This question right here and the plethora of comments in it reminded me of something that I've found annoying for a long, long time. Seems that depending on where you come from the terms "credit card" and "debit card" can mean many wildly different things. They certainly differ a lot between US and EU, and it seems that even who has issued them might be a factor. I've also seen names like "charge card" on this site, which I suspect is something even different.

So - is there a comprehensive list (or perhaps someone willing to attempt one in this thread) with all the different meanings (and implications) of these terms, depending on location, issuer, moon phase, etc?

To clarify: The basic idea of "credit cards let you borrow money; debit cards only let you spend what you put on them" is pretty simple and clear. But in different places in the world there are a lot of more subtle differences.

For example, what I already learned from the few answers that have been posted here, in the US you cannot access your credit card account directly. You can see balance, you can pay it off, but you cannot treat it like another bank account. I've also read between the lines that credit cards might be issued not only by banks but other businesses too.

This contrasts with my experience here in the EU, where I haven't heard of a card that hasn't been issued by a bank; and it's the bank account that has the credit feature, not the card. I can treat the credit card account just like a regular account, I can keep extra money there, send and receive money via internet banking, etc.

And I'm sure there are other differences as well. That's what I'm after - a list of regional (or otherwise) differences in the details of how the cards work and how they can be used.

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    Vix: Can you give any pointers / links that illustrate your belief that credit-cards (CCs) can be "just like a regular account"? I'm from the UK and I'm not recognising your description of CCs (either from the question or your comments to answers). I can use a CC at online shops; through online banking I can view CC statements and pay-down a CC. I'm not aware of being able to send money from a CC through online banking (although to be honest, I've never really looked). However, the account behind it is certainly not just like a regular bank account.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 16:27
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    I'd be interested to know what EU country you are talking about, because I concur with @TripeHound that it certainly isn't the way you describe in the UK. Credit cards cannot be operated like bank accounts, and there are plenty of "non-bank" providers. Indeed on the latter point I can be certain that you are wrong: American Express for example operates in just about every EU country.
    – JBentley
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 1:40
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    I almost wonder if you've made a mistake, and that what you think is a credit card is actually a bank account with a debit card and overdraft facility. The fact that you seem to think that "debit cards only let you spend what you put on them" (which is wrong) supports this theory.
    – JBentley
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 1:44
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    @JBentley - Is there a way to check what kind of a card it is? Here's an anonymized picture of them. One clearly says "debit", the other - "credit".
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 11:08
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    @Vilx- wrote "even going into debt on the CC account" That's the point of the credit card. Generally, any and all use of a credit card puts you in debt on the credit card account. You basically just said "My credit card lets me use it like a credit card."
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 20:21

9 Answers 9


EU and more specifically Germany:

(Colloquial) terminology is roughly: the card automatically issued by your bank is the "bank card", and cards issued by e.g. Visa, Mastercard, Diners, American Express are "credit card" (I'd almost say that credit card [EN-US] vs. DE Kreditkarte is a false friend).

  • the debit cards automatically issued with a [checking] bank account are often co-branded with a domestic debit payment system (Germany: girocard aka EC-card) and an international debit card system such as V-Pay (VISA) or Maestro (Mastercard).
    At least in German, they are colloquially referred to by bank card rather than debit card, and are thought of as something quite separate form a credit card (even if they have Visa V-Pay or Mastercard Maestro debit card branding).

    • At the POS, the merchand can choose which mode is preferred, and that will usually be the domestic system since from what I've heard transaction fees are typically domestic system < international debit system < credit card.

    If the bank (checking) account has an Überziehungskredit (overdraft credit line; having such a credit line is pretty much standard here - in fact, a customer may have to actively request it being set to 0 if they don't want it), then also the bank card can withdraw more than the actual account balance (up to that overdraft limit possibly even a bit further "geduldete Überziehung" [tolerated overdraft]).
    I think the overdraft interest may have the role here of credit card interest in the US, though credit card (in the US sense of the word) credit has even higher interest.

  • What is referred to as Kreditkarte (credit card) over here comprises what is referred to as credit card in the US, but you'll also find Visa/Mastercard Debit cards among the choice of Kreditkarten a bank offers.

