The Best Merchant Account Providers For Canadian Small Businesses (& The One Company You Should Avoid At All Costs)
It’s as challenging to run a business in Canada as it is in the United States and not just because of the cold weather. Being able to accept credit and debit cards is every bit as important as it is elsewhere, but Canadian merchants suffer from a particular shortage of high-quality merchant services providers. While some reputable American providers also do business in Canada, there simply aren’t all that many home-grown providers from which to choose.
It shouldn’t be this way. Regulation of the processing industry is generally more consumer-friendly in Canada than it is in the United States. For this reason, some providers that operate in both countries offer better service to merchants north of the border. The Canadian government has promulgated a Code of Conduct for the Credit and Debit Card Industry in Canada. It establishes a set of best practices and ethical guidelines to ensure that merchants get treated fairly. While compliance with the Code isn’t mandatory, peer pressure within the industry has resulted in most Canadian providers publicly pledging to abide by it.
Another unique issue faced by Canadian merchants is that EMV-compliant terminals are not designed to be re-sold or re-programmed. We usually recommend buying your terminals outright as the best and most cost-effective way to outfit your business with processing equipment. However, the inability to resell an EMV terminal in Canada means you’ll want to look for an alternative. Many Canadian providers offer month-to-month terminal rentals, which differ from leases in that you won’t be locked into a noncancelable long-term contract, and you won’t be responsible for every single lease payment as soon as you sign up. Check out our article, Don’t Fall Into The Trap Of Leasing Credit Card Machines & Terminals: 4 Smart Alternatives For Getting Payment Processing Hardware, for more details on why leasing is never a good idea.
In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the best merchant services providers available in Canada. Because different types of businesses have different needs, we’ll cover providers that are best for low-volume businesses and those that are a better all-around choice for more-established companies. Finally, we’ll briefly cover the worst merchant services provider we’ve found operating in Canada, with an emphasis on why it’s so bad. You’ll want to know in advance what to look out for, and there are plenty of providers out there that have features you’ll want to avoid. As always, we recommend that you thoroughly research any provider you’re thinking of doing business with before you contact their sales team. Aggressively negotiate where it’s appropriate, and try to get quotes from several different providers before making a decision. Most importantly, review all contract documents thoroughly before you agree to sign up for an account.
Read more below to learn why we chose these options.
1. Best All-In-One Payments Platform: Helcim
Calgary-based Helcim (see our review) is hands down the best overall merchant account provider available in Canada today. It’s also one of the best providers in the United States. Here are some of the highlights of its services:
- Exclusive interchange-plus pricing (Helcim calls it Cost+) for all merchants
- Month-to-month billing with no early termination fees
- Minimal monthly account fees
- All-in-one Helcim Commerce payments platform
- Free Helcim Commerce Mobile app (iOS and Android) with $30 mobile card reader
Helcim offers more pricing disclosures on its website than just about any other provider in the industry, so your costs are predictable, and you won’t need to negotiate very much to secure the best possible deal for your business. It also includes some in-depth articles explaining how credit card processing works, including exposing many of the deceptive advertising tricks used by other providers.
With Helcim, fairness is the name of the game. Helcim charges affordable prices and has one of the most transparent sales policies of any processor out there, Canadian or otherwise, as we mention in our post, The 5 Best Small Business Credit Card Processing Companies. Everything is completely laid out on the table with crystal-clear fee disclosures, so you’re never again hit with a bill like a punch in the stomach. This type of fairness and transparency is what’s lacking in a lot of processors. Hopefully, the industry takes a cue from these folks.
Helcim Fast Facts
- Rates: Interchange + 0.25% + $0.08 per transaction (retail), interchange + 0.45% + $0.25 per transaction (eCommerce), volume discounts available
- Monthly Fees: $15 per month (retail), $35 per month (eCommerce)
- Supported Business Types: Retail, eCommerce, mobile, nonprofits
- Notable Features: Exclusive interchange-plus processing rates, month-to-month billing, minimal additional fees, excellent customer service
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2. Best General Payments Processor: KIS Payments
A newcomer to the Canadian payment processing scene, KIS Payments has only been around since 2017. Headquartered in Nanaimo, British Columbia, KIS Payments is a small company that’s focused on offering Canadian merchants a better deal than what they’ve had to accept from traditional processors.
