Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express: What are they really?

Many years ago, before I came to America, I was studying for the IELTS test. The IELTS is a test of English language skills that students coming from countries where English is not the official language have to go through if they want to study in an English-speaking country. For the listening portion of the test, exam-takers listen to an English conversation to answer questions related to the conversation. The conversation topics are sometimes specific to the country that administers the exam: either the UK or Australia.

One of the questions from the listening portion left me really confused at the time, so confused that I still remember it today. Actually the question was easy to answer; it was the content of the question that was not understandable to me. The conversation occurs in a store where the guest is asking whether the store accepts Discover or American Express, to which the waitress responds that they only accept Visa or Mastercard. I had never heard of these names before, and would not until years later when I actually set foot on a country where credit card use is the norm. My reaction at the time was something like: What? What’s American Express? A newspaper? OK, Mastercard is probably a card, but what about Visa? Is it the same sort of thing as a tourist visa?  Continue reading Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express: What are they really?