retail sector. Unfortunately, First Data’s outsized chunk of the market share is the only thing they have in common with these two retail giants. While Amazon and Walmart have succeeded by offering lower prices than their competitors, First Data is more like the Apple of the processing industry. They provide a high-quality product, but you’ll pay top dollar for it, and they make no effort to lower their prices to accommodate customers of more modest means.

We’ve reviewed First Data and found that their products and services are generally quite good. However, their prices and contract terms are geared toward the top end of the market. If you’re a large business processing over $100,000 per month, they can offer you very competitive rates. They’ll also charge you high account fees, but you’ll still save money overall. Small businesses, on the other hand, will be far more impacted by the higher fees, and won’t qualify for the lowest possible rates. First Data also continues to push outrageously expensive terminal leases through their subsidiary, First Data Global Leasing.

If you’re a small business owner, you’ll want to consider several alternatives to signing up with First Data. Below, we’ve presented four alternative processors that work better for smaller businesses. One (Dharma Merchant Services) is a merchant account provider that uses First Data as their backend processor. This relationship gives you access to many of First Data’s powerful features, but at a much lower cost and with far more personal customer support. The others (Helcim, Fattmerchant, and Chase Merchant Services) offer services similar to First Data but are much more affordable for small businesses. Of these four alternatives, only Chase Merchant Services is a direct processor, able to manage your merchant account and process your transactions.

Overview of First Data

If you’re still thinking about signing up with First Data, you’ll want to read our in-depth review of the company before making a decision. While we’ve given them a decent score overall, the fact remains that their services are geared (and priced) more toward big businesses. They’re not a good deal for smaller companies, and merchants who only occasionally need to process credit or debit card transactions should steer clear altogether due to their high account fees.

First Data’s standard contract imposes a four-year term, with an automatic renewal clause that extends the contract for one-year periods after that. The contract is enforced through an early termination fee (ETF). Rather than charge a fixed amount for breaking your contract, First Data adds your monthly minimum, monthly customer service fee, and monthly account fee together, then multiplies this amount by the number of months remaining in your contract to calculate your ETF. This amount can easily exceed $1000 in the first year or two of your contract – far more than most providers charge for an early termination fee. While the company is sometimes willing to waive this fee altogether, you might prefer to avoid liability for this fee entirely by choosing one of our alternative providers, none of whom charge early termination fees at all.

First Data doesn’t disclose any information about processing rates on their website, but they offer a combination of both tiered and interchange-plus pricing plans. Of these two, tiered pricing is almost always more expensive. Because it brings in more revenue for First Data, you’re likely to be offered this type of pricing if you don’t ask for interchange-plus. Sales representatives have some leeway to negotiate the kind of pricing plan you’ll receive and the rates you’ll pay, but very small businesses or those without an established processing history might have no choice but to accept a tiered plan. You can avoid the uncertainty and the possibility of overpaying for processing by looking into one of our alternative providers. Dharma and Helcim offer fully-disclosed interchange-plus rates exclusively, while Fattmerchant uses a unique subscription-based pricing system that offers very low interchange-plus rates in exchange for a higher monthly account fee. Chase Merchant Services offers a combination of both tiered and interchange-plus rates, but seems more amenable to offering interchange-plus rates to smaller businesses than First Data.

First Data also charges a number of monthly, annual, and incidental account fees to maintain your merchant account. While none of these fees are directly disclosed on their website, you can find information about most of them in the sample contract. While some of these fees may be waived or reduced through negotiation, they’re generally higher than industry averages. If you don’t want to pay extra just to maintain your merchant account, you’ll be happy to know that our preferred alternatives charge lower fees than the industry average. Better yet, Dharma, Helcim, and Fattmerchant fully disclose their fee schedule right on their website. You won’t have to talk to a sales representative or sift through pages of fine print to figure out what your fees will be for your merchant account. Chase doesn’t disclose their fees in such a transparent manner, but merchant feedback indicates that they’re reasonable and in line with industry averages.

While pricing is understandably the most important concern for most merchants when choosing a provider, customer support and service after the sale should also be an important consideration. All our suggested alternative providers offer excellent customer support. First Data has a surprisingly good reputation in this area despite their huge size, but we’ve found that smaller providers generally offer better, more personalized service than the larger companies. With these considerations in mind, let’s take a closer look at our recommended alternatives to First Data:

Dharma Merchant Services

Dharma Merchant Services review

If you want to harness the power of First Data’s specialized services and products, but at a lower cost, take a look at Dharma Merchant Services (see our review). While the company uses First Data as one of its backend processors, they have a completely different pricing structure and a unique corporate philosophy. Dharma Merchant Services takes its name from the term dharma, which is found in several Eastern religions and roughly translates to a “right way of living.” The folks at Dharma take this concept seriously, offering a full spectrum of credit card processing services for a fair and reasonable price. Their fee structure is completely transparent, with all fees and charges disclosed on their website. All merchants receive interchange-plus pricing, and there are no annual fees. They also don’t charge account setup fees, early termination fees, or have a monthly minimum. Fees that they do charge (including PCI compliance fees) are fully disclosed. Dharma is unique in the world of credit card processing companies in that they donate a significant percentage of their profits to charity, living up to their motto “Commerce with Compassion.”

