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Best merchant services of 2021

Best merchant services
(Image credit: Pexels)

The best merchant services allow you to take payments online as well as in store to support your business.

The need to take card payments online and off has become paramount for the modern business. However, to do that requires payment processing, usually supplied by merchant service providers. 

This can come in the form of a card reader for physical PoS (Point of Sale) transactions, in which even an app on your phone or other mobile device can run the transaction through. Additionally, or alternatively, you can also get credit card processing to run through an ecommerce site.

PoS processing fees tend to be cheaper, on the grounds that the customer is physically present and so the chances of fraud are less than anonymous online transactions. However, for PoS processing in a bricks and mortar store you may need to pay for additional equipment, not least the card reader itself.

Fees can also vary according to sales volume, and it's worth keeping an eye on transaction fees. While some merchant services may charge seemingly high monthly fees, these often come with very low individual transaction costs that make them very competitive. 

Overall, the market for merchant services is a competitive one, and there's plenty of choice out there. The challenge is to find one that works best for your business model. To help you, we've identified the best merchant services for both online and offline businesses. 

(Image credit: Square)

1. Square

Best merchant service for small retail

Reasons to buy
+Simple one tier pricing model+Available free card reader+No monthly fees
Reasons to avoid
-Higher transaction fees

Square offers a merchant service designed to “start selling fast”. It will attract smaller and new businesses starting out with its promise of quick setup, no long term contracts and no monthly fees, and even includes a free mag-stripe reader.

Square offers a robust feature set including being able to send invoices (even from a mobile device) to customers for payment, storing the card information for regular customers, plus support for third-party e-commerce platforms such as Wix and Ecwid. It also boasts the ability to take keyed-in payments directly via the Square Virtual Terminal without a card reader, and an offline mode for those occasions when an internet connection is not available.

Square further offers a variety of card reader hardware, beyond the free mag-stripe reader, such as paid devices that can handle card chips, and NFC payments. 

The pricing is simple, with a single tier, and only transaction fees.


(Image credit: PayPal)

2. PayPal

Best merchant service for start-ups

Reasons to buy
+No monthly fees+Best for online transactions+Receive payments from outside the US
Reasons to avoid
-Limited POS features

PayPal offers a business version of the ubiquitous online transaction tool, and it claims to be in use with over 17 million firms.

It features the secure transactions that PayPal is known for including fraud protection and risk modeling, a customer service team, and allows a variety of payment methods including mobile and in-store credit cards. Logically, it also provides support for acceptance of PayPal from its 200 million account holders. 

The basic service is better suited for a lower volume of transactions, and especially well developed for ecommerce that can only be attractive to online start-ups and small businesses. However, more advanced options include a merchant account and Point of Sale (POS) features and functionality, which may require a monthly fee.

PayPal's transaction fees are competitive with similar services, though this may not be so true with higher sales volumes.


(Image credit: Intuit QuickBooks)

3. QuickBooks Payments

Merchant services with integrated accounting option

Reasons to buy
+Multiple plans available+Clear pricing+Real-time integration with QuickBooks accounts
Reasons to avoid
-POS not so strong on features

QuickBooks Payments is another option worth considering, as the company has expanded from simply providing accounting software to the arena of online payment processing, and now full merchant services. 

Options include a card reader for store purchases, phone payments, and online processing. What is especially useful is its direct integration into the QuickBooks accounting software, which means even POS purchases appear immediately in your accounts in real-time.

Charges are provided upfront and are relatively straightforward. There's a Pay-as-you-Go payment plan with no monthly fee. However, there is also a Pay Monthly subscription option available for desktop users, which reduces card swipe transactions and may especially benefit volume users. 

A free card reader is provided at sign-up for taking card payments, but if you'd also like to be able to deal with NFC payments from Apple or Android devices, you will need to buy the all-in-one card reader, though it's relatively inexpensive.


(Image credit: Payline)

4. Payline

A suite of services for the small business

Reasons to buy
+Integrated business loan service+Payments available in 1-2 days+Competitive rates

Payline is a merchant service that promises to make it easy to accept credit card payments, and offers a variety of plans to suit any company's needs. It offers a variety of services including mobile, online, in-store, enterprise and integrated payments, and also Payline Medical for the healthcare field, and business loans as well.  

Payline offers a Payline Gateway, that can be used as a plugin on a business website to accept payments, and also a ‘virtual terminal,’ that is used to manually enter payments received over the phone or through the mail.  

Payline offers pricing based on the service. A swipe falls under Payline Start, which has a monthly fee with an additional small charge per transaction, which includes AMEX as well for an additional per transaction fee .

For a keyed-in, or online transaction, Payline Connect is also a monthly subscription, with slightly more expensive transaction fees, with AMEX also included. With Payline Connect there’s a further option for the aforementioned Payment Gateway for an additional monthly fee.


(Image credit: Stripe)

5. Stripe

A developer-first payments technology platform

Reasons to buy
+Built-in APIs and developer tools +Mobile payments 
Reasons to avoid
-Tech understanding needed 

Stripe is yet another merchant service designed for online and offline businesses, with the company claiming to handle billions of dollars worth of transactions annually. The main difference between this service and many others is that it isn’t an out-of-the-box solution. Instead, you’re provided with a range of flexible tools to customize your own payment processes. 

Designed for larger firms, it offers a plethora of APIs that allow you to create your own subscription services, on-demand marketplaces, or crowdfunding platforms. It supports a range of development languages, including Ruby, Python, PHP and Java. 

Furthermore, Stripe supports more than a hundred currencies, and offers features such as mobile payments, subscription billing and one-click checkout. Users also get access to a dashboard where they can visualize transactions. Clearly, then, this is a feature-rich payment gateway, although Stripe does demand a lot more technological knowledge from the user than most providers.

Stripe offers a particular advantage to merchants based in Europe, as card processing fees for European cards are 1.4% + a small fee per transaction. For non-European cards processing fees are a more standard 2.9%, plus a small charge per transaction. Additionally, for larger volume needs, it has a customized plan with volume discounts.