In 2018, credit and debit cards overtook cash as the UK’s favourite way to pay. In 2019, cash payments in the country decreased by a whopping 15%. Then, in 2020, COVID-19 happened. The coronavirus' effects on cash were wide-ranging, but rarely good. Cash was blamed for its role in spreading the virus, and the UK government – eager to encourage more modes of hands-free spending – boosted the contactless cap from £30 to £45.
We can't tell you exactly what will happen in 2021 and beyond, but it doesn't take a crystal ball to know that cash's influence is waning. Contactless debit and credit cards (along with mobile wallets, such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay), on the other hand, are in – and it looks like they're here to stay.
What does that mean for your small business, exactly? Well, you need to be able to accept card payments at your physical store. And for that, you need a card machine.
What’s the best credit card machine for small businesses?
We've undertaken exhaustive research into the UK's top card machine suppliers to find out their strengths, weaknesses, and the types of businesses they work best for. And, with 15 years of expertise supporting the country's small businesses, you can trust us to match you with the best supplier for your company’s size, budget and scalability goals.
Read on for our reviews of the Zettle card reader 2, Ingenico iCT220, Ingenico’s iWL series, Sumup Air, PayPal Here, and Worldpay Reader, the Square card reader, and more.
Best mobile card machine
Zettle card reader 2
For more information about Zettle's services for merchants, head to our dedicated Zettle review.
Best countertop card machine
- Multi-merchant capability (ideal for multiple self-employed workers sharing one payment terminal)
- Accept smartphone payments
- Swipe function
- Ethernet connection available
- Backlit keypad
- Large buttons
- Built-in receipt printer
- PCI and EMV compliant
Best of the rest
Here are the contenders that didn’t quite make our list, but still deserve a full review:
- Accept all major debit and credit cards
- Accept smartphone payments
- No fixed monthly costs
- Short-term contract
- Low upfront costs -the reader itself costs just £29 (though this price frequently comes down to £19)
- PCI compliant
- PCI and EMV compliant
- Compact, intelligent, and easy to use
- Crisp display to drive increased brand power
- Telium 2 technology for fast, secure transactions
- Accepts all kinds of payment options
- Built-in printer churns out 18 lines a second
- Accepts all payment types
- Optional rechargeable backup battery for mobility
- PCI and EMV compliant
- Smooth, visually appealing interface
- Powerful microprocessor enables speedy payments
- Integrates with a wide range of apps
- Quick payment processing speed
- Optional base stations offer flexibility
- Long-lasting battery
- Durable and reliable
How you can accept card payments for your small business
You can’t just grab a device and start taking payments – there’s more to it than that. To start accepting card payments for your small business you’ll need an EPOS system and a merchant account, too. And to take payments online and over the phone, you’ll also need a payment gateway and a virtual terminal.
To accept card payments for your small business you’ll need a combination of the following:
1. EPOS system
First up, if you serve customers face-to-face, you will need an Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) system to pair with the credit card reader. This is essentially the till: a cash drawer, user interface and usually a receipt printer.
2. Merchant account
Next, you’ll need a merchant account with a merchant bank.
A merchant account is a type of credit account that allows your business to accept credit and debit card payments. It’s where the money sits while the bank checks that the customer has the sufficient funds to make payment. It also serves as protection against fraud.
PDQ machines are most commonly leased as part of a merchant account agreement. A merchant account can be setup with a dedicated merchant bank, such as Worldpay, or by special arrangement with a PSP (payment service provider) or ISO (Independent Sales Organisation).
Our guide to the best merchant account providers in the UK is essential reading for those looking to start accepting credit card payments. Or, you can go back to basics and learn what a merchant account is with our comprehensive explanatory guide.
3. Payment gateway
To take card payments online (or, for that matter, in person, too) you’ll need a payment gateway.
Integrated with the shopping card your website, a payment gateway is a secure piece of software that encrypts the customer’s card details and transmits them to the merchant bank.
4. Virtual terminal
And businesses that need to accept credit card payments over the phone or by email will require a virtual terminal.
Like a payment gateway, a virtual terminal secures sensitive payment details while the bank authorises the transaction. Unlike a payment gateway, card details are entered into the system by the merchant, rather than the customer. This type of transaction is also known as a MOTO transaction (Mail Order / Telephone Order).
Along with payment gateways, pay-by-link, and online invoicing, virtual terminals are a popular online payment method for small businesses.
