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How to Choose the Right Credit Card Machine for Your Small Business

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Feyi Oladipo | June 4, 2024

“Whether you're running a high traffic online store or a consulting firm, the right credit card machine can define your customer experience.”
2 min read
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    If you've ever lost a customer due to a clunky checkout process, you understand the importance of a seamless experience and the role a credit card machine plays in this process. However, while the familiar beep of a successful transaction might sound like music to your ears, selecting the right one for your business can be surprisingly complex.

    Whether you're running a high traffic online store, a cozy cafe, or a consulting firm, the right credit card machine can define your customer experience and streamline your operations. But with so many options available, how do you choose the best one?

    First thing to know: There are many types of Credit Card Machines

    Credit card machines fit into two categories: in-person machines for face-to-face transactions and online machines that handle digital payments.

    In-person Credit Card Machines

    They’re the credit card machines most people think of to accept payments. Within this category there are three types of machine for your consideration:

    • Traditional terminals
    • Card readers
    • Smart terminals

    Traditional Terminals

    an image of a traditional pos terminal next to credit cards

    They are the standalone devices you often see at checkout counters and what most of us think of when we imagine a credit card machine. They connect to a phone line or the internet to process transactions. They typically include a keypad, a magnetic stripe reader, a chip card reader, and sometimes a receipt printer. They are known for their reliability and durability.

    Ideal for Pros Cons
    • Retail stores with a fixed
      checkout counter
    • Reliable Limited mobility
    • Restaurants processing
      numerous transactions at a single
      point-of-sale location
    • Easy to use • Requires a fixed location
    • Businesses with a fixed
      point-of-sale location
      where customers pay at the counter
    • Suitable for
    • Bulky
    • Secure transaction

    Card Readers

    Image of the Helcim Card Reader

    Card readers are small, portable devices that connect to a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth or audio jack. They allow merchants to accept card payments on the go. They are compact and easy to use, often used with a mobile app that handles the transaction. Some models can read magnetic stripes, EMV chips, and even NFC (contactless) payments.

    Ideal for Pros Cons
    • Mobile businesses requiring
      payment flexibility while on
      the move
    • Highly portable,
    • Dependent on the
      connected device’s battery
      life and internet connectivity,
    • Less robust than traditional terminals.
    • Easy to set up • Requires a fixed location
    • Market stalls that benefit
      from quick and easy payment
    • Compatible with
     various devices
    • Bulky
    • On-the-go service providers,
      like personal trainers or
      mobile dog groomers, who
      need to accept payments at
      different client locations

    Smart Terminals

    a person holding a Helcim Smart Terminal

    Think of smart terminals as advanced versions of traditional terminals that offer additional features like touchscreens, inventory management, and customer loyalty programs. They are multifunctional and can run various apps, connect to the internet via Wi-Fi or LAN, and offer robust security measures. Unlike traditional terminals, smart terminals can also connect to other devices and apps, integrating seamlessly with business management tools for sales tracking, employee management, and analytics.

    Ideal for Pros Cons
    • Mobile businesses requiring
      payment flexibility while on
      the move
    • Highly portable,
    • Dependent on the
      connected device’s battery
      life and internet connectivity,
    • Food trucks needing portable
      payment solutions for various
    • Easy to set up • Less robust than traditional
    • Market stalls that benefit
      from quick and easy payment
    • Compatible with
      various devices
    • Bulky
    • On-the-go service providers,
      like personal trainers or
      mobile dog groomers, who
      need to accept payments at
      different client locations

    Online Credit Card Machines

    These modern solutions are designed to cater to the increasing demand for online transactions. Basically, they allow merchants to accept payments virtually without the need for any hardware. Instead of a physical card reader, transactions are processed through software platforms, making them highly flexible and accessible from any device with an internet connection. This is particularly beneficial for businesses that operate online, over the phone, or through email, as it simplifies the payment process and reduces the need for physical equipment. They include:

    Virtual Terminals

    A picture of a computer with Helcim's Virtual Terminal on the screen

    Imagine a way to process credit card payments without needing any physical hardware. That's what a virtual terminal does. It's a software-based solution that lets merchants handle payments through an internet browser. So, whenever you give your credit card details over the phone, the merchant is using a virtual terminal to process your payment. The best part? You can access virtual terminals from any device with an internet connection. They’re perfect for manually entering card information and often integrate seamlessly with other business software. This makes them incredibly convenient for businesses that don’t need to swipe cards in person.

