Looking for a free POS with a free card reader?
- Date Established
- Cleveland, OH
Ever since Square introduced the world to mobile, smartphone-based credit card processing in 2009, other payment processing companies have put a great effort into offering similar, competing products. Electronic Merchant Systems, a major card processor headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio whose founding dates back to 1987, is no exception. Introduced in 2013, EMS+ (EMS Plus) is their answer to Square, and it provides similar functionality while offering a flat per-transaction rate that’s 0.5% lower than what Square charges.
So, cheaper is better, right? After all, while a 0.5% lower rate might not sound like much, it can actually add up to a lot of money over time. That lower rate features heavily in Electronic Merchant Systems’ advertising for EMS+ and is the most common reason cited by merchants for signing up. Unfortunately, as we’ll see below, the lower rate is just about the only significant advantage that EMS+ has over Square. Worse still, EMS+ suffers from many of the same problems that have dogged Square, including withheld funds, sudden account terminations, and poor customer service and support.
Like Square and other mobile processing solutions, EMS+ combines a smartphone app and a small card reader that attaches to the headphone jack of your smartphone or tablet to turn your mobile device into a credit/debit card processing terminal. The app provides the interface to sync your device with the EMS Merchant Gateway, a web-based account where you can review transactions, manage inventory, and generate a variety of reports. You can also email receipts to your customers, or print them out using an optional Bluetooth receipt printer.
So, is EMS+ the answer to your mobile processing needs, or are you better off using Square or one of its other competitors? The answer is ultimately going to depend on several factors, including the size and nature of your business, and also the specific hardware that you already have. Read on for our full review, and please leave a comment below to share your experiences using EMS+.
Table of Contents
Simplicity is the keyword with EMS+. As a mobile-only processing solution, its feature set is very limited. At the same time, there are only a few things you need to get up and running with EMS+, including the following:
- An EMS+ account – You can sign up for a free EMS+ account right on the EMS+ website.
- The EMS+ card reader – This is also free, and will be delivered to you after you sign up for a new account. Note that you only get one free reader. If you need more than that, they’ll cost you $10.00 each.
- The EMS+ app – This is also a free download from either the iTunes App Store (iOS) or the Google Play Store (Android).
- A compatible smartphone or tablet – Obviously, you’ll need to provide your own compatible smartphone or tablet device. See Hardware and Software Requirements below for a discussion of potential compatibility issues.
- A Bluetooth receipt printer – This is purely optional, and it isn’t free. In fact, EMS will charge you a whopping $399.00 for this accessory. Rolls of paper for the printer also cost $29.90 each. Ouch.
Here’s a photo of the EMS+ card reader attached to an (old) iPhone:
And here’s a helpful tutorial video from the EMS YouTube channel showing how to install and set up your reader:
Both the Android and the older iOS versions of the EMS+ app have similar screen layouts and menu options. The app opens to the Terminal tab, where you can enter a quick payment, process a new order, issue a refund, or post a voice authorization code. There’s also a History tab, where you can view transaction and order history, as well as generate reports for gross sales, deductions, and net sales. A Products tab allows you to manually enter and track your inventory of products. A Customers tab allows you to collect payment data on customers, and is useful in that recurring customers won’t have to re-enter their information every time they make a purchase. Finally, a Settings tab allows you to tweak how the app works and customize it to your business. The Settings tab includes a lot of options, and you’ll want to set all of them up to your liking before you start taking payments with EMS+. The Terminal tab looks like this in iOS:
The newer EMS+2 app for iOS has most of the same features, but they’re laid out very differently and the colorful icons have been removed. The app also includes an iPad version that puts more data on the larger screen. Curiously, the Voice Authorization feature has been removed. The app does offer more payment options, though, including cash, check, credit/debit card, and PayPal Here. The as-yet-unreleased EMV-compliant chip reader is also supported. Here’s the Settings screen on EMS+2:
Finally, there’s the web-based EMS+ Merchant Gateway, where you can log in and access your account from your computer. This virtual terminal has many of the same features and options as the mobile app, plus some more robust reporting features. While it won’t replace a fully-features POS system, it covers all the basics (i.e., inventory management, customer database) that a small business might need. The virtual terminal also allows you to process transactions directly, which might come in handy if your card reader isn’t working.
