Virtual credit cards are a digital version of your physical credit card. They generate a unique credit card number for you to use in place of your physical card number, preventing the merchant from storing your credit card information and keeping your financial data more secure.
With security breaches popping up in the news, opting for a virtual card offers an extra layer of protection. Since these cards are typically intended for one-time use and mask your real card numbers, your information will remain safe. Several big-name credit card issuers provide virtual cards, but there are exceptions.
If you’re interested in using a virtual card when shopping, here’s how they work, how to request one and which card providers make it easiest to generate a virtual card.
What is a virtual card?
The easiest way to think of a virtual credit card may be to simply imagine your credit card without its physical form, reduced to a 16-digit primary account number. You’ve likely been asked to read your card number over the phone or enter it when shopping online, so you already have an idea of how this works.
What’s different about a virtual card, though, is that it doesn’t have the same security limitations as a physical card. Virtual cards can generate a unique card number for each transaction you make, protecting your real account number. They’re generally -- but not always -- intended for one-time use, so even if a company you’ve done business with falls victim to a data breach and your card number is retrieved, your actual account won’t be compromised.
Virtual cards provide much more flexibility. You can create new card numbers for different stores, change your card number on the fly, set spending limits and even lock or delete a card number without having it affect your actual account. That said, virtual cards can only be used for online purchases, some over-the-phone transactions and (if you add your virtual card to Apple Pay or Google Pay) at qualifying physical stores that accept those Apple or Google payment platforms.
What is a temporary card?
A temporary card is what’s generated each time you create a new virtual card or change the virtual card number that you are using to make a purchase. It’s the card number that a merchant sees when you complete a transaction with them. These temporary cards typically last for a short period of time -- usually just 24 hours, though some providers may maintain a temporary card for up to one year.
How do I request a virtual card?
Most major card issuers -- barring Chase and Discover -- now offer some form of a virtual card. You’ll need to have a physical card from the credit company before you can request a virtual card.
In some cases, like with many Citi credit cards, you can request a virtual card by logging into your account online, either via the web or your card issuer’s app, and looking for the Virtual Credit Card or Virtual Card Numbers settings option. Depending on your card issuer, you’ll be able to generate a temporary card through either their online portal or app. In some cases, you may need to download a specific app for the virtual credit card.
Once your virtual card is generated, you may be able to modify some settings such as the spending limit or expiration date. You can then start using that number to make your purchase online or via the card app.
Is a virtual card different from a digital wallet?
Yes. A digital wallet operates similarly to a virtual card, but there are some noteworthy differences. Digital wallets -- like Apple Pay and Google Pay -- store a digital version of your physical credit or debit card, with the exact card numbers.
Much like a virtual card, most digital wallets will generate a temporary card number when you make a purchase, ensuring that your actual card number is never actually exposed to a merchant. However, digital wallets are not accepted everywhere. While you can use a virtual card for all online purchases that accept credit cards, digital wallets can only be used at participating retailers, whether online or in-store.
Which providers offer virtual cards?
Citi, American Express, Capital One, Visa and Mastercard support the ability to generate virtual cards, either directly through the card or with a separate app or browser extension.
Bank of America, Discover, Chase and Wells Fargo don’t offer virtual cards, but they do offer digital wallet solutions. Contact your card provider or look through the settings to find out how to set up a virtual card or digital wallet.
Are virtual cards safer?
Virtual cards provide an additional layer of security by masking your physical card number with a temporary account number. This decreases the chance your actual card information will be exposed in a breach.
Virtual cards are not fraud-proof, however. A hacker could theoretically gain access to a temporary card number that is still active and complete a transaction. Card issuers extend the same fraud protection to virtual cards as they do to physical ones, so you should be covered in case of any fraudulent activity.
If you suspect fraudulent charges, you’ll need to dispute the charge as you normally would. However, you won’t need to change your account number, since it won’t have been exposed. Instead, you’ll need to close the temporary card number and generate a new one.
The bottom line
A virtual credit card adds another layer of security when shopping online, over the phone or, when available, in store. A virtual card generates a new card number, preventing a retailer from storing your credit card information. This keeps your financial information safe in the instance of a security breach.
Not every issuer provides virtual cards, but American Express, Citi and Capital One do. If you have a card from one of those issuers, consider using virtual cards to keep your information more secure.
If the store supports the use of virtual wallets -- and your card issuer offers virtual cards that you can link to digital wallets, like American Express -- then yes. Otherwise, virtual cards are limited to online or over-the-phone purchases.
Generating a virtual card number is typically instantaneous. You can do so online with your issuer from your account controls. If your issuer doesn’t offer a virtual card and you use a digital wallet, you can also generate a virtual card number quickly, usually in a matter of seconds.
There are a number of things you can do to keep your information secure while shopping online.
- Use a Virtual Private Network. A VPN encrypts your data, keeping your device safe.
- Only shop on secure, verified sites. Make sure there’s a small lock icon beside the website’s URL before submitting any payment information.
- Use a credit card with shopping protections. Credit cards often include fraud protections that make sure you aren’t held liable for fraudulent charges. They may also include things like purchase protection, which covers your new purchases against damage or theft. If your issuer doesn’t provide virtual cards, using your physical card could still keep you safe.
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