Credit Cards

What is a virtual credit card and how do you use it?

Using a virtual credit card -- or virtual account number -- is easy and it will keep your bank account and credit super secure.

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Replacing a compromised credit card can be a hassle, and it often feels like there's nothing you could have done to prevent it. Security breaches happen regularly, so when a company you've done business with is hacked, it can put your credit and finances at risk. 

Enter virtual credit cards. A virtual credit card is a digital credit card designed for one-day use that masks the numbers of an actual credit card. When you use a virtual card, the retailer can only access and store the information of the temporary card, which protects your actual card account information in the event of a data breach. 

Virtual cards add an additional layer of security to your online transactions. Most card issuers now offer cardholders the option to generate virtual cards, and they're accepted by any online merchant that accepts credit card payments. 

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 is 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 intended for one-time use, so even if a company where you've done business fell victim to a data breach and your card number was retrieved, your actual account would not 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 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 such as 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 a virtual card can be used 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, MasterCard and other major card issuers 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 do not 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.