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Small Business Merchant Accounts and Credit Card Machines

Small retail shop

As a small business owner you need a merchant account that is low cost enough to help you grow, but also capable enough for when you do.

With that said

We have put together a jam packed guide to help you pick the best of the bunch, based on a variety of different needs.

So let’s get going. 


In this guide you will find



Credit card animationAll great things in life start with a little seed of hope. Also in this case, a small business merchant account – as a micro entrepreneur or owner-manager you put your best efforts into creating and developing a project that might give you that financial stability and rewarding experience you’ve been hankering after for a very long time.

So far so good

But how do you go about dealing with an inevitable and potentially stressful side of your business – payment processing?

There is no need to fret – dealing with a payment processor can actually become a very streamlined and smooth process once you master or understand its technicalities and hidden factors.  

What’s considered a small business or startup and where does your business stand in the scheme of things?

In reality given the hotchpotch of the EU and the UK legislations and different financial organs, defining a small business in clear terms is a rather convoluted and gargantuan task to achieve.

According to the UK government, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) accounted for at least 99% of all businesses in 2016 and they normally fall into three categories:

  • micro businesses (accounting for 96% of all companies)
  • small businesses
  • medium-sized businesses

For the sake of being concise and simplifying all the semantics and model structures, this article taps into any enterprise with less than 200 employees and less than a £1 million annual turnover. According to ICAEW Business Advice Service the national average annual turnover for a British company has been £505,644.  


Here’s a quick outline of our findings:


  • Don’t let the term “small” intimidate you when shopping around for a merchant account – As the statistics show above, most merchant account providers deal mainly with SMEs. Stand your ground and ask for the best deals!
  • If you wish to keep your merchant account fees under £500/year (excluding transaction fees) only opt for those services that are relevant to your business, no matter how attractive they look when advertised. While accepting MOTO payments via email or over the phone might be lucrative for an accounting company, if you sell in-store or online from your boutique shop this feature might not bring much value to your business for £9.99/month.
  • There is a fading borderline between staying local and going global – Find out how technologies and innovations nowadays make your small business scalable and able to reach out internationally.
  • What about financial implications and finding the right merchant account? Maybe your startup has no credit rating history or a low volume of sales. Read on to find out how merchant account providers assess your business and what criteria they use to define financial success and solvency.


Best merchant accounts for small businesses


The small business merchant account market in the UK is highly competitive with a bizillion providers offering you top-end services – whichever one you choose, you cannot go wrong!


You need to target those merchant acquirers specialising in SMEs and focusing on a greater level of customer support.

Any business with a less than £2,000 monthly turnover will not fully benefit from the services of a merchant account. We recommend the following providers to micro and small enterprises bringing in between £5,000 – £15,000/month in total transactions.

The list is in no particular order but our methodology is based on a concoction of factors highly determinant in reducing the costs of your businesses. Likewise, we took into consideration online reviews and the reputation of the merchant acquirer.  


  • Pricing transparency (must include at least either interchange-plus or flat-rate pricing)
  • Contractual monthly and annual fees (no/low fees)
  • Cancellation or exit fees
  • No minimum monthly volume requirements
  • Modern terminals supporting EMV and NFC technology
  • Option for a card reader supporting Android and iOS and contactless payments
  • Analytics, stock inventory and accounting tools
  • Tablet-based POS system issuing SMS, email or print receipts
  • Free or low prices for re-programming or replacements
  • Customer service (support availability for at least 5 working days/week)
  • Free fraud detection and risk management (basic)  
  • Ease of use
  • PCI annual fee
  • No gateway monthly fee
  • No gateway per transaction fee
  • Deposit/Withdrawal time or payouts


Square logo

The US-headquartered company are a small business’ dream with their highly competitive pricing structure, rich features and ease of use for their end users. The setup process (can be done online in 3 steps) is incredibly smooth and you can start taking online payments the same day.