    The latter are sometimes called "Kreditkarte auf Guthabenbasis" ("credit card based on positive balance") or Debit-Kreditkarte or "prepaid Kreditkarte" or "aufladbare Kreditkarte" (chargeable, same term as for batteries)

  • Even among the proper credit cards (I use as definition: a card with credit line, a card that is of type "credit" according to IIN/BIN, see below), there's a wide range of settings possible behind the scenes (i.e. not visible for POS, just between card holder and their bank/issuer). I think the one I have serves well in showing possible differences:

    • Similar to what Vilx- says, my credit card account behaves quite like another bank account (or subaccount): I can push money there, and pull money from there - though in my case only to and from the main checking account (but similar behaviour I have e.g. with the account at a broker's where allowing money to leave only to my pre-specified account is a safety feature). I even get interest for a positive balance on the credit card account (nowadays it's of course in good approximation 0).
    • The credit card account also has some credit.
    • At a POS, the available credit that shows up if there's a positive balance on the credit card account is balance + credit limit, so in that respect the card behaves similarly to a debit card, and even more similar to the bank card.
    • like described for a charge card in @RonJohn's answer for the US, if the balance runs into the negative, it is paid fully at the next billing date (once per month). This happens automatically by withdrawing from the connected checking account.
    • The difference to the bank card is slight: if I buy with the bank card, I immediately see the money withdrawn from the checking account. If I buy with the credit card, I (almost) immediately see the money withdrawn from the credit card subaccount. Though if that runs into the negative, I won't pay interest until the next due date whereas checking account overdraft (e.g. via bank card payment) immediately costs interest.

    This particular behaviour of course depends on the actual contract you have with your bank. There are also credit cards that internally work more closely to what the inner workings of a credit card are in the US.

I don't have numbers, but I'd suspect that credit cards in the US sense are rare here compared to debit/charge contracts. As a slight indicator, comparison web pages put warnings to offers that have only automated minimum payments as opposed to automatically withdrawing the full amount due.

Update: Visa says charge cards are the most common form of credit cards in Germany. (They literally write "credit card" here - whereas they say debit card aka bank card and "prepaid cards are payment cards that ...") This (German) newspaper article from 2014 says: 105 mio. bank (debit) cards plus 28 mio. Kreditkarten, of which 24 mio. are charge cards. So on average 1 "proper" credit card per ≈ 20 inhabitants vs. 1.3 bank cards per inhabitant.

The retailer can know what type of a card they have in front of them, as that is encoded in the card number (IIN/BIN = 1st 6 digits AFAIK). There are data bases (e.g. here or here) that list what the BIN means, including card type.
I do think though, that our bank cards have a totally separate numbering system - at least I didn't find information how/where to find the BIN in that type of card number (and putting the first 6 digits into one of the BIN checkers above yields balderdash or "invalid number")

Is suspect an additional difference may be in the size of credit card credit. From what I read for Germany, 2 month's net wages (≈ 1 - 1.5 month's gross wage) is a typical limit. (And web pages remind people to make sure the credit limit on their credit card is raised to at least 1000 - 2000 € if traveling abroad). I think the combination of charge card with the possibility to push money to the card in order to temporarily raise the available limit means that the proper limit can be comparably low. In contrast I gather that in the US, credit card limits are typically far larger - but I may be wrong (on both the German and the US numbers).

Incidentally, the same 2 month's net wages is said as a rule of thumb for the checking account overdraft limit (or reserve line of credit, see @MSalters' comment).

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    In the EU, do Mastercard and Visa directly issue cards, or do they come from second parties? In the USA, American Express issues their own cards, but as far as I can tell both Visa and Mastercard operate exclusively through second parties such as banks and major financial houses. Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 16:33
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    @GalacticCowboy: Both of them say "we don't issue cards ourselves, please talk to a bank" (Visa in addition says, or to Ikea). Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 16:41
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    Regarding your last paragraph: If you have a German Girocard you can find the co-branded international debit system number on the magnetic stripe track 2 (while the information for the German girocard system is on track 3). This number can then be entered into one of the BIN data bases (it's a normal Mastercard / Visa debit card number). I am not aware of any way to figure it out without a magnetic card reader though (you can not infer it from the girocard / account number as far as I know).
    – Hans
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 16:49
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    @cbeleites: Yeah, I also have this "card number". I think this is just used for some bank-internal processes. I don't recall seeing it anywhere on the mag stripe, so it's not really needed for processing anyway.
    – Hans
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 17:41
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    @TannerSwett: As I understand it, in many EU countries checking accounts have or can have the equivalent of what the US calls a reserve line of credit. You don't get hit by overdraft fees if you're overdrawn, but still above the reserve line. You'd still pay interest on any credit actively used, but the unused reserve would cost at worst a small annual fee. My bank would charge 12.9% APR for it, assuming I repay it within a month. In effect this is a pretty cheap payday loan.
    – MSalters
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:20

This is accurate for the USA.


A charge card is a type of electronic payment card that charges no interest but requires the user to pay his/her balance in full upon receipt of the statement, usually on a monthly basis. Charge cards are offered by a limited number of issuers.


