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Best Merchant Account Providers & Card Processing Companies (2022) ms payment logos

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Best Merchant Account Providers & Card Processing Companies (2022) ms payment logos

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Best Merchant Account Providers & Card Processing Companies (2022)

The payment industry can be confusing. There is limited transparency about fees, the terminology isn’t consistent and the relationship between companies is often hidden in the small print.

This is an overview of the companies involved in card processing in the UK and the specific providers that may be best for your business.

Before we start comparing payment processing companies, it is worth clarifying there are 3 elements involved in processing debit or credit card payments:

  1. A Merchant account from an acquiring bank
  2. A Payment processor
  3. A Payment gateway (online gateway on physical POS card terminal)

Most merchant service providers will offer to provide all 3 elements. A recent PSR survey indicated 84% of small and medium-sized merchants buy all the products and services they need to accept card payments from or via a single provider.

However, most of these ‘full service’ merchant services providers outsource certain elements to third parties. It is worth knowing which companies do what as it can affect the fees you pay and the service you receive. These companies are can be split into three main categories:

  1. Merchant acquirers that own and operate merchant accounts and carries out payment processing services (e.g. Worldpay).
  2. Independent Sales Organisations (ISOs) that provides payment processing services and offers merchant accounts via their partnership with a merchant acquirer (e.g. Handepay)
  3. A payment facilitators/aggregators that allows businesses to process payments without the need for a dedicated merchant account or a monthly contract (e.g. Zettle).

Which payment processor is best for your businesses? Let’s start with giving an overview of merchant acquirers, also known as merchant account providers.

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Merchant Acquirers

Whilst there are over 100 merchant card acquirers and over 50 payment facilitators providing services to UK businesses 97% of UK card transactions are processed by just 11 merchant acquirers and 3 payment facilitators.

Over 95% of UK businesses with an annual card turnover above £60,000 sign up with a merchant acquirer or merchant service provider (1 or 2 in the list above). The other 5% use a payment facilitator and these tend to be the low card turnover businesses.

Merchant acquirers provide businesses with their dedicated merchant account and maintain the necessary card scheme membership relationships with Visa, Mastercard, Amex and the other the card schemes (i.e. Diners, JCB etc).

They are suitable for micro-businesses with annual card turnover above £20,000 all the way up to large multinationals with turnover above £50 million.

Customer Sign Up / Onboarding:

Most merchant acquirers use corporate bank referrals and Independent Sales Organisations (ISOs) like Handepay, takepayments etc to attract and sign up UK SMEs (see the section below on the most popular ISOs).

Higher turnover businesses will likely have far more negotiating strength in dealing with merchant acquirers directly.

Typical Merchant Acquirer Fees

Acquirers and their ISO partners don’t publish the fees for their card-acquiring services. Their pricing structures and headline rates vary significantly which make it difficult for UK business to compare payment processors.

Transactions fees are variable and dependent on several factors (i.e. annual card revenue, average transaction value, business sector, risk of chargebacks etc). Some acquirers offer fixed transaction fees for low card turnover businesses but they are very expensive and have volume restrictions making them unfeasible for most businesses.

They do tend to publish fixed monthly fees for use of their payment gateway and card terminals. The merchant service charge (MSC), which is the total fee merchants pay to acquirers for card-acquiring services, will vary significantly and can be negotiated.

We are able to get preferential rates from merchant acquirers so please try us if you are looking to reduce your fees (we can normally offer lower fees than going direct or using an ISO).

Acquirer Pricing Options

Unless you are a large merchant you are likely to be offered transaction fees based on a standard pricing model. Businesses with very low card turnover may qualify for fixed pricing but the rates will not be competitive. We cover the components of card processing fees here.

Best Merchant Account Providers & Card Processing Companies (2022) Merchant Acquirer Pricing Options v2

The higher your annual card revenue is above £20,000 the more you will save using a dedicated merchant account provider versus a payment facilitator like Zettle, Sumup, Square, Paypal or Stripe. 

How do merchant account providers make their money?

The biggest 5 acquirers (Worldpay, Barclaycard, Lloyds Cardnet, Elavon and Global Payments) make their revenue from the following channels:

  • 62% from variable fees charged for card-acquiring services
  • 23% from fixed fees charged for value-added services such as dynamic currency conversion or helping compliance with PCI DSS are the second-largest revenue stream
  • 15% from fixed monthly fees charged for supplying card terminals and payment gateway software

1. Worldpay

Having been spun off by RBS and sold to two private equity firms in 2010, Worldpay’s latest owner is FIS which purchased it for $43 Billion in 2019. It is the largest full-stack payment processor in the UK and together with Barclaycard processes about 70-80% of card transactions by volume and 60-70% of card transactions annually.