Square screenshot



  • Chargeback protection – For card-present (in-store) transactions you are covered up to £250/month in liability. While this unique and enticing feature is easy to market, the reality is that chargebacks rarely happen in a brick-and-mortar store – merchants are more prone to chargebacks when accepting online transactions. But at least this feature comes free and gives you some extra peace of mind!   
  • Ease of use – Square’s inventory, location and employee management system is praised for its user-friendly and smooth navigation and a logically designed dashboard. Whether you are a developer wishing to integrate their API with your website or you simply want to use their built-in payment solutions, Square provide you with all the necessary resources to do so.  
  • If your monthly turnover is higher than £100,000, Square have tailored services for your business.



  • Customer service – Online reviews of customers suggest that Square might terminate or freeze an account more than expected and disputes can take long time to little or no avail. However, this is a common problem of many other similar providers like PayPal.  
  • Customer support – Only provided Monday to Friday.
  • Limited support for shopping platforms – Mainly BigCommerce, WooComerce and Wix.

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Stripe logo

Stripe are a digital mammoth with innovative solutions and developer-centric strategies for ecommerce businesses. Albeit they cater to more established and larger enterprises by offering a diversified method of payments and an enormous richness of features, smaller companies can also benefit from their highly competitive prices on the UK market and flexibility of services.  As a direct competitor of PayPal, it is no wonder Stripe do not support PayPal payments.


Stripe screenshot



  • Stripe are an ideal solution for UK small businesses which sell internationally with a  particular focus on the Chinese market since their ecommerce solution supports AliPay and WeChat.
  • Stripe’s API integrates with all major shopping platforms and CMSs which means that whatever web-developing software you feel comfortable with Stripe will support it.


  • Stripe’s ecommerce solutions are not known for their ease of use and you do need to have some basic coding experience or understanding.
  • Stripe do not offer their own card readers, so you will need to go through a third-party which supports Stripe payments.

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PayPal pro

Even as a novice entrepreneur you’re probably instinctively prone to opting for PayPal as your payment processing launchpad. And if you were to listen to your instincts, you wouldn’t be far wrong! With a plethora of must-have features, solid security, ease of use and global prevalence of  PayPal payments, you can rest assured you’re in good hands. It’s not all roses though. Given how they monopolise top-of-mind awareness in the payment processing industry,  unfortunately PayPal are not acclaimed for their competitive rates or going-beyond-the-extra-mile type of customer service.


PayPal screenshot


PayPal Standard is the cheapest and most used version, but if you do not mind shelling out an extra £20/month the Pro version sports some additional nifty features.  



  • PayPal have a fair and effective credit card processing structure – Flat-rate (blended) pricing applies to both PayPal payments as well as credit card payments processed through PayPal and interchange-plus when customer has paid you directly with a credit or debit card. The interchange-plus rates depend on the country of issuance and PayPal cannot display pre-set rates for this option. If you sell mainly within the UK and the EU and do not mind a bit of a delay in the availability of  your card and debit card funds, interchange-plus pricing is a safe solution.
  • PayPal Here – The top-notch card reader solution is microentrepreneur-centric and it offers you a blended (flat-rate) or interchange-plus pricing with rates starting at 2.75% and IC + 2.5%, respectively.  
  • Keep in mind that all PayPal’s pricing structures are volume-based and the more you sell the less you pay.


  • Using advanced features (such as fraud filters) might incur extra charges.
  • Your account may be subject to termination based on vague assessment criteria – For instance, if you sell a fiction e-book with some explicit romantic content, PayPal might deem it “obscene”.   

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iZettle logo

Not all great things from Sweden come in an IKEA-sized form – iZettle are a little startup gem which pampers small entrepreneurs with transparency and an incredibly competitive pricing. Their dedication to small merchants operating in family/owner-manager businesses or hospitality keeps all your payment processing issues at bay. They do not offer a payment gateway or online credit card processing –  their strongest suit lies in brick-and-mortar businesses.  


iZettle screenshot



  • State-of-the-art card readers with in-house innovative technology – They claim their branded iZettle Reader is 25% faster and lasts 30% longer in battery life than any other card reader on the market. In addition to supporting EMV and NFC technology for highly secured and contactless payments, iZettle mobile card reader is compatible with UnionPay – you’ve got the total package!
  • Advance cash – We all know the hurdles, hassles and time-consuming process a small entrepreneur must go through in order to secure a loan. iZettle are genuinely devoted to giving your business a leg up and assisting you with a no-interest loan which can be repaid on a fixed monthly plan. It’s easier and faster than you think – You qualify if you have a sales history through iZettle. The loan can be received in as little as 48 hours.
  • Transaction protection programme – You are covered up to £250 of your chargebacks each month, subject to terms and conditions.



