The Truth About Credit Card Swipe Fees

Merchants don’t like them and pass them on to you

What Are Swipe Fees?

Nothing is free. Those rewards points you get on your debit card and credit card, the convenience of not having to carry loads of cash, purchase protections, and the many other perks that come with using a card are far from free. Sure, you may pay for some of them through an annual fee or interest payments, but a large portion of them are financed by the merchant.

How, you ask? In the form of interchange fees—also known as “swipe fees” by politicians per a 2010 bill passed by congress to regulate such fees. And though merchants pay them, they ultimately pass them on to you in the form of higher prices.

  • Swipe fees, also known as interchange fees, are what merchants are charged each time a customer uses a debit or credit card.
  • Fees average around 2% for in-person swipes or chip use, while online rates can be up to 2.5%.

The Journey of the Swipe

You go to the store you pull out your credit or debit card and swipe it or put the chip in the machine—at that time the merchant is charged an interchange or swipe fee. The average fee for transactions in which a physical card is used is 1.95% to 2.0% for Visa, MasterCard, and Discover cards.

For transactions that don’t involve a physical card, such as online purchases, the rates rise to between about 2.3% to 2.5%. Rates for American Express are not publicly stated but are generally thought to be higher.

This fee may seem a little high, but the banks and payment processing companies, such as Visa and MasterCard, argue that when you swipe or chip your card, the merchant is paid right away, but it will most likely be a minimum of 30 days—and possibly longer—before the credit card companies receive your payment. You may argue that the interest you incur as a result of holding a balance pays for that expense. However, according to the companies, interest alone doesn’t cover the costs.

Swipe Fee Statistics

Merchants paid Visa and MasterCard $84.2 billion in credit and debit swipe fees in 2020. Add in American Express, Discover, and others, and the annual total jumped to $110.3 billion. The weighted average processing fee for 2020 was 1.45%, down from 1.54% in 2019.

The swipe fee is supposed to cover the cost of processing the credit card payment. However, for decades, the Merchant’s Payment Coalition has put almost blind trust in its payment processors, with agreements that contained no verifiable data, allowing plenty of opportunities for merchants to get bilked.

While merchants cannot surcharge for goods or services based on payment method, they can offer cash discounts.

Debit Card Swipe Fee Laws

It was U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who offered an amendment to the regulatory bill seeking to allow the Federal Reserve to set interchange rate fees while letting merchants set a minimum amount that a consumer must spend in order to use a card. It passed in May 2010. Finally, retailers could offer customers discounts if they paid by cash or other methods that don’t come with swipe fees. At the time, Durbin said, “By requiring debit card fees to be reasonable...small businesses and their customers will be able to keep more of their own money.”

However, banks were concerned that the cap on swipe fees proposed by the Federal Reserve was only 12 cents. In late June 2011, after heavy lobbying by special interest groups representing the big banks, the maximum swipe fee was raised to 21 cents, plus 0.05% of the transaction value.

$110.3B

Processing fees paid by merchants in 2020 goods and services paid via card.

The Effects

Merchants argued that the 21-cent cap on debit card swipe fees would do little to help their bottom line while ensuring that consumers wouldn’t see any price relief. Tellingly, a U.S. Government Accountability Office study found that when Australia lowered its credit card fees in 2003, it had no noticeable effect on the price of goods and services.

What has happened in the ensuing years is that merchants are paying less than they once were, but card companies now charge the maximum swipe fee on even the smallest transactions. Therefore, merchants that process those smaller transactions have seen costs go up.

Durbin is also considering legislation that would create similar swipe fee limits for credit cards that the Durbin Amendment put on debit cards.

Article Sources

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  1. Congressional Research Service. "Regulation of Debit Interchange Fees," Page 1.

  2. CardFellow. "Average Credit Card Processing Fees."

  3. Nilson Report. "Merchant Processing Fees in the United States—2020."

  4. CardFellow. "Credit card processing companies are popping up left and right offering “cash discount” programs to eliminate your credit card processing fees. Are they legal and are they permitted in merchant agreements?"

  5. 111th Congress, 1st Session. "H.R.4173 - Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act Section 1075."

  6. Dick Durbin United States Senator for Illinois. "Durbin Statement On His Debit Card Swipe Fee Amendment."

  7. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Federal Reserve Issues a Final Rule Establishing Standards for Debit Card Interchange Fees and Prohibiting Network Exclusivity Arrangements and Routing Restrictions."

  8. Government Accountability Office. "Credit Cards: Rising Interchange Fees Have Increased Costs for Merchants, but Options for Reducing Fees Pose Challenges," Pages 43 and 45.

  9. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. "Durbin Highlights His Efforts To Bring Fairness, Transparency, And Competition To Credit & Debit Card Swipe Fees."