What's The Difference Between MasterCard And AMEX?

5 December 2016
Two business titans, MasterCard and AMEX, face off on the worldwide stage. Canstar explains the pros and cons of choosing MasterCard vs AMEX.

If you’ve been wondering whether you should get a MasterCard vs an AMEX credit card, wonder no more. Today we’re outlining the difference between MasterCard and American Express (AMEX) and the pros and cons between these two credit card providers.

MasterCard and AMEX are quite different, starting with their business approach. MasterCard is a payment processing system only, so it does not issue any cards directly to the consumer. Instead, it allows financial institutions to brand their cards as “MasterCard” for credit cards and “Maestro” for debit cards, then use these cards on the MasterCard payment processing system. Here’s how they make money (as we understand it).

Meanwhile, American Express is also a payment system, but in addition to that, they issue their own cards directly to the consumer, finance payments, and process the transfers. They make most of their money from interest charges and fees.

So that’s the big picture difference between MasterCard and AMEX – now onto the nitty gritty detail of their rewards programs and acceptance…

How many MasterCard and AMEX cards are there?

Since MasterCard does not issue cards itself, there are no statistics currently available about how many MasterCard cards are floating around out there in the world. But we do know that they have a 9% market share worldwide, which is huge (Nilson Report, 2016). When it comes to Australia’s big 4 banks, Commonwealth Bank exclusively issues MasterCard products, while ANZ and Westpac issue both MasterCard and Visa, and NAB offers only Visa cards.

American Express has a smaller market share worldwide, and they have 117 million cards actively in use in total.

You can view a snapshot of each providers’ cards in the tables below with links direct to the providers’ website. Please note that these have been generated based on an estimated monthly spend of $2,000 for each network provider.

Where are MasterCard vs AMEX cards accepted?

MasterCard is accepted at 38 million locations around the world – the most of any payment system or card provider. At the time of writing, MasterCard operates in more than 210 countries, with more than 1 million ATMs around the world.

AMEX is accepted at tens of thousands of merchants across Australia and although they don’t publish their worldwide figures, they are reported to be accepted at around 15 million merchants worldwide. They also do not publish how many ATMs they have, although they have an online ATM locator.

Does MasterCard or AMEX have a better rewards program?

MasterCard offers rewards by partnering with the banks that offer its cards. For example, cardholders with a Platinum MasterCard receive rewards including a concierge, emergency assistance services, and exclusive tickets to major concerts and sporting events. As for what’s available for MasterCard cardholders travelling overseas, MasterCard cards outperformed Visa in our 2016 ratings when it came to offering cards with no currency conversion fee. World cards from MasterCard offer additional rewards such as hotel room upgrades, complimentary breakfast, or late checkout. (Find out how MasterCard rewards compare to Visa rewards here.)

AMEX cardholders also receive concierge services, fine dining deals, and exclusive tickets to concerts and sporting events. The points earn rate is generous, with cards earning 3 points per $1 spent. The American Express offerings from the big four banks came out on top in CANSTAR’s 2016 ratings of credit card rewards, thanks to their high earn rates. In particular, the major banks in Australia have partnered with AMEX to offer higher earn rates for frequent flyer reward points with Qantas and Virgin Velocity. (Find out how American Express rewards compared with Diners Club rewards here.)

Bear in mind that credit card rewards programs are constantly changing as providers compete with each other. You can keep track of how to get the most rewards for your dollar by checking our credit card rewards star ratings:

How did MasterCard and AMEX start out?

MasterCard were founded in 1966 when a group of banks formed the Interbank Card Association (ICA). The ICA created the Master Charge card, an interbank charge card or an early form of credit card. In 1979, ICA/Master Charge officially changed its name to MasterCard.

MasterCard innovations have transformed how the world pays and gets paid for the past 50 years. When the internet took off in the 1990s, MasterCard partnered with Europay International to launch Maestro as the world’s first global, online, debit program. In the 21st century, products such as Qkr! for school canteens, MasterPassTM contactless payments, tokenisation, and Apple PayTM have shaped everyday life for consumers, merchants, and banks.


Source: MasterCard

American Express was founded even earlier, in 1850, as an express mail business. In 1882, American Express expanded by launching a money order business to compete with the US Post Office. Moving towards what would become their crowning achievement as the world’s largest issuer of credit cards and charge cards, in 1891 they launched the American Express Traveler’s Cheque in four denominations ($10, $20, $50, and $100). In 1958, following the success of Diners Club, American Express created its own charge card, issuing 250,000 cards even before the launch date. Innovations from American Express include the ‘Shop Small’ promotion for small businesses every year in May, September, and November, encouraging Australian communities to support their local small businesses.


Source: American Express Australia

Should you choose MasterCard or American Express?

Consumers may find that whether MasterCard or AMEX is better for them will depend on how they use their card. MasterCard is accepted in more places, so it would be ideal for those who choose a credit card for convenience. But AMEX has a higher rewards earn rate, so it may be ideal for those who chase credit card rewards.

Of course, you can always choose both and use whichever card will be most convenient on a purchase by purchase basis!

There’s more to it than just convenience and rewards, though – make sure you compare interest rates, fees, balance transfer deals available, and more. You may not even need a credit card at all (check the pros and cons here), since the majority of Australians actually prefer debit cards.

A lot depends on which bank or credit institution is providing you with the card, not just whether it’s a MasterCard or AMEX branded card. Use Canstar’s credit card selector to compare more than 210 credit cards using our expert star ratings and choose a credit card based on interest rates, card features, rewards programs, and value for money.

Learn more about Credit Cards

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