  • Limited support and solutions for card-not-present transactions.

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Shopify Payments logo

The popular online shopping platform is slowly but efficiently gaining traction as an in-store solution for merchants around the globe. With a ridiculously large arsenal of features, must-haves and gimmicks, Shopify Payments is a definite solution for your small businesses if integrated payments add value to how you manage your online and POS cash flows. Although a little bit less economical than other providers on our list, Shopify’s popularity with both consumers and online merchants, support for languages and currencies, digital innovations and ease of use for the regular user make it a very appealing option for a small business entrepreneur.   


Shopify payments



  • Solid payment structures for various platforms – Shopify Payments supports online and in-person transactions as well as through Facebook Shop and Facebook Messenger ($9/month), making it an ideal solution for brick-and-mortar, ecommerce and mcommerce mediums.
  • Centralised dashboard – As a small business owner it is vital to have most of your software, plug-ins and payment gateway in one place. In this regard, Shopify Payments excels at offering you a high degree of integration and compatibility. This means administrative and financial chores will weigh less on your daily workload.
  • Free SSL certificates for your website.



  • Customers completing their transactions through Shopify Payments with a debit card can sometimes have their transaction declined, depending on what type of card they used. Shopify state that this common problem in most instances is due to customer errors. However some merchants beg to differ a little.  

Visit website


Alternatives: If you’d rather go with a more traditional merchant account provider, companies like Worldpay, Payzone, PaymentSense or Card Cutters have dedicated services to help small businesses and they offer a combination of flat-rate and interchange-plus pricing. They all come with either a Pay As You Go option or no monthly fees and offer top-of-the-line card readers supporting EMV and NFC technology for fast, secure and contactless payments. If however you feel more comfortable with a provider like iZettle, their competitor SumUp  have similar features and pricing models.


Provider Square Stripe PayPal iZettle Shopify Payments
Pricing structure

Flat Rate for all cards

1.75% (tapped, inserted, swiped payments)

2.5% (typed-in payments)

Flat rate

1.4% + 20p for European cards.

2.9% + 20p for non-European cards.

Flat rate

3.4% + 20p (through PayPal)

Interchange-plus (charges vary)

Flat rate

1.75% card reader

Flat rate for credit cards

Charges depend on the monthly plan and method (online, in-person) from 2.2% + 20p to 1.5% + 0p

Monthly fees No No No No $29/$79/$299
Annual fees No No No No No
Cancellation/exit fees No No No No No
No minimum monthly
Card reader £39 + VAT ✔* £75 £29 + VAT £59
Free fraud and risk management
PCI compliance included
Gateway monthly fee No No No N/A No
Gateway per transaction fee No No No N/A Free only with Shopify Payments
Payouts 1-2 working days 7-day rolling basis 2 hours – 4 working days 1-2 working days 4 business day payout schedule
Ease of use/setup ✔✔✔✔✔ ✔✔ ✔✔✔✔✔ ✔✔✔✔✔ ✔✔✔


* Card reader is supplied through a third-party – Payworks – which integrates with Stripe.  


How does the type of your business determine the merchant account setup?


Setting up a merchant account can be a rather different process depending on what industry and medium you conduct your business in. As a general rule, merchant acquirers charge higher fees for online businesses due to a higher probability of frauds and chargebacks and more competitive rates for brick-and-mortar companies. When shopping around as a microentrepreneur, a startup or a small business owner, you will come across 4 main types of merchant accounts for your UK-based business.  