Like many of our favorite providers, KIS Payments offers all merchants a month-to-month billing arrangement with no long-term contracts and no early termination fee (ETF). It also provides interchange-plus pricing exclusively — regardless of the size of your business. These features make the company an excellent choice for small businesses that have grown beyond the point where using a payment service provider (PSP) makes financial sense and need the additional security and stability of a full-service merchant account.
KIS Payments also has an excellent reputation for providing top-notch, personalized customer support and service after you’ve set up your account. They assign a dedicated account manager to each account, meaning that you’ll always be able to reach someone at the company who truly understands the needs of your business. While the company’s website currently doesn’t offer many specific pricing disclosures, it does feature numerous verifiable testimonials from businesses that are using its services.
KIS Payments Fast Facts
- Rates: Exclusive interchange-plus pricing (rates not disclosed on its website)
- Monthly Fees: Not published on its website, subject to negotiation
- Supported Business Types: Retail, eCommerce
- Notable Features: Month-to-month billing with no long-term contracts, exclusive interchange-plus pricing, dedicated account manager, good reputation for customer support
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3. Best Mobile Processor: Square
Square (see our review) is not an exclusively Canadian processor, but it serves smaller Canadian merchants quite well. Unlike a traditional merchant account provider, Square is a payment service provider (or “third-party processor”). When you sign up, you get an aggregated merchant account that is shared with other merchants using the company’s service. You won’t have a unique merchant identification number for your business, but you also won’t have any monthly fees or a long-term contract.
Square uses a fairly simple flat-rate pricing system, although the number of possible rates has grown quite a bit in recent years as it has expanded its offerings. Here’s a quick overview of the most common processing rates:
- Standard Point Of Sale & Appointments (For Individuals): 2.65% per transaction for credit cards, $0.10 for Interac Flash (debit) cards
- Square Appointments (For Teams): 2.5% + $0.10 per transaction
- Square Restaurants: 2.6% + $0.10 per transaction
- Keyed-In & Card-On-File: 3.4% + $0.15 per transaction
- Virtual Terminal: 2.65% per swiped transaction, 3.4% + $0.15 per keyed-in transaction
- eCommerce: 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction
Note that customized processing rates are available for businesses processing over $250,000 per year.
While this pricing system is very transparent and predictable, the rates are also on the high side. However, Square’s lack of account fees can save you a significant amount of money if you’re a small business. Square is most cost-effective for businesses processing $5,000 per month or less. Above that amount, you will probably save money (and enjoy a more stable, full-service merchant account) by signing up with a traditional merchant account provider. Highlights of Square’s basic service include the following:
- Free mobile app for smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android)
- No monthly account fees
- No account setup, application, or PCI compliance fees
- Month-to-month billing with no early termination fee
- Free Square Reader (magstripe only, requires headphone jack or lightning connection)
- Optional $49 Contactless + Chip Card Reader (includes EMV and NFC capability, connects via Bluetooth)
A couple of things about Square that aren’t quite so terrific are that you don’t get the same level of customer service or account stability as you would with your own merchant account. But if you have a smaller business and want to start accepting payments without a big upfront investment, Square is an excellent alternative to a traditional merchant account.
Square Fast Facts
- Rates: 3.4% + $0.15 per transaction or lower (see discussion above)
- Monthly Fees: None!
- Supported Business Types: Mobile, retail, eCommerce
- Notable Features: Affordable EMV card readers, no monthly fees, pay-as-you-go billing, predictable flat-rate pricing
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4. Best eCommerce Payment Processor: Shopify
Although Square also supports online payments, eCommerce merchants will probably prefer a solution that’s geared more toward their unique needs. Shopify (see our review) provides just about every feature you might need to run an online business, including credit card processing.
