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What are the Card Associations?

The Card Associations are Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover. They set the rules for issuance of their card brands, and they regulate the interchange fees that merchants pay.

The card associations are also known as the "card brands", and they effectively set the rules for credit card processing. They define what banks get to "offer" their cards - these banks are known as issuing banks, because the cards are issued to their customers. They also decide who gets to "accept" their cards - these banks are known as acquiring banks. The card associations define the structure upon which credit cards data flows, how disputes are handled, and how banks are compensated for their services (aka: interchange). 

Although the card associations define how things work, by and large, they don't actually manage the risk on any given sale. Visa and MasterCard don't issue cards, they just choose what banks are allowed to issue cards, and they set the rules. The exception to this rule is American Express. Unlike Visa/MasterCard, American Express acts as both parties. AMEX both issues cards to cardholders, and accepts them from merchants. As such - they define all of the rules, because they hold all the cards!

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