5. PDQ machine
Once you’ve got all that sorted, then you can go about choosing a card reader, or PDQ (‘Process Data Quickly' – a bizarre acronym used solely in the UK and Kenya) machine for your business.
The PDQ machine that's right for your business will vary depending on your specific requirements as a merchant. What works for a static brick-and-mortar business such as a coffee shop, probably won’t suit a food vendor who trades in a different location each week.
PDQ machine costs vary, so it’s important to choose the type that’s best suited to the unique needs of your business. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of devices available in the UK.
Now you know exactly how to take credit card payments – and which five elements will help you get there – it's time to start comparing quotes. Not just any old quotes, either – we're talking prices tailored to your business, from leading card machine suppliers that fit your small business' unique requirements.
You just need to tell us a bit more about what those requirements are. We'll ask a couple of questions about your industry and monthly sales volume, as well as how you plan to take card payments – whether that's online, over the phone, or from your bricks and mortar store. Our quick, quote-finding questionnaire takes less than a minute to complete, and it's 100% free for UK-based small businesses.
Get started by answering the first question below.
Mobile card machines
Mobile credit card machines allow you to accept card payments anywhere with mobile network coverage. They offer users ultimate flexibility, and have opened the door to a whole host of remote businesses for which a card reader was previously out of the question.
Remember when you used to have to ask the cab driver to stop at a cashpoint before dropping you off? Those days are over because of mobile card machines.
Most work via a pre-installed SIM card that connects your machine to a mobile network. Recently, though, more modern mobile card readers (like the Zettle card reader 2) have done away with the need for a SIM and instead connect to your phone via an app.
The benefits of a mobile card reader are:
✔ Portability — great for merchants such as food vendors and market traders
✔ Minimum hardware required — with some models, all you need is the card reader and a smartphone or tablet to connect it to
✔ No long-term contract — most mobile card reader providers offer short-term contracts tailored specifically for UK small businesses
Perfect for UK businesses such as: food truck vendors, cab drivers, pop-up shops.
Wireless/portable card machines
A portable card machine allows merchants the flexibility to move around and take payments without relying on mobile network coverage. They’re the perfect choice for a restaurant or bar setting where the point-of-sale is often at the customer’s table.
Wireless terminals usually connect via wifi, but if you don’t have an internet connection they can be hooked up to a traditional landline too. Most will operate for around eight hours before needing to be recharged and work at a range of up to 200 ft.
Benefits of a portable card machine include:
✔ Improve customer service — bring the card terminal to your customer. Ideal for hospitality businesses
✔ Flexible with a stable connection — not reliant on mobile network coverage for connection
✔ Choice of wifi or Bluetooth connectivity — connect to the network via the internet or a traditional phoneline
Perfect for UK small businesses such as: cafes, restaurants, bars.
Countertop card machines
Many small businesses choose to rely on countertop card machines to process payments. With a hardwired connection, they’re sturdy, reliable, and often the cheapest option in terms of upfront cost.
This varies from provider to provider, but you can expect to pay around £100 to buy a countertop card machine outright, compared with £200-£300 for a portable machine. The savings are real.
So for businesses like coffee shops, where the customer pays at the counter, a countertop card machine is often the best option.
The advantages of countertop card machines include:
✔ Reliable connection — you're not reliant on wifi or mobile network coverage
✔ No charging — there’s no risk of the dreaded low battery warning
✔ Save on upfront costs — countertop card terminals are generally cheaper than portable and mobile card machines
Perfect for UK small businesses such as: coffee shops, newsagents, beauty spars.
Accepting contactless payments
Contactless payment is the fastest, most convenient, and most COVID-secure payment method for customers. Most modern PDQ machines come with a contactless payment facility as standard. So, while there’s typically not much to compare in terms of hardware, it is important to get to the bottom of the transaction fees, as these can vary a lot.
The pros and cons of card machines for small businesses
Advantages of accepting credit cards
✔ Higher revenue — card payments account for over half of all UK transactions, and that number is set to rise year-on-year. Businesses that don’t accept card payments will be left in the dark ages.
✔ Credibility — as a business, if you don’t accept debit and credit card payments you look amateur. That’s a fact.
✔ Better end-to-end customer experience — a quick tap or swipe of a credit card is much more convenient for a customer than laboriously counting out cash. Streamline their shopping experience with a card reader. Remember: a satisfied customer is a loyal customer.
✔ Better cash flow — providers that specialise in making the best card machines for small businesses prioritise a speedy transfer of funds as part of their service. Cashflow can be a major problem, so having having quick access to the money from card payments is a major benefit.
