What’s the Difference Between Authorize and Capture? A Guide For Merchants
It’s no secret that credit card processing can be quite complex to understand. It involves everything from the need to maintain compliance with PCI standards and keep updated hardware and software, to staying up-to-date with payment trends and basic knowledge of the ins and outs of the transaction lifecycle.
At Stax, we’re here to help merchants understand what they need to know about payment processing so you can get to business faster and focus on what matters most—your customers. One aspect of payment processing that creates confusion for many is the difference between authorization and capturing payments. While many merchants choose to process transactions instantly in a single step, there is another way to process transactions, called authorize and capture.
This article explores the basics of authorization and capture—which are, at a glance:
- Authorization and capture is a two-step process for completing credit card payments. Authorization ensures the account has sufficient funds and is in good standing by holding funds as pending without charging the card. Capture is the process of transferring funds from the customer account to the merchant account, moving it from pending to complete.
- Many transactions transfer the charged amount from the customer’s account to the merchant account in one step. Authorize and capture payments work differently and can hold funds as pending before submitting the request to capture funds.
- Businesses that use authorization and capture to hold funds in excess of the amount charged, or have a longer time for transaction processing, should disclose the terms clearly to their customers to avoid confusion and poor customer service experiences.
Authorize and Capture Defined
Once a transaction is initiated, there are two additional steps for authorize and capture transactions to take place—and you probably guessed them: authorize and capture.
Authorization occurs when the merchant initiates a charge to a customer’s card at checkout, either online or in person. During this process, the payment processor checks with the cardholder’s bank to ensure the account has sufficient funds and is in good standing. If the account meets the criteria, the transaction amount is held pending. Pre-authorizing a card before completing the transaction verifies the payment method is valid without charging the account and helps to prevent chargebacks which can be costly.
Capture is the process by which the transaction is completed, and funds are withdrawn from the customer account, processed and transferred to the merchant account—moving the transaction status from pending to complete.
In sum, authorization and capture are two distinct parts of a transaction that first verify funds and then charge the customer for the transaction amount. Both are needed to process a transaction, and authorization is always the first step. However, there are some circumstances where the time between authorization and capture is extended—keep reading for examples of this process in action
Steps Needed in the Authorization and Capture Process
Many transactions appear to transfer the charged amount from the customer account to the merchant accounts in one step (though there is still a lot happening behind the scenes). Authorize and capture payments work a little differently since the authorization step holds the funds as pending before the capture request is made to finalize the transaction. There are essentially three steps for authorize and capture transactions.
Step 1: Create the payment
The first step is to initiate a transaction using the payment application programming interface (API). If your business has the functionality to process authorize and capture transactions, this will be a seamless function at the point of sale. With Stax Pay, we make it easy by allowing you to simply check a box that enables preauthorization and go back later to capture and settle the transactions.
Step 2: Request for authorization
Once the transaction is initiated, the merchant’s payment gateway will contact the issuing bank of the customer’s payment method to hold the funds. The amount of time a transaction can spend in the authorization stage will also depend on your payment processor as well, so be sure to check with your processor for additional details. The maximum amount of time funds can be held is 30 days, after which the request for authorization will expire, and a new authorization will be needed. At Stax, merchants have up to 10 days to request the capture and finalize the transaction.
Step 3: Capture funds
Once the card is authorized, and the transaction is ready to be completed, the capture request is issued to transfer funds from the customer’s bank to the merchant account. After the funds are captured, the transaction is complete.
Examples of Authorization and Capture in Action
There are a few ways authorize and capture work in action that can apply to different types of business. While many transactions authorize and capture in one fell swoop at checkout, especially with brick-and-mortar merchants, there are several transaction types where the capture process takes place days or weeks after the authorization.
One example of this is an eCommerce order where the merchant does not have the merchandise available to ship immediately, but will in a short amount of time, such as a pre-order. In this case, the pre-authorization is initiated at the time of the transaction. Once the goods are available to ship, the capture request is issued, and the credit card is charged.
Another example of authorize and capture in action that many people have experienced is checking into a hotel. Upon check-in, an authorization-only request is used to verify the customer’s credit card, and usually, the amount of the authorization is greater than the final total because it includes charges for incidentals or damages. That amount is held until checkout when the customer settles any charges—meaning that pre-auth and capture take place several days apart depending on the length of the stay.
In any case of authorization and capture, it is important to make sure the customer is aware of the pending charge, whether for the full amount or in excess of the transaction amount as described in the hotel example. Clearly communicating with your customers on what to expect will mitigate service issues and inquiries before they arise and is always a best practice.
Accepting debit and credit card payments is just one of many ways Stax can support your business’ payment processing needs, which includes the ability to pre-authorize transactions. If your business could benefit from the functionality of authorize and capture transactions, we’re here to help.
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