Amex now accepted in as many places as Visa, Mastercard in US

Mar 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information. It was originally published Jan. 25, 2020. 

At the end of 2019, American Express reported “virtual parity” in acceptance rates in the U.S. alongside Visa and Mastercard, who have long been the top two payment networks domestically. A February 2020 Nilsen 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 cards.

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How does this affect credit 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 no merchant will let you use it to pay for anything.

The fact that Amex is now on par with Visa and Mastercard — at least in the U.S. — is a nice selling point as Amex continues its attempt to establish dominance in an incredibly competitive credit card market. It makes their credit cards 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 courtesy of Blake Wisz / Unsplash)

Amex has a solid lineup of credit cards available, including quite a few on TPG’s top travel credit cards and top cash back cards lists. Now that Amex can confidently say they are just as widely accepted as its Visa and Mastercard counterparts, having an Amex card in your wallet becomes even more valuable.

For those who already have Amex cards, this means a greater potential for earning rewards. If the vast majority of businesses now accept Amex credit cards alongside the other top payment networks, that’s more places you can earn rewards with your Amex card.

How did Amex hit 99% acceptance in the U.S.?

Historically, Amex hasn’t always been widely accepted, either domestically or internationally. The issuer and payment network has long had a reputation for charging swipe fees for merchants, 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 today — Nilson reports only a .04% difference between Amex and Visa and Mastercard (2.3% vs. 2.26% respectively).

Related reading: 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.

Related reading: Here’s what American Express is doing to get more businesses to accept your card

From a public relations standpoint, Amex also made strides in their support of small businesses through its Shop Small and Small Business Saturday campaigns.

What about international acceptance?

Unfortunately, there is still work to be done when it comes to Amex’s international acceptance. While American Express cards are accepted in more than 100 countries worldwide, it’s still lagging behind 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. I was just in Barcelona, Spain recently and only two of the restaurants and merchants I visited accepted my American Express card.

At this point, the safest bet when traveling abroad is to have a Visa or Mastercard just in case.

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

Bottom line

Continuing 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. 

Amex has made serious strides in providing a better customer experience for cardholders, from revamping credit cards to expanding acceptance rates both at home and abroad. It’s exciting to see more places accepting Amex cards in the U.S., especially since many of the top rewards credit cards are Amex-issued. 

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

Related reading: Choosing the best Amex card for you

Additional reporting by Katherine Fan. 

Featured photo by Getty Images.

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