Merchant category codes: How to earn more cash back

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Digging into the inner workings of your credit card rewards might seem like an intimidating plunge at first, but the extra elbow grease is worth it. For instance, exploring your card terms will reveal that you earn cash back based on the business’ merchant category code (MCC).

This hidden knowledge can help you learn what makes your rewards program tick. Read on for the ins and outs of MCCs—and how to earn maximum cash back with your cash back credit card.

What is a merchant category code?

Merchant category codes are four-digit numbers that credit card networks—like Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover—mainly use to classify businesses in order to track consumer spending.  They collect this information to protect you from fraud, assign rewards and gather marketing data that fine-tunes their products.

On the flip side, you can look up your network’s merchant category code list to see which retailers may earn you cash back according to your card’s bonus categories before you shop.

It’s important to remember that each network has their own specific merchant category code list and definitions for which purchases or retailers count.

Why didn’t I earn cash back on a purchase at a certain store?

This boils down to two things: your rewards card’s bonus category definition and your network’s MCC classification.

Some credit cards have broader category definitions. For instance, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ has earned online shopping rewards on Amazon.com, Walmart and PayPal purchases at various points this year based on it’s 2020 cash back calendar.

Meanwhile, the Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card has an in-depth online shopping category that covers major retailers like Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com, all the way up to specialty merchants like Etsy.com.

Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card last updated on 05.03.21

If it wasn’t the fault of a limited bonus category, the MCC might not have lined up. Two common examples of this tend to be superstores like Walmart and store-branded gas like Costco fuel stations.

Although Walmart is the largest U.S. grocery product retailer according to the USDA, Walmart Supercenters are usually listed under Visa’s MCC 5310 (“discount stores/warehouse/wholesale”) instead of MCC 5411 (“grocery stores/supermarkets/bakeries”). Similarly, many Costco fuel locations are listed as MCC 5542 instead of MCC 5541 (like most traditional gas stations), and bonus category descriptions can void rewards on these purchases too.

These annoying MCC differences develop because the store’s merchant category code is determined by its primary products— meaning what it makes the most money from. Since Walmart doesn’t primarily sell supermarket produce, it’s MCC reflects that.

How to find a merchant category code

Finding a business’ merchant category code can be tricky depending on your network. Visa merchant category codes are generally easy to find since it’s the largest network—especially considering you can use the Visa Supplier Locator tool to search for specific stores’ MCCs near you. A quick Mastercard merchant category code lookup will also find you a list of Mastercard MCCs pretty easily.

However, some networks like American Express and Discover don’t make their code lists publicly available. In that case, your card issuer may provide a list of its network’s MCCs either online or by request if you contact them.

It might take some trial and error to nail down which stores near you offer the best rewards otherwise. You can try making a small purchase on your card at the store you want to shop at and check back on your next statement to see how much you earned in rewards.

Earning cash back with merchant category codes

Earning cash back with MCCs starts with taking the initiative to look up the merchants you shop most frequently with—or partner retailers that carry special offers with your card issuer. (Keep in mind that merchant brands have their own MCC, especially when it comes to travel chains.)

To help you get started maximizing your cash back, we’ve collected a list of common bonus categories, Visa and Mastercard merchant category codes. They can be largely similar but differ in a few key areas.