In addition to merchant accounts, Dharma offers a variety of wired and wireless countertop terminals for in-store use, including the First Data FD130. Their terminals are EMV-compliant and support Apple Pay. If you need a full-featured POS system, they offer the popular Clover Mini. Dharma also offers their proprietary MX Merchant system, which integrates a payment gateway, virtual terminal, and mobile processing solution into a single product.

Dharma easily offers the fairest and most transparent fee structure in the industry. In addition to a flat $10.00 per month fee for storefront and eCommerce accounts, transactions are billed according to an interchange-plus pricing model. In-person transactions are charged interchange + 0.25% + $0.10 per transaction, while eCommerce transactions are charged interchange + 0.35% + $0.15 per transaction. For restaurants, Dharma offers a special discounted rate of interchange + 0.20% + $0.07 per transaction. Other additional fees (such as PCI compliance fees) are clearly spelled out on Dharma’s website.

While there is no minimum monthly volume requirement, Dharma openly acknowledges that their full-service merchant accounts don’t make financial sense for low-volume businesses processing less than several thousand dollars per month in transactions. If your business falls into that category, they recommend either PayPal or Square.

Helcim

Helcim logo

“Trust, transparency, and fair pricing” is Helcim’s motto, and they live up to it by providing the most up-front, clearly-explained pricing structure of any of the credit card processing companies we’ve reviewed. A Canadian company, they also have an office in Seattle and provide full support to US-based merchants.

Helcim (see our review) offers a full gamut of services and equipment for both storefront and online businesses. Their website features a variety of EMV-compliant and NFC-capable credit card terminals, starting at $199. Unlike many of their competitors, they encourage US customers to buy their terminals outright, rather than renting or leasing. Helcim will reprogram your current equipment for free if it’s up-to-date. If your current terminal isn’t compatible, they’ll exchange it for a refurbished model for $75.00. Unfortunately, Canadian EMV-compliant terminals are not designed to be transferred or resold, so Canadian customers will have to use the rental option or buy a new machine. Renting on a month-to-month basis (which is not the same as leasing) is usually the best option for Canadian merchants.

Helcim has recently introduced their Helcim Commerce system, a web-based solution that processes both online and manual payments on your computer or with a traditional terminal, generating receipts that can be emailed or printed. This system includes a virtual terminal, payment gateway with API, support for recurring billing, billing information vault storage, e-invoicing, shopping cart integration, and hosted payment pages. Best of all, you get all these features for a flat $15.00 per month for retail users or $35.00 per month for eCommerce merchants.

Mobile payments are supported through the free Helcim Commerce Mobile app for iOS and Android. To use the app, you’ll need the Helcim Mobile Reader, which supports magstripe swiping and plugs into your smartphone’s audio jack. Readers cost $30 each.

Helcim uses an interchange-plus pricing model for all merchants. Rates for retail merchants range from as high as interchange + 0.25% + $0.08 per transaction to as low as interchange + 0.10% + $0.05 per transaction, depending on your monthly processing volume. Online rates range from as high as interchange + 0.45% + $0.25 per transaction to as low as interchange + 0.10% + $0.10 per transaction, again depending on monthly processing volume. Helcim doesn’t charge fees for account setup or termination, and PCI compliance is included in the monthly subscription fee. All contracts are month-to-month, with no early termination fees. For small businesses processing at least $1500 per month, Helcim will save you a significant amount of money over First Data through lower interchange-plus rates and lower account fees.

Fattmerchant

Fattmerchant (see our review) is a newcomer to the merchant account industry, starting up in 2014. Focusing on transparency and lower costs for merchants, the company offers several subscription-based pricing plans. Under these plans, you’ll pay a higher monthly fee, but you won’t pay any markup percentage on your processing costs. With a high enough processing volume, this can lead to significant savings in overall costs over traditional interchange-plus pricing plans. Your monthly subscription fee also covers things like PCI compliance, eliminating most of the additional fees that traditional processors like to add to your bill.

With Fattmerchant, you’re encouraged to buy your own terminals, and they’ll re-program them to work with their services for free. They also offer EMV-compliant terminals and POS systems with some of their pricing plans. For mobile payments, the company offers their free Fattmerchant Payments Mobile app, which is currently available for iOS only. An Android version is under development.