    Ideal for Pros Cons
    • E-commerce businesses processing
      payments without physical card

    • Accessible from
    • Requires internet
    • Service providers handling payments
      over the phone or through email orders

    • No need for
      physical hardware
    • Manual entry can be
    • Any business needing to process
      remote payments securely and efficiently

    • Easy to integrate
      with other systems
    • Not the best for
      in-person payments

    Payment Pages

    an illustration of Helcim Hosted Payment Pages

    Imagine sending a simple link to your customers that they can click on to complete their payment online. That's what hosted payment pages are all about. These pages allow you to create secure and customizable payment links that you can share via email, social media, or messaging apps, making the payment process super easy for both you and your customers.

    With hosted payment pages, you can tailor payment links to specific transactions and include detailed payment instructions. This flexibility makes them a great option for e-commerce businesses. Whether you're running an online shop, or offering services, these payment pages provide a seamless and efficient way to collect payments.

    Ideal for Pros Cons
    • Freelancers seeking an
      easy way to collect
      payments online
    • Convenient for both
      merchants and
    • Relies on customer action
      to complete the payment
    • E-commerce merchants
      looking for a simple
      checkout solution without
      complex setups
    • No need for a
      complex e-commerce
    • May not be suitable for
      high-volume transactions

    • Enhances customer
    • Dependent on internet access

    Factors to Consider When Choosing a Credit Card Machine

    Understanding the different types of credit card machines and their use cases is just the beginning. Now it’s time to determine which machine is the best fit for your business. Even if you already have a machine in place, evaluating your options and assessing your current business needs can help you decide if it’s time for a change. Regardless of where you are in your business journey, here are the key factors to consider before choosing or switching credit card machines.

    1. Business Type and Size:

    The nature and size of your business has a great influence on the type of credit card machine that would best suit your needs. Let’s take an example of two different types of businesses. Business A - A marketing agency Business B - A restaurant

    Business A - A marketing agency
    Credit Card Machine: Virtual Terminal
    Imagine you’re running a buzzing marketing agency. Your team is constantly on calls, handling advertising campaigns, and managing projects. Many of your clients are on retainers, so you need a reliable way to handle recurring payments. A virtual terminal is your go-to. With it, you can easily process payments over the phone or online. No need for a physical card swipe – just a secure internet connection. Plus, it syncs perfectly with your billing and CRM systems, making it a breeze to store customer details and manage regular charges. This setup lets you focus on delivering stellar services without worrying about payment hassles.

    Business B - A Restaurant
    Credit Card Machine: Smart Terminal
    Picture this: you’re the manager of a packed restaurant during dinner rush. Your servers are running between tables, and the last thing you need is a slow payment process. That’s where a smart terminal comes in. With it, your servers can quickly take payments right at the table, speeding things up and keeping customers happy. But it’s not just about speed – the smart terminal gives you insights into sales trends, customer preferences, and staff performance. This helps you make smart decisions to keep everything running smoothly. With a smart terminal, your restaurant stays efficient and your customers leave satisfied, even during the busiest times.

    2. Payment Volume and Frequency

    The volume and frequency of transactions are crucial factors in deciding which credit card machine to choose. High-traffic businesses need machines that can process transactions quickly and efficiently to avoid long lines and delays.

    Business Type: A bustling retail store
    Credit Card Machine: Traditional Terminal
    A retail store that handles a high volume of transactions, especially during sales or holiday seasons, requires a traditional terminal. These terminals are built to process transactions quickly and handle high traffic, ensuring customers don’t experience long wait times at checkout.

