A virtual credit card is a service that allows online shoppers to mask their credit card’s sensitive information by using a uniquely generated card number, expiration date and security code as a proxy. Virtual credit cards are not an alternative to a traditional credit card account. Rather, they are connected to a traditional account as a free add-on for improved security. You can create as many virtual card numbers as you want, without affecting your credit score or account standing
Virtual credit cards decrease the likelihood of credit card fraud because the virtual card information isn’t as useful to a fraudster if stolen. Depending on your credit card issuer, you’ll be given either a separate virtual card number for each merchant or virtual card numbers that work for all merchants. If it’s the latter, you can request a new number whenever you want. That makes it more difficult to hack your account. The information you enter is only good for a limited time and doesn’t show up anywhere permanent.
While virtual cards make it safer to shop online, having one does not make you immune to all fraud. So it’s still a good idea to monitor your credit card transactions and credit reports for signs of suspicious activity.
Finally, it’s important to note that all major credit cards give customers a $0 fraud liability guarantee (meaning you’re not responsible for unauthorized transactions). So you don’t need a virtual credit card to avoid losing money. That’s good, too, because virtual credit cards are really only used for online purchases, and some over-the-phone purchases. They can’t be used in person, as there’s nothing to scan.
Still, having your financial information stolen is very stressful, so having a virtual credit card can provide another layer of protection.
Popular Virtual Credit Card Options
- Capital One’s ENO – available to all Capital One cardholders.
- Citibank’s virtual credit card – available to all Citibank cardholders.
- Masterpass by Mastercard – available to all Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover, and Diner’s Club cardholders (credit, debit, and prepaid cards).
- American Express Checkout – available to all Amex cardholders.
- Chase Pay – available to all Chase cardholders.
- Wells Fargo Wallet – available to all Wells Fargo cardholders.
- Visa Checkout – available to all Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover cardholders (credit and debit cards, plus Visa prepaid cards).
- Final – owned by Goldman Sachs and not currently accepting new applicants.
- EntroPay – Not currently accepting new applicants.
The banks currently offering virtual cards provide them as a free benefit. You won’t have to pay any additional fees.
Credit card issuers like Capital One and Citibank generate completely new virtual card numbers for you every time you request one. Other issuers like American Express and Chase provide separate numbers for each merchant. Those numbers will stay the same over time but are still different from your actual credit card information.
How to Get a Virtual Credit Card
- Get a credit card. Considering virtual credit card numbers are attached to existing credit card accounts, having a credit card is a prerequisite. Most major credit card issuers and card networks have them, including American Express, Mastercard and Visa. Discover used to have a virtual card number perk, but discontinued it in favor of $0 fraud liability and their “Freeze It” security feature.
- Log into your online credit card account and go to your account settings. For issuers like Capital One and Citibank, there will be a “Virtual Card Numbers” option for you to select. For other issuers, search for “virtual credit card” and the specific benefit for your issuer should pop up.
- Download the virtual card issuer’s app to access the card number, if need be. Some issuers, like Chase, will have a virtual card app totally separate from their online banking app (i.e. the Chase Pay app is for virtual card numbers). Other issuers will let you access the virtual card number through their existing banking app or their website.
- Accept the 16-digit virtual credit card number that’s generated for you. For issuers like American Express, you’ll get separate numbers for different merchants. For issuers like Capital One and Citibank, you’ll get a new number every time you request one, even if it’s for the same merchant.
- Choose how long you want the number to be valid. You can have it expire after the first use, or hold onto it for several months and use it for recurring expenses. For issuers that have separate numbers for different merchants, the expiration date may be chosen for you since it’ll only be used with that merchant.
- Get the expiration date and security code generated to go with the virtual card number. Then you can use the virtual card information the same way you’d use your physical credit card info when making purchases online.
The process of getting a virtual credit card may differ slightly depending on the issuer. Generally, though, getting a virtual credit card is pretty simple. Most major credit card issuers now have virtual credit card options that you can quickly and easily add on to your existing account.
If your bank doesn’t offer virtual credit cards, there are other providers that could work with your existing account. Visa Checkout and Masterpass, for example, give all Mastercard, Visa, Discover, Diner’s Club, and American Express cardholders access to virtual card numbers, regardless of their card’s issuer.
Virtual Credit Cards vs Payment Apps
The main difference between virtual credit cards and payment apps (like Apple Pay and Google Pay) is that payment apps are still mostly used for brick-and-mortar purchases, while virtual credit cards are largely for online use. However, as more online stores have started letting you link your payment apps and use them at checkout, that difference is becoming less relevant.
Another difference is that virtual credit cards provide unique card numbers to mask your real account information, while payment apps complete transactions with a single-use verification token. That may sound confusing, but essentially it’s a way of keeping the information hidden while still allowing the transaction to go through. Regardless of the differences, both virtual credit cards and payment apps keep your information secure so it can’t be stolen and used by someone else.
Who Should Get a Virtual Credit Card?
A virtual credit card is valuable to anyone who shops online. Since virtual cards are only available with your existing credit card, there’s no application process or credit check you’ll have to go through. You can get as many virtual card numbers as you want, and they’re all stored for you so you don’t have to memorize the numbers. In some cases, you’ll also get to decide how long the virtual credit card number is valid for. If you don’t get to decide, the expiration date will be generated for you.
There’s really no downside to having a virtual card, but there’s infinite upside in protecting yourself against a future credit card hack. Even with $0 fraud liability for credit cards, the peace of mind that comes with virtual credit cards is worth it.