Primary Account Number (PAN): What It Is, How It Works on Cards

What Is a Primary Account Number?

The term primary account number refers to a 14-, 15-, 16-, or even up to 19-digit number generated as a unique identifier designated for a primary account. Primary account numbers are also called payment card numbers as they are found on payment cards like credit and debit cards. This account number is either embossed or laser-printed and is found on the front of the card.

Primary account numbers are either embossed or laser-printed and can be found on the front of a card.

Understanding Primary Account Numbers

Primary account numbers are unique identifiers for different payment cards like credit and debit cards, providing information about the cardholder such as the name, balance, credit limit. PANs may also be used to identify other types of cards that store value such as a gift or prepaid card.

Because they may be the only number associated with a particular account—as in the case of a credit card—primary account numbers are also called account numbers. In other cases, they may not identify the exact account information about the associated account. For instance, a debit card number does not reflect or identify the account numbers of any linked checking, savings, or other accounts.

The primary account number is typically generated when an account is opened. Therefore, it is usually the first account in a series that may be opened by a customer at a financial institution. The primary account number is also usually the number identified with a tradeline on an individual’s credit report. PANs are able to support account record keeping and resolution if issues should arise with the account.

Key Takeaways

  • A primary account number is a 14, 15, or 16 digit number generated as a unique identifier for a primary account.
  • Primary account numbers are issued to payment cards such as credit and debit cards as well as other cards that store value like a gift card.
  • Although they may be used as an identifier, PANs don't always provide exact account information as is the case with debit cards.
  • PANs can be used to support account record keeping and resolution.

Special Considerations

The very first digit of a primary account number is called the major industry identifier, which identifies the type of credit card by issuing company

  • American Express cards start with a 3
  • Visa cards start with a 4
  • MasterCard cards start with a 5
  • Discover cards start with a 6
  • Certain airline credit cards start with a 1 or 2
  • Petroleum company cards start with a 7
  • Certain telecommunications and health care cards start with an 8

The first six digits identify the credit card network associated with the card, such as 601100 for Discover cards. The last digit is called the checksum number which helps prevent criminals from creating fraudulent credit card numbers. The numbers in between the first six digits and the last digit uniquely identify the customer’s account.

Primary Account Number Security

Credit card companies such as Visa ask merchants to take precautions to protect customers’ primary account numbers. One such guideline is called PAN truncation. Visa says merchants are not required to store full account numbers. Doing so presents a security risk if there is a data breach. In the United States, a federal law called the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA) prohibits merchants from printing more than the last 5 digits of a cardholder’s account number on a receipt. Merchants are also prohibited from printing the card’s expiration date.

Primary Account Numbers vs. Secondary Account Numbers

Financial institutions and lenders may issue debit and credit cards may to a secondary user authorized by the primary account holder. If an account has a secondary account holder, cards may both use the primary account number. Some institutions, though, have a card-issuing policy that allows the secondary user to have a secondary account number.

Business credit card accounts operate a little differently. The primary account number for corporate credit cards doesn't appear on any employee’s credit card. In this case, the credit card company issues each employee a card with separate, secondary account numbers. This makes it easier for companies to identify and track charges based on each employee's card usage.

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