What Is A Virtual Credit Card and How Does It Work?
As convenient digital amenities like food delivery services and Amazon Prime increase in popularity, many of us are spending more money online than we do in physical stores.
Online servicing is generally seen as a good thing – it makes our lives easier and even helps with tracking spending – but there are some obvious drawbacks.
Many people no longer bat an eyelid over entering their personal details online at the drop of a hat, even if they’re buying from a little-known e-commerce store that may not be trustworthy.
Thankfully, the need to protect consumers against fraud is recognized. Many banks and third parties are launching diverse solutions to tackle the issue, and one of the most prominent is the virtual credit card.
Yet even though virtual credit cards have been around for quite some time, few people know they exist and even less take advantage of the benefits they bring.
In This Article:
What Is a Virtual Credit Card?
A virtual credit card provides a more secure way of paying online by reducing the amount of sensitive information merchants can access when a payment is made.
Essentially, instead of having a complete card, a virtual credit card consists of the number alone, which helps to tackle fraud.
Traditionally, virtual credit cards have only been available in digital form, but some organizations now offer physical versions too.
This may sound counterintuitive, but the physical cards still only contain a number and work for one transaction alone.
How Does a Virtual Credit Card Work?
A virtual credit card helps to reduce fraud because of the way it shares your card data. As mentioned, the card only contains a number – that means no security code and no expiration date – and the number changes each time.
For security, most standard physical debit or credit cards now contain an EMV chip, which creates a unique transaction code for each purchase. The chip was implemented to make it harder to capture sensitive information.
Virtual credit cards work very similarly as they also create a token with each purchase, but they have the added feature of only containing dynamic information.
This not only makes it more difficult for hackers or fraudsters to get hold of your data in the first, but it also prevents them from being able to do anything with the information they find.
Typically, finding out the expiration date, security code, and card number of somebody means you can use their details for online transactions, which makes online shopping a risky business.
Even if the merchant themselves doesn’t take their data, they could get hacked by a third party. Using a virtual credit card means the number found will be meaningless.
Many virtual credit cards also come with extra features. Most companies offer a spending cap, which restricts the maximum total value of any transaction and therefore limits the damage of potential fraud. Other common features are a ‘valid through’ date to stop the card from being used after a certain point, and also the option to automate bill payments.
Most of the time, virtual credit cards are linked to regular credit cards or bank accounts, so transactions will appear on your normal statement. This also means any benefits of your standard card, like cash back or rewards, should still work when you use your virtual cards.
Refunds work the same as usual for the same reason – the money should be returned straight to your regular card in theory, although the process can be more complicated.
How To Get a Virtual Credit Card
There are two main ways to obtain a virtual credit card: through a bank, you’re already a customer at or through a third-party provider. The best options for both these categories are listed in the next section.
If you’re already a customer at a bank that happens to offer virtual credit cards, the process is straightforward since you already have an account with them. Most banks won’t make you fill out a lengthy application, wait a long time, or even undergo a credit check – you’ll just have to register for the service online and go through some security checks.
On the other hand, if you need to use a third-party provider, the process is slightly more complicated. You’ll need to sign up for the service and connect a source of funding, like a bank account or debit card. However, the application process is still relatively quick and easy.
Which Banks Offer Virtual Credit Cards?
It’s certainly in the interests of banks to offer virtual credit cards – they lose huge sums of money on security and refunding customers who were victims of fraud.
Unfortunately, virtual credit cards haven’t proven to be particularly popular amongst consumers, and a few of the major providers no longer exist: Bank of America’s ShopSafe and PayPal’s Virtual Debit Card are two prominent examples.
This means it’s unlikely your bank will offer a virtual credit card service, and you’re likely to need to opt for a third party instead. However, it’s always worth checking.
Capital One: ENO
Available to customers of Capital One personal cards, Eno is a virtual assistant installed as a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.
When you’re ready to buy something, just click on the browser extension button, and a pop-up window will emerge showing your virtual account number. Once you’ve signed in, Eno creates a onetime number to pay with, and the rest of your payment information will be filled in automatically.
The transaction is funded with your personal Capital One credit card, so charges will show on your statement as if you paid with your standard credit card. Because of the link, you’ll earn the same benefits and rewards you’re eligible to receive on your normal credit card.
One useful feature is that you can set quick ‘nicknames’ for each token you generate – this makes it easier to know which token you used for which transaction and track your spending better. It’s especially useful when you need refunds.