The company offers a wide range of pricing plans, ranging from $9 per month for its bare-bones Shopify Lite plan to $299 per month for the Advanced Shopify plan. In Canada, you can choose between using either a third-party payment gateway or Shopify’s own Shopify Payments feature for credit and debit card processing. With Shopify Payments, you’ll have a very basic flat-rate pricing plan. Rates start at 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for online transactions and 2.7% for in-person transactions. Discounts on these rates are available if you sign up for one of the company’s more expensive monthly plans. If you choose to use a third-party gateway, you’ll have to pay a Shopify transaction fee for each transaction in addition to whatever your gateway provider charges you. Shopify transaction fees start at 2.0% per transaction for the least-expensive monthly plans and can be as low as 0.5% per transaction for the most expensive plans.
In selecting which plan is best for your business, you’ll want to carefully evaluate the processing costs associated with each plan as well as how important the additional features are to your business. The Shopify Lite plan, for example, doesn’t include an online store or telephone customer support. You’ll be able to sell in person, via Facebook, or using “buy” buttons on existing websites, but that’s it. You’ll also have to rely on email and chat for any customer service issues that come up.
For most merchants, the Basic Shopify Plan ($29 per month) is probably the best way to start. You’ll still pay the highest processing rates (or the highest Shopify Transaction Fees), but you’ll get an online store with unlimited products, 24/7 telephone customer support, and a host of other useful features. When your business outgrows the constraints of that plan, it’s easy to upgrade to the next-highest level of service. Shopify doesn’t impose any long-term contracts or charge any early termination fees. However, you can get a pricing discount of 10% by paying for one year (or 20% for two years) in advance.
Shopify Fast Facts
- Rates: 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction (online), 2.7% per transaction (in person), volume discounts available
- Monthly Fees: $9-$299, depending on the plan selected
- Supported Business Types: eCommerce
- Notable Features: Free 14-day trial, predictable flat-rate pricing, numerous third-party integrations
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Honorable Mentions: Other Canadian Payment Processors
Larger companies looking for credit card processing services have different needs than small businesses. Sometimes, going with a large, direct processor is more cost-effective than signing up with a small provider. Large businesses aren’t as concerned about the kinds of nickel-and-dime account fees that can be a real burden on a smaller business. Instead, they’re looking for the lowest processing rates they can find. A larger business will also have far more leverage to negotiate a better deal than a small business. If you’re looking for a large processor to provide the best service and lowest costs to your large business, we recommend Chase Merchant Services (see our review) and Moneris Solutions. For small business owners, particularly eCommerce merchants, we recommend Stripe Payments and PayPal. While they aren’t homegrown companies, they come with a lot of name recognition and a reputation for quality service and fair prices.
Chase Merchant Services (Formerly Chase Paymentech)
For Canadian merchants running larger, more established businesses, Chase Merchant Services (see our review) is a surprisingly good choice for such a large company. You’ll get a far more robust line of products and services than you will with a smaller provider, plus it’s a direct processor. Chase offers competitive rates and low account fees — something we don’t often see in a large processor.
As long as you buy your own credit card terminals, Chase will offer you month-to-month billing with no early termination fee (ETF). However, if you’d like to include a “free” terminal with your account, you’ll have to accept a long-term contract that comes with an ETF. While we always recommend buying your own terminals, this is a reasonable trade-off as long as you’re comfortable committing your business to a multi-year contract.
- Interchange-plus pricing offered to most merchants
- Month-to-month contracts with no early termination fees (except in some circumstances)
- Terminals available for sale or rent — no leases
- Next-business-day funding for Chase business checking customers
- Few complaints relative to its size
- “Free” credit card terminal requires a long-term contract
- Reports of mediocre customer service
If you’re running an eCommerce business, you’ve probably already heard about Stripe Payments. This innovative, technology-focused provider is a major player in the world of online commerce, powering businesses in the US, Canada, and many other countries around the world.
But is it a good choice for your business? As is usually the case, the answer will depend on a variety of factors. While Stripe offers the kind of pay-as-you-go billing model that’s appealing to small businesses, it also requires a fair amount of in-depth technical knowledge to take full advantage of the company’s many powerful features. If you know how to code and want to customize your business website to get it just the way you want it, then Stripe can be a great choice. However, for the majority of non-coding business owners out there, it doesn’t offer any real advantage over any of the other payment service providers (PSPs) that are also available in Canada. Shopify Payments is powered by Stripe, allowing you to take advantage of many of Stripe’s powerful features without having to write the code yourself or hire a developer.
