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Credit card machines for small businesses - 2018 guide

A credit card machine, otherwise known as PDQ machine or credit card terminal, allows businesses to accept card payments electronically.

The cost of not accepting card payments can be crippling for small businesses. But what kind of card machine should you get? With plenty on the market, how do you pick the right one for your small business?

Well, that’s where we can help.

This page contains all the information you need to find the best credit card machine for your small business. We’ve explored the different types of card machines available, and their benefits. We’ve looked at how much they cost, and compared six of the best card machines for small businesses in the UK.

So, let’s start with the basics…

What is a card terminal and how does it work?
What do I need to start taking card payments?
Types of credit card machine
Accepting contactless payments
Best small business card machines
Pros and cons of accepting card payments
How much do card machines cost?
How do I get a card machine for my small business?

What is a credit card machine and how does it work?


Getting started: small business credit card machine essentials

What does my small business need to accept card payments?

You can’t just grab a credit card machine and stark taking payments. There are a few things that you need to get in order first.

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.

Next, you’ll need a small business merchant account with a merchant bank. This account acts as a ‘holding pen’ for funds while the bank verifies payment information and authorises the transaction.

To take card payments online you’ll need what is known as a ‘payment gateway’. And small businesses that need to accept credit card payments over the phone or by email will require a ‘virtual terminal’. You can read more about these below.

Finally, choose the best credit card machine for your business.

1. Merchant account

The first step for any small business taking card payments is to identify and set-up your merchant account. 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 sufficient funds in their account to make payment. It also serves as protection against fraud.

Card 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).

Take a look at our list of the best small business merchant services providers in the UK for help with setting up yours.

2. Payment Gateway and/or a virtual terminal card machine

To take card payments online you’ll need a payment gateway. This encrypts the customer’s card details while the payment is being authorised to protect against fraud.

Small businesses that want to accept card payments over the phone 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 transactions is known as a MOTO transaction (Mail Order / Telephone Order).

All major merchant service providers offer a payment gateway and virtual terminal, so shop around to secure the best deal for your business.

Find out more: 2018 payment gateway comparison.

3. Card Machine

The best card machine, or PDQ machine, for your small 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.

So before we review the best card machines on the market, let’s first look at the different types available.

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Types of Card payment machines

Pick a Card Machine Type..
mobile card machineswireless card machinesCountertop card machines

Mobile card machines

mobile card machine

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 machine 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 iZettle Reader) have done away with the need for a SIM and instead connect to your phone via an app. You can read more about this type of card machine below.

The benefits of a mobile card reader are:

Portability — great for small businesses such as food stalls 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 machine providers offer short-term contracts tailored specifically for UK small businesses

Perfect for UK small businesses such as: food truck vendors, cab drivers, pop-up shops.

Wireless/portable card machines

Wireless card machine

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

Countertop Card Machine

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.

Contactless Card Machines

Accepting contactless payments

Contactless payment is the fastest and most convenient payment method for customers. Modern card machines come with a contactless payment facility as standard. So while there’s not much to compare in terms of hardware, it is important to compare transaction fees, as these can vary a lot.

Some providers will charge as much as 4p to process contactless payments, others won’t charge at all. To ensure you’re getting a good deal for your business it is important that you compare quotes from multiple providers.

What’s the best credit card machine for small businesses?

We know, it’s difficult to choose the best card machine for your small business when they all seem to promise the same benefits.

Sure you want a chip-and-pin machine, that’s a given, but do they all facilitate smartphone payment? What about a swipe function for magstripe cards? And PCI compliance — that’s important, right?

It can all get a bit confusing.

So to make your life easier, we’ve picked out the best mobile, countertop and portable card machines on the market. Now all you have to do is choose the one that suits your business best.

Best mobile card machine

iZettle card reader

iZettle card machine for small businesses

iZettle has shaken up the mobile payments industry in recent years. Their distinctive iZettle Reader is a cost-effective card processing solution designed specifically for small businesses. Costing just £59, it connects with the iZettle App to allow businesses to take payments via a smartphone or tablet.

Overall Rating:

Key Features

  • Accepts a wide range of credit and debit cards
  • No monthly fee. Repeat: there are no monthly fees
  • Battery life — up to 8 hours
  • No set-up fees
  • Card reader costs £59
  • UK-based support
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

Best countertop card machine

Igenico iCT220

The iCT220 from Ingenico is a great example of an all-around countertop card terminal. It’s practically indestructible by card machine standards. (Seriously. In a fight between an Igenico ICT220 and a wall, we think the Igenico would win.) With crystal-clear backlit display and jumbo, finger-friendly keys the ICT220 allows you to easily enter payment details even in low-light conditions. And as a tasty bonus it comes with a speedy built-in receipt printer.