Pricing/Fees & Rates:
EMS+ features a very simplified rate structure. For every transaction, you’ll be charged one of only two possible rates:
2.25% for swiped (i.e., card-present) transactions, or
3.5% + $0.15 per transaction for keyed (i.e., card not-present) transactions
As a point of comparison, the swiped rate is 0.5% lower than Square, while the keyed rate is identical to what Square charges for the same type of transaction. It’s also worth noting that using an American Express card will cost you more, as those rates are set directly by American Express, and vary from 2.5 – 3.9% per transaction. EMS+ advertises a base rate of 2.95% for American Express.
That’s basically it. As long as you only need one card reader and can get by without the Bluetooth receipt printer, you can get set up and started with EMS+ for free. There are no account setup fees, no monthly fees, and, best of all, no Early Termination Fee (ETF) if you decide to close your account. This simplified rate structure and lack of hidden fees is a much better deal for the small business-owner than what EMS charges for their full-blown merchant accounts.
Hardware & Software Requirements:
In addition to the plug-in card reader, you’ll need to download and install the free EMS+ app on your smartphone or tablet. Choose from the following options, depending on your particular hardware:
- Android users – The Android version of EMS+ is available as a free download in the Google Play Store. It’s advertised as being compatible with any Android device running Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) or higher. However, there are a lot of negative reviews on the app’s download page complaining that the app and/or card reader didn’t work with the user’s phone. Ironically, the problem seems to be more with newer Android phones, suggesting that EMS hasn’t been very diligent about updating EMS+ to ensure compatibility with newer devices and more recent versions of Android. You’ll probably want to talk to an EMS representative to see if the service will work with your phone.
- iOS users – If you have an iPhone or iPad, you currently have a choice between two apps: EMS+ and EMS+2. EMS+ is the older version of the app and is compatible with devices running iOS 6.0 or higher. It lacks an iPad-specific version, although you can still install and run it on an iPad. The graphics won’t look quite as nice, but you’ll have the same functionality. EMS+2, the newer version, requires iOS 8.0 or higher and includes an iPad-specific version. While the old EMS+ app is still available on the iTunes app store, it hasn’t been updated since September 2015. The original app is only recommended if you’re using an older device that isn’t compatible with EMS+2. While both apps are compatible with the iPod Touch, you probably wouldn’t want to use this unless you’re working from a fixed physical location. Lacking a cellular data capability, the iPod Touch won’t be able to process transactions out in the field when you’re away from Wi-Fi.
The free card reader that EMS sends you when you open your account is pretty basic, consisting of a magnetic strip card swiper and a 3.5mm plug that attaches the reader to your smartphone or tablet to transfer the swiped data to the EMS+ app. It doesn’t have its own battery but will draw power from your smart device to function.
With only a magnetic stripe swiper for reading cards, the current EMS+ card reader is neither EMV-compliant nor compatible with NFC-based payment systems such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. However, EMS is currently developing a card reader that will incorporate these features. Unfortunately, the newer, more-capable card reader is expected to retail for $95.00 each.
EMS+ accounts also come with access to the EMS Merchant Gateway, a web-based portal that allows you to access your account and transactions. The Merchant Gateway requires only a web browser – there’s no separate software to install.
While the hardware and software requirements to get up and running with EMS+ are fairly minimal, you’ll want to also take into account the size and nature of your business to determine whether EMS+ is right for you. EMS+ is designed for small businesses that need to be able to process transactions just about anywhere. Food trucks feature prominently in their testimonials, and for good reason. A small, one or two-person business that operates in the field is probably the best fit for EMS+. Larger businesses looking to save money by using EMS+ instead of a full-blown merchant account might well find that the service is too basic to cover all of their needs.
Before using EMS+, both you and your customers will want to know that the service is secure and that credit/debit card information won’t be compromised. The EMS+ website explains their security features in their FAQ:
Yes, The EMS+ card reader device has TDES encryption and no card numbers are stored on the mobile device. Card numbers are encrypted upon the card swipe and processed on the payment gateway. Once a transaction is entered, card number visibility is limited to the last 4 digits and the card type.
Ease of Use:
The three different versions of the EMS+ app are all pretty intuitive and easy to use. It’s worth noting that while the Android version and the original EMS+ app for iOS share a very similar layout, the newer EMS+2 app is quite different. It lacks the colorful icons of the other two versions, and the menu layout is completely different. The Voice Authorization feature from the earlier app is gone, but some new payment options have been added, including PayPal Here.
