By Gregory Karp/NerdWallet
A longtime checkout-line hassle for many Costco shoppers ended Monday, when the wholesale club flipped the switch on its new credit card policy. It stopped accepting American Express and started taking only Visa -- a dramatic changeover for a merchant with about 81 million members worldwide.
The move opens up Costco to a lot more credit cards. About 118 million people in the U.S. have at least one Visa card, about three times as many as have an American Express, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter.
"The switch from American Express to Visa is a big win for consumers," says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet credit card expert. He adds that Citi's new Costco card is "a much richer card than the American Express incumbent."
Costco's new rules
For 16 years, Issaquah, Washington-based Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), known as a place for bulk buying in super-sized shopping carts, accepted only credit cards with the American Express label. Last year, it announced it would switch to Visa cards. The warehouse club also accepts cash, checks, debit and ATM cards, Costco Cash Cards and Electronic Benefits Transfer cards for in-store purchases.
At the same time, Costco said it would switch its store-branded credit card from the TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express to a new product, the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi. Those cards have been sent to TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express cardholders.
June 19 was the last day Costco accepted the old co-branded cards or any others from American Express.
Good news for Visa issuers
Costco's transition has some of Visa's biggest bank issuers vying for a share of the dollars spent there, which totaled $114 billion in 2015, according to the company's annual report.
For example, the Chase Freedom card got in on the action recently by extending its 5 percent cash-back bonus rewards for purchases at wholesale clubs, which was due to end June 30, through the end of the year. Elevated rewards apply not only to Costco, but also to purchases at Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club. And Bank of America added wholesale clubs as a bonus cash-back category for its BankAmericard Cash Rewards credit card.
"Shoppers at wholesale retailers tend to spend more than the average consumer and also be more affluent -- an ideal target customer for credit card issuers," McQuay says. "Since Costco has opened its cash registers to all Visa cards, now all Visa-issuing banks can compete to offer better rewards at wholesale retailers. It's a big win for consumers."
New card offers more rewards
Like the TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express, the Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi will double as a membership card. Customers can use it to make purchases at other stores, but its cash-back rewards are redeemable only at Costco. It has no annual fee, but to get it, you have to be a Costco member, which costs at least $55 per year.
Its rewards include:
- 4 percent back on up to $7,000 per year in gas purchases at Costco and other gas stations.
- 3 percent back at restaurants and on some travel purchases.
- 2 percent back at Costco and on Costco.com.
- 1 percent back on everything else.
Shoppers have other options
The new Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi is a solid choice. But starting June 20, the Chase Freedom will be one of the best cash-back cards to use at the wholesale club -- and at Sam's and BJ's, too -- through the end of the year because of the 5 percent cash-back bonus.
These aren't your only two options, though. Other Visa-branded rewards cards might be a better fit for your lifestyle, or might already be sitting in your wallet. As always, though, if you plan to carry a balance from month to month, the interest could more than wipe out the value of your rewards. In that case, you're probably better off using a low-interest credit card.
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