There’s great customer service too. You can text ‘Eno’ 24/7 to check account details, pay bills, track purchases, and more.
However, you can’t set a spending limit – the limit applied on your usual Capital One account will automatically apply.
Customers of certain Citi cards are entitled to use Virtual Account Numbers when shopping online.
Despite the slightly different name, this effectively works the same as a virtual credit card: you can generate a random card number when shopping online. All you need to do is enroll yourself and use their website to generate virtual card numbers.
If you’re eligible, you need to enroll on the website, and you’ll be able to start taking advantage of the service. Check whether your card is eligible on the Citi website. It’s available both through a web-based tool and a downloadable program.
There are a few useful features. You can put a dollar limit and expiration date on each transaction, as well as view and check balances of individual virtual account numbers.
However, bear in mind that you won’t be able to use a Citibank virtual credit card for subscriptions.
Third Party That Offers Virtual Credit Cards
As the name suggests, Privacy focuses on confidentiality and security features. It can be used as a smart virtual card, browser extension, or mobile app.
It’s also completely free, including no fees or charges for using your card, although while you’re on the free version, you can only create up to 12 cards per month.
But you’ll have access to all the main features, including the ability to set spending limits, create single-use cards, use the browser extension, and access data through an API. Privacy makes most of their money through charging merchants that process the payment, making the service free to the user. They also have paid versions.
The premium version gives access to more features, most importantly the chance to create up to 36 cards per month. That’s more than one a day, so if you’re going over, you might want to check your spending habits. You’ll also get 1% cash back on purchases, priority support, and the option to hide transaction info from merchants, all for $10 per month.
There’s also a ‘Teams’ version, which is designed for businesses rather than individuals. This version allows you to create up to 60 cards per month, as well as receive dedicated account management and transaction limits. Privacy promises more features to come, including multi-user support and exportation of accounts from services like Quickbooks and Xero.
Instead of making subscriptions more difficult, Privacy makes this unique feature an advantage. Having a different security code for each transaction makes it easier to cancel your subscription service – all it takes is one click.
Virtual Credit Card For Businesses
When it comes to the corporate world, there’s even more need for a game-changer like virtual credit cards.
Many employees don’t even have a company credit card and end up using a personal card instead – or, if they do use a company card, risk for fraud is higher.
Card details may be shared openly within a team, and unauthorized spending can happen. Virtual credit cards for businesses solve this problem.
American Express vPayment
The American Express vPayment service is exclusively for corporate cards in the USA. As well as assigning a single-use account number to each transaction, the use of vPayment increases productivity and makes it easier to manage employees.
It’s easy to control transactions by setting a maximum payment amount and date range each time. Whoever is managing the payments will enter the expense details, and when the payment takes place, the details are compared to the pre-authorized details. As long as they match, the payment will be processed.
vPayment also doubles as a place you can manage expenses, accounting, and financial systems. This way of handling payments means that each transaction can be tracked more easily and automatically, thus reducing the manual work that may be needed. Any discrepancies can be spotted straight away, which increases efficiency.
Spendesk is a Europe-based payment solution for businesses and offers virtual credit cards, but it has plans to expand to the US soon. Employees request authorization to make a payment through the Spendesk platform, and when the request is approved, they can access the token needed to process the transaction.
As well as the typical virtual cards, onetime physical cards can be issued to make in-store purchases possible too – useful for every day costs like business dinners or errands. These cards have pre-set budgets, but they can be raised, reduced, or blocked altogether.
Because all card numbers are issued for one purchase only, it’s impossible for employees to share details, one of the main culprits for frauds. In addition, all data is encrypted with bank-level security, and the highest standards for fraud protection are upheld.
Spendesk offers a receipt management system that automatically syncs the details from each payment to make tracking costs and spending more manageable. This information is then taken straight into a bookkeeping system that calculates VAT and categorizes the payments.
You can also easily manage your corporate subscriptions with Spendesk – you can view all subscriptions in one place, delete old employees from plans, and pause or delete them at any point.
Pros and Cons of Virtual Credit Cards
Still undecided over whether a virtual credit card is a right move for you? Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages.
- Extra Security: It goes without saying that the major advantage of virtual credit cards is the extra security. Using one is the closest you can get to guaranteeing your safety in the case of a data breach, and a small price to pay for your peace of mind while shopping.