Stripe’s pricing structure is very similar to Square or PayPal, with online transactions costing a flat 2.9% + $0.30 each. There are no monthly fees for a basic account, although some additional features will require a monthly subscription fee. Like most PSPs, billing is on a month-to-month basis. There are no long-term contracts and no early termination fees to worry about.
One common complaint about Stripe over the years has been its underwhelming customer support. Like many tech-focused companies, Stripe has preferred to provide a robust online knowledgebase rather than focusing on live, in-person support. While this approach has the advantage of allowing customers to diagnose and resolve technical problems themselves, it hasn’t always been very effective. Fortunately, the company has recently responded to criticism of its customer support features by introducing true 24/7 support. You can now contact customer service representatives at any time by telephone or chat.
- An extensive feature set for running and customizing an eCommerce website
- Month-to-month billing with no long-term contracts or early termination fees
- Predictable flat-rate pricing for small businesses
- Requires programming skills to take full advantage of advanced features
- Flat-rate pricing not suitable for medium-sized or larger businesses
PayPal is, of course, a household name in both the US and Canada. Hundreds of millions of people have a PayPal account today, although you don’t need one to make a purchase from a merchant using the company as their payment processor. For merchants, PayPal offers very predictable pricing, pay-as-you-go billing, and a month-to-month account with no long-term commitment. What it doesn’t offer, however, is a true merchant account where you’ll have your own unique merchant identification number. While it’s a great choice for a small eCommerce business that’s just getting started, larger businesses processing over $10,000 per month in transactions will probably want to switch to a provider that offers a true merchant account with interchange-plus pricing.
PayPal’s pricing is generally in line with what other payment service providers charge. Online transactions cost 2.9% + $0.30 each, and virtual terminal transactions cost 3.1% + $0.30 each. Note that while the company doesn’t charge a monthly fee for a basic account, you’ll have to shell out $30 per month for its virtual terminal. With most providers offering virtual terminals for free, this won’t be an economical choice for most small business owners.
While the billing is generally pay-as-you-go, PayPal also charges the usual assortment of incidental fees that you might occasionally have to pay. These fees are all disclosed on its website, so none of them should come as a surprise.
The company provides an extensive assortment of online self-help resources with the intention of allowing you to troubleshoot any technical problems that might arise on your own. Of course, this won’t work in every situation. If you need to communicate with a live customer support representative, telephone and email options are available. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of complaints about the inconsistent quality of the company’s telephone support option.
- Pay-as-you-go billing with no long-term contracts or early termination fees
- No monthly fees (in most cases)
- Predictable flat-rate pricing
- An extensive line-up of products and features for eCommerce businesses
- Expensive virtual terminal option
- Inconsistent telephone support
- Flat-rate pricing not suitable for medium-sized or larger businesses
Toronto-based Moneris Solutions is an amalgam of the credit card processing components of the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal. It’s probably the largest credit card processor in Canada, or, at least, the largest one primarily headquartered there. Of course, being the biggest doesn’t mean being the best, and Moneris definitely has its shortcomings. However, overall, it’s a decent processor as long as you are willing to negotiate for the best terms you can get and read your contract documents thoroughly before signing up, so you won’t encounter an unpleasant surprise later.
We’d also point out that many of the most egregious complaints about the company came from its American customers. While Moneris previously used to operate on both sides of the border, its American division was sold to Vantiv in late 2016. Today, Moneris operates in Canada only, and the quality of service there is notably higher than it was in the United States.
- Interchange-plus pricing available upon request
- Full range of hardware available for rent or purchase
- Extensive online knowledgebase
- Standard three-year contract with $300 early termination fee per location
- A poor reputation for customer support
- Use of misleading sales ploys (e.g., offering $300 gift card for signing up — with tons of strings attached)
Dishonorable Mention (The Worse Canadian Merchant Account): Nuvei/Pivotal Payments
If you think you haven’t heard of Nuvei before, think again. The company was formerly known as Pivotal Payments until it re-branded itself in 2018. Nuvei/Pivotal is the largest non-bank payment processor in Canada, so while it may not be the absolute worst processor in the country, it’s the one you’re most likely to hear about or come in contact with. It also serves as a useful example of some of the shadier business practices that are common in the processing industry.
