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I know that this is a question about fundamentals, but I couldn't find any explanation out there. I'm a bit lost in the world of credit cards. I got used to cards that are issued by a bank for getting the money from a cash machine. But now I see lots of companies offering "their" Visa cards.

I don't understand, however, is it really just a card to access my bank account, or is it a whole new account? And why are those companies so eager to get me to use their card? For example, Amazon gives $40 to anyone that would sign up for their Visa card. Why?

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In the United States there are 3 main types of cards.

  • ATM cards. They are used at cash machines, and are linked to your bank account. The only requirement is a bank account. There is no credit check needed.
  • Debit cards. They can be used at cash machines. These are linked to a bank account. No credit check is needed. The big difference is that they carry the logo of a credit card. They can be used at any vendor that is connected to that credit card network.
  • Credit card. They are not linked to a bank account. They can be used at a cash machine but that is considered a cash advance, and can carry fees and rates different from a credit transaction. Most of the time they are used at stores and online. The customer is billed once a month. A credit check is required.

There are organizations that push a credit card with their branding. They aren't a bank so they partner with a bank to offer the card. In the US many colleges and professional sports teams will market a credit card with the team or universities colors and logo. The bank handles the details and the team/university gets a flat fee or a portion of the fees. Many even have annual fees. They market to people who want to show their favorite team colors on their credit card, and are willing to pay extra.

Some of these branded cards do come with extra perks: Free shipping, discounts on tickets, being able to buy tickets earlier.

There are 4 other types of cards that have limited usage:

  • Gift cards: They can either be general and have a logo like a credit card. Some are rechargeable. They aren't linked to a bank account. Others can only be used at one store. You can't turn the value into cash. Some have monthly fees.
  • Local debit cards. Used on college campuses and in the nearest town. the limited usage area makes parents feel better.
  • Store credit cards. Can only be used at that store. A third party bank handles the details. They are generally used to tap into store rewards, or to lock in loyalty.
  • Payroll cards. Used by some companies to pay employees. Some do it only for those without bank accounts. Other for all employees. They can be a pain for some employees to use.

What makes it confusing is that large business can actually turn a portion of the corporation into a bank. Walmart has been doing this, and so have casinos.

  • "large business can actually turn a portion of the corporation into a bank" I think this is the key. It means that the cards you say are "not linked to a bank account" really are, it's just a different account potentially at an institution you have no other business with (and might never interact with directly). Even credit cards are linked to a bank account of sorts, but it's a line-of-credit style of account. – a CVn Oct 4 '14 at 16:09
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    by linking to a bank account I meant a checking account. The ATM and debit card are linked directly to a checking/savings account. – mhoran_psprep Oct 4 '14 at 16:21
  • You haven't mentioned payroll cards – karancan Oct 4 '14 at 16:46
  • They are just another case of a gift card. But I will add them. – mhoran_psprep Oct 4 '14 at 17:11
  • Thanks. For me the most important part was that with credit cards, the card issuer just bills me whenever I pay for something with the card. Now it all got simpler :) – mik01aj Oct 31 '14 at 15:17
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Not necessarily. You can issue credit cards without a bank involved, although companies which do so may have additional legal complications, such as usury regulations.

As an example, AmEx is a network which also issues cards themselves. The company is not a bank; they sold their banking subsidiary in 2007.

It's also possible to get a bank-issued credit card without banking with that same company.

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