- Extra Perks: Extra perks are the other features most virtual credit cards have. When each payment gets made with a separate card number, it’s much easier to stay in control of your finances. Tracking which past payments are which is simpler and subscriptions can be canceled at the click of a button without having to navigate your way through customer services.
- Subscriptions Harder To Manage: Subscriptions may be easier to cancel, but they’re harder to manage overall. Because subscriptions are supposed to be paid regularly, it causes complexity for a card that doesn’t keep the same details. Some cards have a ‘recurring use’ option that lets you keep using one token until a certain date, while others are ‘single-use’ and not suitable for subscriptions.
- Refunds Can Cause Problems: Some stores let you buy online but make you return them in store – this return process usually involves inserting your card into a machine. However, thankfully, many stores now let you return items by sending them in the mail. If not, you may have to accept a gift card instead of cash.
Alternatives To Virtual Credit Cards
If you like the idea of a virtual credit card in principle but feel it’s too much of an inconvenience, there are still some steps you can take to keep your data protected.
Using a VPN adds an extra level of protection against hackers to protect your personal details, a must-have for online shopping
There are also services that let you make purchases without entering your card details once you’ve signed up – Visa Checkout, Masterpass, and Amex Express.
There are also a few options that are similar to virtual credit cards but slightly more user-friendly.
Not to be confused with Apple Pay, the Apple Card is a new product with a focus on security and data protection.
In an effort to protect the identities of users, the Apple Card doesn’t have an expiration date, CVV security code, or signature at all. Instead, a unique device number is stored on the iPhone – each transaction requires this number and a onetime security code generated by Touch or Face ID. There’s also the option to generate a new credit card number for a one-off transaction.
You can choose whether you use the Apple Card through Apple Pay or with a physical titanium card, but either way, the payment process goes through the security protocol.
There are also some other perks, like sign-up bonuses and cashback offers, as well as the user-friendliness customers expect from Apple. Apple Card and all its features can be accessed straight from the iPhone’s Wallet app.
Bank of America Digital Wallets
Bank of America previously had a virtual credit card, known as Shopsafe, but they’ve since retired this card and decided to focus on the BOA digital wallets instead.
Like Apple Card, the digital wallet lives on your phone inside the Digital Wallet app – just add your Bank of America card. There’s no physical version – the only way to pay is by presenting your phone the same way you do with Google Pay or Apple Pay.
However, it’s more secure than other payment apps because your real card number isn’t stored on your device or shared with the merchants you buy from.
You can also add a Bank of America debit card to your digital wallet and use it to withdraw money from a Bank of America ATM with the contactless feature.
Which is the best virtual credit card?
If you’re already a customer at a bank that offers virtual credit cards, a natural choice is to opt for that bank. If not, choose a third-party provider instead. Your ultimate choice will come down to how important certain features are, like the ability to authorize subscription payments or set your own expiration date.
Does Chase offer virtual credit cards?
J.P. Morgan Chase offers a single-use account, which effectively works in the same way as a virtual credit card. However, the account is only available for businesses.
A different account number is generated for each transaction. When a purchase is made, the number is emailed to a supplier, a supplier submits the transaction, and when the transaction is processed, the organization receives the information.
You can also establish a specific amount, merchant category code group, and expiration date for the cards, as well as defining specific parameters for payments or suppliers and creating ad hoc payments.
Are virtual credit cards like payment apps?
When people hear ‘virtual payment,’ they often think of payment apps like Google Pay and Apple Pay rather than the virtual credit cards discussed in this article. However, there are some key differences. Firstly, payment apps are mostly designed to be used in physical locations rather than online.
Similarly to the chip in physical credit cards, payment apps generate a onetime token to aid security. However, these apps still store your card details, so they’re not quite as secure as virtual credit cards.
Yet these apps may be the future of secure payments as token technology progresses, so it’s worth watching how they develop and integrate with other technology, like Apple Card with Apple Pay.
Is A Virtual Credit Card For You?
Virtual credit cards might not be a particularly popular or well-known way to pay, but they should be a welcome addition to the ‘wallet’ of anyone who cares about the safety of their money and their personal details.
Yes, it might be slightly inconvenient to generate new payment details and enter them each time instead of taking advantage of your browser’s ‘autofill’ feature – but that’s a small price to pay when it comes to your most sensitive data. When it’s free and easy to start protecting yourself, why would you run the risk of fraud?