  • Card schemes: Worldpay is an acquirer for the Mastercard, Visa, DCI, JCB,  and UPI card payment systems. It also facilitates the acceptance of American Express.
  • Card terminals: They offer card terminals via a partnership with Ingenico. The rental fees for their card machines start at £17.95 per month.
  • Payment gateways: They offer payment gateways and virtual terminal services from £19 per month via a partnership with pay360.com.
  • Fixed price options: For low card turnover businesses they have a £49.99 ‘Pay As You Go’ tariff with an 18-month minimum contract. This will only be viable for a very small number of businesses due to the limits imposed by the fair usage policy.
  • Pricing model: The vast majority of merchants will require a custom quote (we can negotiate on your behalf as often get preferential rates due to our buying power). Whilst they offer IC+ and IC++ pricing for very large businesses, most will be offered standard blended pricing.

2. Barclaycard

Along with Lloyds, Barclaycard is one of just two card acquirers that is owned by UK headquartered banks. Like its main competitors, it is a full-service payment processor and offers card-acquiring services, POS terminals, card readers, payment gateways and value-added services.
Together with Worldpay, Barclaycard provides card-acquiring services to 50-60% of UK merchants with an annual card turnover above £10 million.

Like Lloyds Cardnet, Barclays is very selective about the businesses it provides payment services for. It will want to look through your company history and assess your business model before offering any kind of contract.

  • Card schemes: They are an acquirer for Mastercard, Visa, DCI, JCB and UPI and also facilitate the acceptance of American Express.
  • Pricing model: Barclaycard merchant service charges are available on request only and determined by your business and card turnover. They offer IC++ pricing options for their largest merchants.
  • Fixed fee options: Low card turnover businesses that may be considering Square, Sumup and Zettle may want to check out their Barclaycard Anywhere card reader which they launched in 2014. This is currently £29+VAT for the device and 1.6% per transaction.
  • ISO Partnerships: takepayments, UTP

3. Elavon

Elavon, a subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp, grew its UK market share with the acquisition of Sage Pay in 2019 which was then rebranded to Opayo.

  • Card schemes: They are an acquirer for the Visa, Mastercard, DCI, JCB and UPI and also facilitate the acceptance of American Express.
  • Transaction Fees: For in-person transactions, Elavon advertise teaser rates starting at 0.99% but most businesses will not qualify for this.
  • Payment gateway fees: They offer 2 payment gateway options. Their pay as you go option has no monthly fee and transaction fees starting at 1.99% + 12p. Their other option is £25 per month with transaction fees starting at 1.5%.
  • Card Terminals: They offer a fixed price card reader for their smallest merchants (£29 device cost and 1.75% transaction fees) and Tetra and Poynt card terminals ranging from £15 – £33 per month with variable transaction fees. Their talech EPOS system starts at £79.99 per month.
  • ISO Partnerships: RMS

4. Global Payments

Global Payments owe most of its UK customers to HSBC. They jointly owned the HSBC Merchant Services JV until 2009 when HBSC sold their last stake in it to Global Payments Inc for $308 million. They retain close ties and Global Payments remains HSBC’s payment processing partner.

Its attempted $70 billion merger with FIS collapsed at the eleventh hour in December 2020.

5. Lloyds Bank Cardnet

Lloyds Bank Cardnet comes with the usual issues associated with a UK merchant account provided by a high-street bank: a lengthy application process, long-term contracts and high termination fees.

6. First Data / Fiserv

In another mega deal of 2019, First Data was acquired by Fiserv in an all-stock deal with an equity value of $22 billion. They attract a lot of their UK customers indirectly through their ISO partnership with Paymentsense and directly via their Clover brand.

7. Ayden

Adyen is continuing to grow its market share in the UK amongst higher turnover multinational businesses. It is a payment gateway, acquirer, and processor for online and brick-and-mortar businesses. It requires only one system and one contract for multinational businesses to accept over 200 payment methods in over 150 countries.

Other major acquirers in the UK include Adyen, AIB Merchant Services, Chase Paymentech, EVO Payments, First Data and Stripe.

Independent Sales Organisations (ISOs) / Merchant Service Providers 

The merchant service providers below are also known as ISOs (Independent Sales Organisations).

They offer a package of goods and services that together enable a merchant to accept card payments but essentially perform an outsourced sales function for merchant acquirers. 

There are over 60 ISO’s in the UK and despite their name, they are not that independent due to their ties with merchant acquirers. 

There are often compelling commercial incentives for ISOs to use just one acquirer to provide merchant accounts and card acquiring services. This means they won’t look around for those offering the most competitive rates for your specific business (like we do).

In the past, acquiring banks were happy to sign up businesses with low to medium levels of card turnover but many have chosen to outsource the marketing and onboarding of new SMEs to ISOs and pay them a commission.

ISOs now account for over 50% of all new customer acquisitions for card acquirers.

