Virtual credit cards let you shop for purchases without revealing your actual credit card account number. They can be either temporary or permanent, and it’s not surprising that they are intended mostly for online purchases.
But should you worry about getting a virtual credit card to use when you shop online?
That really depends on your goals. You should also know that virtual card numbers have a few downsides too.
Keep reading to learn how virtual credit cards work, their pros and cons and how you can get one.
What is a virtual credit card?
A virtual credit card number is essentially a credit card number that works for your account but is different from the number printed on your physical credit card.
In some cases (like with Capital One’s Eno), this virtual number may be created by a third party on the spot and may be changed each time you make a purchase.
Using a virtual credit card can keep your physical credit card’s information safe when shopping online or over the phone. There are several ways thieves try to steal your personal data, but this short-lived, randomized credit card number—referred to as a “token”—is a way to keep that information safe when making purchases from a distance.
Pros and cons of virtual credit cards
While virtual credit cards can be convenient to use, there are some downsides to consider. Here are the major pros and cons to expect if you use a digital credit card:
Pros of virtual credit cards
- Your long-term payment and personal information is better protected. Even if a potential hacker were to obtain your data from a virtual credit card transaction, the account number won’t be linked to your identity and will likely expire before they can take advantage.
- Your account’s risk of being compromised is low. It’s very unlikely your data will be stolen, meaning you won’t have to shut down your credit card account, get a new card or have to redo all your recurring payments.
- Your transactions are posted to your account. If your virtual card is linked to your physical credit card, transactions are traceable and will appear on your usual bank statement as normal purchases.
- Tokens can be temporary or permanent. Depending on your card provider, you may be able to customize the amount of time your token stays open or specify a spending limit. Both are useful features for any shared credit card accounts or if you elect to repeatedly use a token for a subscription, like Netflix or Audible.
- Your refunds won’t be affected. Even with a single-use token, refunds work as normal with a virtual credit card if it’s linked to your credit card account.
Cons of virtual credit cards
- Virtual cards are limited to online and phone transactions. For the time being, you can use virtual cards only when shopping on the internet or via phone.
- Problems arise if you don’t link your virtual card to your account. If your virtual account isn’t linked to your usual credit card account, you may run into obstacles when seeking a refund. Due to not having an account to credit back to, your options might be limited to an exchange or store credit.
- Reserving certain services may become more complicated. There are potential issues if you use a virtual card to make a reservation on things like flights, rental cars or hotels. Oftentimes, companies offering these services will request the card used to book the reservation, so it may take some extra effort at check-in, like a phone call to your bank.
How to get a virtual credit card
With most major issuers, virtual card numbers are available for any credit card they offer, provided you take steps to initiate them on your account.
So, it’s possible virtual card numbers may already be available for your existing credit cards, as well as for any new cards. Explore your online account or app, or contact customer service, to see how to get access to a virtual number for your card.
Best virtual credit cards
If you’re considering virtual credit card numbers to help keep your account safe, you should know which card issuers and credit cards offer this option. Consider how the following card issuers use virtual card numbers and make them available to customers.
American Express virtual credit card
When you sign up for an American Express credit card, you may be eligible to receive an instant card number right away. American Express says you can add this card number to a mobile wallet such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Google Pay. Once you do, you can use your mobile wallet for online purchases while you wait for your physical credit card to arrive in the mail.
American Express also offers virtual credit card numbers when you use American Express Checkout. This tool allows you to make purchases through the websites and apps of various merchants, then pay for your purchase with a virtual card number that is temporary but tied to your account.
Finally, American Express offers a virtual card number program for businesses known as American Express Go. This program lets you create virtual card numbers for corporate accounts, which can increase security when you make payments to contractors, freelancers and other members of your team.
Capital One virtual credit card
Capital One offers virtual credit cards through an in-house browser extension, Eno. Capital One Eno is compatible with most browsers and allows you to nickname your virtual cards to make for easy access when deciding which number to use for recurring payments, such as bills and subscription services.
This feature will also be useful when you want to close an open virtual account. You can’t set your own spending limit through Eno but Capital One will cap your virtual credit card’s spending with the same credit limit as your regular account. You have to be a Capital One cardholder to have Eno available to you but any of their credit cards are eligible.
Citi virtual credit card
Citi allows cardholders to enroll online and use its website to generate a unique token whenever necessary. It even provides cardholders with a web-based tool (or a downloadable version for PCs) in order to receive their unique tokens when needed.
Using a digital wallet to protect your credit card information
If you’re looking for one of the safest ways to pay for purchases, you can also consider the prospect of using a digital wallet each time you shop.
Note that mobile wallets like Google Pay or Apple Pay don’t actually store your credit card information and instead create a unique token for each purchase you make. This makes your purchases considerably safer since your credit card number and other sensitive information are never shared.
So, while you may not be able to access, for example, a Chase virtual credit card or Bank of America virtual credit card directly from your issuer, you can use a digital wallet to pay with credit cards from Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Discover and more.
Doing so enables you protect your credit card information while making convenient payments and getting all the benefits that come with paying with your credit card, including rewards.
The bottom line
Virtual credit cards can hide your real credit card number in order to protect the sensitive details of your account. Depending on your card issuer, your use of virtual card numbers could even be automatic, with no work required on your part.
Keep in mind, however, that using a traditional credit card for purchases isn’t inherently risky, and that’s true whether you’re shopping in person or online. This is due to the fact credit cards tend to offer zero liability for fraud, so you won’t be on the hook for purchases you didn’t make either way.