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How to Save on American Express Credit Card Processing with OptBlue Pricing

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Accepting payment via American Express has long been a challenge for merchants; it used to require working with Amex directly, and the card fees were greater than what you’d pay for Visa or MasterCard. With the advent of OptBlue pricing, American Express now has a viable way to make accepting Amex cards easier for smaller merchants. But despite the fact that the program launched in 2014, it’s still not very well known and you could be missing out — either on the ability to process Amex cards at all, or on the more affordable pricing.

You might be able to save on credit card fees by signing up for the American Express OptBlue program (and it’s not hard to do). But as with everything in the payments space, it’s crucial that you understand how the agreement works and what you’ll actually be paying to accept Amex cards.

What is American Express OptBlue?

OptBlue is a program where merchant acquirers can offer essentially wholesale rates to payment processors. The processors charge merchants their own markup on top of Amex’s rates, the same way they do for Visa and MasterCard. Some major names in payment processing have already signed up for the program, including Vantiv, Elavon, First Data Corp., Global Payments, First American Payment Systems, JetPay, EVO Payments International, Wells Fargo and Worldpay.

For merchants, as long as your processor offers OptBlue pricing, the only requirement is that you process less than $1 million in Amex transactions annually. If you’re above that volume, or if your business grows and you cross that threshold, you’ll need to strike an Amex merchant fee agreement with American Express independently.

What are the OptBlue Rates?

OptBlue pricing isn’t simple, per se, but the basic concept is easy enough to understand. There’s a rate (percentage) plus a transaction fee ($0.10). What you pay depends on three factors:

  1. The merchant category code (MCC) for the transaction.
  2. The ticket size.
  3. Whether the transaction is card-present (swiped) or card-not-present (keyed-in or e-commerce).

The first consideration defines the basic nature of the transaction — retail, services, lodging, etc. There are slight variances in each, and you’ll pay more for a transaction that falls under “lodging” than you would for a retail or restaurant transaction.The amount of the transaction affects the cost as well, with larger transactions leading to higher rates. Also, for Card Not Present transactions, Amex will add an additional markup to the rate — 0.30%

Unfortunately, American Express tacks on additional costs to those base rates, instead of just including them. There’s a 0.15% network fee for all transactions, and an additional 0.30% for the acquirer buyrate, also applied to every transaction.

If you want to see the individual breakdowns for OptBlue pricing, head over to Helcim’s site to look at the numbers.

How Do I Get OptBlue Pricing?

If your merchant account provider goes through one of Amex’s acquiring partners, you’re probably automatically enrolled in the OptBlue program. If you aren’t sure, you just need to ask your provider. If they don’t offer it and you really want to start accepting American Express at better rates, we can help you find a processor that meets your needs. Check out our comparison chart and contact us directly if you have questions! Our top-rated providers offer OptBlue: Dharma Merchant Services and Payment Depot via First Data, Helcim via Elavon, and Payline Data and Fattmerchant via Vantiv.

What about Merchant Processor Rates?

Any merchant account provider that offers OptBlue will charge their own markup over the aforementioned rates. Depending on your processor, this can make figuring out what you’re actually paying for American Express transactions confusing.

We encourage all merchants to sign up for interchange-plus (also called cost-plus) pricing. It’s just a more transparent pricing model — you’ll pay an additional percentage (and possibly a per-transaction fee) above the standard American Express rates.

The alternative is a tiered pricing model. We prefer interchange-plus to tiered pricing because the tiers are typically not very transparent. In this model, your transactions are grouped into one of multiple tiers (typically qualified, mid-qualified, and non-qualified). You don’t see the interchange rate, so you can’t actually see what the processor’s markup is. Additionally, many merchants cannot reliably predict what tier a transaction falls into because the categorization is so random.

Confused about merchant account rates and fees? Check out this handy infographic for an in-depth look.

Now, Take the Next Step!

OptBlue is an easy way for merchants to start accepting American Express, with lower rates than Amex has previously offered. You might already be benefiting from the American Express OptBlue program, but if you’re not sure, it’s time to ask your processor. If you’re not able to accept American Express or you’re not getting the lower rates through American Express OptBlue, it’s time to shop around! Check out our top-rated merchant account providers, and let us help you choose a new processor.

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson

Melissa Johnson has been writing about payment processing and mobile payments since 2014, and has been quoted in articles for Credit Karma and The Next Web, among others. She graduated from The University of Kansas in 2010 with bachelor's degrees in English and journalism.
Melissa Johnson

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