A glance at Nuvei’s new website reveals part of the problem. The very top of its home page is covered by an appeal to potential partners, i.e., third-party services providers and independent sales agents that might want to work with Nuvei. You’ll have to hunt around for information that pertains to merchants. It’s painfully evident that the company doesn’t place a high priority (if any) on serving the needs of its actual customers.
When it comes to business practices, the company’s biggest challenge is its continued reliance on independent sales agents to market its accounts. Independent agents have a terrible reputation throughout the industry for misleading and unethical sales practices. Independent sales agents receive little training and often get paid on a commission-only basis. So they are under tremendous pressure to make a sale and frequently fail to disclose important contract terms when trying to sell an account. While there certainly are some highly experienced and ethical independent agents out there, the odds that you’ll find yourself working with one are unfortunately pretty low. Your best defense is to resist the pressure to sign up before you’ve had a chance to review your contract documents thoroughly and make an informed decision.
While Nuvei is now offering month-to-month billing to some merchants, its standard contract still includes a three-year initial term, plus an automatic renewal clause that renews the contract for six-month periods thereafter. Note that the automatic renewal periods are limited to no more than six months at a time under Canadian law. Unless the company is willing to include an additional benefit (such as a free credit card terminal) with your account, insist on a contract with month-to-month billing and no early termination fee. Be sure to get it in writing, also. Do not rely on any verbal assurances your sales agent might offer!
Another major problem with Nuvei that’s also common among other providers is the use of credit card terminal leases. The company provides leased terminals through a partnership with First Data Global Leasing, one of the worst credit card terminal leasing companies in the industry. These leases are completely noncancelable, meaning you’ll pay far more than what the equipment is worth over the four-year (or more!) term of the lease. Fortunately, Nuvei now offers terminal rentals to its Canadian customers. While you’ll still have a monthly payment for your equipment, you can cancel your contract and return the equipment at any time without penalty. It’s a reasonable alternative if you’d prefer to avoid the upfront cost of buying your terminals outright.
- Interchange-plus pricing available in some circumstances
- Multi-currency and dynamic currency conversion support
- Extensive use of independent sales agents
- Failure to disclose important contract terms
- A long-term standard contract with an early termination fee
- Expensive and noncancelable credit card terminal leases
- A poor reputation for customer service
Which Canadian Credit Card Processing Company Is Right For You?
As we’ve noted above, Canadian merchants don’t have nearly as many merchant account providers to choose from as do those in the United States. Nonetheless, there are still a few excellent providers available as well as a lot of merely average ones, and even some genuinely terrible providers that you should avoid.
Small businesses that are ready to step up to a true merchant account can get the best prices through Helcim. For smaller companies that don’t need a full-service merchant account, we recommend Square as the best and most cost-effective choice. Larger enterprises might get lower processing rates from either Chase Merchant Services (see our review) or Moneris Solutions. For eCommerce businesses, Shopify (see our review) is the best way to integrate credit card processing into an all-in-one solution.
If you’ve had experience with any of the providers profiled in this article, or you know of a great processor that we haven’t covered, please be sure to tell us about it in the Comments section below. Thanks!
In Summary: Best Merchant Account Providers For Canadian Businesses
- Helcim: With its robust, all-in-one commerce platform, transparent pricing, and fair contract terms, Helcim is one of the very best merchant account providers.
- KIS Payments: With interchange-plus pricing and a dedication to top-notch customer service, KIS Payments is an excellent choice for businesses that need the stability of a merchant account and personalized support.
- Square: Square's free mobile processing app, flat-rate pricing, and its massive suite of free software make it ideal for small businesses with a small budget, or anyone who needs to take payments on the go.
- Shopify: The Canada-based eCommerce platform Shopify offers a built-in payment processing service (powered by Stripe) with flat-rate pricing and no additional fees.