Understanding Payment Authorizations: What Merchants Need to Know

When your business accepts credit card payments, how can you be sure your clients have the money to cover the sale? Thanks to payment authorizations, you’ll receive approval for a credit card payment directly from the card issuer or bank.

With all the credit card transactions being made today, payment authorization is a fast way to not only gain permission from a customer’s card-issuing bank to accept a credit card but also reserve the sales amount on your customer’s account. This ensures you get paid.

Let’s take a closer look at the payment authorization process and discover what happens when you accept payment from a credit or debit card.

Learn More

What is Payment Authorization?

Payment authorization, also called credit card authorization, is a process that verifies a customer has enough funds to cover the amount to be paid on a sale. This process also applies to debit card transactions and PayPal transactions.

Basically, payment authorization enables businesses to confirm with the credit card company or bank that their customers have enough credit or money to cover their purchases. This authorization process is used with everything from Visa to Mastercard at many small and midsize businesses.

How Does Payment or Credit Card Authorization Work?

Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals of credit card authorization, let’s look into how the process actually works.

Step 1: The customer uses their credit card at checkout

Payment authorization starts when your customer offers a credit card for payment at checkout and inserts, swipes, or taps their card into your payment terminal. It might also begin when your client orders from your website and enters a credit card number in an online form. In some instances, credit card authorizations take place when a customer gives their number to one of your sales agents over the phone.

Step 2: An authorization request is sent to the bank

Once this information is received, your client’s credit card information is sent through an authorization switch. This authorization switch is established and managed by the organization or system hosting your POS device, sales support, or online ordering.

By analyzing the transaction information, the authorization switch determines which financial institution is servicing the credit or debit card. It then sends an authorization request for the transaction to the issuing bank or acquirer for verification.

Step 3: The request is approved or declined

After the bank verifies that your client’s credit is in good standing and has not exceeded the credit limit, your payment terminal receives an authorization message. At this time, merchants have the option to place an authorization hold on the cardholder’s account for the authorized amount of the sale. You can then complete the sale, often instantaneously.

A note about transaction fees

Every time a transaction is authorized, your business will pay a transaction fee. The amount of this fee varies and you’ll want to factor it into your overall sales.

A transaction that’s been authorized but not posted to a customer’s account appears as a pending transaction. This just means the money spent is no longer available in the customer’s credit line but has not been added to the current balance. In general, pending transactions clear after a few business days.

In many cases, the authorization amount and final transaction amount are identical. Sometimes, however, the authorization amount may temporarily differ from the amount of the actual purchase.

For instance, when a customer purchases gas at a gas station, the station authorizes a credit card for a small amount—usually $1—to make sure the card is valid. Once the charge appears on the customer’s credit card statement, it will be replaced with the actual amount spent on gas.

Likewise, hotels and rental car agencies can submit a credit card for payment authorization with just the nightly room rate. Once this initial payment authorization is approved, additional charges—like room service—are added to the bill until it’s finalized and the hotel or rental agency can collect the funds in a merchant account after the customer checks out of the hotel or returns the car.

What Happens If Payment Authorizations Fail?

During the payment authorization process, the bank or credit issuer may recognize the credit card as lost, stolen, frozen, or past its expiration date. In other cases, the transaction itself may be deemed suspicious and potentially fraudulent. When this happens, the transaction gets rejected and there may be a check for suspicious charge activity.

Payment authorizations may also fail for technical reasons. This usually happens when issues with configuration or online submission cause problems with the information being supplied to the processor. In these cases, an error code gets generated and the sale can’t be completed.

When payment authorizations fail, the seller should not complete the transaction until they receive proper authorization. Online businesses should also not ship any products until the issue gets fixed.

In most cases, the seller will need to fix technical problems that arise from payment authorization failure. Occasionally, however, the buyer may be having issues with their credit cards, debit cards, or device, and will need to resolve the problems from their end.

Notably, online credit card transactions have a 10% lower authorization rate than in-person credit card transactions. Due to an increased risk of fraud in online purchases, issuing banks use more conservative logic for these payment authorizations than in-person credit card transactions. While this is great for preventing fraud, it can aggravate clients who receive faulty declines.

If you run an eCommerce business that uses a Payment Application Programming Interface (API) to authorize payments, it’s a good idea to offer your customers additional options if payment authorization causes their transaction to fail. For instance, you can prompt them for another payment method or ask them to re-enter their credit card information if they accidentally entered the wrong details. This helps retain customers and encourage repeat business at your online store.

Conclusion

Payment authorization helps prevent fraud and chargebacks from hurting your business. By ensuring your customers have enough money to cover their purchases, your business transactions will go much smoother. This in turn creates a positive merchant reputation for your business that will encourage more clients to do business with you.

Here’s the good news: the payment authorization process is largely automated and streamlined. Your payment processor works behind the scenes with banks to ensure that legitimate transactions made in your business go through with ease. That way, you can simply focus on serving your customers and generating sales.

At Stax, we implement payment processing technology to efficiently authorize your sales transactions while preventing fraud. Contact us to learn more.

Sign Up Blog

  • Hidden
    What will be indicated on your tax returns.