The Complete Guide to American Express Interchange Fees and Processing Rates

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American Express OptBlue

American Express’s credit card processing is something of a mystery to a lot of people. There’s a reason for this, of course. Unlike Visa and MasterCard, which are open networks where anyone can issue cards, American Express is a closed network where the company issues cards and offers merchants methods to accept those cards. 

Because of this closed network structure, Amex, as the company is often called, has a LOT of control over how much merchants have to pay to accept its cards. It uses that control to command higher rates industries where its cards are the preferred method of payment.

But Amex doesn’t have total control. Many processors — including some of the largest, such as Elavon, TSYS, and First Data — are able to bundle acceptance in with Visa and MasterCard, and set their own markup for doing so.

In addition, the pricing scheme is a bit different than other networks because the card type has no bearing on the processing rate. With Visa and MasterCard, rewards or commercial cards cost more to process than ordinary debit or credit cards. Not so with Amex. However, industries/merchant categories play a substantial role, and the popularity of the Amex brand in some of those pricier industries also leads to higher fees for merchants.

Today, we’ll take a closer look at American Express fees and processing rates so that you understand exactly what accepting an Amex card will cost you and how you can go about adding Amex to your processing setup.

How Much Does It Cost to Accept American Express?

Accepting American Express has typically been a large hurdle for merchants because of how expensive it was. These days, the company has made it quite a bit easier, especially for small businesses. And it makes sense: American Express makes up a significant portion of transaction value in certain industries, especially travel, entertainment, and restaurants. If your business operates in these fields, you should definitely consider accepting Amex cards if you don’t already.

There are two main ways for you to start accepting American Express cards. The first is through the OptBlue program. The second is through a direct agreement.

OptBlue: OptBlue is a program where processors can offer Amex acceptance through their merchant services providers. Basically, Amex offers the acquirers wholesale rates. Processors tack on their own markup, the same way they do with Visa and MasterCard, and then provide Amex acceptance as part of their suite of services. This ultimately translates to lower rates for merchants and in theory helps create competition. It also means there’s no standardization in rates, so some might charge a good deal more than others.

American Express processing rates shouldn’t be the sole determining factor in choosing a processor. You should look at overall rates (an interchange-plus plan is better than a tiered/qualified plan), any value-added services, and the quality of customer support.

Direct Agreement: For small merchants, OptBlue is the best means of processing Amex cards. However, once you clear $1 million per year in American Express transactions, you must sign a separate, direct merchant agreement with American Express, not your processor. You’ll find this wording even in contracts like Square’s. Amex gets away with this because it’s a closed network. It has total control and if you don’t want to sign, no Amex cards for you.

A direct agreement is functionally a secondary, exclusive merchant account. The major difference is that you’ll stop paying your processor’s rates and have to pay Amex’s standard rates instead. They can be much higher than what you were previously paying through your processor. However, most processors are able to tack your American Express agreement onto their own and allow you to use the same software and hardware to process all of your transactions.

So now that we’ve talked about HOW you can get set up with AmEx card processing and the difference in pricing…

What Does This Mean for American Express Interchange Fees and Processing Rates?

Before we dive into the specifics of processing American Express cards, it’s good to understand some basics about payment processing. If you’re not familiar at all, I suggest taking a few minutes and looking over two of our helpful payment-related guides:

These resources will cover all of the terminology you need to know, as well as the difference between types of plans and the factors that have the biggest effect on your processing rates.

American Express OptBlue Pricing Agreements

With OptBlue, American Express provides standard “wholesale” (interchange) rates to processors, similar to Visa or MasterCard. Rates vary by category and ticket size, usually falling in one of three tiers. Then, the processors go in and add their own additional costs. Some, such as Helcim, offer interchange-plus plans, which means there’s a clear, predictable markup. (Helcim’s Amex markup is 0.48% for retail merchants and 0.66% for virtual terminal merchants. Note that its markup for other card brands is lower than this.) On a tiered plan, you’ll see more variance in rates for qualified, mid-qualified, or non-qualified transactions.

Want to know what American Express wholesale rates look like? Check out Helcim’s page on OptBlue pricing, which has all of the rates listed. Here are just a few examples of OptBlue’s wholesale rates.

Restaurants

  • Tickets under $25: 1.85% + $0.10
  • Tickets $25-$150: 2.45% + $0.10
  • Tickets above $150: 2.75% + $0.10

Lodging (Hotels, etc.)

