Virtual credit cards: What are they? And when, how and why to use them.

Sep 27, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

If you’re making a purchase online, you may wonder whether your credit card information is secure. After all, even if the merchant is trustworthy, a hacker could steal credit card information collected by the merchant. And, although most credit cards offer zero liability protection, it’s still a hassle to cancel a card number and start over with a new one.

But, using virtual credit cards for online purchases can keep your credit card information secure. So, today I’ll discuss everything you need to know about virtual credit cards.

Get the latest points, miles and travel news by signing up for TPG’s free daily newsletter.

In This Post

What is a virtual credit card?

A virtual credit card allows you to shop online without giving your actual credit card number to merchants. Instead, you’ll provide the merchant a virtual credit card number linked to your credit card account.

You might wonder why this matters. Well, if a virtual number is used for a purchase and then stolen or compromised, you can cancel the virtual card number. So, by using a virtual number, you decrease the chances that someone will steal your actual card number. You want to avoid compromising your actual credit card number because then you’ll have to get a new account number and be sent a new physical card.

Related: How I learned that someone stole my credit card number

How do I get and use a virtual credit card?

Man using computer to shop online
You can use a virtual card number when shopping online. (Photo by 10’000 Hours/Getty Images)

Only some credit card issuers offer virtual credit card numbers. But, two of the most prominent issuers in the U.S. that offer virtual card numbers are Capital One and Citi.

Capital One credit cards

You can get a virtual credit card number for Capital One credit cards by using the Eno assistant. To use a virtual credit card number when making online purchases, install the Eno browser extension and register your Capital One credit cards. I installed the browser extension and registered my Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card in under 60 seconds.

Then, Eno will offer to generate a virtual card number when you’re ready to make an online purchase. If you want to use a virtual card number, click “Get Virtual Number” and then fill in your billing address and shipping address. Once Eno creates a virtual number for a specific merchant, Capital One ties that number to that merchant. As such, the number won’t be useable at other merchants.

Related: Credit card showdown: Capital One Venture vs. Capital One Quicksilver

Citi credit cards

Some Citi credit cards also offer virtual credit card numbers. It’s unclear which Citi cards offer this feature, but I was able to get a virtual credit card number on the following Citi credit cards:

The information for the Citi Prestige, AT&T Access Card and Citi Dividend has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

To do so, I logged into my Citi online account online, selected any eligible card account and clicked on “Virtual Account Number” under the card name. You’ll then need to accept terms, click “Generate,” select the Citi account you wish you use and answer security questions. You can set time and dollar limits for each Citi virtual account number.

But, not all Citi cards offer virtual credit card numbers. Specifically, I wasn’t able to get a virtual account number on the following Citi cards:

The information for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select and CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Is Citi ThankYou Rewards the most underappreciated and misunderstood program?

Are virtual credit cards safe?

Virtual credit card numbers provide additional security to your existing credit card accounts. In particular, if a virtual credit card number is compromised, you can easily cancel the virtual number and keep your actual card number the same. Plus, in some cases, each virtual card number is tied to a specific merchant. So, even if your number is stolen, it may not be readily useable by the person stealing your number.

It’s also easy to track your purchases with virtual credit card numbers. Virtual credit card purchases will show up on your monthly statement along with purchases made using your actual credit card number, mobile wallet or a physical card. For Citi cards, each transaction made with a virtual account number will show that number on your monthly statement. Meanwhile, for Capital One cards, you can manage your virtual card numbers from an online dashboard.

Related: 6 tips for keeping your credit card safe online

What are the downsides to virtual credit cards?

Man working on laptop at desk - reader mistake story. (Photo by Luis Alvarez via Getty Images)
There are a few cases where you may regret using a virtual credit card number. (Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

There are some downsides to virtual credit cards. First off, not all credit card issuers offer virtual credit card numbers. And, generally, you’ll only be able to use virtual credit card numbers for online or card-not-present transactions. But, even if you can use a virtual credit card number, there are some cases where you shouldn’t.

First off, you won’t want to use a virtual credit card for pick-up orders, will-call tickets or select travel purchases. In particular, you won’t want to use a virtual credit card number when you may need to swipe or show the card you used to make the purchase. Although this isn’t usually an issue at most U.S. hotels and airlines, I have needed to show the credit card I used to purchase a flight when checking in for a flight overseas.

Likewise, you may only be able to use a virtual credit card number for purchases made on a desktop computer. For example, Capital One requires that you use the Eno browser extension.

Finally, if you need to return an item, the merchant will return the money paid to your credit card. But, the merchant will usually only be willing to refund money to the credit card number used to make the purchase. So, if your virtual credit card number isn’t still active, you may have to settle for store credit.

Related: Credit card fraud: How to spot and report it

What is the best virtual credit card?

If you like the idea of using virtual credit card numbers for some purchases, you may be wondering which card is best. After getting virtual credit card numbers with Citi and Capital One, I’d recommend a Capital One card. It’s easy to install the Eno browser extension and generate virtual numbers when making online purchases.

The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is one of the best everyday spending cards. You’ll earn 2x Capital One miles on all purchases, which equates to a 3.4% return based on TPG’s valuations. The Capital One Venture Card is currently offering 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. If you’re looking for a new card that offers virtual credit card numbers, the Capital One Venture Card is a compelling option.

Related: 5 reasons to get the Capital One Venture Rewards card

Bottom line

Many consumers underutilize virtual credit cards. Using a virtual credit card when shopping online can make it easy to secure your account if your card number is compromised. So, it may be smart to add using a virtual credit card number to your shopping routine along with using an online shopping portal and using one of the best cards for online shopping.

Featured image by MStudioImages/Getty Images.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

SIGN-UP BONUS: Up to 100,000 Bonus Miles

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,400

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: Miles are now transferrable to several airline partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening, or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • Receive up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®
  • Redeem on travel—from vacation rentals to car rentals and more. Plus transfer your miles to over 10+ travel loyalty programs
  • No foreign transaction fees
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
17.24% - 24.49% (Variable)
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
$0
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.