Why American Express Is Not Accepted Everywhere

Jack Prenter, Founder of Dollarwise

When you’re out shopping or dining, you might notice that American Express credit cards aren’t as universally accepted as Visa or Mastercard.

This occasional inconvenience leaves many cardholders wondering why some businesses choose not to accept American Express.

The root of this selective acceptance lies in the costs that merchants have to pay to process credit card transactions.

American Express typically charges higher fees to merchants for each swipe, tap, or insert of the card compared to other major credit card networks.

This difference in merchant fees is a consequence of American Express’ business model.

While they cater to a segment of customers who often spend more, the company sustains its extensive rewards programs by levying higher charges on merchants.

On your end as the cardholder, you might enjoy the benefits of robust rewards programs, but it’s the merchant who shoulders the extra cost.

This cost-benefit analysis leads some merchants, particularly smaller businesses, to decide not to accept American Express, opting instead for more economically viable options.

Key takeaways

  • American Express generally charges merchants higher fees per transaction.
  • The higher fees support American Express’ extensive rewards programs.
  • Some merchants, weighing cost against benefit, may choose not to accept American Express.

Factors influencing acceptance

When you use your credit card, you might not think about what happens behind the scenes, but the reality is that different factors affect whether a card is accepted everywhere.

Merchant fees and transaction costs

American Express is known for charging higher merchant fees compared to other credit card networks like Visa and Mastercard. This interchange fee is what merchants pay to your card’s issuing bank and the networks every time you swipe your card.

Higher fees can deter some merchants, especially smaller businesses, from accepting American Express. These costs are a significant factor because they directly impact a merchant’s profit margins.

For instance, let’s say you’re at Costco, a large retailer that has an exclusive relationship with Mastercard in Canada. They’ve done the math, and the lower transaction fees mean more savings for them and potentially lower prices for you.

Credit card network differences

Not all credit card networks are created equal, and that’s clear when you compare their acceptance. The transaction fee structure varies between networks, influencing which cards a merchant will accept.

American Express operates on a different model, functioning as both the card issuer and network, which contributes to their unique fee structure. Visa and Mastercard, however, partner with various banks.

Due to these differences, American Express might not be as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard, which have a more extensive merchant acceptance globally. This impacts you especially when you travel or shop at smaller retailers who may not want to absorb these higher costs.

Comparative rewards and benefits offered

The perks of using American Express cards often include competitive rewards and benefits. These can range from cash back to travel miles to membership rewards points, which can be attractive to you as a cardholder. However, the generous perks come at a cost — typically higher fees for the merchants.

In Canada, cardholders might enjoy more points or cash back when using an American Express card compared to other networks, but this also means that each transaction costs the merchant more.

Therefore, it’s a balancing act; the more you reap in rewards, the more a merchant may have to pay in fees, an important consideration that can affect a card’s acceptance.

American express business model

American Express, or Amex, stands out in the financial world with a unique business model. They make money primarily through annual fees for their prestigious cards and higher fees to merchants, positioning themselves in the premium credit card segment.

Revenue generation strategy

American Express profit comes from several key areas, notably the fees they charge merchants when you swipe your card.

They charge higher swipe fees compared to other credit card networks, which merchants pay to process transactions. This results in a larger share of the purchase price going to Amex, increasing their revenue.

Another source of profit is the annual fees charged to cardholders, particularly for their premium cards. Unlike many cards with no annual fee, Amex cards often come with a substantial fee that varies based on the level of benefits and rewards you receive.

This approach encourages high spending and ensures a steady income for the company, separate from transaction charges.

Premium card offerings

Amex is known for their Platinum Card®, a high-end product with a significant annual fee. In return, you get extensive rewards and luxury travel perks. The company’s focus on premium card offerings encourages a wealthy clientele who value exclusive services and are comfortable paying more for added benefits.

These cards, like the Platinum Card®, not only bring in revenue through fees but create a strong brand association with luxury and high-quality service. The exclusivity factor also means that Amex cards are not as ubiquitous as Visa or Mastercard, as they target a specific audience more likely to appreciate and use their unique offerings.

Merchant considerations

When you walk into a store to make a purchase, the payment options available can impact your checkout experience. Different businesses, especially smaller ones, have to think carefully about which credit cards they accept, and this can affect whether you can use your American Express card there.

Small and independent business concerns

Small and independent businesses prioritize their costs. Every time you swipe your card, the business pays a fee. Historically, American Express charged higher fees than other card providers like Visa and Mastercard. The Nilson Report, which tracks the card and mobile payment industry, shows that fees can be a big deal for these businesses.

  • Higher Fees: For a long time, American Express charged higher fees, which could be between 1.43% and 3.3%. In comparison, Visa and MasterCard generally charged between 1.15% and 2.5%.
  • OptBlue Program: To address small business concerns, American Express launched OptBlue, which lets merchant service providers set the rate for businesses, potentially making it more affordable.

Independent businesses make decisions based on everyday costs, and even slight differences in fees can affect their profit margins significantly.

International merchant challenges

For international merchants, accepting different credit cards comes with its own set of challenges.

  • Merchant Coverage: American Express has a smaller network globally compared to Visa and Mastercard. This means in some countries, finding a store that accepts American Express can be more difficult.
  • The Checkout Process: Your shopping experience can be smoother when the merchant accepts a variety of cards. Retailers want to make your checkout process fast and easy, but also cost-effective for them.

CBC reported that acceptance trials have sometimes been run by American Express to increase their presence internationally. However, international businesses consider the balance between customer convenience and the fees they will incur, just like in Canada.

Cardholder perspective

When using your American Express (Amex) card, you might notice it’s not as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard. This impacts where you can shop and how you manage your finances.

Availability and convenience

American Express cards come with a reputation for serving the more affluent, but this doesn’t guarantee universal acceptability. In Canada, you’ll find that while many hotels and larger retailers welcome your Amex card, some smaller businesses or U.S. gas stations might not.

This spotty acceptance can affect your spending habits, particularly if you rely on the benefits and rewards that Amex offers. It’s smart to carry a backup card, like a Visa or Mastercard, to ensure you’re covered everywhere you go.

Economic considerations and advice

Your Amex card may offer attractive rewards and benefits, which often appeal to those who regularly check their spending against their budget. However, economic considerations such as a higher annual percentage rate (APR) could weigh in.

If you maintain a balance, interest charges will accumulate, so it’s crucial to pay attention to the APR and work with a financial advisor to avoid steep interest costs.

Using your Amex card smartly involves more than just collecting points; it means understanding when and where to use it to maximize benefits without incurring unnecessary fees. Remember that while debit cards don’t offer the same rewards, they are widely accepted and can help manage finances without interest charges.


Many merchants find American Express swipe fees higher than those of other credit card companies. This cost is one of the primary reasons some places prefer not to accept American Express.

You can use your American Express card in Europe at many hotels, retailers, and restaurants. However, since some merchants may not accept it due to higher fees, it’s good to have a backup payment option.

American Express often offers additional benefits and rewards, which might contribute to the higher transaction fees charged to merchants. Moreover, American Express acts as both the card issuer and the network, unlike some other card providers.

Websites may not accept American Express for the same reasons physical stores might not—higher fees for the merchant and sometimes additional security requirements for processing.

While American Express is widely accepted in many countries worldwide, its acceptance isn’t as extensive as Visa or Mastercard, especially in countries with lower credit card usage.

About The Author