    3. Mobility Requirements

    Your business's mobility needs can determine whether a stationary or portable payment solution is more appropriate. Mobile businesses require flexible payment solutions that can move with them, while fixed-location businesses may benefit from more permanent setups.

    Business Type: A food truck
    Credit Card Machine: Mobile Card Reader
    A food truck needs to accept payments at various locations throughout the day. A mobile card reader that connects to a smartphone or tablet offers the flexibility and convenience required to process payments on the go, ensuring customers can easily pay no matter where the truck is parked.

    4. Integration with Existing Systems

    Ensuring that your credit card machine integrates well with your existing systems is essential for smooth operations. Compatibility with your current POS systems, inventory management software, and CRM systems can save time and reduce errors. This integration helps maintain accurate records, streamline workflows, and enhance overall business efficiency.

    Business Type: An accounting firm
    Credit Card Machine: Virtual Terminal
    An accounting firm needs to handle numerous client accounts and process regular payments efficiently. A virtual terminal seamlessly connects with the firm’s billing and client management systems. This integration allows the firm to process payments over the phone or online, with each transaction automatically updating client records. By reducing manual data entry and minimizing errors, the virtual terminal ensures a smooth workflow, enabling the firm to focus on delivering high-quality financial services.

    5. Security Features

    Security is a critical consideration when choosing a credit card machine, as protecting customer data is paramount. Machines with advanced security features, such as encryption and PCI compliance, ensure that transactions are safe from fraud and breaches.

    Business Type: A high-end electronics retailer
    Credit Card Machine: Smart Terminal
    A high-end electronics retailer handles transactions involving significant amounts of money. A smart terminal with advanced security features, such as end-to-end encryption and PCI compliance, provides the necessary protection for sensitive customer information, ensuring trust and compliance with industry standards.

    6. Cost and Budget

    The cost of the credit card machine, including initial costs, transaction fees, and maintenance expenses, plays a significant role in your decision. Balancing cost with functionality and reliability is key to finding a solution that fits your budget without compromising on essential features.

    Business Type: A startup bakery
    Credit Card Machine: Mobile Card Reader
    A new bakery with a limited budget might opt for a simple, affordable card reader that connects to a smartphone. This keeps initial costs low while still providing the ability to accept card payments, making it a practical choice for a business that needs to manage expenses carefully.

    7. Convenience and Customer Experience

    Providing an easy and convenient payment option can significantly enhance the customer experience, especially for businesses that interact with clients remotely or offer services online.

    Business Type: A freelance graphic designer
    Credit Card Machine: Payment Links
    A freelance graphic designer often works with clients remotely and needs an easy way to accept payments for design projects. Using payment links, the designer can send a secure link to clients via email or messaging apps, allowing them to complete their payment online effortlessly. This method is convenient, easy to create and share, and ensures a smooth payment process for both the designer and the client.

    How do You Build a Payment System that Lasts?

    As technology continues to evolve, it’s important to future-proof your business by considering upcoming payment trends and ensuring flexibility in your payment solutions. Keeping an eye on advancements like contactless payments and digital wallets can help you stay ahead of the curve and meet customer expectations.

    Consideration of Future Payment Trends:

    Contactless Payments: With the rise of contactless payment methods such as tap-to-pay cards and mobile wallets like Apple Pay and Google Wallet, it's essential to have a payment system that supports these technologies. These methods offer quick and convenient transactions, which can enhance customer satisfaction and speed up the checkout process.

    Digital Wallets: As more consumers adopt digital wallets, integrating these options into your payment system can attract tech-savvy customers who prefer using their smartphones for transactions. Ensure your credit card machine is compatible with popular digital wallets to provide a seamless payment experience.

    Flexibility to Upgrade or Switch Machines:

    Scalability: As your business grows, your payment processing needs may change. Choose a credit card machine that can scale with your business. For instance, a small boutique might start with a mobile card reader but eventually upgrade to a smart terminal with advanced features as it expands.

    Upgradable Features:
    Opt for machines that allow for software updates and feature additions. This way, you can incorporate new functionalities without needing to replace the hardware. For example, a traditional terminal that can be upgraded to accept contactless payments or new security protocols is a valuable investment.