A credit card allows you to borrow money from a bank to make purchases, whether you’re buying a burger or a round-trip ticket to France. As long as you pay back the money you borrow within the “grace period” of 25-30 days, you don’t have to pay extra. If you don’t pay it back in that time period, you’ll have to pay interest — a percentage of the money you owe the bank — on top of what you borrowed.

Credit cards are a form of revolving credit (which according to Google is "credit that is automatically renewed as debts are paid off").

Credit card accounts are not tied to deposit accounts at the same bank. (I didn't mention this originally, because the concept is completely foreign in the US.) One exception is the the notion of the Secured credit card. In that case, you make a deposit into a savings account, and the bank pays itself from that account only if you default on the credit card account. Secured cards are the purview of (typically young) people with little credit history, and people with established but bad credit history.

Originally, American Express only issued charge cards, but now they also issue credit cards.

Debit cards are linked directly to a bank account. When you pay for something, the money comes directly out of your (usually) checking account. If you try to buy something worth more than your bank balance, the bank has the choice of either #1 declining it, or #2 accepting it, and charging you a (quite steep) non-sufficient funds fee.

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    @Vilx- credit cards are backed by loans in the US. Loans aren't meant to carry a positive deposit balance, so the concept of "depositing" money into a loan (i.e. via direct deposit of your salary) doesn't really make sense. Debit cards are backed by a deposit account (usually a checking account, sometimes a savings account) so you can deposit money into the account behind a debit card. I'm in the middle of typing an answer that addresses your first comment.
    – dwizum
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:48
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    @Vilx- "in the USA you cannot use the same account for your credit card and, say, salary deposits." In the USA, that is an invalid question, because credit cards are not tied to bank accounts.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:48
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    See, it's all these little details that I want to understand, because most of the time that's where the real issues are. The general idea of credit/debit cards is indeed simple, but the variations in implementations are so wildly varying that it often becomes difficult to even talk about these things with people from another country.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:52
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    @Vilx- dogs are alive, spinach is alive. Why can't I put my spinach on a leash and take it for a walk? Because, while dogs and spinach are both alive, they are fundamentally different creatures. Ditto credit cards and deposit accounts.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 14:12
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    Like, I can go to my internet bank and there's an account, number and all, for my credit card. I can pay my electricity bill by sending money over from that account, without involving the card at all. To be clear, many banks that issue credit cards in the US allow all of those same functions. In fact, I paid my electric bill from my credit card via the issuer's internet banking website a few hours ago. The only difference is that the credit card account is strictly a loan and it's not normal to be able to carry a positive balance on it.
    – dwizum
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 16:51

Other answers cover the differences between the types of card (debit vs credit vs charge). However, there's another layer of important differences - the card processing network and the processing method used for a specific transaction. In some cases, this can cause card types to behave differently on a transaction by transaction basis.

When you swipe a card, the merchant uses their own bank to collect money for your transaction. Their bank talks to a card processing network (Visa, Mastercard, etc) in order to submit the transaction to your bank, i.e. the bank that issued the card.

Most card networks handle many different types of cards. For instance, VISA handles debit cards, gift cards, and credit cards. Further, over time, the features of those cards have evolved and changed over time, and different issuing banks may issue different card products that have different features (as an example, in the past, data about the card was encoded on mag stripes, whereas now, cards generally also have a chip on them). Even within the context of a single card, a merchant may be able to submit the transaction different ways:

  • via reading the magstripe,
  • reading the chip,
  • manually typing the card number into a console,
  • using a stored token from a prior transaction,
  • reading a contactless chip in the card,
  • communicating with a payment app on a cellphone or smart watch which has been linked to the card.

Further, some networks allow a transaction against a debit card to be submitted via their debit card channel, or via their credit card channel.

Most of this is invisible to consumers because it happens automatically, but some merchants essentially put the consumer in direct control. For instance, in many grocery stores, the clerk checking you out will ring up your items, and there will be a POS console in the checkout line facing the customer. The customer will swipe or insert their card and actually carry out the transaction - the store clerk never actually sees or touches your card. Often, this arrangement puts the choice of transaction style in the consumer's hands - you can choose to swipe the magstripe or read the chip. If the network your card is on allows transactions on your card type to be submitted via different channels, you will sometimes be presented with that choice (for instance, you may be prompted to choose to submit the transaction as a debit or credit transaction, although the choices presented on the console rarely actually spell that out - instead they often say something cryptic like "US MASTERCARD" for submitting a credit transaction).