  • Tickets under $100: 2.25% + $0.10
  • Tickets $100-$1,000: 2.6% + $0.10
  • Tickets above $1,000: 3% + $0.10

Retail

  • Tickets under $75: 1.6% + $0.10
  • Tickets $75-$1,000: 1.95% + $0.10
  • Tickets above $1,000: 2.4% + $0.10

However, the wholesale rates and processor markup aren’t the only costs you need to worry about. There are a few additional fees you’ll need to consider:

  • Network fee (0.15%): This is owed on all Amex transactions, same as Visa or MasterCard network fees.
  • CNP surcharge (0.30%): Owed for all keyed or manually entered transactions.
  • Cross-border fee (0.40%): Owed for any international transactions.

Any other fees you pay beyond this will be standard fees for your account, not directly related to your Amex acceptance.

But, wait. You might be thinking: What about companies like Square? How can they process American Express at a flat 2.75%? That’s a really good question.

How Square and Other Third-Party Processors Accept American Express

Square, PayPal/PayPal Here, SumUp, Stripe, and other third-party processors — the ones that aggregate individual user accounts into one, large merchant account — are still paying American Express’s wholesale rates. And if you look closely, you might notice that Amex fees can easily exceed their flat rates under the right circumstances. And yet their users only pay a flat 2.7% or 2.75% on EVERY card present transaction.

These companies haven’t negotiated special rates. They just choose to accept the loss and average their costs over all of their transactions with the assumption that the uptick in business from accepting American Express will counteract the loss on certain transactions.

However, even third-party processors require you to open direct agreements once you clear that $1 million threshold — which brings me, rather conveniently, to the next point.

American Express Direct Processing Agreements

As I said earlier, a direct agreement with American Express is essentially just opening another merchant account, this one directly with Amex. The company offers two different pricing schemes.

  • Discount Rate Plan: The overall structure of the discount rate plan is identical to the OptBlue plan. You swipe a card, and then you’re charged a percentage of the transaction. That percentage varies by the transaction size and industry.
  • Flat-Fee Plan: The alternative to the discount rate plan is the flat-fee plan. With this plan, you’ll pay $7.95 plus a flat monthly fee for your processing. The catch is that you must stay within specified terms — which basically means you need to have a very stable volume of processing from one month to the next or risk incurring additional fees.

American Express doesn’t publish a lot of details about its payment plans, not even its discount rates or how the flat fee plan is calculated. I assume it’s an averaged amount based on your processing history. However, if you look on the American Express merchant page, you can enter an industry or profession and get an estimate of typical rates within a range. For lodging, as an example, the rate would fall between 3.2% and 3.5%. For a full-service restaurant, rates range between 2.9% and 3.5%. For a sewing/fabric shop, rates range between 2.89% and 3.2%.

With either pricing model, you won’t need to get secondary hardware or additional software. It is fairly simple to get your Amex merchant number and give it to your merchant account provider. They can link the account so that you are able to process Amex cards using your existing system.

You’re not surprised to hear that you may wind up paying other fees, right? Good. Because if you check out the American Express merchant page, you can get a good look at all of them. I’m only listing the ones merchant are most likely to encounter regularly:

  • Gateway fee: I’ve also heard this referred to as the “authorization fee.” In essence, it’s the amount your merchant account charges to process Amex cards along with the rest of your transactions. There’s no standardization, but these fees are often negotiable. Make sure that you ask about them when signing any agreement.
  • CNP surcharge (0.30%): Owed for all keyed or manually entered transactions.
  • Cross-border fee (0.40%): Owed for any international transactions.
  • Voice authorization fee (0.65%): Assessed whenever the merchant’s POS system is unable to reach the Amex authorization and the merchant chooses to call an authorization in over the phone.

Final Takeaway: How Much Do Merchants Really Pay to Accept American Express?

American Express is different from Visa and American Express because it is a closed system where it controls both consumer card issuance and merchant acceptance. Given how much clout the card brand wields in certain industries, it’s not surprising. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that there’s no one clear, transparent rate for Amex. There’s not even a standardized pricing by industry. Your volume, the ticket size, and whether the transaction is card present or card not present all play a role.

OptBlue makes it easier for merchants to start accepting Amex without having to jump through additional hoops — but it’s on you to make sure that the rates you’re paying are competitive and that you’re getting solid customer support.

Once you hit a high volume, you have no choice but to go through American Express directly for the account. You have a couple of plans to choose from, so you’ll want to compare the numbers and see which is ultimately the better value.

If you’re ready to add American Express acceptance to your card processing setup, I recommend checking out our top-rated processors, all of which offer the OptBlue plan. Don’t forget our credit card processing resources either! And if you have questions, you can always leave a comment.

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson is an independent writer and editor who loves e-commerce, digital marketing, technology, and social media. Once upon a time, she earned a journalism degree, but she went on to discover that she could work from home, researching, editing, and writing about the things she found most interesting. When she's not tied to her laptop, Melissa can usually be found in the kitchen, reading a book, or doing something of the nerdy persuasion.
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