Many merchant acquirers would rather have their corporate sales team focus on attracting and developing relationships with larger businesses which make up the majority of transactions (businesses with an annual card turnover above £10m account for over 80% of the volume and value of transactions even though they only make up 0.3% of all businesses).

Target Market of ISOs

Small and medium-sized merchants. Over 90% of businesses that ISOs onboard for card acquirers have an annual card turnover of less than £380,000. As the turnover of a business increases above this level, the more likely businesses are to go to acquirers directly.

Chart: Annual card turnover of merchants referred by ISOs to four of the five largest acquirers

Annual Turnover of SMEs referred by ISOs
Source: PSR analysis of data provided by four acquirers (2018 Data)

ISO Sales & Onboarding

Many utilise large field sales teams (often self-employed and paid on commission) and telesales agents that cold call businesses. They also invest heavily in online advertising and pay commissions for online referrals (e.g. from lead generation sites).

How do ISOs make their money?

Most ISOs make the majority of their revenue (typically around 60%) from the commission paid by acquirers in exchange for onboarding customers to their card acquiring services. This commission is normally paid monthly and calculated as a percentage of card turnover.

The rest of their money comes from POS hardware rental (either supplied directly or via a 3rd party supplier which pay commissions), monthly gateway fees or other value-added services.

Should you use an ISO or go directly to a merchant acquirer?

Most SMEs with an annual card turnover under £500,000 will receive better quotes from an ISO than going directly to their merchant acquirer. The volume of business ISOs place with merchant acquirers means they will be offered better rates than a single business applying directly to a merchant acquirer.

However, we believe the best option would be to use us as we can normally get even lower from the same merchant acquirer. We also get preferential rates due to the volume of business we place but can undercut ISOs rates as we don’t have the same margin requirements.

1. Paymentsense

Paymentsense an ISO of Fiserv / First Date Europe LTD and has continued to grow its market share over the last few years. They have a large (and some would say persistent) sales team who are given a certain about of flexibility to buy businesses out of their existing contracts.

The firm’s online reputation is mixed employees are open about how bad some customers are treated on employment boards. It’s generally praised for its locked-in rate guarantee but there continue to be complaints about lengthy contracts.

2. Takepayments

Takepayments is an ISO of Barclaycard. They offer a 12-month contract and no fees if you decide to leave once your contract is up.

There are cases of expensive cancellations and contract problems reported but not in the same volume most ISOs tend to be surrounded by. Meanwhile, its biggest problem appears to be a somewhat unresponsive and underwhelming customer support system when things go wrong.

3. Handepay

Handepay used Evo Payments International for card acquiring services. It positions itself as an ISO that cuts out the complication and “unnecessary” fees that typically come with payment processing.

It promises no setup fee, no authorisation fees and no minimum monthly service charge. Their online reputation is pretty good with contract renewals & cancellations one of the largest sources of complaints.

4. RMS (Retail Merchant Services)

They have recently been bought by Saltpay having previously partnered with Elavon. They use Ingenico or Verifone card machines and are currently offering terminals with no monthly fees.

Its reputation is relatively poor with mainly complaining and high fees or hidden charges. Hopefully, their new owner can solve some of their issues which seem to have contributed to several loss-making years.

5. UTP (Universal Transaction Processing)

Formed in 2013, UTP Merchant Services Ltd uses Barclaycard as its acquiring partner. Its rates are not the most competitive and unfortunately, they have had quite a few unhappy customers venting their frustration online.

6. Card Cutters

Card Cutters is another ISO of Evo Payments. They specialise in card payments for smaller businesses and have received better feedback than most of their competitors since they were established in 2009.

They offer the typical products and services aimed at small to medium businesses, including card machine rental and online payment solutions.

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Payment Facilitators (PayFacs): Best For Start-Ups & Nano Businesses

Jump to: Most Popular Payment Facilitators

Payment facilitators offer new businesses a quick and hassle-free way to start taking card payments quickly. They act as intermediaries between acquirers and merchants as there is no direct contractual relationship between the merchant and the acquirer.

They are most suited to businesses new to card payments or those businesses with an annual card turnover up to around £20,000 – £30,000. They provide aggregated merchant accounts with no minimum contract duration. As no dedicated merchant account is required then approval is much faster and relatively hassle-free.

Chart: Shares of supply of small and medium-sized merchants selling only or mainly face to face in 2019

Payfacs vs Acquirers
PSR analysis of data provided by acquirers and payment facilitators in April 2019. Active merchants only. Graph shows shares of supply of merchants that accept only or mainly (that is, more than 70%) face to face transactions.

Payment facilitators are used by about 80% of merchants with annual card turnover under £15,000 but less than 5% of merchants with annual turnover above £60,000.  The CMA in its investigation of the PayPal/iZettle merger indicated that merchant acquirers were better value for micro businesses and small businesses.

