What Is the Difference Between a Merchant Acquirer and a Payment Processor?

10 minutes
What Is the Difference Between a Merchant Acquirer and a Payment Processor?
In this article

The world of digital payments is more complex than it may seem to those sending money across the world with a few taps. There are multiple parties that handle different aspects of an electronic transaction when funds are transferred between a customer’s bank account and a merchant’s account. Two important players in this digital payments ecosystem are the merchant acquirer and the payment processor. While they may seem similar and work in tandem, each has a distinct role, which we’ll outline below. 

What is a Merchant Acquirer?

A merchant acquirer, sometimes referred to as an acquiring bank, merchant bank or simply as an “acquirer”, acts as the bridge between sellers and bank card networks or schemes such as Visa, Mastercard and American Express. When a business decides to accept card payments online, they partner with a merchant acquirer to make this possible. The acquirer will set up an account for the merchant and start providing services:

  1. The first step is onboarding merchants. This involves assessing the merchant's creditworthiness, business type, and other factors to determine the risk associated with processing payments for that merchant.

  2. Once this is done, the acquirer sets up a merchant account for the seller. This is where funds from card transactions are settled.

  3. When a customer then buys an item from the merchant’s online store with a bank card, the customer’s payment data is sent to the acquirer for processing. This information is forwarded to the respective payments network (for example, Visa, American Express or MasterCard) and the bank that issued the customer’s card. 

  4. After the transaction is approved, the acquirer settles the funds from the customer’s bank to the merchant’s account, deducting any relevant fees. 

How merchant acquirers handle risk, security and compliance

Acquirers are responsible for managing and mitigating the risks associated with processing card transactions. This takes many forms. It begins with an initial assessment of the merchant’s financial situation and business model, in order to identify high-risk businesses. Higher risk businesses may be subject to increased fees, obligations to hold funds in reserve to cover potential chargebacks, or limited payment options.

Fraud is another form of business risk that merchant acquirers are expected to monitor and avoid. As such, merchant acquirers implement fraud prevention tools in order to ensure transactions are legitimate, and monitor transactions for suspicious patterns and anomalies.

As merchant acquirers must handle sensitive cardholder data, another important part of their job is to ensure this data is secure. They commonly use encrypted data transmission and tokenisation to protect payment data, and enforce Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance. They also ensure that merchants are compliant with applicable laws and regulations, such as anti-money laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements.

When customers dispute a transaction, also called a payment chargeback, merchant acquirers can assist merchants in managing and resolving them. Chargebacks are in place to protect consumers against errors, fraudulent charges, and consumers can also dispute a charge if they are dissatisfied with the quality of the merchandise, service or delivery.  However, these can be time consuming for merchants to resolve on their own and may eat into merchant’s profits. Merchant acquirers can monitor chargeback ratios, help merchants respond to chargeback claims and help them provide evidence to support their case.

What is a Payment Processor?

A payment processor facilitates electronic payment transactions between merchants and customers. They handle the technical and operational aspects of moving funds from a customer’s bank account to a merchant’s account when a sale is completed online. These are the steps that a payment processor takes when facilitating transactions:

  1. Payment processors transmit data from the point of sale to the merchant acquirer, card networks, and the customer’s issuing bank. 

  2. Processors obtain authorisation for a transaction by communicating with the issuing bank to verify that the customer has sufficient funds or credit. They inform the merchant whether the transaction is declined or accepted.

  3. If a transaction is authorised, payment processors ensure that the funds are transferred from customer to merchant.

During this process, rigorous security measures are implemented to protect sensitive payment information and prevent data breaches. This includes encryption, tokenisation, and adherence to industry standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).

Many payment processors also offer payment gateway services. A payment gateway is a service that allows merchants to accept online payments and integrate them into their websites or applications.

Is a payment processor the same thing as a merchant acquirer?

Both payment processors and merchant acquirers are essential in enabling electronic transactions between customers and businesses. They ensure that digital transactions operate smoothly, securely and successfully, in compliance with laws, regulations, and card network rules. Both payment processors and merchant acquirers operate in relationship with card networks or schemes like Visa, Mastercard or American Express.

There are several key differences, however, between payment processors and merchant acquirers: 

  • Roles: The merchant acquirer focuses on establishing and maintaining relationships with merchants, managing merchant accounts, and handling risk and customer support. The payment processor primarily deals with the technical aspects of transaction processing, ensuring secure and efficient payment flows.

  • Direct and indirect relationships: It’s standard for merchants to use acquirers as intermediaries between themselves and payment processors, especially if they are smaller. However, large businesses or eCommerce platforms sometimes have a direct relationship with payment processors, and don’t use an acquirer as an intermediary.

  • Risk Management: While both entities are concerned with risk, the acquirer is more involved in assessing the risk associated with specific merchants. Payment processors are more focused on transaction security and fraud prevention. They are also equipped to handle various transaction errors, such as declined payments, expired cards, and network issues. 

Combine payment processing and acquiring services with Airwallex

Airwallex is a financial platform that simplifies global payments. It offers acquirer-agnostic payment processing services to many businesses and eCommerce marketplaces, and is also used by many companies as a combined payment processor and merchant acquirer. 

This takes the friction out of managing your global cash flow. With just one log-in, you can seamlessly pay, get paid, manage your cash flow, and spend, in multiple currencies, while avoiding unnecessary fees.

This means that merchants can focus on what they do best, and allow Airwallex to handle multiple aspects of transaction processing. This also means collecting international payments can be easily unlocked without having to form relationships with multiple entities. 

For example, Orbitkey, an Australian business has expansed into Europe with the help of Airwallex. Our work with them has allowed them to accelerate their footprint to over 1,000 stores. 

With Airwallex as their acquirer and payment processor, the company now completes payments 75% faster, and saves 70% on international transfer fees on USD and EUR payment. Rather than accepting payments in foreign currencies and converting them to AUD, Airwallex provided Orbitkey with a Global Account that could directly accept payments in euros and dollars. This money could then be sent out to pay suppliers without the unnecessary cost of currency conversions.

Additionally, Orbitkey also eliminated the time and stress of dealing with multiple financial service providers, each with its own onboarding process. All financial data was visible at a glance, streamlining accounting and boosting transparency. 

Our proprietary local payments network offers a speedier, more cost-effective, and transparent alternative to legacy banking. Payments can be made in 170+ currencies to 150+ countries, using 160+ payment methods. It’s possible to open accounts with local bank details in minutes, and collect and settle in the same foreign currency to eliminate costly FX fees.

Designed with the modern global business in mind, Airwallex meets the highest international security standards and complies with regulations and industry standards in the many markets around the world where we operate.

Sign up online to find out more or get in touch with us today.

Back to blog


Subscribe for our latest news and updates

Related Posts

What is a merchant acquirer?

What is a merchant acquirer?

Tilly Michell

5 minutes

How to minimise foreign exchange costs in business
Tilly Michell

5 minutes

What factors affect international money transfer speed?
Tilly Michell

5 minutes

Business Account
Global Accounts

© Airwallex 2023. All rights reserved. Sitemap

Cookies on the Airwallex website

We use cookies to give you a better experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we’ll assume that you are happy to receive cookies. However, if you would like to, you can change your cookie any time here

Find out more