Ultimately, the end result is still the same from a consumer's perspective - the transaction hits your account and the merchant is paid. However, there are a few differences from the bank and merchants' perspectives:

  • different transaction types will incur different interchange fees. A merchant may receive slightly less money for a "card not present" debit card transaction versus a chip-read credit transaction.
  • different types will result in different responsibilities from a fraud perspective. If the transaction is submitted in a way that's considered more secure, the banks assume a larger portion of the risk, versus the merchant. This is often an incentive for merchants to prefer more secure transaction types.
  • different types will result in different timings for the money actually leaving your account. Many banks run credit card transactions in real-time but batch debit card transactions.

I'm adding an edit to address additional points you made in your edit to the question:

For example, what I already learned from the few answers that have been posted here, in the US you cannot access your credit card account directly. You can see balance, you can pay it off, but you cannot treat it like another bank account.

In the US, cards of any type are essentially just instruments for accessing an account. Typically, card types and account types are strictly linked: a debit card can only be linked to a deposit account, and a credit card can only be linked to a credit card loan account. There are other subtle variations on this theme though - for instance, some institutions will issue a special kind of credit card linked to a line of credit instead of a traditional credit card loan. And even more confusingly, there are cases where other mechanisms traditionally linked only to deposit accounts can be linked to loans (for instance, a bank may allow checks to be written against a home equity line of credit).

It's also important to point out that cards (of any time) are not inherently linked 1 to 1 to accounts. In other words, if you have a deposit (checking) account, you can have no debit card at all. Or one debit card. Or 4 debit cards, with different card numbers and different people's names on them. The same holds true with credit cards - one person who opens a credit card can add other users to their loan, and have the bank issue each of them their own card. All the cards are tied to the same credit card loan, and transactions on all of them end up impacting that single loan.

I've also read between the lines that credit cards might be issued not only by banks but other businesses too.

It's common for various merchants to issue cards with their own branding (i.e. the retailer Target has their own credit card). Sometimes, these cards are "private" in the sense that they can only be used at that merchant. But other times, the branded card can be used anywhere (for instance, Amazon issues cards that can be used anywhere, but earn extra rewards if used to buy things from Amazon). Confusingly, these cards can be implemented in many different ways:

  • sometimes these cards are actually operated by the merchant directly. No bank or network is involved.
  • sometimes the cards are co-branded with a network, and use that network to submit transactions (i.e. Amazon's VISA card product).
  • sometimes the cards are operated by a third party bank, even though it's the merchant who "issues" the cards to consumers (for instance, the hardware store Lowes has a private account that's operated by a third party bank).

I can treat the credit card account just like a regular account, I can keep extra money there, send and receive money via internet banking, etc.

It's important to clarify that, largely speaking, this is mostly true in the US as well. For instance, if you get a credit card from Bank of America (or just about any other bank), you can use their internet banking tools to manage the account. This can mean doing things like paying your credit card bill, or sometimes even things like using your credit card to submit payments or "transfer" money (essentially taking a cash advance from the card) to other accounts. In fact, if you use one bank for your credit card and your deposit accounts (say, a checking account into which you have your paycheck direct deposited) you can typically log in to one internet banking console and manage your various accounts from one place, even though they are technically separate accounts. So, in practice, you do usually have access to the account, it's just treated separately from your other accounts.

The one clear differentiating factor is that the loan behind a credit card is a distinct and separate account from your deposit accounts or other loans. This is important due to the way the US banking system manages reserves and other operational and financial concerns. Banks in the US are required to keep a certain amount of cash on hand, based on the types and balances of accounts they operate. This cash on hand generally falls into two categories:

  • Reserves to protect against losses from loans. If a consumer defaults on a loan, the bank needs to have cash to offset that loss. Banks are required to reserve against these losses to make sure they can continue operation when they have losses.
  • Reserves to protect against withdrawals from deposit accounts. Banks need to keep cash on hand so they can give it to consumers who withdraw it from deposit accounts, in order to stay liquid if or when consumers want to use their money.

These two types of reserves are calculated and managed very differently. Because of this dual approach to reserves, banks need to have a strict separation between account types. If a bank were to offer a single product that let consumers use an account in either state at will (either as a loan, if they charge a lot of credit transactions, or as a deposit account if they put a lot of money into the account such that it has a positive balance), that account type would be impossible to reserve for, in our current model.

So, banks maintain strict separation between account types. Actions that are normally associated with a deposit account (depositing a check, direct deposit of your salary, etc) aren't allowed on loan accounts, and carrying a positive balance on a credit card isn't typical. Also, actions that are typical on a credit card (running a "negative" balance) aren't allowed on deposit accounts, and banks take measures to prevent them (charging overdraft fees, blocking transactions, etc.).