Overall Rating:

Key features

  • Multi-merchant capability (ideal for multiple self-employed workers sharing one terminal)
  • Accept smartphone payments
  • Swipe function
  • Ethernet connection available
  • Backlit keypad
  • Large buttons
  • Built-in receipt printer
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

Best portable card machine

Ingenico’s iWL series

ingenico iWL card machine for small businesses

The iWL card machine from Ingenico is a lightweight, feature-heavy handheld card terminal. Users can choose to connect using GPRS, 3G, WiFi or Bluetooth technology. And what’s more, iWL series card terminals are water and shock resistant, making them an ideal choice for businesses that operate in an outdoor space.

Overall Rating:

Key features

  • Up to 650 transactions on a single charge
  • Accept smartphone payments
  • Swipe function
  • Water and shock resistant
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

Best of the rest

Here are three card machines that didn’t quite make our list, but still deserve a full review:

Sumup Air

Sumup Air card machine for small businesses

SumUp is a trendy startup bidding to dethrone rivals iZettle as the king of mobile card machines. The company offers a flat transaction fee of 1.95% and no fixed monthly costs. Their pocket-sized card machine, the SumUp Air, measures just 84 x 84 x 23 mm. It can be bought outright for the downright competitive price of £59 + VAT.

Key features

  • Accept all major debit and credit cards
  • Accept smartphone payments
  • No fixed monthly costs
  • Short-term contract
  • Low upfront costs - just £59 for the card machine
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

PayPal Here

PayPal card machine for small businesses

PayPal Here is a mobile credit card machine that integrates seamlessly with your PayPal account. By doing this, it allows merchants access to funds from card payments just seconds after approval. The Paypal Here falls behind the iZettle Reader and the SumUp Air because of price (£79). But other than that, there’s not much to pick between the three.

Key features

  • Integrates with your PayPal account
  • Gives access to funds from a transaction just seconds after approval
  • Compatible with both Apple Pay and Android Pay
  • No fixed monthly costs
  • No fixed term contract
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

Worldpay Zinc

Worldpay Zinc card machine for small businesses

The Worldpay Zinc is Worldpay’s answer to the iZettle and SumUp mobile card readers. Designed specifically for small businesses, the Zinc can be bought outright for just £39.99. The keypad is covered with a 12-month warranty, and users can choose to issue receipts via email or SMS at the press of a button. If that wasn’t enough, the Worldpay Zinc comes with a virtual terminal for taking card payments over the phone.

Key features

  • Take card payments face-to-face and over the phone
  • Issue receipts via email or SMS with the press of a button
  • Keypad is covered by warranty for a year
  • Pay-as-you go payment plan with no monthly fees
  • PCI compliant

Compare quotes >

Pros + 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. In fact, by 2025 only one in four of all transactions will be made with cash. 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 for small businesses, so having having quick access to the money from card payments is a major benefit.

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 card machines for small-scale business operations, with fees to match.

Chargebacks — dealing with chargebacks can be a long and arduous process for small 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 plus a chargeback fee of around £15.

Fraud — fraudulent transactions may be few and far between, but when they do occur it is usually the merchant who loses out.

Small Business Card Machines
By comparing quotes from multiple providers you could save up to 40% on the cost of a card machine

How much do credit card machines cost?

A card machine is usually rented as part of a merchant account agreement. But if you can afford to swallow the upfront cost, in the long run it pays to buy the terminal outright.

For every card payment processed you will be charged a transaction fee by your provider. This is usually a percentage of the transaction plus a fixed “authorisation fee”. See the table below for a full breakdown of the costs.

Type of ostWhat is tt?Price
Initial costThe upfront fee you will pay to purchase your card terminal units.Rental costs — £20-30/month per terminal. Outright purchase — a one-off payment of £50-£300 per terminal
Transaction feesA fee you pay per-transaction — so costs will vary from month-to-month depending on the volume and value of transactions processed.Typically 1%-3%, plus an ‘authorisation fee’ off 2p-4p
Minimum usage feesA fee paid if you do not meet a minimum spend threshold on your card machines.£0 - £50/month

How do I get a card machine for my small business?

Simply fill in this form and compare quotes from the UK’s leading small business card machine providers. It’s quick, easy and there are no hidden fees.

The questions asked are designed to match you with the most suitable suppliers, and there’s absolutely no obligation to buy.