None of the EMS+ apps come with an instruction manual, but the features are simple and intuitive enough to use that you won’t really need one. Data entered into the EMS+ app syncs seamlessly with the web-based EMS Merchant Gateway. The Merchant Gateway allows you to review your transactions and generate reports. It also functions as a virtual terminal, allowing you to manually key in transactions.
Customer Service & Technical Support:
EMS+ advertises the availability of 24/7 customer service and support via either telephone or e-mail as one of their key selling points. Given that Square doesn’t even offer live telephone support, this seems like a major factor in their favor. However, the reality is that maintaining a well-trained, competent support staff on a 24/7 basis is very expensive, and so, like a lot of other companies, EMS seems to have cut some corners in this area. Complaints about poorly-trained customer service representatives who couldn’t help them with a problem are a common thread in the negative reviews we found about EMS+. Worse yet, you might not even reach a live representative at all.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there were any useful self-help options available. Unfortunately, the EMS+ website only includes a simplified overview of how the swiper and app work, and a very brief FAQ that isn’t useful at all for troubleshooting.
Some merchants have also complained about the lack of a dedicated account manager when they signed up for EMS+. While this would certainly be nice to have, the reality is that you’ll have to open a full-fledged merchant account (and pay much higher fees) for any card processing company to even consider offering you this option.
Negative Reviews & Complaints:
If you look on the BBB website, you’ll find a lot of complaints about Electronic Merchant Systems, the processing company behind EMS+. Be aware that virtually all of these complaints refer to the full-service merchant accounts offered by EMS and not the simplified accounts you’ll receive if you sign up for EMS+. Unfortunately, EMS adds to the confusion by advertising an “EMS Mobile” service on their main website, which features a picture of the EMS+ card reader. So, just to be clear – if you sign up for EMS+, you will be given a simplified account that gives you mobile processing capability, and nothing else. You will not be subject to the lengthy contracts and exorbitant early termination fees that have generated so many negative reviews on the BBB website and elsewhere. At the same time, you won’t get the features that come with a full-service EMS merchant account, such as dedicated credit/debit card terminals, the MAXXPAY POS system, or any of the other bells and whistles that EMS offers. If your business requires something a little more fully-featured than what EMS+ offers and you’re thinking about opening a merchant account with EMS, read our review first and decide for yourself.
For a better idea of the possible pitfalls of EMS+, you’ll have to look on either the Google Play website or in the iTunes App Store, depending on which hardware you’ll be using. Common complaints with both platforms include the following:
- Poor customer service – While EMS+ touts its 24/7 telephone and e-mail support, one of the most common complaints from users was that they were either unable to reach a customer service representative or that the representative couldn’t help them with their problem. Not receiving any response to e-mail inquiries was also a frequent complaint.
- Delays in receiving funds – EMS+ is noticeably vague about how soon you’ll receive your funds after a transaction, but a lot of merchants have reported unreasonable delays in having their money deposited into their accounts. While it’s fairly normal for the first few transactions in a newly-opened account to take a week or longer to process, once you’re up and running you shouldn’t have to wait any more than two or three days.
- Problems with the EMS+ card reader – A lot of merchants were unable to reliably get the card reader to successfully swipe a customer’s card. This is more than an inconvenience, as it forces the merchant to key the card number in manually, resulting in being charged a higher “card not-present” rate. In other words, EMS+ makes more money if your card reader doesn’t Of course, it also eventually results in lost customers, as frustrated merchants close their accounts and switch to a competitor.
The Android version of EMS+ currently rates 3.3 out of 5 stars on the Google Play Store. Reviews are very polarized – out of 205 reviews, 92 of them were 5-star and 58 were 1-star. Read through the reviews and you’ll notice that quite a few of the 5-star ratings are obviously fake reviews, usually just a one-sentence positive comment (i.e., “It’s great!”), with no specific reasons as to why the reviewer supposedly liked the product. The 1-star reviews, on the other hand, usually go on at length about the specific problems that the reviewer had with using EMS+.