  • In Euorpe, or at least in Poland, it is common for banks to offer a "debit limit" - esentially a
    – jaskij
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 21:37
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    Now I understand. It always confused me when I heard that you should call your bank to resolve credit card problems, when they were never issued by "my" bank. It's just whatever bank the issuing company happens to use to run their branded cards, I had no choice in the matter (although I see that my bank does issue credit cards as well).
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 13:39
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    Nice one, especially that last point about reserve accounting in the US! That explains SO MUCH! Also, I was under the impression that the credit card networks are just... sort of intermediaries. It's the banks that actually have the accounts with the money and that give out the loans and what not. However if each bank handled their own cards, then each merchant would have to have separate integrations with each bank's systems in order to accept their cards. So the credit card networks (Visa, MasterCard, Amex, etc) were created to simplify this. [contd.]
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:40
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    Now you only need to integrate with a network and you can process all the cards from all the banks that are a part of it. And there are other intermediaries too which have integrations with all the major networks, so the merchants actually ever only need to deal with one intermediary, who deals with all the networks, who deal with all the banks. The networks still force some rules though. For example, I know that they strictly forbid merchants to use different prices for card transactions vs other methods (say, cash). So merchants cannot put a "card fee" to their customers who pay with cards.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:43
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    @Vilx- And even that isn't universally true - in Michigan and possibly other US states, it's legal for filling stations to charge more for gasoline purchased by card than the same fuel purchased by cash. Before you ask, I have no idea how or why this particular exception happened, but it did.
    – Steve V.
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 0:40

I can see why it is confusing, but part of it is that you do not have your facts correct.

A credit card is a loan

With a credit card, you have a whole special revolving credit account. When you make charges, it adds to the loan amount that you owe. It's an account where the balance is usually zero or negative.

And monthly, you "pay off the loan" in part or in full, by making a money transfer from one of your deposit accounts, to the credit card account.

It is not connected with any deposit account (checking or savings account) where you normally store money; although affiliation with a bank where you have deposit accounts can help you qualify for their credit card. The criteria for qualifying for a credit card is fairly high, as the bank is trusting you with their money.

A debit card let you instantly withdraw from your deposit account

You can only have a debit card if have a deposit account of some kind (checking, savings, etc). The qualifications for this are lower than for a credit card; and you generally qualify unless you have a history of abuse of deposit accounts.

The debit card lets you instantly withdraw money and give it to the merchant. It's that simple.

However, debit cards had a problem

As of the 1980s, credit card processing was a trust system, done offline on paper or in "nightly batches" electronically, and the bank system absorbed the risk of fraud. Merchants had to phone their acquirer (bank's) service center to get large-value charges approved. Obviously, this evolved; later you touch-toned in the card number, later the swipe machine would use a phone dialer and modem to get the charge approved (except for small ones), and later the Internet would replace the dialer. But the "batch/offline" processing infrastructure has never gone away -- that's how you can pay for a dining-car meal inside a tunnel. This system entails more risk; someone could use a canceled card for small transactions that aren't "phoned home". That risk was divided between banks and merchants (generally banks underwrote the risk using the merchant fees as forced "insurance").

The debit card was built much more mindful of the idea of being "always and only online". This was a mandate in the US, but it varied by country. Again, the risk was folded into the merchant fees. In the US they kept these fees quite low, but, online was mandatory. (ATM/Debit terminals were heavily marketed to merchants who had never before taken credit cards because they disliked the 2-4% merchant fees). Early on, that became a huge impediment to adoption, as only large corporations like BP gas or McDonalds would put in the IT infrastructure (they already had it for business reasons). But for small businesses like Joe's Chinese Takeaway, it was not practicable even into the 00's.

As a result, at least in the United States, many business would not accept debit cards, but would accept credit cards.

But this evolved into "debit" payment networks such as Maestro... Being what they are, these networks were naturals to merge into the credit card clearinghouse system, as it was building out the same infastructure; hence Maestro looks a lot like Mastercard. Obviously, maintaining two systems has its disadvantages; and they are looking to factor them down to one network.

In 20/20 hindsight, the "always-on" method makes perfect sense, and the "batch" / "offline" method of credit cards seems insane. But universal constant-connection Internet is only a recent development of the last 15 years or so, and is still not true everywhere. In those cases, the credit system still supports offline, and pure Debit does not.

A debit card with Visa/Mastercard/etc.

Consumers wanted to be able to use their debit cards anywhere credit cards were accepted. So in the early 1990s banks experimented with a Mastercard-branded ATM card, which allowed charges to be processed either way -- as an ATM card, or as a credit card. If a merchant did not take ATM card, the transaction could still be processed. The bank absorbed all the risk, so it was reluctantly offered to high-credit-rating customers.