Cash back category Visa MCC Mastercard MCC
Groceries/U.S. supermarkets
  • 5411: Grocery Stores and Supermarkets
  • 5411: Grocery Stores and Supermarkets
Wholesale clubs
  • 5300: Wholesale clubs
  • 5300: Wholesale clubs
Superstores/Big box stores (Walmart, Target, etc.)
  • 5310: Discount stores
  • 5310: Discount stores
Gas stations
  • 5541: Service Stations (With or without Ancillary Services)
  • 5542: Automated Fuel Dispensers
  • 5541: Service Stations (With or without Ancillary Services)
  • 5542: Fuel Dispenser, automated
Restaurants/dining
  • 5812: Eating places, restaurants
  • 5813: Drinking places (alcoholic beverages)—bars, taverns, nightclubs, cocktail lounges and discotheques
  • 5814: Fast food restaurants
  • 5812: Eating places, restaurants
  • 5813: Bars, cocktail lounges, discotheques, nightclubs and taverns—drinking places (alcoholic beverages)
  • 5814: Fast food restaurants
Entertainment Very broad, but here are a few popular examples:
  • 7832: Motion picture theaters
  • 7922: Theatrical producers (except motion pictures)
  • 7991: Tourist attractions and exhibits
Very broad, but here are a few popular examples:
  • 7832: Motion picture theaters
  • 7922: Theatrical producers (except motion pictures), ticket agencies
  • 7991: Tourist attractions and exhibits
Department stores
  • 5311: Department stores
  • 5311: Department stores
Online shopping
  • 5262: Marketplaces (“entities that accept Visa on behalf of other sellers with multiple lines of goods and services through an online marketplace”)
  • 5815-5818: Digital goods (including games, applications, and “large digital goods merchants”)
These can vary depending on the merchant, but digital goods range from 5815-5818. Mastercard hasn’t defined a specific online marketplace category like Visa’s MCC 5262 category.
Drug stores
  • 5912: Drug stores and pharmacies
  • 5912: Drug stores and pharmacies
Home improvement
  • 5712: Furniture, home furnishings and equipment stores (except appliances)
  • 5713-5714, 5718-5719 & 5722: Includes floor covering stores, drapery/upholstery stores, fireplace stores, household appliance stores and miscellaneous home furnishing specialty stores
  • 5712: Equipment, furniture and home furnishings stores (except appliances)
  • 5713-5714, 5718-5719 & 5722: Includes floor covering stores, drapery/upholstery stores, fireplace stores, household appliance stores and miscellaneous home furnishing specialty stores
Travel Very broad, but here are a few popular examples:
  • 3000-3302: Branded airlines and air carriers. 4511 if non-classified. 4582 for other airport, flying fields and airport terminal purchases
  • 3351-3441: Branded car rental agencies
  • 3501-3838: Branded lodging— hotels, motels, resorts. 7011 if not-classified
  • 4111: Local and suburban commuter transit, including ferries. 4121 for taxis and 4131 for bus lines. 4784 for tolls and bridge fees.
  • 4112: Passenger railways
  • 4411: Steamship and cruise lines
  • 4722: Travel agencies and tour operators
Very broad, but here are a few popular examples:
  • 3000-3301: Branded airlines and air carriers. 4511 if non-classified. 4582 for other airport, flying fields and airport terminal purchases
  • 3351-3500: Branded car rental agencies
  • 3501-3999: Branded lodging — hotels, motels, resorts. 7011 if not-classified
  • 4111: Local and suburban commuter transit, including ferries. 4121 for taxis and 4131 for bus lines. 4784 for tolls and bridge fees.
  • 4112: Passenger railways
  • 4411: Steamship and cruise lines
  • 4722: Travel agencies and tour operators

 

In the end, it is at the discretion of your card issuer which MCCs they will lump into your bonus category. Not all cards with a travel bonus will consider passenger railways, for instance.

How to maximize your cash back with merchant category codes

Now that you have a general understanding of bonus category codes, here are a few strategies to align your spending and maximize your rewards card’s cash back categories.

Know your favorite stores’ merchant category codes

The first step to optimize your spending is to take the time to collect the MCCs of stores you frequently shop at. Investing a little bit of time into finding the store that rewards you the most can deliver an excellent return with cash back.

During the process, you might find that some stores in the same chain may have different MCCs, depending on their primary inventory. Even different counters/sections in the same department store may carry different MCCs. You can use this to your advantage if you know one location near you will provide a better cash back rate than the other.

Try to keep your shopping within your best cash back category

It may take some extra work, but try to align most of your shopping (or at least big-ticket items) relegated to the category that you earn the most cash back with.

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, for instance, earns 6 percent cash back on U.S. supermarket purchases (up to $6,000 per year, then 1 percent), but you can use that to essentially earn 6 percent cash back at other retailers if your supermarket allows you to purchase gift cards with your credit card.

Get creative with your shopping

Like we previously mentioned, some store locations will have different MCCs than the others in the same chain or another unexpected MCC classification. These “loopholes” can provide great opportunities to reap cash back on purchases that typically wouldn’t earn rewards.

If you frequently visit drug stores, for example, some Kmart locations are labeled with MCC 5912 (drug store.) This means the Chase Freedom Flex may earn 3 percent cash back on what would normally be department store purchases.

Just check your rewards statement later to see if your creativity was rewarded or if the “loophole” was closed.

Bottom line

Panning your card’s terms for gold nuggets like merchant category code (MCC) classifications might seem overwhelming if you hate legalese, but these valuable specifications are worth their weight in cash back opportunities.

Once you understand your favorite stores’ MCCs, you can optimize your shopping list for cash back on purchases that normally wouldn’t earn anything. That is, as long as you’re willing to put in a little more elbow grease and creativity.

 

Written by
Garrett Yarbrough
Credit Card Reviews Writer
Bankrate expert Garrett Yarbrough strives to make navigating credit cards and credit building smooth sailing for his readers. After regularly featuring his credit card, credit monitoring and identity theft analysis on NextAdvisor.com, he joined the CreditCards.com and Bankrate.com teams as a staff writer to develop product reviews and comprehensive credit card guides focused on cash back, credit scores and card offers.