Many businesses start with payment facilitators and then switch to using one of the card acquiring companies above.

Payfacs
Source: Stripe

Payment Facilitator Customer Sign Up:

Businesses sign up via their websites and can get approved without lengthy due diligence or in-depth underwriting process.

Most Popular Payment Facilitators

Zettle (now owned by Paypal), Square and Sumup are by far the most popular payment facilitators for in-person transactions. Their main business comes from small businesses using their pay as you go card readers.

Paypal and Stripe are the most popular payment facilitators for startups and small businesses looking to take online payments.

Typical Payment Facilitator Transaction Fees

They all publish their transaction fees on their websites which are around the 1.6% – 1.75% level for card present transactions and 1.9% to 2.5% for card not present (CNP_ transactions (non-European cards will typically incur higher fees).

  In-Person with Card Reader Online (UK card) Online (EEA Card)
Sumup 1.69% 2.5%
Payment links
N/A
Zettle 1.75% 2.5%
Payment links
N/A
Square 1.75% 1.9% 1.9%
Paypal N/A 1.2% + 30p 2.49 + 30p
Stripe N/A 1.4% + 20p 2.5% + 20p

Zettle

After Paypal purchased iZettle (as it was called then) for $2.2 billion in 2018 and stopped promoting its own Paypal Here reader, Zettle has stepped up its fierce competition with Square and Sumup.

Their device is nearly always promoted with a discount as they wrestle for market share in the lucrative small business sector where high fixed transaction costs pull in some extremely healthy profit margins.

Sumup

SumUp, which uses First Data as its acquirer, is holding its own in the card reader wars with its Air and 3G card readers.

As with the other Payment facilitators above they remain focused on businesses with relatively low card volume who want simple pricing and no contractual tie-ins. They also offer online payment and pay by link options.

Square

Square, which uses First Data as its acquirer, allows businesses to accept a range of cards and digital wallets including Visa, V Pay, Mastercard, Maestro, American Express, Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.

Its minimal card reader is a common sight amongst cafes, hairdressers, mobile food vans and a plethora of other small businesses across the UK. It’s retail and hospitality POS system is also taking market share from more established EPOS providers.

Paypal

The Paypal brand name is synonymous with online payment processing, they are often the first port of call for new businesses looking to take online payments. They are the largest payment processor software provider with a global market share of 47.1% and over 472,000 companies using them at the time of writing.

In general, Paypal can be summed up as easy to set up but with expensive transaction fees. Their current Paypal fee structure is:

  • Standard payment from a user without a PayPal account – 1.2% + 30p
  • Additional fee if payment made from the EEA – 1.29%
  • Additional fee if payment made in other markets  – 1.99%
  • QR Code Transactions – 1.5% if over £10 and 2% if under £10
  • All other commercial transactions – 2.5%

Stripe

Founded in 2011, Stripe has now raised over $3.7 billion of external investments and grown its global userbase to over 170,000. They offer a custom API service for larger businesses that want control over their payment gateway but smaller businesses are most likely best off using standard integrated service.

Their current fees for integrated payment is:

  • Standard payment from a user without a Stripe account:1.4% + 20p
  • Additional fee if payment made from the EEA:1.1%
  • Additional fee if payment made in other markets: 2.9% + 20p

Specialist High-Risk Merchant Accounts Providers

There are several reasons you might be classed as a high-risk merchant:

  • Your products/services are associated with high volumes of chargebacks.
  • Your industry is associated with reputational risk – eg: adult products, weapons.
  • Your business has a poor credit history.

If deemed a high-risk merchant you may find it harder to get approved by some of the more popular merchant service providers and may need a high-risk merchant account provider like InstabillVerotel (adult specialist), CutPay or ccNetPay.

However, do not discount the larger merchant account providers as they do look at businesses in other payment processors regard as too high-risk (e.g. we have placed some high-risk businesses with Worldpay at competitive rates).

Other Companies Supporting Payment Processing

Gateway Providers

Payment gateways providers specialise in providing payment gateways software for processing online payments. They typically have referral arrangements in place with acquirers.

Some acquirers have their own high quality payment gateways (i.e. Ayden) whilst others will use a third party (i.e. Worldpay using Pay360) or use white label payment gateway solutions from a company like Cardstream.

Independent Software Vendors (ISVs)

ISVs specialise in offering software (and in some cases, complementary hardware) that helps merchants run their businesses and often have referral arrangements in place with acquirers, ISOs and payment facilitators. Examples include Magento and Shopify for Ecommerce and EposNow for POS systems.

Third-Party POS Terminal Providers

Most merchant service companies rely on third-party terminal providers and don’t manufacture them in house. Examples include IngenicoPAX and Verifone.

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