Card Machines vs Card Readers: What is the difference?

Card machines and card readers are both electronic devices which can be used to take payments from customers. The terms are usually used interchangeably, which is fair when people are talking about payment methods. However, if you’re a business owner, what do you go for?

In this article we hope to clear up any misconceptions, explain the pros and cons of each device, and guide you on which would be the best for your business’s needs.

How does a card reader differ from a card machine?

When you think about paying with a card at a shop, you probably imagine a card machine. They’re the typical chip and PIN machines that they have in supermarkets, bakeries, barbers and more across the world.

Card machines have a screen, a number pad for typing in a PIN, and a slot for swiping credit and debit cards. These come in fixed (for use behind a till), portable (for table service) and mobile-integrated (for travelling businesses e.g. private hairdressers), and don’t require internet access to use.

Card readers on the other hand are a newer solution, with some small differences. Card readers are much smaller first of all, and are more mobile than card machines for this reason. They do however require an internet connection and an app to operate.

Below we’ll go into why taking card payments is a good step forward for your business, as well as visiting some more detailed positives and negatives of each of the two devices.

Why should I take card payments anyway?

There’s a lot of reasons for wanting to accept more than just cash, and we’ve listed a few of them here:

Sell more

More and more people are ditching cash altogether. This means that at the very least, you should have the option for cash and card, because asking a customer to go to a cash machine is as good as turning them away.

As well as this, customers are a lot more likely to buy extra items if it’s on card. If a customer comes in with a £5 note for example, they’re a lot less likely to agree to upsells as they don’t have the money in-hand for it. You’ll hear a lot more “yeah, go on then” if people aren’t counting coins.

Sell faster

Card payments, especially contactless, are just faster than cash. It’s a fact. It means you can move through the queue quicker, which is only a good thing. It also stops arguments about change, which also allows you to run through more customers with less chance of hassle.

Be more secure

If you only accept cash, you have a lot more notes in your till and in the back. This makes your shop more attractive to burglars sadly (including staff potentially!), and makes your insurance more expensive for the same reason. This added danger and cost can be reduced with card machines or readers.

AVS (comparing the address of the card owner and the location they’ve paid for something) and CVV (the 3-number security code on the back of a card) checks also make paying with a card more secure than cash in other ways.

Be more hygienic

With many businesses looking to be more safe, taking card payments is a great way to improve on that front. Change carries a lot more germs than cards, and table service is becoming increasingly standard in businesses that are staying open, so taking cards is killing two birds with one stone.

What does a card machine do better?

For card machines, their positives and negatives mostly depend on the type of device that you’d like. As we mentioned before, they are split into three types:

Countertop/ Fixed

If you work at a company who uses a reception or till to take payments, a countertop machine would be ideal for you.

Countertop card machines are plugged into the mains and your broadband/ telephone line. They print receipts instantly as a payment is being taken once set up, and most new models accept both Apple/Android Pay and Contactless. They’re sturdy, reliable and secure.


If you work on a shop floor, the added mobility of a portable card machine would be perfect for you. These machines are powered using bluetooth and a battery, so they operate completely wirelessly, and only have to be within 50m of the charging point.

These are also connected to your company’s phone line or Wi-Fi, and also have Contactless/ Apple/Android Pay integration.


A mobile terminal is mostly similar to a portable one, except it has a SIM card installed in it, making it more suited to people who aren’t always in one store. If you find yourself working on the move, like a cleaner or a plumber, this is the best option for you. These devices also take Apple/Android Pay and Contactless.

What does a card reader do better?

A card reader is similar to a mobile terminal, except that it is on a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis instead of a contract. They take a percentage of the payments you take instead of a monthly charge, which can save you money if you make less sales. Be warned though, this could end up costing more in the long-run if you make a lot of sales.

Card readers are incredibly portable, and also take Contactless and Apple/Android Pay.

Lease or PAYG?

Card machines are generally on a lease, which can be seen as a positive or a negative depending on who you ask. It means being tied down for a long period of time if you’re not careful, but suppliers who we work with do have options for contracts as short as a year.

A lease also comes with a 24/7 helpline, whereas PAYG contracts are more independent and transactional.

Another thing worth noting is that a lease could be a bad idea while businesses are still being forced to close. If your company is being locked down and reopened, it may be better to get a PAYG terminal. That being said, some of our partners are offering a Covid guarantee on all card machines. This includes a freeze of all rentals, service charges, PCI fees, refund fees and any other costs whilst your business is kept from trading.

In conclusion

There are a lot of similarities between card machines and card readers, but we hope you’ve been able to decide which type of device is better for your business. If not, we have specialist consultants on-board who can advise you on which device you’d benefit from the most! Simply fill out our short online form below, and you’ll be put in touch with the right provider for your needs:

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