Small retail shop

High-street banks – These are the financial giants such as Lloyds, HSBC, Santander and Barclays operating through stand-alone services, in joint venture or partnerships with other providers. The monthly and transaction fees are among the highest on the market, the setup process can take anywhere from 10 days to a month and they have rigorous risk assessment criteria. As a startup you stand better chances of winning the lottery than being signed by a high-street bank. However, as a small business owner with over one-year financial and credit rating history and low risk, you might be able to get into their league of high-profile clients.


Independent payment service providers (Worldpay, Sage Pay, First Data) – They specialise in catering to SMEs and tailor their services to various industries, some with high risk as well. For a retailer operating both in-store and online, these services are ideal since they come in the form of integrated,  multi-channel or omni-channel  solutions. It normally takes between 1 to 10 days for their underwriting department to assess and greenlight your account. With competitive prices, good customer support and advertising transparency they offer global and scalable solutions to your business regardless of its size and needs.

Internet merchant accounts (third-party aggregators/online payment processors) – PayPal rule the vastness of online payments and they are the go-to solution for most startups. One of the disadvantages of opting for an online payment processor is that you might have your funds and account frozen if your business is deemed high-risk upon opening an account. Read carefully their terms and conditions! Opening an account is almost instantaneous and it only requires basic technical skills.

Offshore merchant accounts – When everything else fails, you still have one last ace up your sleeve – from overseas. If you discreetly define your business as being “too extravagant”, ”too controversial”, “too liberal” or “too high risk”, chances are you need an offshore merchant account. Potentially offering tax benefits, quick and seamless approvals (1-3 days), these institutions are like the underground version of merchant accounts but utterly legal and professional. If you are that one kind-hearted entrepreneur wishing to improve people’s lives by selling herbal medicine or pharmaceuticals online, an offshore merchant account is your only legit way of achieving your goals.


The next step is to establish what the monthly and annual costs are and to what extent you intend to rely on your payment processor – will all your sales be processed through a payment gateway/credit terminal or do cash transactions account for the bulk of your sales? The more you rely on your payment processor, the more features you need for your merchant account.

While monthly and annual fees can be more easily accounted for in your cash flow and P&L statements and give you a clear idea on your merchant account budget, the fees/transaction (discount rates) are a bit more difficult to be factored in by a small business with an outsourced or a small financial team. One of the crucial aspects of setting up a merchant account for a startup or a small business is to understand how the differences among flat rates, interchange-plus and tiered pricing can generate fluctuations in your monthly gross margins.

While Visa and Mastercard set the interchange fees (charges for processing credit cards) your payment processor will normally determine if these rates are qualified, mid-qualified or non-qualified based on a tiered pricing.

For instance, while Visa might set the payment processing at 1.65%/transaction (interchange fees) your payment processor might instead offer you three types of rates (qualified, mid-qualified and non-qualified) based on what types of cards (regular cards, reward cards, business cards, commercial cards) are used for a transaction, how customers choose to pay (in-store, online), the method (keyed-in, swiped) and security checks (AVS, CVV2).

The bottom line is that your payment processor benefits greatly from a tiered pricing and has complete control to shuffle the assessment criteria for this system without prior notice. This means that your sales will be affected by fluctuating discount rates and for a small business it will be more laborious to calculate transaction fees.


What’s a better way around it? Opting for an interchange-plus pricing (a transaction fee set by Visa or Mastercard on top of which a merchant account provider adds their fixed markup) or a flat-rate pricing (fixed rate for all card transactions) might be a more cost-effective solution for a small enterprise. Most providers in the UK offer a mix of interchange-plus and flat-rate pricing (for instance, this could be a fixed 2.95% + 20p/transaction) which grants you the advantage of keeping a better track of your merchant account fees and a better pricing transparency. The interchange-plus pricing is nonetheless a tad more complex to understand on your monthly statement.


Best PDQ (card terminals) machines for small businesses


Smart card readers have the latest EMV and NFC technology with built-in chips, are extremely portable, lightweight and fashionable and offer very competitive pricing models.