✔ Upsell — it’s been proven that customers typically spend more when paying by card. Why? Well, when they aren’t physically parting with any cash, a quick stop for coffee can easily turn into a full blown lunch (and maybe even a muffin for dessert!)
✔ Security — handling large amounts of cash poses an obvious security risk to your business. Reduce this risk by accepting payments electronically. Plus, the EMV computer chip in modern cards makes them extremely difficult to clone, further reducing the chance of fraud.
Disadvantages of accepting credit cards
✗ Cost and transaction fees — you will be required to pay a transaction fee for every card payment processed. Fees vary depending on the volume of transactions; the more transactions you process, the lower your rates will be. This poses an obvious problem to small businesses who tend to process a low-volume of card payments. Don’t worry though, the providers reviewed on this page specialise in PDQ machines for small-scale business operations, with fees to match.
✗ Chargebacks — dealing with chargebacks can be a long and arduous process for business owners. Customers have the right to challenge any card payments they see on their statement, which can sometimes mean business owners have to refund the transaction, on top of a chargeback fee. This is usually around £15, but can be even more for high risk businesses.
✗ Fraud — fraudulent transactions may be few and far between, but when they do occur it is usually the merchant who loses out.
✗ Credit check — most merchant account providers will run a credit check on you before you're accepted. This may rule you out if you have a bad credit history, or have just started out in business. Some providers, such as Square, don't run a credit check – you can find the rest of these providers in our guide to no credit check merchant accounts.
Save money on the cost of a card machine by comparing quotes with Expert Market
It's easy, and our quote-finding questionnaire takes less than a minute to complete. All quotes you receive are tailored to the specific requirements of your small business, from leading card machine providers.
How much do credit card machines cost for a small business?
A card machine is usually rented as part of a merchant account agreement. You won't go to a shop, for instance, and pluck an Ingenico or a Verifone model off the shelf – it'll be supplied by takepayments, Handepay, or whichever company you've signed a merchant services agreement with, who will rent you the machine.
Other providers – payment facilitators, mainly, such as SumUp, Square, and Zettle – sell you the card machine directly. Yes, this is cheaper in the long run than the PDQ terminal rental you get with traditional merchant account providers, though you'll pay for it in higher transaction fees.
Aside from the charge for the payment terminal itself (or its monthly rental), there are two main set of fees you need to know about: transaction fees and a minimum monthly charge.
The transaction fee is what you'll pay every time you make a sale, and is usually a percentage of the sale's value (for example, 1.5%). Sometimes, it's a flat fee (such as 5p), and other times it's a blended rate (let's say, 1.5% + 5p). The minimum monthly charge is a fee you'll pay to your merchant account provider if sales don't meet a certain threshold over the course of the month.
For more information about what you'll pay for a card machine, check out our guide to merchant account fees in 2021.
How we analyse and rate credit card machine providers
At Expert Market, it’s our aim to provide you with the most accurate, up-to-date, and transparent product and service reviews possible. So, to help you better understand the best merchant account options out there, we’ve conducted in-depth, extensive research into the payments industry and its top companies.
Here’s how we did it:
We worked with two independent researchers over 60+ hours to rate 13 different merchant services providers – eight traditional (dedicated) merchant account suppliers, and five payment facilitators.
Our project assessed four separate varieties of payment methods, as well as nine specific features. Using a bespoke, industry-style algorithm, we rated each provider across four key metrics.
- Help and support: we assessed the level of customer support (such as email, phone, or live chat), as well as its availability (24/7, or weekdays only?), to provide a weighted score for each merchant account supplier.
- Affordability: our affordability algorithm took into account the specific transaction and monthly fees for various transaction types, as well as any one-off costs. Our analysis also included contract length, package type, the flexibility of each providers’ pricing structures, plus the price of any hardware required.
- Features: we assessed each supplier on up to eight specific features. We then weighted these scores, and translated them into a point value system. This allowed us to form accurate ratings for each merchant account provider, and make specific recommendations to you.
- Customer approval: we assigned each provider a ‘customer score’, which involved seeking opinions from within the community, as well as feeding data aggregated from online sources into a unique algorithm. This allowed us to calculate overall customer approval scores for each merchant account supplier, in real time.
We take the integrity of our research seriously. If you’ve got any questions at all about our research process, feel free to get in touch with Rob, our financial services specialist, at email@example.com.