Businesses can accept credit card payments online without any monthly or startup fees using services like Square and PayPal, but there is no escaping transaction fees. That’s because card-issuing banks and credit card associations charge a fee whenever a credit or debit card is used as payment.
In short: You can’t accept credit cards online for free. However, choosing the right payment processor can greatly reduce the amount you pay. There are also other methods you can use, including ACH and e-check payments, to help reduce costs.
Square is one of the easiest and more affordable solutions for accepting payments online. It’s free to set up and comes with an online store, invoicing capabilities, a virtual terminal, and a point-of-sale (POS) app. It offers low-cost payment processing with no additional fees or monthly minimums. With Square, you simply pay transaction fees as payments are processed—that’s it. Visit Square to create your free account.
Most Affordable Ways to Accept Payments Online
Just because there is no way for your business to accept credit cards online for free does not mean you need to pay exorbitant fees. Choosing an affordable payment processing solution can still save you money.
ACH and E-Check Payments
Although not a credit card transaction, ACH transfers are usually the most affordable way to accept payments online. If you have ever received a direct deposit paycheck from your employer or paid bills online using your bank account, those are examples of ACH payments. Popular social payment apps like Venmo also use ACH payments to transfer money for free.
For businesses, ACH payments often have significantly lower transaction fees than credit or debit card payments. It’s a popular option for companies that bill via invoice or have recurring payments such as freelance creatives and law firms.
The downside to using ACH payments is that they don’t provide instant approval or denial like a card payment would, and can take longer to process. They also require the customer to enter their bank account and routing numbers, so it’s not ideal for retailers or other online businesses that have shopping cart functions.
Some of the best ways to accept ACH payments online include:
- QuickBooks: Low-cost ACH processing best for individuals and small businesses charging customers via invoice.
- Fattmerchant: Competitively priced ACH processing with industry-leading software best for growing businesses, particularly companies charging large-sum invoices or needing recurring payment options.
- National Processing: Low-cost ACH payments that work for businesses of all sizes.
- Payment Cloud: ACH processing best for high-risk businesses.
Credit and Debit Card Payments
Retailers and most other online businesses need to be able to accept traditional credit card payments, as shoppers are not likely to provide their banking information for a one-time transaction.
Although there is no way to accept credit card payments for free, choosing a processor with low, competitive fees can still save your business a lot of money. The cheapest credit card processor for your business depends on what and how much you are selling.
If you are a retail business needing to accept credit cards online to sell products, the most straightforward and most economical option may be to use an ecommerce platform or online store solution with built-in payment processing. Opting for an ecommerce store with integrated payments simplifies the process of setting up and managing your store. It also allows you to collect and act on more detailed information about your customers.
The most affordable online store solutions with built-in payment processing include:
- Square: Free online store with low-cost transaction fees, best for brick and mortar businesses wanting to accept payments online.
- Shopify: Affordable small-business solution with ecommerce plans starting at $29 per month, best for new ecommerce businesses.
Both Square and Shopify also have native tools to set up recurring billing or subscriptions.
Traditional Merchant Accounts
If you have an established or high-volume business (consistently processing over $20,000 per month), accepting credit cards through a traditional merchant account could be the least expensive option for your business. A traditional merchant account is a type of bank account, so it’s a more formal setup than something like Square or PayPal because it usually requires an application and approval process.
However, larger volume businesses could receive more competitive rates from a merchant account provider than an all-in-one ecommerce platform that has set flat fees. Existing brick and mortar businesses could negotiate competitive online processing fees with their current payment processor.
If you are using a merchant account provider to accept credit cards online, you may also need a payment gateway to connect your merchant account with your online store. There’s no one-size-fits-all instruction for this option, as some merchant account providers, such as Fattmerchant and Payment Depot, come with built-in gateways at no extra cost. Others require you to pay an additional monthly fee or to use a separate gateway like Authorize.net.
The most affordable merchant services for online payments include:
- Payment Depot: Affordable option for businesses processing over $10,000 in sales per month through any combination of online and offline channels.
- Fattmerchant: Affordable option for online-only companies processing over $20,000 per month.
Mobile or One-click Payments
In addition to traditional credit card payments, many businesses opt to accept payment online using one-click solutions like PayPal, Apple Pay, and Venmo. Although this method is not as affordable as ACH payment processing, it usually has the same fees as regular credit card payments. The main difference is that one-click payments are much easier for customers because they don’t have to enter their information manually.
In 2018, stored credit and debit card payments were the most popular online payment method, making up 45% of all transactions, followed by PayPal, which was the payment method for 22% of all purchases. In other words, customers need to have a fast and easy checkout option.
