A Guide to Understanding the Numbers on Credit & Debit Cards

A Guide to Understanding the Numbers on Credit & Debit Cards
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Point Editorial

Nearly everyone has some form of a banking card. They’re small to carry, super easy to use when spending or depositing money, and they save you from having to lug around wads of cash. And it all happens with just a quick swipe or tap. 

On the surface, it may seem like all there is to a credit or debit card is just that: a simple swipe or tap, followed by a beep, and then you can continue with your shopping adventures. But there is a lot more to these wallet-sized financial fairy godmothers in disguise. They are the carriers of many important facts when it comes to your bank account and your money.

It is certainly worth knowing the details around credit and debit cards, and it is especially important to  understand the numbers on credit cards. 

Credit and debit cards have a total of 16 digits printed on the front, though a card can have as many as 19 digits or as little as 13. Like a secret code, card numbers represent different business and personal financial information related to the card owner and the card issuer. 

Read on as we dissect the function of credit and debit card numbers.  

The anatomy of a card

Debit and credit cards are like financial fingerprints. The numbers imprinted on them serve as would-be DNA, with each digit representing distinguishing aspects of the card, such as who uses it, who approved it, and the card’s purpose. Therefore, the pattern of these numbers varies significantly on each card. 

Front of the card

Bank branding: This refers to who issued the card. Your card will say either “Debit/Access Card” or “Credit Card” along the top. 

Card number: This is the entire 16-digit sequence printed on the front surface and is one of the pieces of information you’re required to hand over when shopping online. 

Cardholder’s name: This is also known as the person who is authorized to use the card. 

Smart chip: This is the small metallic-looking square typically on the left side of the card. It is there for security purposes. 

Expiration date: This appears in smaller print below the row of 16 digits. Like driver’s licenses, cards are only good for a certain amount of time. Before the expiration date arrives, the bank will mail you a new one. 

Payment network logo: This refers to the type of card you are using, such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc. Typically, you can locate this in the bottom right-hand corner. Again, when paying online or in-store, many businesses require you to select your card type, as not every establishment will accept the same kind of card. 

Back of the card

While debit and credit card numbers are mainly on the front side, the back of the card also features critical information.

Magnetic stripe: The strip that runs across the width of the card is arguably the back’s most notable feature. Whenever you swipe your card, the card reader scans or “reads” this stripe to collect various pieces of information about both the cardholder and the account. Each time someone swipes a card, the reader knows whether or not the card has expired. The strip also denotes whether the account associated with the card has sufficient funds for that particular transaction.

Hologram: This is the small, three-dimensional image near one of the bottom corners of the card. It serves as a security measure first and foremost; these are very hard for counterfeiters to fake. 

Backside contact information: This exists in case a problem should arise regarding your card, and you need to talk with your bank via phone. 

Signature panel: Every card, debit or credit, must be signed by the card owner before it’s officially ready for use.

Security codes: The security code on a credit or debit card, also known as the CVV, is a group of three digits included below the magnetic stripe and certifies that the card is indeed valid. 

Network logos: Often, you’ll find these on the bottom right-hand corner of the card. Logos are there to help you know which ATMs you can use for free without paying an additional charge. 

Making sense of debit and credit card numbers

Debit and credit cards appear to be very similar at first glance, but they aren't. When you use a debit card, you're drawing money directly from your bank account. A credit card essentially allows you to borrow the money until you pay it back as part of your monthly bills. As a concept, this is what financial institutions and vendors alike sometimes refer to as having a line of credit. 

Now that we've broken down the basic features of debit and credit cards, let's take a closer look at the numbers themselves and discuss how they work. After all, these are arguably the most vital features of every card.

The 16-digit numeric series located on debit and credit cards have the same function, but remember: The sequence of numbers will always vary. Even if you possess both types of cards, the digits will not be identical. Additionally, the bank or credit card company determines the actual pattern.

Industry ID: The Major Industry Identifier or MII is the first digit in the 16-number sequence on the card's face. In this context, numbers one through nine all signify a specific professional sphere that corresponds to the card's purpose. They are as follows: 

Numbers one and two represent airlines, three is for travel and entertainment, and four and five refer to banking and other financial purposes. Most cards will have a four or a five as the start of their number. Six corresponds to the merchandising sector, seven refers to the petroleum industry, and eight is telecommunications. Lastly, nine refers to national or governmental motives.  

Issuer ID: Also called the INN, this is the cluster of the first six numbers of the 16-digit sequence that identifies the institution that printed the card, such as Visa, American Express, Capital One, etc. 

Account number: The seventh number to the second-to-last number represents the cardholder's unique bank account number. 

Checksum: This is the final digit on the card and is yet another way to validate the card. See below for further information. 

Credit Card FAQs

How can I tell if a card number is valid? 

Debit and credit card numbers that are legal and valid are always divisible by 10. Created by mathematician Hans Peter Luhn in 1954, this formula is now public knowledge. Figuring out whether your card is indeed valid isn't necessarily straightforward, but you can do so by following the following steps: 

Step 1: Beginning with the very first digit in the 16 number sequence, double every second number. 

Step 2: Take any double digits that you come up with after doubling and separate them into their individual values. For example, 15 would become one and five.

Step 3: Find the total sum of the resulting numbers that remain after the previous step. 

Step 4: With the numbers that didn't double in the first step, add them together to find the total sum. 

Step 5: Add together the results from the third and the fourth steps.

Step 6: Divide the results from the previous step by 10. 

And there you go. If the final product ends in zero, congratulations. Your card is valid. 

Is the debit or credit card account number the same as the card number? 

No. The entire 16-digit numeric sequence on the front of the card is the card number. Your account number is part of that number. As described above, this is the seventh digit to the second-to-last digit for both debit and credit cards.

Now you’re aware that the values and symbols on your banking card are anything but meaningless. This knowledge will undoubtedly be a unique conversation starter next time you get together with friends and family. Despite their small size, these little gems are jam-packed with information and allow us to handle money with less hassle as opposed to with cash.

If you’re looking to take that next step and get started with a card of your own, allow us to introduce Point Card. It’s a debit card with all the rewards of a credit card. Not only is it easy to sign up for, but upon joining Point, you’ll automatically be entitled to exclusive perks such as unlimited cash-back on all purchases, bonus points on subscriptions, delivery and ride share services, car rental and phone insurance, and travel benefits.

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Point Editorial
A group of writers, thinkers, & designers from varying backgrounds — all part of the Point Card team. Sharing perspectives on concepts in design, finance, and culture through an everyday lens.
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