    Finding the Perfect Vendor for Your Credit Card Machines

    So, you understand the different types of credit card machines, when to use them, and the factors to consider when choosing them. Now, you need to find the best payment processor, but you’re not sure what to look for. Choosing the right credit card machine vendor is crucial because a reliable one will provide high-quality products and excellent customer support, ensuring your payment processing runs smoothly.

    What to Look out for in a Vendor

    Reputation and Reviews: Look for vendors with strong reputations and positive reviews. Research their background, read customer testimonials, and check ratings on platforms like the G2 or Trustpilot.

    Product Range: A good vendor should offer a variety of payment solutions to cater to different business needs. Whether you need mobile card readers, or virtual terminals, a vendor with a comprehensive product range can provide you with the best options for your business. Industry Experience: Vendors with extensive experience in your specific industry are more likely to understand your unique needs and offer tailored solutions. For example, a vendor experienced in professional services or health care can provide insights and recommendations that a general vendor might miss.

    Importance of Customer Support and Service

    1. Technical Support: Payment processing is critical to your business operations, and any downtime can lead to lost sales and frustrated customers. Ensure your vendor offers reliable technical support that is available 24/7 to address any issues promptly. The best are vendors who offer human support as opposed to bots.
    2. Training and Onboarding: Good vendors provide comprehensive training and onboarding to help you and your staff understand how to use the payment systems effectively. This can include setup assistance, user manuals, and online tutorials.
    3. Maintenance and Updates: Regular maintenance and updates are essential to keep your payment systems running smoothly and securely. Choose a vendor that offers ongoing support and maintenance services, ensuring your machines are always up-to-date with the latest features and security measures.


    1. What are the main types of credit card machines?
    Credit card machines can be divided into offline/in-person machines like traditional terminals, card readers, and smart terminals, and online machines like virtual terminals and payment links.

    2. What type of credit card machine is best for a small business?
    The best type of credit card machine for a small business depends on the specific needs and nature of the business. Here are some considerations.

    • Retail Stores or Cafes = Traditional terminal or smart terminal might be ideal. Traditional terminals are reliable for high-traffic environments, while smart terminals offer additional features like inventory management and customer loyalty programs.
    • Mobile or On-the-Go Businesses = Card reader: If your business operates on the move, such as a food truck or market stall, a mobile card reader that connects to a smartphone or tablet would be the best choice. It offers flexibility and convenience for processing payments anywhere.
    • Professional Services (e.g., Consultants, Marketing Agencies) = Virtual terminal: For businesses that often handle payments over the phone or online, a virtual terminal is highly effective. It integrates seamlessly with billing and CRM systems and handles recurring payments efficiently.

    3. What are the benefits of using a smart terminal?
    Smart terminals offer advanced features such as touchscreens, inventory management, customer loyalty programs, and integration with other business systems. They are versatile and can enhance overall business operations.

    4. When should a business use a virtual terminal?
    Virtual terminals are best for businesses that need to process payments over the phone or online without the need for physical card swiping. They are ideal for e-commerce businesses, service providers, and firms like accounting and consulting.

    5. What are payment links and who should use them?
    Payment links are URLs that merchants can send to customers to complete payments online. They are convenient for businesses that interact with clients remotely, such as freelancers, small businesses, and consultants.

    6. What security features should I look for in a credit card machine?
    Look for machines with advanced security features like encryption and PCI compliance to protect customer data and prevent fraud. Smart terminals often offer these enhanced security measures.

    7. How do I choose the right vendor for my credit card machines?
    Choose a vendor with a strong reputation, positive reviews, a comprehensive product range, and extensive industry experience. Ensure they offer reliable customer support, training, and maintenance services to keep your payment systems running smoothly.

    8. How do the costs of different credit card machines compare?
    Typically, hardware costs for credit card machines range from most expensive to least expensive as follows: smart terminals, traditional terminals, and mobile card readers. Online terminals, such as virtual terminals and payment links, generally have lower upfront costs but may include monthly subscription fees, transaction fees, or integration costs.

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