This proved to be a wild success. As the industry got experience with it, they got experience with the risks, extended the credit/debit card feature widely. Today, everyone gets it by default unless they decline it. Which a few do in the USA, because credit-mode transactions use signatures not PINs, which makes a credit-capable debit card a bomb.

Nomenclature wise (at least here in the US), a "plain" debit card was called an ATM card and a credit-mode-enabled debit card is called a debit card.

Not to be confused with prepaid cards

A prepaid card is an entirely different animal. It looks like a credit card, not a debit card, and works through the clearinghouse system like a credit card. It is not tied to your deposit account; it's a whole separate account. However it's not a loan; it doesn't go negative. You must prepay money into it before you can spend it (so in that sense it works sorta like a debit card). Prepaid cards are used for people who don't qualify for credit cards, don't have access to banking, are giving gift cards, or need to confine costs e.g. giving a subordinate a limited budget.

In summary, the debit immediately removes money from your deposit account; the money is gone. The other gives you a loan for the amount you charged, and you need to "settle up that loan" at some point in the future.

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    In many European countries, debit cards were introduced in the late 70s or early 80s. They initially used paper slips – electronic transactions and ATMs came later. There was often a domestic debit card network, so merchants could accept debit cards but not credit cards. Some countries later replaced the network with international Visa/Mastercard networks.
    – Jouni
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 9:47
  • @Jouni Thanks -- amended. Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 9:56
  • While your logic seems sensible, in Canada small places like convenience stores were and are more likely to take debit and not credit cards. Only large stores take credit cards. Many of us have "visa debit" which is a perfectly normal debit card connected to a bank account that can pretend to be a Visa card -- the transaction will go through that infrastructure -- in places like the US or online that will take Visa but not debit. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 14:49

A debit card is a card linked directly to a checking/savings account. If you use the card money is removed from the account almost instantaneously. And by instantaneously I mean from a few seconds to a few days.

A credit card is one that doesn't remove the funds immediately. Every 30/31 days they close the cycle, and you are billed for the amount you owe. These cards have a limit based on your income, and your credit history. If you can't pay the bill you will pay interest. If you don't pay at least a minimum amount you can also be hit with a penalty. Once you hit your limit you can't charge any more items until you pay down your balance. The question you linked to discusses the benefits of a credit card.

A charge card is similar to a credit card, except that you have to pay it off each month.

A gift card is a fixed amount of money on the card. When all the money is gone, you might be able to add more.

  • See my comments on RonJohn's answer.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 13:47
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    Gift cards are just a special case of debit card, where (1) the linked account is not meant to ever be used directly, (2) the card often bears a generic name instead of the actual recipient/holder's name, and (3) ATM access is usually disallowed.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 17:38
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    @BenVoigt Gift cards are generally prepaid or internal to the store. Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 4:00
  • @Acccumulation: "Debit cards" are "prepaid", it's drawing on money you have previously deposited. But to add confusion to what should be simple, there's a category of "prepaid (debit) cards" designed for people whose financial history makes actual banks unwilling to do business with them.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 0:17

This is my experience as a consumer in France.

In France, cards are usually issued by your bank and tied to a specific bank account, and called "débit immédiat" or "débit différé".

Paying with a "débit immédiat" card will remove the amount from your bank account immediately (within seconds to a day or so). Not having the amount in your account may either lead to the purchase being refused or to your account being overdrawn (fees in that case are a whole different topic, but there is usually a permissible overdraft limit, and exceeding that limit brings higher fees, but even inside the limit you may not remain overdrawn for more than a matter of weeks before incurring more fees and significant problems, see below).

Paying with a "débit différé" card will remove the amount from your bank account the last day of the month, or the last day of the next month if the purchase is sufficiently close to the end of the current month. This is deemed useful since people are usually on monthly salaries paid slightly before the card balance is debited. For example, if the cutoff date is the 24th of the month, that gives you some six days to make sure that your expenses have not exceeded your paycheck. There may be a limit on the amount that you can rack up, in my experience usually defined by the class of card. This short-term loan does not accrue interest, though the fees for the card itself are generally significantly higher. The "débit différé" feature is often associated with higher prestige cards, with insurance, higher payment limits, etc. If you don't have enough money in your account, for example because your salary is late, your bank account gets overdrawn (unlike in some other countries where your account goes to zero and the amount remaining starts to accrue interest and/or fees).

There are also credit cards that work more like in the US, but they are much less popular and usually come with some kind of rewards program to make them interesting.