Hardware compatibility (or lack thereof) was a unique complaint to the Android version of EMS+. While it’s advertised as being compatible with Android 3.0 or higher, a lot of people found out the hard way that the app wouldn’t work with their phone. Ironically, older Android phones seemed to work better, suggesting that EMS hasn’t been very diligent about updating their software to ensure compatibility with newer phones and newer versions of the Android software. EMS could really help themselves out in this area by 1) keeping their software updated, and 2) publishing a list of known compatibility problems.
Over on the iOS side, the older EMS+ app currently rates 2.5 out of 5 stars on the iTunes Store. Out of twenty reviews, nine of them are 1-star. Reviewers cite many of the same complaints as the Android version (i.e., poor customer service and delays in getting paid). As of the time of this review, there are no ratings or comments for the newer EMS+ 2 app. The iOS versions don’t seem to have any of the hardware compatibility problems that plague the Android version. However, there is some criticism in that neither iOS version supports screen rotation. If you’re using an iPad, you’ll be stuck in landscape mode. If, on the other hand, you’re using an iPhone or iPod Touch, you’ll always be in portrait mode. This may not seem important, but it does cause some problems. For one thing, customers will have a much smaller space to input a digital signature in portrait mode, particularly on older iPhones with smaller screens. Second, if you’re more comfortable swiping cards with the card reader at the top of the phone, you’ll have to deal with an upside down screen if you’re using a newer iPhone with the headphone jack on the bottom of the phone. While both of these issues are minor annoyances at best, they’re also things that EMS could easily fix with a software update.
Positive Reviews & Testimonials:
The EMS YouTube channel includes a number of fairly compelling testimonials from customers, including a food truck owner and a limousine service owner. This should give you an idea of the size and nature of businesses that are likely to use EMS+ for their processing needs. There isn’t much to speak of in terms of customer testimonials on the EMS+ website itself, however. Again, it’s important to emphasize that Electronic Merchant Systems’ social media offerings are mainly geared toward the company’s full-service merchant accounts, so look for specific mentions of EMS+ to find information that’s relevant.
Overall, EMS+ rates a very average, but still respectable 3.5 out of 5 stars. As a potential competitor to Square, it offers lower rates for card-present transactions and 24/7 phone and e-mail customer support. On the other hand, the free card swiper included with each account is notoriously unreliable, forcing merchants to manually key in transactions – and pay a higher rate. Also, the 24/7 customer support isn’t nearly as useful or reliable as EMS would like you to think it is. Finally, the Android version of the EMS+ app has numerous, unresolved compatibility issues that make it unusable for some merchants.
So, is EMS+ right for you? As always, it depends… EMS+ is targeted at small and even micro-sized businesses, and this is something you should consider first before deciding to sign up. If your business is small enough, and if you can get by with just using a mobile processing system, EMS+ might work very well for you. While there are no guarantees, it probably helps if you’re using an iPhone or iPad. Mobile businesses that need to be able to process transactions in the field are the best fit for using EMS+.
EMS+ could receive a higher rating in future review updates if the company were to take some (or, preferably, all) of the following steps:
- Invest more time and effort into improved training for their customer support staff.
- Update the Android version of EMS+ to ensure compatibility with newer Android phones.
- Update the iOS version of the app to support screen rotation.
- Improve the reliability of the card swiper.
- Offer a more competitive (i.e., lower) price for the Bluetooth receipt printer and upcoming EMV/NFC card reader.
In other words, EMS+ clearly has the potential to evolve into a solid product. At the moment, however, it has the feel of a half-baked product that was rushed out the door in order to try to compete with Square and other mobile processing solutions.
I also have the feeling that EMS is offering EMS+ as a kind of gateway drug that might lead merchants into one of their full-service merchant accounts as their businesses expand and their needs grow beyond what EMS+ can offer. Some of today’s largest corporations, including Apple and Google, originally started out in garages. While your small business might never grow that large, you still might reach the point where you need something more than just the basics. If so, be sure to read our Electronic Merchant Systems review before you sign up for an EMS merchant account. If you’re looking for a better alternative to EMS+, check out our post on the Best Small Business Credit Card Processing Companies.
As this is our first time reviewing EMS Plus, our Comment section is currently a blank slate. So, if you’ve had any experience using EMS – good, bad, or indifferent – please be sure to share your experience in the comments below.
To learn more about how we score our reviews, see our Mobile Credit Card Processing Rating Criteria.