American Express is often better than Visa and Mastercard for use in the U.S. by people with good or excellent credit who pay their bill in full monthly and redeem rewards for domestic travel or cash, depending on the Amex. But Visa and Mastercard are better than American Express when it comes to card acceptance and card variety.
Credit cards on any of these card networks could deserve a spot in your wallet, though, depending on your creditworthiness and spending habits. As three of the four largest credit card networks in the United States, Visa, Mastercard and American Express are really quite similar.
One big difference, however, is that Amex is both a card issuer and a network, while Visa and Mastercard are strictly card networks. As a result, cardholders borrow money directly from American Express when they make purchases with an Amex-issued credit card, while people paying with Visa or Mastercard credit cards borrow money from a bank or a credit union. More than 300 different banks and credit unions issue credit cards on the Visa or Mastercard network. Cardholders also earn rewards directly from American Express, which is not the case with Visa or Mastercard.
Still, Visa and Mastercard are accepted by international merchants much more often than American Express. Amex credit card applicants also need good credit or better for approval, whereas applicants of any credit level can find a suitable Visa or Mastercard credit card.
Visa vs. Mastercard vs. American Express
|Category ||American Express ||Visa ||Mastercard |
|Card Network? ||Yes ||Yes ||Yes |
|Card Issuer? ||Yes ||No ||No |
|U.S. Acceptance ||10.6 million locations || |
10.7 million locations
|10.7 million locations |
|International Acceptance ||160+ countries & territories ||200+ countries & territories ||210+ countries & territories |
|Credit Cards for Good/Excellent Credit? ||Yes ||Yes ||Yes |
|Credit Cards for Below-Average Credit? ||No ||Yes ||Yes |
Despite these differences, American Express, Visa, and Mastercard all offer similar basic benefits, like $0 fraud liability and emergency card replacement. More advanced perks are often available, too, but those usually depend on the network tier of your credit card rather than the network itself. Visa and Mastercard both have three levels of credit card benefits, while Amex doesn’t officially have tiers but generally offers better benefits for cards with higher annual fees.
American Express can be better than Visa and Mastercard for cardholders who spend heavily, have good credit or better, plan to pay their monthly bills in full, and are able to justify paying any annual fees by earning more than enough in rewards. But an Amex probably shouldn’t be the only card in your wallet, especially if you like to travel internationally.
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