There is no concept of a credit rating that can be worked on using credit card strategies; it's very binary. If you default on loans (which includes having an overdraft for more than 60 days) you will be listed in the "FICP" files of the Banque de France (bad checks will get you in another file called "FCC"). The FICP files will be checked by any credit institution that offers you a loan; either you are there or you are not, I do not think there is any middle ground. This is known to create problems in some cases; for example restructuring your debt to lower your monthly payments to something you can better afford can be very hard if you have already started defaulting on the existing loans.

It is worth noting that France has its own payment network called "CB", and that most cards are dual use, either "CB - MasterCard" or "CB - Visa". Some banks offer only CB-MC or only CB-Visa, some banks offer both types. CB-only cards exist (or at least existed) but went from 22% of the market in 1997 to only 3% in 2009. This is totally transparent to consumers.

When you use a CB card, the CB payment terminals will not ask you if your want to use debit or credit, the payment goes through the CB network and the manner in which the debit is handled is purely on the side of the issuing bank.

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    Nice! This is different than the other answers and very useful!
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 22:51
  • I forgot to mention that there are also pre-paid cards, "cartes pré-payées". Those work as you'd expect (in other words, not unless there is enough money in the account to cover the transaction), and are in my experience given to kids by their parents. The big difference is that a pré-payée is "safe", while a débit immédiat will take the money out of your principal "checking" account, and the bank will usually be quite happy to let you overdraw your account and cash in the interest and penalties.
    – Law29
    Commented Feb 11, 2020 at 21:22

In a comment you asked about the EU specifically, and while the other answers have very good and detailed descriptions of what the different types of cards are and their inner workings, there are some small(ish) differences in how they're used and how they're viewed. So this is not a complete answer (why add to the choir) but rather some extra information.

In the US, credit cards are used very extensively. The major payment method in the US are credit cards, followed by debit cards and cash, with cheques, and new developments like apple pay trailing behind. Everything that is not a credit card or cash is considered an alternative method. In the US, you can technically live without a credit card but it will make life a lot less convenient.

Also, credit cards are used for marketing a lot, meaning that owning card A will get you a discount at company X, owning card B will you get you a discount at company Y etc. Owning multiple cards is common, and if you use your cards wisely, this will improve your credit rating.

Your credit rating is calculated from your credit use (but you can't know how, different topic) and is very important. It will determine how much credit you can have and this extends to getting mortgages, car loans and even stuff you and I might think unrelated, like renting an apartment. To improve your rating, you need to build a history with lenders, meaning that using your cards a lot but always be prompt in paying off your dues is the way to go. Not having a credit card, or not using it, will not build any history so it's a negative factor for your ability to borrow money.

Finally there is a culture surrounding credit cards in the US. Credit card companies have special cards for people with high credit rating, formerly in the form of "gold" or "platinum" cards, nowadays more likely "signature/world" or "infinite/world elite". Your credit card can signal wealth in the same way a rolex or expensive cuff link could. These cards come with a lot of extra perks (and costs) and are a thing of envy for a lot of people. On the other end of this spectrum we find the debit card which, fair or not, seems to signal "bad credit" to a lot of people. Using debit cards can also have some unforeseen consequences when you accidentally overcharge your account, hefty fines can ensue.

In the EU, credit cards are used far less then they are in the US. Also afaik (and someone will correct me if I'm wrong) they tend to have a lot less perks in way of discounts for gas and the likes. The two major payment methods are cash and debit cards.

These debit cards are not issued by card companies like credit cards usually are, but by banks and they are directly linked to your (checking) account. Life without such a card might be possible, but it will take some serious effort as this would also mean you have no bank account. I don't even know if this is even doable because I have honestly never met a EU citizen without a bank account.

You can overdraw a European debit card only to a set limit. This limit is set by your bank and there is only so much you can do to get this limit up, it depends mostly on income and possessions, or lack thereof. You can however always get them to set you limit to zero* (meaning no overdrafts) if you want to avoid paying the high interest rates on overdraft accounts. There are no extra fines when you go "in the red", however, when you reach your limit, your transactions will fail and you will not be able to withdraw cash with your card. Setting your limit to zero and never using any credit is a positive for your ability to borrow money. In the abstract, the difference seems to be that the US system judges you on the way you handle debt, whereas in the European system it's how much debt you have that is the deciding factor.

