Embossed Card Definition, How It Works, History

What Is an Embossed Card?

An embossed card is an electronic payment card with imprinted or stamped payment card details that can be felt above the card’s surface for taking a physical impression. Embossed details on credit cards and debit cards typically include the cardholder’s name and the card number.

How Embossed Cards Work

As noted above, embossed cards come with stamped details that identify both the account and the cardholder. This information is raised—like braille—and is shiny so it can be easily seen. It includes the card number, cardholder's name, and expiry date. Embossed cards are generally credit and debit cards. There are some forms of nonpayment cards that may also be embossed such as building access/entry cards and laundry machine cards.

Card providers began issuing embossed cards before electronic banking became the norm. Processing them requires more work and takes much longer than electronic processing. In fact, merchants are required to enter the card information and other details manually either online or by phone.

Transactions using embossed cards are processed in the same way as a payment processed with a point-of-sale (POS) terminal. The merchant's acquiring bank serves as the main facilitator on the transaction. They contact the processing network who then contacts the issuing bank. The issuing bank confirms the charge, sending authorization back to the acquiring bank through the processor. The merchant bank then settles the transaction and processes the deposit of funds in the merchant’s account.

Key Takeaways

  • An embossed card is an electronic payment card with imprinted or stamped payment details that can be felt above the card’s surface.
  • Embossed details include the card number, cardholder's name, and expiry date.
  • Merchant banks took impressions of embossed cards to process transactions before electronic banking.

Special Considerations

Since the vast majority of transactions are now processed electronically, it's generally no longer necessary to have embossed details on a payment card. For instance, in 2008, Visa announced it was giving financial institutions a choice of whether to issue embossed cards or use laser-printed cards to their clients. MasterCard also provides an unembossed card for its clients as well. Doing so saves card companies both time and money. This is especially useful given the fact that payment cards today have chip functionality, making payment and processing almost instantaneous.

Visa and MasterCard provide embossed and nonembossed card options for financial institutions to provide to their clients.

Even with the choice, unembossed cards haven't taken off. In fact, many financial institutions still provide embossed cards and manual processing services to merchants. This type of payment processing requires considerably more time for the merchant. It also has a much higher risk.

History of Embossed Cards

Embossed card styles evolved from a historic functionality that required a physical impression of card details to be made for transactions. Embossed card processing was heavily utilized when electronic payment cards were first introduced. The use of physical impressions for payment card transactions faded as newer technology developed which provided for faster and more efficient processing.

Some merchants may still have equipment that allows them to make carbon impressions. These impressions may be made through the use of what is known as a knuckle-buster or zip-zap device which creates a carbon copy of the embossed information. Merchants may use embossed card devices when electronic terminals are down or when a card is damaged. In special circumstances, these devices are used when taking a noncash payment. Merchants can also write down essential information for card processing.