Amex and Discover accepted in as many places as Visa, Mastercard in the US

Sep 19, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information. This page includes information about Discover cards that is not currently available on The Points Guy and may be out of date.

At the end of 2019, American Express reported “virtual parity” in acceptance rates in the U.S. alongside Visa and Mastercard, which have long been the top two payment networks domestically. Likewise, Discover makes the same claim as one of the newer issuers on the market.

A February 2020 Nilson Report corroborates this with the claim that 10.6 million U.S. merchants (or approximately 99% of total credit card-accepting merchants) now accept Amex and Discover cards.

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Let’s see what this means for cardholders domestically and internationally.

In This Post

How this affects cardholders

Acceptability is a major factor to consider when applying for a new credit card. If you’re going to maximize a card’s rewards structure and benefits, you have to be able to actually use it on purchases. It doesn’t matter if you have the best credit card on the planet if there isn’t a merchant that will let you use it to pay.

Amex and Discover are now on par with Visa and Mastercard, at least in the U.S. For Amex, that’s a nice selling point as it attempts to establish dominance in an incredibly competitive credit card market, making its products more attractive for U.S. consumers and small-business owners.

Photo courtesy of Blake Wisz / Unsplash
The more widely accepted Amex cards become, the more valuable they become to cardholders. (Photo by Blake Wisz/Unsplash)

While Discover is smaller, it offers a solid lineup of student credit cards and secured cards for those who are having a hard time finding approval from other issuers. Meanwhile, Amex has quite a few cards on TPG’s lists of top travel credit cards and cash-back cards. Having either an Amex or Discover card in your wallet has become even more valuable.

How Amex and Discover hit 99% acceptance in the US

Historically, Amex hasn’t always been widely accepted, either domestically or internationally. The issuer and payment network has long had a reputation for charging merchants swipe fees, which hindered the company’s ability to attract small businesses. Over the years, this has shifted.

There is now little cost difference between Amex and other card networks — Nilson reports only a .04% difference between Amex and Visa and Mastercard (2.3% versus 2.26% respectively).

Related: How small businesses can start accepting credit cards

(Photo by Hero Images / Getty Images)
Amex’s OptBlue program helped the issuer reach its goal of U.S. acceptance on par with Visa and Mastercard. (Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images)

Amex attributes this shift in part to its OptBlue program. This initiative began in 2014 and provides a way for small businesses to accept Amex cards through a third-party processor (so long as that processor is partnered with Amex). These processors set the swipe fee rates for businesses, which evens the playing field for Amex cards from a cost perspective and makes it easier for business owners to start accepting Amex with existing processing systems. It makes sense that the easier it is for a business to accept Amex, the more likely they are to do it.

Furthermore, Amex also made strides in its support of small businesses through its Shop Small and Small Business Saturday campaigns.

On the other hand, Discover encourages cardholders to call customer service if they come across a merchant that doesn’t accept Discover cards. The issuer will try every attempt to add them into the network and close the gap between their competitors.

What about international acceptance?

Unfortunately, there is still work to be done when it comes to Amex’s international acceptance. However, Discover is part of Discover Global Network, which expands acceptance in certain countries where Diners Club and JCB cards are also accepted. You can check Discover’s acceptance map to see if a country you’re traveling to will accept Discover cards.

While American Express cards are accepted in more than 100 countries worldwide, Amex is still lagging behind Discover, Visa and Mastercard. It’s easier to find merchants that accept Amex cards in certain countries (Australia and Canada, as two examples), but across Europe and Asia, it’s still a toss-up whether or not a specific merchant will accept American Express cards. At this point, the safest bet when traveling abroad is to have a Visa or Mastercard just in case.

Related: Best no-annual-fee credit cards to use internationally

Bottom line

Expanding international coverage is a priority for Amex moving forward, so hopefully, we will start to see this change in the coming years. Personally, I’d love to be able to use my American Express® Gold Card at more restaurants when I’m traveling, since it earns the best rate on dining at restaurants out of all of my cards.

So, here’s to (hopefully) never having to hear the phrase, “Sorry, we don’t take American Express or Discover” ever again — at least in the U.S.

Additional reporting by Stella Shon and Katherine Fan. 

Featured photo by Hero Images for Getty Images.

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