When choosing the most affordable online payment method, also consider how that method will impact your sales. ACH payments might be the least expensive, but if the complex purchase forms are turning away customers, it may be more profitable to accept credit cards through a solution like PayPal, even if the transaction fees are higher.
With PayPal, you can install a simple online checkout for free on most websites and ecommerce platforms; it accepts debit cards, credit cards, PayPal, and even Venmo payments. PayPal’s One-Touch checkout is available with PayPal’s free standard online checkout.
In addition to using PayPal, businesses can offer one-click payments by:
- Allowing customers to create user accounts: If you have an online store, enable checkout settings so shoppers can save their card, contact, and shipping information to use for future purchases.
- Enabling Apple Pay and Google Pay: Most ecommerce platforms and online store builders that come with built-in payments have features to accept Apple Pay and Google Pay. Shopify stores also have Shop Pay. Make sure to enable these payment methods in your store.
Additionally, many online store platforms have unique options for single-click checkouts. Shopify, for example, has Shop Pay, which allows customers to save payment and shipping information across all online stores powered by Shopify.
Square has been rolling out similar features. Online checkouts powered by Square can save customer details for one-click purchases on future visits to websites powered by Square.
Low-cost Online Invoicing
If you need to accept credit card payments online, but not through a shopping cart or ecommerce setup, but rather by billing customers for products or services, there are ways to do that affordably online. While we mentioned that ACH and direct bank payments might not make sense for online stores, it’s a much better fit for invoicing.
If you are regularly sending out invoices and collecting payments, using an established invoicing tool that includes ACH processing is probably your best option.
If you only need to request payment occasionally, you may be able to use a free service like Zelle, which powers free bank transfers. Though, Zelle is only available through certain banks, such as Chase QuickPay.
In addition to the online ACH processors covered above, the following methods could be a good fit for sending and receiving funds through online invoicing:
- Wave: Free invoicing and accounting software with credit card processing fees of 2.9% + 30 cents. Process ACH payments for a 1% fee. Can also set up automated recurring billing.
- Zelle: Send and request funds through the app. Payments are free and quick. However, it requires both parties to create an account. Business accounts are only available through select banks. This is best for occasional payments.
Costs of Accepting Payments Online
While there’s no way to accept credit card payments online for free as a business, the exact prices will vary depending on the type of payments you are receiving and the provider you choose. But, if you select a provider with no monthly fees, you can expect to pay around 3% in transaction fees.
For example, Square charges the following fees:
- Ecommerce payments: 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction
- Invoice payments: 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction
If you’re a brick-and-mortar business, it’s important to note that online processing fees are usually higher than fees to accept credit cards in-store. For example, Square’s transaction fees for swiped payments start at 2.6% + 10 cents per transaction.
There’s no way to accept credit cards online for free because credit card issuers like Visa and Mastercard charge a non-negotiable processing fee for every transaction. This fee is called an interchange fee. Your merchant account provider or payment processor pays this fee, then passes it along to you with their markup, which can take the form of a transaction fee or a monthly fee.
Learn more: How Credit Card Processing Fees Work
Because of these unavoidable interchange fees set by credit card associations, direct bank payments, and ACH or e-check payments are the most affordable way to accept payments online.
How to Choose a Payment Processing Solution
Now that you know the different kinds of payment options available to you, when choosing a payment processing solution, consider the following:
- Transaction fees: For new and small businesses, solutions like Square and PayPal with flat fees and no monthly minimums are usually the most affordable. As your business grows, solutions with interchange-plus or membership pricing, such as Payment Depot and Fattmerchant, can offer the lowest rates.
- Avoid tiered pricing: Tiered pricing models (where the processor charges different rates and fees depending on the card type) are typically the priciest and least transparent option.
- Monthly fees: Some solutions offer low transaction rates but have high monthly fees.
- Startup fees and applications: Traditional merchant services accounts typically have longer setup processes than third-party credit card processing solutions because there is an approval process.
- Contracts and requirements: Some solutions require you to sign up for a year or more; others require your business to meet monthly transaction minimums.
- Compatibility with your website: Make sure the service you choose integrates well with your website hosting service.
Although there is no way to accept credit card payments online for free, it’s possible to find an affordable solution. Minimize costs and streamline the entire process by choosing an all-in-one solution that will host your website and offer competitive payment processing.
Square is one of the most affordable and easiest-to-use solutions that offers everything you need to accept payments online, including a free payment processing account and a free website. Plus, with Square, you can add extra features as you grow and use Square’s marketing solutions to help scale your business. Visit Square to create your free account.