Fintech Guide to Physical Cards

Physical cards are one of the most widely accepted forms of in-person payment, gaining on cash because of contactless paying capabilities. Plus, people just like custom cards with flashy designs. And customers continue to use physical cards despite digital options.

But any founder will tell you issuing physical cards isn’t for the faint of heart. Physical cards have longer lead times, involve managing more card partner timelines, and add other unknowns to the launch process.

In this guide, we’ll discuss card program management, network design guidelines, the card printing process, and set overall expectations for launching a physical card.

Key Takeaways

  • Physical cards require a card manufacturing partner in addition to all of the parties necessary to bring a card product to market. Card manufacturers handle printing and fulfillment of the physical cards. Your issuer processor usually will have its own card manufacturer partnership you’ll use.
  • Responsibilities can differ depending on whether you have a managed or a processor-only card program. If you have a managed program, your program manager will have a pre-established card manufacturer and will handle that relationship, but this can change if you have customized cards. Managing your own program most likely means you’ll also manage the card manufacturing relationship.
  • Your processor will help facilitate the necessary BIN installations and network certifications. Then, they will exchange keys with the card manufacturer to allow encryption and decryption of your card orders. Key exchanges enable card orders to be sent securely from the processor to the card manufacturer for fulfillment.
  • Main considerations for issuing a physical card hinge on the capabilities of the card manufacturer partnered with your processor. Determine if a card manufacturer can fulfill your program's requirements, within your desired timeline and budget, by asking if they can accommodate your specific needs.

Overview of physical cards

Physical cards require a card manufacturing partner in addition to all parties needed to bring a card product to market. Card manufacturers handle the printing and fulfillment portions of the physical card process. Your issuer processor usually will have its own card manufacturer partnership, but you can ask them if they’ll use a specific card manufacturer.

Onboarding with a new card manufacturer is a lengthy process most processors won’t want to do. It can take anywhere from 3–4 months, in the best case scenario, to integrate with a card manufacturer. Integration includes:

  • completing BIN installations and network certifications
  • securely exchanging information and keys to further secure the data by encrypting and decrypting issuance (card) files
  • development and scripting required for a specific processor and programs

This is why issuer processors tend to have built-in relationships with manufacturers.

Additional card partners create a more complex card implementation process. This lengthens the implementation timeline — a physical card program can take upwards of 16 weeks to launch since it can take roughly 10–12 weeks for the printing alone. This is why card partners try to complete as many steps in tandem as possible. Other physical components, such as EMV chips and carrier cardstock, can also cause delays if not appropriately accounted for.

Templated card design options help expedite the printing process and cost around $5 a card. They typically can include a brand logo and simple design elements.

Custom cards are great brand differentiators but require extra features, more time, and a higher price point. Popular features of custom cards include unique artwork, different printing material (e.g., metal instead of plastic, sun-activated colors, etc.), and other design elements. A custom metal card can end up costing $40 or more to print.

Once the card manufacturer has all of the pieces to build your physical card program, request a physical copy of the card package in full to review and test before rolling it out to your customers.

Card manufacturing relationship

Determine the roles and responsibilities of each party involved at the beginning. Responsibilities can differ depending on whether you have a managed or a processor-only program or if you have custom or templated cards.

Managed card program

If you have a managed program, your program manager will have a pre-established card manufacturer and will handle that relationship. This can change if you have a custom physical card and the program manager requires you to directly contract with the card manufacturer.

Program managers ensure cards comply with bank and network guidelines for physical cards.

Processor-only card program

Managing your own program probably means you’ll also manage the card manufacturing relationship. You’ll also own the bank and network relationships and must have all of your cardstock, art, and design approved by both.

You’ll still have external stakeholders with a processor-only relationship, but these will differ depending on your offering. At the very least, you’ll work with an implementation manager. Additional resources can be hired or outsourced if you’re not well-versed or comfortable with managing this relationship.

Network design guidelines for physical cards

Design guidelines from the networks are extensive and vary by product type and category code. All programs need to adhere to the guidelines to bring a physical card to market.

Templatized cards are pre-configured to meet dimensions and specifications of networks. Visa and Mastercard both have design requirements available for partners online. And customized cards may need special approval and add more time to the overall process. It’s better to find out earlier what’s feasible for your custom project.

You may want to consider starting with an initial version and iterate on it for future printings, if you have a time-sensitive deadline.

Some reasons networks deny design include:

  • Another legal entity’s name
  • Reference to a different network
  • Inappropriate text or imagery
  • The name of an unserviceable geographic location
  • References to non-fiat currency, like cryptocurrency
  • Advertising or promotional language
  • Inclusion or exclusion of information that doesn’t serve the cardholder’s best interest (e.g., no customer support contact information)

Physical card printing process

Once design is approved by both the network and sponsor banks, the actual printing process begins. Whoever owns the card manufacturer relationship will monitor this process and follow up on any delays or issues.

Here are the typical steps for physical card printing after the design is approved by the sponsor bank and networks:

  1. The customer creates an order via API for the processor. The order file will be encrypted and sent securely to the card manufacturer for fulfillment.
  2. The card manufacturer decrypts issuance files for printing. These files will have the full primary account number (PAN), the card verification code or value (CVC/V), and other sensitive account data.
  3. The card manufacturer uses product IDs in the files to print cards to correct specifications. The product IDs act as menu items for all cards, templatized or custom. They specify what card package to produce so that the orders ship with the exact card art, inserts, and packaging requested. Talk with your processor to see what customized options are available within their card manufacturing relationship.
  4. Precautionary security measures and EMV chips are added to prevent fraud. A hole is drilled into the pre-made card for the EMV chip, which is encrypted with the sensitive cardholder information from the issuance files. The chip is inserted and the card undergoes a stress test.
  5. Personalization and mailing. The card manufacturer handles personalization of each card with the cardholder’s name and mailing the printed cards to the correct cardholders. Custom envelopes can add extra time.

Good communication and articulating expectations up front will streamline the entire process and mitigate delays.

Considerations for issuing physical cards

The main considerations for issuing a physical card hinge on the capabilities of the card manufacturer partnered with your processor. Determine if a card manufacturer can fulfill your program’s requirements by asking if they have:

  • The ability to support your desired designs and physical card features
  • A timeline that fits your program’s launch goals
  • On-demand and expedited ordering
  • International or worldwide shipping
  • Scalable pricing models
  • A successful track record
  • Fast integration, if they don’t have a prior relationship with your processor
  • Support capabilities and program management tools, like a card manufacturer portal
  • Adequate staffing and redundancy to support your programs
  • Limited constraints on materials

Pre-empting issues with a robust plan for your physical card program will facilitate launching a successful program and prevent go-to-market delays.

If you’re interested in launching a physical card for your program, contact us.