They can easily connect to your mobile or tablet device and morph into a full-on POS station, are compatible with both iOS and Android and integrate with a large number of plug-ins, extensions and other apps. On top of all these attractive features, they come at extremely affordable prices. Merchant account? Not needed!

You might be asking yourself – with all this futureproof versatility why would you still need the regular bulky card terminal? It’s more a matter of practicality, volume of sales and the environment in which you conduct your business – If the bulk of your sales occurs in-store, say a restaurant or a bar, running around with a smartphone and a card reader, might not be the most practical solution.

Another soluble downside is that you need to buy a printer separately. A strong selling point for a traditional PDQ machine or POS station is that these machines generate more trust among consumers – although given the adoption rate of smart card readers, this is only a matter of time.

As such, if you feel that a smart card reader is not enough and you process a steady large volume of sales for your business, there are plenty of traditional credit terminals to satisfy the needs of your business. The costs are significantly higher:


  • For leasing a card terminal you would need to pay £20-£30/month whereas buying one in full would set you back £200-£800.
  • For a fully equipped POS station prices can go over £1,500 for the whole amount or start at £40/month for leasing.


Credit terminals are normally provided by your merchant acquirer and prices vary depending on the model and provider. All modern PDQ machines support contactless payments compatible with Android Pay, Apple Pay or Samsung Pay. Whether countertop, portable or mobile, these PDQ machines have more or less the same functionality and features with one crucial difference – connectivity. Countertop terminals connect via a cable/USB, portable terminals connect through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth whereas mobile PDQ machines use GPRS/3G/4G technology.


Here are some of the top choices for PDQ machines in the UK:


VX 520 (countertop), VX 680 (portable) and VX 675 (mobile) are solid and cost-effective terminals from Verifone with a more traditional design but an enhanced level of security and features. While some of their competitors prefer to blur the line between countertop and portable/mobile by equipping all their terminals with GPRS/3G/4G connectivity, Verifone value a clearer distinction among their terminals.

Terminal Rating:

iCT 200 Ingenico iCT 200 series 220 and 250 models are light, secure, ergonomic and have a minimum footprint on your counter space. Sporting a backlit keypad, clear LCD display, with a printing speed of 18 lines/second they can process smart cards, magstripe and contactless payments

Terminal Rating:

Ingenico Desk 5000 Ingenico Desk/5000 and Move/5000
If you wish a higher printing speed (up to 30 lines/second) large LCD display with HVGA resolution (480X280) and even a stylus, these countertop and portable devices are a solution to be reckoned with. They are perfect for larger businesses which value innovation over everything else

Terminal Rating:

EFT Vega3000 EFT Vega3000 series (from Castles Technology)
V3C Touch and V3C Lite are 32-bit Linux-based powerhouses with large touchscreen LCD displays and connectivity supporting even 4G. They have industry-standard security and support all types of payments making them the most prevalent terminals on the market. V3M Touch and V3M Lite models are the portable counterparts sporting the same enticing features. Vega3000 series is ideal for a business which values fast and reliable technologies

Terminal Rating:

SATURN1000F SATURN1000F (from Castles Technology)
With a revolutionary design mostly envisioned in sci-fi odysseys, SATURN1000F is meant to compete with Ingenico 5000 series in terms of functionality and features. With a 5.5’’ LCD capacitive touch screen (1280X720 pixels), 4G LTE connection, front/rear camera, fingerprint/barcode reader and a stylus, this terminal is one of the most advanced devices you can ever hope for.

Terminal Rating:

How does your sales volume impact your costs?


The sales volume and size of the transactions affect your merchant discount fees considerably. We’ve determined that merchant account providers charge you a combination of tiered, interchange-plus and flat-rate pricing and depending on each model your sales will influence your costs. Some merchant acquirers also charge higher rates for businesses which sell both online and in-store – negotiate fair deals so you won’t end up paying exorbitantly!

There are two overriding factors you need to consider at all times:


  • Volume of sales/month – All non-cash transactions you register in a month.
  • Ticket size – The average size of your sales (£15/transaction, £20/transaction etc.)  


