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Once upon a time, it'd cost thousands of dollars start your own business. Accepting credit card payments was so costly and such a hassle, it'd be far easier to just stay cash-only.
That's all changed. It's now rather common to have your own side business, and the internet and computers have lowered the playing field to where almost anyone can afford to start a business. It started with web services, where PayPal has long made it easy to sell stuff online. And now, with Square, PayPal Here, Innerfence, and more, that same payments simplicity is here for your brick-and-mortar business.
Whether you're running a coffee shop or restaurant, have a photography or event planning side business, or are just running a garage sale or charity event, accepting credit cards is almost easier than accepting cash payments. The credit card processing services will take out a small percentage, but all you need is an iOS device and a card reader—they send you the latter for free.
Here's everything you need to know to get your business started accepting credit card payments, for free.
1. Find Suitable Hardware
Now, you may be wondering if your computer or mobile device is too old to be usable for your business, and if it can work with the latest payment systems. First, if your computer is over five years old, it may be time for a new one, but not necessarily. If you've got an iOS device running at least iOS 5 (an iPhone 3GS or newer, or any iPad), an Android device running Android 2.2 or newer, a PC running Windows 8 (which is comparable with essentially any PC sold since 2006), or a Mac with Snow Leopard (which runs on most Macs sold since 2006), you'll be able to accept payments. We'd recommend using an iPad 2 or newer, or iPhone 4 or newer for best results, but any device that fits the above qualifications will work.
Here’s a short list of things you will need to start accepting payments:
- A compatible smartphone, tablet, or computer—up to 7 years old for a computer, and up to 4-5 years old for a smartphone or tablet.
- A card reader—usually bundled with payment services for free.
- An Internet connection—your business' WiFi, or your phone's 3G is fine.
- A few hours to get things set up and troubleshoot issues.
Now, let’s look at the options for accepting payments.
2. Sort Through Available Point of Sale Solutions
When it comes to the best services for accepting credit card payments, there’s Square and then there’s everything else. Square is the easiest service to get started, the most affordable service to use, and is easily the most recognizable name in modern credit card payment systems, for good reason. But then, there's also some great competing services that offer web and Mac/PC apps, slightly cheaper rates, and more features when you expand your business.
Here's what's so great about Square and why it should be the first option you consider, followed by a look at the best alternative services so you'll be able to pick the best.
If you've ever looked into accepting credit card payments from your phone, chances are you've heard of Square. Square is fairly new to the point of sale (POS) game, but it brings a perfect balance of features to the table. Rather than an ugly, outdated Windows-based app on an overpriced touchscreen computer—the traditional way to keep up with your sales and accept credit card payments—Square turns your iPhone, iPad, or Android device into a cash register. With nothing more than the iPhone you already have in your pocket, or an iPad 2 or newer, you can download the app for free and order its companion card reader for free. And that's all you'll need.
Then, you can swipe your customer's cards from your phone, or use their app to turn an iPad into a beautiful checkout system that's perfect for, say, a coffee shop or restaurant. Square even supports several popular receipt printers, cash drawers, and the Socket Mobile 7Ci barcode scanner, and other hardware for your store. It can be simple and free, or can be the hub of a full checkout and cash register system for far less than a typical POS PC would cost. And it'll be quicker—Square deposits your credit card transactions into your bank account the next day.
As mentioned before, a Square account and card reader are both free. Accepting credit cards will cost you 2.75% per transaction on a Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover. There are no limits here, and you can even accept international cards. If you have to manually enter a card, it’ll cost you 3.5% + 15 cents per transaction.
Overall, Square has the best compatibility with third-party hardware, is by far the easiest to set up, and is kept up to date by its developers. Plus, its apps are so nice, you'll want to sell stuff. If you've got a recent model iOS or Android device, it should be your first choice.
The 15-year-old eCommerce company recently jumped into the physical business realm with its POS and mobile credit card processing service called PayPal Here. Like Square, PayPal sends you a card reader for free when you sign up for the service, which is also free. They charge slightly less than Square, at 2.7% per card swipe.
