It's a question that everyone has when they look for their first credit card. Do you opt for MasterCard or Visa, American Express or Discover?

There are many different types of credit cards, each with its own list of pros and cons. You can get cashback credit cards, travel credit cards, premium credit cards, student credit cards and business credit cards, and that’s only just scraping the surface. There are also many different issuers of these cards.

But as far as credit card networks go there are only four major networks here in the United States and it’s those four that we will be focusing on in this guide.

Credit Card Issuers vs Networks

Firstly, it’s important to differentiate between a credit card issuer, such as Capital One or Chase Bank, and a credit card network, such as MasterCard. The network is basically the provider, while the issuer is the backer. This won’t mean much to the average customer, but in terms of how the cards operate it means:

  • Fees: The network is the one that sets the fees you pay when you use the card, but the issuer are the ones who set over-limit fees, interest rates and foreign transaction fees.
  • Rewards: All of these are handled by the issuer.
  • Chargebacks: If you want to make a chargeback you contact your bank, but your bank will then send a request to the issuer.

The issuer generally assumes more of the responsibilities and sets most of the terms. They are the ones who will decide if your application is accepted or denied; they set the terms; they provide the customer support; and they are the ones you make your payments to.

There are exceptions to some of the rules mentioned above in the case of some Discover and Amex cards, because these networks are also the issuers in some circumstances. Visa and MasterCard, however, only act as networks and do not issue cards directly.

Visa and MasterCard

These two networks are the biggest in the world in terms of reach and total customer base. They both issue debit cards, credit cards and prepaid cards and in terms of security, accessibility and fees, there aren’t that many differences. However, there are a few ways in which they differ and depending on how you spend your money, where you spend it and on what you spend it on, these may be significant:

  • MasterCard claims to be available in 210 countries, which seems to be more than Visa. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that accepts MasterCard but not Visa unless you are a traveller who likes to go off the beaten path.
  • They both have four different tiers, each with their own benefits.
  • Some big retailers and banks have exclusivity deals and many of these seem to prefer Visa.

Discover vs American Express

Both of these networks also act as issuers, both of them have rewards cards (from the American Express Platinum Card to the Discover It, both of which we have covered extensively on this site) and they are both accepted at many locations.

However, Discover has the edge in terms of accessibility. The Nilson Report found that American Express was accepted in 6.9 million locations in the United States while Discover was accepted n 9.3 million, just two hundred thousands short of Visa and MasterCard.

American Express also charges higher fees, which is the reason it is not accepted in many places. Stores just don’t want to pay those extra percentage points, and when you consider that those extra amounts can add up to tens of thousands a month for major retailers, you begin to understand why.

American Express seem to have better rewards and there are more cards to choose from. Their cards also tend to score very highly and we have ranked them at the top of many of our credit card top-lists. Based on this alone, American Express has the edge over all networks. but when you factor in the additional fees and the availability (or lack therefore) we’re inclined to say that Discover has the edge for domestic use.

American Express vs MasterCard vs Visa vs Discover

That brings us back to the original question, if you have a choice between all of these major networks, which would should you choose?

Well, it isn’t that simple. There is no “better” network just as there is no “better” provider. It all comes down to your preferences, to how you spend your money and to what you spend your money on.

If, for instance, you travel a lot then you may be better off with America Express, as they have some of the best travel rewards cards out there. In fact, they have some of the best rewards cards period. If you are a student or you’re looking for an unsecured credit card, then you may find that Visa or MasterCard is the better option as they are both accessible, they can both be used in a variety of places and they both have great options in these niches.

If you use your card in a lot of different places all over the world and you rely on it for daily purchases then you might be at a disadvantage if you use a Discover, because it’s not as widely used as other cards are. As discussed already, Discover is accepted in more places that American Express in the US and it’s not too far off Visa and MasterCard, but it’s a different story abroad.

If you travel to Europe and you have a Visa or a MasterCard, you should not encounter any issues. But, many places in Europe will not accept American Express, and you will have to look long and hard to find anywhere that accepts Discover.

So, don’t jump into this decision. Take your time, weigh-up the pros and the cons. Of course, if you spend big and have great credit, there is no reason why you can’t get a card from each of these networks, but if you’re on this site because you have or have had issues with debt, like so many of our readers, we wouldn’t recommend it.

As discussed in our guide to What Affects Your Credit Score, it pays to have many different types of credit and if all you have is multiple credit cards it will work against you.