Generally speaking the more you sell and the larger your ticket size is, the less fees you are charged – you can save hundreds of dollars/year!


Let’s take a closer look!


Scenario 1: Your payment processor is PayPal and your monthly turnover is £10,000 with an average ticket size of £10 (1,000 transactions/month) – for this threshold PayPal lower the flat rate/transaction from the standard 3.4% + 20p to 2.4% + 20p.  This means that with the discounted rate you can save £100/month over the standard rate.

Scenario 2: Your payment processor is PayPal and your monthly turnover is £10,000 with a new average ticket size of £100 (100 transactions/month). This means that because your ticket size has increased from £10 to £100, you can save a further £180/month. Such a big change in the ticket size might reflect a total shift in your inventory and the type of products/services you sell. So this scenario is done only to illustrate ticket size variations.   

The bottom line is –  By increasing your volume of sales to £10,000/month and your ticket size to £100, you have saved a total of £280 in a month in this particular scenario. By all means, these calculations can vary greatly depending on your pricing model, but the methodology is the same regardless of what provider you choose to go with.    


Accepting American Express


First things first

do you actually need it? It really boils down to your business and what segment you market or target. Statistics show that Amex is popular both in the US and UK but have a penetration rate significantly lower than Visa or Mastercard.

However, when it comes about transaction volumes, with $668 billion Amex surpassed Mastercard’s $607 billion in 2014. That is because Amex users tend to be more affluent and spend larger amounts of dollars per transaction. If you own a small coffee shop or restaurant, accepting American Express might not benefit you as much as you would expect.

Their fees are notoriously higher and most merchants steer away from them. Moreover, you need to apply directly to Amex to open an account which allows you to accept American Express in your store. However, if you truly champ at the bit to accept Amex payments, Sage Pay offer some of the most competitive rates on the market.

Online security – Since American Express have developed their own 3-D Secure called SafeKey, you need to install a separate plug-in in order to use this fraud prevention protocol. Your merchant account provider might offer support in this regard.  Without the implementation of this security protocol, American Express cards are more susceptible to frauds increasing merchant’s liability for chargebacks.

Determine your buyer persona, marketing strategy, shop around and ask your merchant acquirer if they offer special rates for American Express transactions – in the end it’s better to have it and not use it than need it and not have it.


Should you consider offering cash-back as a small business?  


What’s not to like about it?

You can reduce the risk of keeping large amounts of cash in your register and subsequently the funds that need to be banked while your customers enjoy the perks of an extra service since they do not need to walk to an ATM. Depending on the type of card they use, your customers can earn and redeem reward points as well.

Is it easy to set up? Absolutely – all you have to do is let you merchant account provider know that you’re interested in offering this service. Currently the limit on cash-back is £100/transaction, which is more than the average amount a UK consumer has in their pocket on a daily basis.

While offering cash-back is almost a cultural practice in the UK, with an EU ruling from 2015 which capped the amount banks could earn from card transactions, there are now  less financial incentives for consumers to use cash-back credit cards. Nonetheless, for brick-and-mortar businesses like coffee shops, restaurants and even some hospitality companies the practice of offering cash-back is still popular with consumers.     


Complete breakdown of merchant account fees


Excluding chargebacks or refunds, as a small business owner, you will have three major merchant account related costs to keep track of on your cash flow statement.  


  • Hardware and maintenance (PDQ machines, POS stations) for brick-and-mortar businesses
  • Any monthly or annual fees
  • Per transaction fees


For the first two categories please click here for a complete cost analysis. While these two types of costs might seem to be the ones putting you off about signing up with a particular provider, the bulk of your merchant account related expenses lies in the transaction fees. They can amount to a few thousand pounds per year, depending on your type of business, pricing model and rates, sales volume and ticket size.     

Let’s consider a purely theoretical scenario – You bring in £10,000/month in total sales and you pay a flat rate of 2.9%/transaction with a ticket size of £100 (100 transactions/month). By doing a simple calculation, it results that you would pay about £3,480/year for transaction costs – a considerable dent in your gross margin.  