You won't find the great hardware integrations or software features in PayPal Here that you'd expect with Square, though. It does integrate with a number of other POS systems, which can then work with extra hardware and more, but it's far more confusing and complicated to get setup, especially when compared to Square's simplicity. And instead of getting paid directly into your bank account the next day, as Square offers, PayPal Here will add your funds to your PayPal account where it'll take 3-4 days to transfer manually to your bank account.
The benefits of PayPal Here are its availability, and the many ways it lets you accept payments. While Square is available only in the US, Canada, and Japan, PayPal Here offers service in these as well as the UK and Australia. If you’re in one of these countries, Here will be a much better option than Square. Then, PayPal Here lets your customers pay via check or PayPal account, and lets you deposit both directly from the app. Those both likely won't be the most common ways for a new business to accept payments today, but then, it might be nice to have that option.
The 7-year old payments company Innerfence offers a longer-established solution to accepting credit card payments. It supports merchant accounts from Stripe to Braintree and offers Mac, PC, and web apps as well as mobile ones, meaning you can truly accept payments anywhere. It still includes a free card scanner, one that looks more like a traditional card scanner in a store, and that works with even your older Macs and PCs. And if you happen to have a Windows Phone, Innerfence is also the only mobile payments system you can use right now.
Best of all, this service offers “personal” phone U.S.-based technical support for any issues you may encounter. Even Square, the current industry leader, has no dedicated support service, aside from their email-based Contact Us page. The downside of Innerfence is its price. In addition to a 2.9% + 30 cent transaction fee, they charge $25 per month just to use the service. That can add up if you’re not making enough to justify the service.
In the end, Innerfence is good to look forward to if you’re growing your business, or need supported reliability and can afford it. It’s the most universal and advanced of the options available.
3. Sign Up and Begin Taking Payments
Once you've picked the service to use, it's time to start accepting payments. You can use any of the above solutions to accept credit card payments, but for this tutorial, I’m going to use Square’s setup process as an example. Each of the other services are fairly similar.
Here’s how to set up your Square account and get a started accepting payments:
- Install the free Square Register (iOS, Android) app on your mobile device.
- Open the app, give it access to your microphone (for the card reader), and sign up for an account with your email and password (and remember to use a strong password).
- You only need one more thing to accept credit cards, without having to go to the trouble and extra expense of entering cards manually. To get a free card reader, tap the settings icon in the bottom right and tap the blue Accept Credit Cards button.
- Provide Square with your shipping address, tell them how you will be using their service, and “confirm your identity” by providing the last four digits of your social security number and answering three related questions.
- When you’re finished with the personal details, you’ll be asked for the bank account to which you would like deposits sent.
- Square will mail your card reader, which should reach you within a week. If that's too long to wait, you can optionally purchase a Square at Apple stores and other retailers.
- When you receive your reader, simply plug it into the audio port of your device, then open your Square app. You're now ready to receive payments.
Now, when you're ready to charge your customer's credit card, just open the app, insert the amount you wish to charge your customer and tap Charge [Amount]. This will take you to a payment screen with three options: Credit Card, Cash, and Other (check, gift card, or something else you want to keep track of). Tap Credit Card and swipe the card through the reader to initiate the transaction. It will ask for the customer’s signature, which they can add with their finger.
And that's it. There's some extras involved if you have extra hardware, such as a receipt printer, but Square can email your customer a receipt if they want so that's not even necessary. And if you've chosen to use a different service, most modern POS apps’ setup and usage are similar. Either way, it should only take you about ten minutes to set up on most smartphones and tablets, and then a bit of wait time to get your card reader in the mail.
Accepting credit card payments wherever you—or in your own store—isn't as hard as it sounds, and likely won't cost you anything to get started. It really takes about an hour of your time to get started. Whether you offer freelance services or own a small bookshop, you're now ready to confidently accept payments from clients or customers, no matter how they'd like to pay.
That's the basics of accepting credit card payments with the best modern POS tools, and should be plenty to get you started. There's a lot more we'll look into in future tutorials, but in the mean time, let me know in the comments if you have any questions.