Virtual Credit Card Numbers: The Complete Guide (2024)

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As identity theft continues to plague credit card holders, virtual card numbers can provide some peace of mind without complicating the payment process. Virtual card numbers are temporary card numbers associated with a credit card account for use online to make those transactions more secure. Virtual card numbers offer individuals and businesses an alternative and streamlined way to pay merchants.

Virtual card numbers can be issued immediately and customized after initial use. They can also be immediately revoked as needed. Transaction-specific controls reduce cardholders’ susceptibility to fraud by catching and preventing any misuse attempts with a specific card number. Virtual cards can benefit commercial card program managers, since apart from an added sense of security, virtual cards tend to have lower costs and more efficient operations compared with standard credit cards.

What Is a Virtual Card Number?

Virtual card numbers are similar to physical credit cards, but exist only in a virtual form. Unlike physical cards, a virtual card becomes available for customer use immediately, generating and assigning a random 16-digit number associated with an already-existing credit card account. This offers customers another kind of security by protecting information directly linked to bank accounts and smoothing out cash flow delays or unexpected funding hiccups for both individuals and businesses.

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Virtual Credit Cards: Pros and Cons

As with other credit or charge card products, virtual cards provide spending controls, fraud protections and reporting tools to help manage, track and secure projects and expenses.

The main downside to a virtual credit card is that it can usually only be used online, so it is not usable in all scenarios. However, in some cases virtual card numbers can be used over the telephone.

An upside to consider in the non-physical aspect of these cards is that less plastic circulates as people accumulate cards for different uses. Individuals and businesses can link a group of virtual card numbers to a central debit, credit or charge account and avoid excessive collection or distribution of plastic cards. This eliminates the fear of losing or misplacing physical cards, leaves space in your wallet and reduces the detrimental effect human development of plastic has on the environment.

For consumers, virtual card numbers provide more privacy, protect sensitive banking information and prevent advertisers from data tracking.

For businesses, virtual card numbers greatly help with implementation, providing immediate issuance and funds while also managing cash flow, enhanced payables and stronger reporting.

Why Are Virtual Card Numbers Important?

Digital payments are becoming increasingly prevalent and virtual card numbers present one way to manage funds and purchases with enhanced spending controls and reporting tools while minimizing security risks from both ends of a transaction. Virtual card technology can lead to fewer fraud charge claims. Those learning how to build credit, such as younger family members, may benefit from using these types of cards when transacting online.

Businesses using virtual card numbers can also manage cash flow faster and make payments to employees, business partners and vendors more smoothly. In addition, traditional credit cards can be costly to operate as physical equipment is required to process a payment. Plus, the processing equipment machine may be more vulnerable to tampering and malfunction.

How Is a Virtual Credit Card Generated?

Virtual credit card numbers are linked to an existing credit card account and generate a random number to use in place of your actual credit card number. By doing so, you’re protected from sharing actual bank account information or using a physical credit card number. These numbers can even be used temporarily for a one-time payment and will process as regular credit cards to the vendors.

Depending on your bank or card issuer, it may be possible to request a virtual card number using your online account management site. Through your existing account, you can also request spending caps on any virtual card number you receive, and custom expiration dates to protect from misuse, fraud or overspending.

How Do Virtual Card Numbers Differ From Smartphone Payment Apps?

Apple, Google and Samsung offer payment apps most merchants will accept for online purchases or in-store use with NFC (near field communications) or MST (magnetic secure transmission). With these smartphone apps, a payment token replaces the customer’s primary account number (PAN).

Similar to how a virtual card number is associated with an existing credit card number, this payment token consists of its own unique number which customers can use to make purchases without providing any real account information. Tokens also maintain account privacy and prevent duplication or reuse of payment information by a third party. This type of payment technology also offers reporting and spending controls.

Tokenization’s specific features vary among card issuers as each issuer may use separate programs to connect with smartphone payment apps. Where payment tokens are linked to the specific app being used to make a purchase, virtual card numbers are generally platform agnostic. They can be used with most merchants that accept online payments, payment processors as well as many smartphone payment apps.

As an example, a consumer using virtual card technology could create unique Citi Virtual Account Numbers for each of his or her most frequently used smartphone payment apps. With this, the consumer could ultimately keep all payment numbers accessible in one place to more easily track app purchases. This might be especially useful for a family operating from shared payment methods on multiple devices.

Just as some people dedicate a specific physical debit, credit or charge card to a single spending purpose, virtual card numbers can also be dedicated to specific devices or family member accounts. This aids greatly in a technological age when parents may struggle to monitor their kids’ spending. With access to shared virtual card numbers, parents have the ability to view purchase history, and disable and/or lower spending limits from their personal bank portal. This is just one of many ways that virtual card technology presents convenience and security for everyday spending needs.

Where and How To Get a Virtual Card

If you have a credit card, you may already have access to a virtual card number. To find out, simply log into your online bank or card account and search for “Virtual Card Number” or “Virtual Account Number.”