The next step to determine the cost-effectiveness of your merchant account provider is to calculate the effective rate.  You need to calculate all the merchant account monthly fees (including transactions) and divide them by your monthly sales. In relation to the above scenario, these would break down as follows:


£290 (transaction fees) + £200 (miscellaneous monthly fees) against a £10,000 revenue
(290+200)/10,000 =  0.049
0.049X100 = 4.9% = effective rate for your merchant account provider.


How does this rate stack up against other competitors’? Considering that most interchange rates are less than 3% for non-high-risk businesses and you have a good steady volume of sales, paying 4.9%/month for your merchant account provider might prove to be too costly. Don’t drop your provider just yet – try to negotiate a better deal or scrape off any add-ons and extra monthly services that you do not use.


How to get approval for a startup or no credit history business


Many UK small businesses or startups find themselves in a catch-22 situation – It’s challenging to get a one-year financial history with a merchant account provider! This dilemma ensues from the fact that startups or businesses with less than a one-year history, either online or brick-and-mortar, are considered high-risk. Regardless of whether you can convince the underwriters that you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg, the reality is that the approval rate for startups is rather daunting.   

The bad news?

According to numerous studies, 9 out 10 startups or businesses with under one-year history fail tragically, dragging along considerable debt, chargebacks and bankruptcy. No merchant acquirer finds these statistics music to their ears.     

The good news?

High-risk businesses are actually broken down in four categories: Illegal (guns, ammunition, engendered species), very high risk (adult material and content, gambling, pharmaceuticals), medium or moderate risk (travel services, memberships) and lower risk (startup online retailer). Keep in mind that Visa and MasterCard have their own underwriting regulations for various services and products.   

Two aspects of paramount consideration for underwriters when assessing your business are volume processing speed and fulfilment duration. Let’s imagine this – You’ve just started your business using PayPal and miraculously your sales are uncontrollably accelerating in volume with your products being shipped all over the world, taking 2 to 3 weeks to destination. Your products are flying off the shelves – literally! But for a bank or a traditional merchant account provider this situation can signal unsustainable growth and a potential avalanche of chargebacks.

You need to provide clear evidence and a strategy on how you can reduce fulfillment duration (e.g. strong collaboration with your shipper, shipping to nearby safe countries etc.) and minimize the risk of chargebacks (solid marketing strategy, transparent advertising, security protocols). In your cover letter or application form, be honest but smart enough to formulate the description of your business or industry in a way that doesn’t scare the underwriters at the drop of a hat.


There are two main ways to go about applying for a third-party aggregator or merchant account:


  1. Internet merchant account (third-party aggregators like PayPal or Square) – The process is simple, fast and it only takes a few minutes to complete. You normally need a Tax Number  (UTR) and/or a Company Registration Number (CRN) and basic personal and business information to open an account.
  2. Traditional merchant account – Companies like Worldpay, Sage Pay, First Data and others may request any of the following documents in addition to other documents they deem relevant to your application. When applying online you might be asked to submit scanned documents of your passport or photo ID, utility bill, proof of physical address of your business, business bank account in addition to:


  • Tax number
  • Business licence and company registration
  • Clearly defined marketing and business plan or model
  • History of processing credit cards – statements within the past 3 months, 6 months or 1 year. The underwriters look for specific information such as number of transactions, total volume of sales, refunds and chargebacks.
  • Business financial statements – Profit and loss and balance sheet. If you are a startup, the projected versions of these financial statements might suffice for some providers.  
  • Personal financial statements – Whether you have sole ownership or not, the director(s) of the company might be asked to provide this sensitive information in tandem with their UTR or National Insurance Number. The underwriters look into your 2-year history of tax returns.
  • Business policies – You can leverage solid cancellation, billing, shipping and return policies to convince underwriters you are less susceptible to chargebacks.


Getting approval for a small business merchant account can be nerve-wracking and time-consuming. But as long as you are honest and determined, everything is possible! Don’t let statistics scare you away and believe in the power of your business to make a difference in people’s lives.

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