Finally, there is no culture to speak of surrounding debit cards in Europe, as they tell you nothing about the holder. Debit cards have no negative connotations. Everyone has one, it's simply a given. There is however some resentment towards credit cards, of which I am not free, given the fact that, especially for small business owners, the credit card companies charge pretty large fees (in the full procents per transaction) and their terms of service deny you the freedom to pass this on to the customer. Meaning that a credit card user makes you less money than another customer would, while paying the same amount. When your margins are thin, this becomes significant. Add to this that there exist a perfectly acceptable alternative and almost every retailer (wheter they will admit it or not) will prefer you using cash or debit card over credit cards.

* Setting the overdraft limit to zero: in Germany please read the small print. Many banks have an additional "tolerance" for overdraft on which interest is even more heavy than on approved overdraft credit. It is possible to get that set to 0 as well but there may be some discussion with the bank.

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    Apple Pay does not supplant a credit or debit card, it's an alternative to reading the card identification off the magnetic stripe (just like the EMV chip is an alternative to reading the magnetic stripe), and then the merchant uses the credit card network to perform the transaction in exactly the normal way.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 18:58
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    Also, the naming of "special cards" has undergone some inflation -- gold cards are (with the exception of AmEx) now the bottom of the barrel and platinum cards haven't been "special" for a couple decades. Today the widely-available special tiers are "signature"/"world" and "infinite"/"world elite" (often with "reserve" thrown into the product name although it isn't actually a credit card designation). And then there are the invitation-only cards.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 19:06
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    Although the "bank cards" (debit) are issued automatically, apparently you can have a bank account but not have a card issued. I take that from a recent letter I got about one account that I use exclusively for online transactions where the bank said as I haven't used the card so-and-so long, they won't issue a new one once the current one expires. Commented Feb 5, 2020 at 20:49
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    @cbeleitessupportsMonica I've updated my answer (with small print of course)
    – Douwe
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 9:29
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    I have honestly never met a EU citizen without a bank account, I have, when I rented a cottage in rural Spain, the landlord handled entirely in cash. I suspect this varies a lot between different EU countries.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 10:21

In the United States, there are separate laws regulating credit cards versus debit cards, the Fair Credit Billing Act and the Electronic Funds Transfer Act.

While a specific business can implement a policy that often is kinder as a commercial practice (e.g. $0 liability for either, especially for high net worth customers), under the law the cardholder's liability for a fraud against them is capped at $50 for credit and $500 for debit.

As discussed elsewhere on money.se


There are three main types of cards in the US: credit, debit, and prepaid. There are also charge cards, but they are rare nowadays. There are also ATM cards, but those have largely merged with debit cards.

A credit card accesses a line of credit. The issuing bank pays the merchant, and then the amount of the purchase is money you owe the issuing bank.

A debit card accesses a bank account, usually a checking account. There are various laws that treat cards differently based on the type, for instance the Durbin Amendment places restrictions on debit card interchange that don't apply to credit cards.

A prepaid also accesses a bank account, but generally there is little to no way to access the account other than through the card. One description is "a prepaid account is a checking account without the checking". With cards being more secure than checks, and Know Your Customer laws not being as stringent for prepaid versus debit cards, sometimes someone who isn't able to get a checking account will be able to get a prepaid card (although often with extra fees). Prepaid cards are also often used for payments. For instance, in California, Unemployment Insurance payments are issued on a prepaid card, and many companies provide a prepaid card option rather than paychecks. One major player in the prepaid space is ADP.

Gift cards can be handled as prepaid cards, but if the card is for a specific merchant, then there's no real need for a network (although a merchant might decide to use the existing networks rather than set their own system up). So, for instance, a Visa gift card is definitely a prepaid card, and the punchcard that I bought prepaying several dance lessons is just a piece of cardboard. A Starbucks gift card, on the other hand, I don't know.

Charge cards are like credit cards, except that you're supposed to pay the balance at the end of the month.

I've also read between the lines that credit cards might be issued not only by banks but other businesses too.

The industry is moving towards the more inclusive term "financial institution". Credit cards are, as far as I know, almost all issued by banks, but most institutions that have checking accounts will offer debit cards for them, so not only banks but also credit unions will have debit cards.

In industry lingo, whatever FI is handling the account and paying out money to the merchants is called the "issuer", but you may be using the word "issue" in a more general sense of who sends you the card, or whose branding is on it. Cards can have several different brandings on them: there's the network, the issuing bank, and often some other company that's involved. For instance, there are credit cards that are branded "Amazon" cards that are backed by Chase Bank and are Visa network.

and it's the bank account that has the credit feature, not the card.

A card is just a mechanism for accessing an account. It is the account, not the card per se, that has the credit feature. The term "bank account" is, at least in the US, generally understood to refer to a checking or savings account. A credit card account is an account, and it is handled by a bank, so technically it's a "bank account", but referring to it as such would be confusing.

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