Whether you work as an in-home massage therapist, operate a taco truck, or run some other small business, you're missing sales if you can't process credit cards. In the past, you were pretty much tied to a land-bound credit card terminal. However, there are mobile alternatives. A number of mobile payment tools now let you accept credit cards on an iPhone, an Android handset, a Windows Phone, or a dumber handset. You just need to sign up, attach credit card reader hardware, and navigate the fees.
Most of these tools require a merchant account. Banks regard credit card transactions similar to the way they do loans: Since they're afraid that you'll run up a bunch of sales with fraudulent cards, pocket the money, and book a flight to Bermuda before they catch on, they're stingy about granting access. You'll have to pass a credit check to earn a bank's trust and a merchant account.
Depending on the credit card tool, you'll pay a recurring fee for your merchant account, a percentage of each transaction, a flat fee per transaction, initial hardware costs, and possibly an additional monthly fee. This framework makes sense for businesses that process a lot of sales, keeping individual transaction fees low. But a wild-card service--Square--eliminates that monthly overhead, instead charging more per transaction.
We looked at five mobile devices and apps that enable small businesses to process credit card transactions. All provide the same basic functionality, but only some will match your specific needs.
Pros: Works with more than 200 devices; includes many crucial transaction features and helpful extras
Cons: Weak interface cribs from ten-year-old, "dumb" phone designs
Roam Data's RoamPay distinguishes itself by its versatility. In addition to offering apps for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry, the device works with more than 200 other handsets. Since it simply plugs in via the microphone jack, you can run credit card transactions on a Motorola Razr, a Palm Treo, and many more phones.
Unfortunately, the app-based, smartphone RoamPay interface seems merely scaled up from dumb-handset navigation. For example, it presents a numbered list of options on each page instead of buttons, and you need to tap twice to make selections. Instead of the credit card swiper automatically turning on, you have to press a button to activate it each time, and if you use too much force--as we often did--you can wind up bending the hardware into the iPhone's sleep button, KO-ing your POS.
The RoamPay software (or Website portal on app-free handsets) turns the audio from the swiper into credit card details. Data is encrypted in the hardware itself, then encrypted again on the phone before transmitting through your Internet connection. Get past the lousy interface, and the process works well, including some crucial features that others can miss, such as the capability to store transactions offline if your service is interrupted.
RoamPay is full of extras, such as a Web portal (for Mac or PC) where you can manually enter transactions. Although the device and app fundamentally work, we wish Roam Data had put more effort into the basic design before adding fancy features.
The costs for RoamPay vary depending on where you buy it. One company, ACT Merchant Services, charges $150 per year, 1.95 percent per transaction, and $45 for the RoamPay hardware.
Pros: Simple setup process; free hardware and no monthly costs
Cons: Pricey for higher-volume businesses; lacks professional features
Square positions itself as the PayPal of mobile credit card transactions; it's simple, easy, and suitable for sole proprietors with occasional sales. The service charges a rate of 2.75 percent plus 15 cents per credit card transaction, with no hardware or monthly costs. If your business runs credit cards daily, you'll find a better deal with a competing service that adds in those costs but bills less per transaction.
Unlike other services, Square requires no merchant account. After Square verifies your identity by way of your Social Security number and other personal data, it sends you the free credit card reader. Getting started is easy, but if you make a mistake with the identity check--we mixed up "north" and "south" on an old address--you don't get a second chance. (You'll have to contact customer service for help.)
The Square app for iPhone and Android takes a simple approach to processing transactions. You plug the tiny reader into the headphone jack, key in a price, and start swiping. Just be sure to turn up the volume with this and other audio-based readers; it won't work if left quiet.
Note, however, that Square lacks features that can be important for many businesses. For instance, you can't refund or void transactions from the device; you have to do so with a computer and Web browser. And you can't store transactions offline if you lose the signal. Such omissions are just additional reminders that Square could be great for a part-time babysitter or artist, but weak for restaurants, street vendors, and other bigger businesses.
Next page:Three more services, and the verdict