Citi Virtual Account Numbers, Wells Fargo Digital Wallet and Click To Pay from Visa, Mastercard and American Express are all examples of providers for single- or multi-use virtual card numbers. Both single- and multi-use virtual card numbers can be used to prevent fraud, so this benefit is available no matter which kind you choose.

Single-use cards are as they sound: available for one use towards an online purchase or to carry out an ATM cash withdrawal. Multi-use cards can be used as a designated payment method for a frequently visited vendor. This makes personal purchase tracking much easier and maintains privacy by containing consumer history exposure to a specific company or merchant.

The Citi Virtual Account Number portal is an example of how quick and easy it can be to set up a virtual card. First, it will ask you to choose which type of Citi credit card account for which you want to create the virtual card number. Then you will be invited to confirm any advanced settings you may want, including custom expiration dates and spending limits. Finally, it will generate a unique virtual card number that you can put to use immediately and delete as soon as it is no longer needed.

Can You Get Instant Approval for a Virtual Credit Card?

Yes. This is one of the many perks of virtual credit card numbers, as they are intended to provide consumers with quick and simple solutions to accessing funds when needed. As long as your existing debit, credit or charge account offers a virtual card option, you can make the request and almost immediately use your new card number for online spending.

Can You Get a Virtual Credit Card With No Deposit?

When you request a virtual credit card number, it is linked to a pre-existing account with funds already in it or a credit account with a line of credit. While setting up the virtual credit card, you will be given the choice to set it as a single-use or multi-use card. You’ll also be able to set an expiration date of your choosing and decide if you would like to set a spending limit on the card. This will allow you to access funds from your existing account in an organized and controlled way.

Can You Get a Virtual Credit Card Anonymously?

While a virtual credit card must be linked to some existing funded or credit account, your account data and personal information is protected and anonymous when those funds are charged through the virtual number.

Why Should Consumers Use a Virtual Card Number?

Virtual card numbers are excellent tools for any consumer to securely and effortlessly shop online, while also staying organized and on top of personal finances. Accessing virtual cards online when needed is easy, as consumers with debit, credit or charge accounts that offer this feature need not apply for a new account nor do they incur any credit inquiries.

Another added sense of security can be found in the inherent protection afforded to the existing card account. Physical card information remains protected and anonymous no matter where you shop with a virtual card number.

The virtual number you receive is also managed by the very same card issuer associated with your real account, with whom you already have a pre-existing relationship. This provides peace of mind, but also makes it simpler for you when you wish to create new card numbers or adjust any settings associated with them.

How Can Virtual Card Numbers Be Issued for Businesses and Corporations?

Corporate credit cards can be useful tools for building program-level and individual account controls to oversee employee purchases. Online programs and account management tools serve as a helpful, central hub to monitor company spending and enhance a company’s payables process with its corporate credit card, sometimes known as a “P-card” or purchasing card.

Forbes Advisor’s guide to how corporate credit cards work reviews the benefits offered to middle-market businesses and large corporations, including optimized spending controls, an enhanced payables process and long-term value.

Large banking institutions offering corporate credit card programs can easily analyze a company’s payables history to identify how a corporate credit card reduces risk of fraud, helps control large project expenses and makes accurate assessments based on the types of merchants a company engages with the most. Commercial banking relationship managers, treasury management specialists and dedicated bank client service professionals are all possible resources that could help your company learn more about what a particular institution can offer in this area.

As part of a corporate credit card program, virtual card numbers can be an enhanced feature a commercial banking partner offers as part of a “P-Card” implementation program. Just as with individual consumers, these virtual card numbers can be issued instantly, in multiples and for single- or multi-use. Instant virtual card numbers can be issued for installment loans to borrowers as well as for onboarding a gig worker.

E-commerce merchants might find multiple virtual card numbers useful for tracking the fulfillment of orders shipped to multiple partners. For example, an online seller could create multiple virtual card numbers to fulfill each order that is shipped to different addresses and if one shipment isn’t fulfilled, a single virtual card number could be refunded or resent without affecting the other fulfillments on file.

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Are Virtual Card Numbers Secure?

Most virtual card number issuers ensure secure protection of sensitive account data, encrypted for virtual transmission. Once a card program administrator or issuer activates a card, a cardholder can set customized PINs (personal identification numbers) possibly required to make purchases. The issuer maintains oversight of encrypted transmission of data, including the primary account number (PAN), the PIN, expiration date and individual CVV (card verification value).

Most virtual card numbers are obligated to comply with PCI DSS (payment card industry data security standards), which means transactions can be made with confidence for both the virtual card number owner, the card program manager or card issuer and the merchant receiving the funds.

Bottom Line

Virtual card numbers offer a secure way to make payments online for both consumers and businesses alike. The numbers generated can be set for one-time transactions or multiple use and provide an extra layer of security when it comes to protecting your online payment transactions. You may want to consider contacting your issuer for a virtual number next time you make an online purchase.

Virtual Credit Card Numbers: The Complete Guide (2024)
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