Fattmerchant offers a choice between two subscription-based pricing plans. The $99 per month plan is available for businesses that process up to $1 million annually. Larger businesses processing over that amount pay $199 per month for their subscription. With the $99 per month plan, retail merchants pay interchange + 0% + $0.08 per transaction. Enterprise users on the $199 per month plan pay interchange + 0% + $0.06 per transaction. Online and mobile transactions cost interchange + 0% + $0.15 per transaction under the $99 per month plan, and interchange + 0% + $0.12 per transaction under the $199 per month plan. As you might have guessed, the bulk of your monthly subscription fee goes to covering the markup that traditional interchange-plus pricing plans charge. If your processing volume is high enough, you could save quite a bit in processing charges with one of these plans. On the other hand, it’s probably not cost-effective for low volume or seasonal businesses. Fattmerchant doesn’t charge PCI compliance fees, batch fees, or statement fees, as these are all covered by your monthly subscription fee.

While Fattmerchant claims that there are no contracts, what they really mean is that there are no long-term contracts. Their merchant accounts are billed month-to-month, and there is no early termination fee if you close your account.

Fattmerchant offers an intriguing alternative to traditional merchant accounts. Their processing rates are extremely low, although this is offset by the high monthly subscription costs. You’ll want to run the numbers carefully and compare your current processing costs to what you’d pay with them to see if their plans make sense for your business. While mid-sized companies could save as much as 40% over the cost of a First Data merchant account, smaller businesses might find the subscription cost to be too high to save money overall on processing costs.

Chase Merchant Services

Chase merchant services review logo

While all the alternatives to First Data we’ve discussed so far have been smaller providers, Chase Merchant Services (see our review) is one of the larger merchant services providers in the industry. They’re large enough to be a direct processor, much like First Data itself. As such, they can offer you many of the same powerful features that First Data can. However, their pricing and terms are more competitive, and they have a much better reputation for customer service.

Like First Data, Chase doesn’t disclose any pricing information on their website. However, they offer a similar combination of both tiered and interchange-plus pricing rates. Merchant feedback suggests that they’re more likely to provide you with interchange-plus pricing, and that their account fees are reasonable. They also sell their equipment rather than leasing terminals, which is a big plus.

While the company doesn’t appear to offer true month-to-month billing, they no longer include an early termination fee in their contracts. So, while you might still be bound by a three-year contract with an automatic renewal clause, it will be much easier to close your account early, and you won’t be charged a penalty for doing so. As always, we strongly advise you to read your entire contract thoroughly before signing up, and don’t rely on any verbal assurances from sales representatives.

Chase Merchant Services is a good choice for both retail and eCommerce merchants. They offer several EMV-compliant credit card terminals, which you can purchase outright rather than leasing. Their Orbital Payment Gateway is one of the best in the industry. They also have a solid mobile payments system, which uses their Chase Mobile Checkout app (available for both iOS and Android) and an EMV-compliant mobile card reader. Note that, as of this writing, they’re one of the few providers in the industry to offer an EMV-capable mobile card reader.

Chase Merchant Services is also a good choice for companies that do business overseas or process a lot of B2B transactions, offering payments in over 120 currencies and providing the ability to process Level II and Level III card data.

While you won’t find the same high level of transparency that our other alternative providers offer, Chase Merchant Services is a good choice for mid-sized and larger businesses looking for a provider that can match First Data’s services, but at a more competitive price. The company also has a remarkably low complaint volume relative to its size. As a point of comparison, Chase Merchant Services has 37 complaints within the last three years, while First Data has over 1000.

Final Thoughts

With nearly half the market share in the United States, it’s impossible to ignore First Data in your search for an ideal merchant services provider. However, bigger isn’t always better, and First Data is really only a good choice if you’re already very successful in your business and experienced in negotiating with providers. Smaller businesses and merchants who are just starting out should steer clear of First Data and consider one of our preferred alternatives instead.

One of the significant advantages offered by Dharma, Helcim, and Fattmerchant is that they fully disclose their pricing upfront. Not only does this eliminate the need to negotiate with a sales representative, but it also allows you to make a far more accurate estimate of your anticipated processing costs before you ever contact their sales department. While you won’t be able to do this with Chase Merchant Services, a price quote from them will allow you to make an accurate estimate of how their costs stack up against our other, more transparent, providers.

In selecting between these four alternatives, Dharma and Helcim are best for nonprofit businesses, as they offer discounted pricing for qualified nonprofits. Dharma is also an excellent choice for restaurants, being one of the few providers in the industry to provide lower pricing just for restaurant owners. Helcim is a great all-around choice for small or newly-established businesses. Fattmerchant can offer the most significant savings over more traditional providers to businesses that are large enough to afford their subscription rates. Finally, if your business needs the power of a direct processor and you can negotiate a good deal, Chase Merchant Services is a great alternative to First Data. If your business is too small to afford any of these alternatives, we recommend that you look into a payment service provider (PSP), such as Square or PayPal.

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