If you’ve ever purchased anything online or over the phone and paid with a credit card, you’ve probably been asked for your card’s security code. This is a short series of digits found on your physical card that’s different from your credit card number. Providing this code gives some extra assurance that the card is in your possession and that your payment information isn’t being used fraudulently.

What is a credit card security code?

A credit card security code is a three- or four-digit code that’s unique to your card. It’s called the Card Verification Value (CVV), Card Verification Code (CVC) or Card Identification Number (CID), so you might hear the security code referred to as the CVV code, CVV number or CVC number.

This number is printed on your card and can’t be found through your online credit card account or on any of your credit card documents. Because this code is located only on your physical card, merchants ask for the code when your card isn’t present to verify that you have the card in hand.

Merchants aren’t allowed to store credit card security codes after they complete transactions. So while thieves might be able to steal credit card numbers if they hack into a retailer’s electronic records, they shouldn’t be able to access the security codes.

How to find your security code

Here’s where you can usually find your credit card’s security code, depending on which network your card is in. The layout can vary a little by issuer and card, though, so if you don’t find the code where you expect it to be, keep looking for an unembossed three- or four-digit number.

  • American Express: Four digits on the front of the card, on the right-hand side above the card number
  • Mastercard and Visa: Three digits on the back of the card at the right end of the signature field
  • Discover: Three digits on the back of the card, in a box to the right of the signature field

Credit card security code locations on different cards
Orli Friedman/Bankrate

Orli Friedman/Bankrate

When do you need your card’s security code?

You often need your credit card security code when you buy something online or by phone. Not every merchant asks for the code in these cases, but many require it for additional security.

You also generally need the security code the first time you provide your credit card information to a mobile payment app like Apple Pay or Google Pay, but you don’t need to give the code each time you pay for something with the app.

You don’t need to enter your security code when you pay in-person at a card terminal. And if you allow a retailer to keep your card information on file and to charge future purchases to your card, you don’t have to provide the security code for each following transaction.

Why credit card security codes are important

Security codes provide an extra layer of protection when it comes to keeping your credit card information secure and private. As we mentioned previously, merchants are prohibited from storing personal CVV data. So if you are asked to verify your security code, the merchant is simply working to ensure you have the card in hand. Because this data is never stored, falling victim to fraud is more difficult, although not impossible.

How to keep your card information secure

Requiring customers to give their credit card security codes when they make a purchase can protect against fraud, but the codes must be known only to cardholders for this security feature to work. It’s important to guard your credit card information, including security codes, carefully:

  • Don’t lend your credit card to other people or leave it in a public place.
  • Verify that websites are secure before shopping online. Check that the website address begins with “https” and that a lock icon appears next to the URL.
  • Don’t enter credit card information at a public computer or over public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Don’t give out credit card information to anyone who’s called you on the phone—even if the caller ID looks right. Scammers can manipulate caller ID. If you want to pay for something by phone, you should call the merchant yourself.
  • Make sure your card isn’t visible in any photos you post online.
  • If you store credit card information on your phone, set your phone to lock promptly when not in use, and protect it with a strong passcode or biometric authentication.
  • Take advantage of any security services your credit card issuer offers, such as notifications for unusually large transactions or suspicious account activity.
  • If you believe your account information may have been compromised, tell your card issuer right away so it can send you a new card.