The progression to numberless credit/debit cards

My post the other day about Wise's Eco card got me thinking about credit and debit cards again. Not from a financial perspective but more about changes in design, both where they are coming from and where they lead.

Wise debit card and corporate green washing

I have since discovered that these cards without full account information printed on them (like Wise's Eco card) are part of a wider trend in the credit/debit card industry and are more generally called "numberless cards" (with the Apple Card, Curve Investor and Chase [UK] cards being other well known examples). While they clearly do have an account number associated with them it is not visible on the card itself (unlike traditional cards).

Cards have gone through three quick phrases in recent years: removal of embossing, numbers moved to the back, no numbers. These are all sort of linked, with each step leading to the next one making more sense. In my own wallet I have cards that are embossed, not embossed with numbers on the front, and not embossed with numbers on the back. How long before I too have a numberless card and will I have all four forms at the same time?

So how/why has this happened? My guess is the following. It starts with the removal of embossing. Embossing was required in the past before electronic banking became the norm. Embossing allowed the details of the cards to be quickly copied at the point of sale using a credit card imprinter.

Credit card imprinter [Wikipedia]

The device works by placing the customer’s credit card into a bed in the machine, then layering carbon paper forms over the card. A bar is slid back and forth over the paper to create an impression of the embossed card data and the merchant information on the imprinter. The customer signs these paper forms, with one copy as the customer receipt and the other kept by the merchant.

Embossing has stuck around a long time after imprinters were phased out but at some point I guess the industry realised this was now largely pointless. In fact just printing the number with ink and no embossing improves readability because previously the ink used to easily wear off embossed surfaces, making the card number harder to read over time.

Once support for card imprinters via embossing had gone, I guess someone realised that the account number did not have to remain in the same place and indeed moving details to the back provides a few of benefits.

Which brings us now to numberless cards. By taking away even more information there is even further, improved security. The card gives no secrets away (visually), no matter which side it is up. Also, even more design options are possible because of more space being available. The obvious downside being, how will the user get the account information when they need it? Luckily modern technology solves this, the bank's website (and often also a dedicated phone app) are able to display this. In addition password/account managers, and payment apps can store it and even provide autofill capability on websites that need it. Also sites one frequently visits will typically offer to store details directly, meaning you would not have to look up these numbers as often as was required historically.

That said, this last progression (numberless cards) is probably the one the most likely to get push back from users who find numbers on the card more convenient than using software to store and look them up. So I guess it'll probably be a long time before all cards go numberless.

And what will be the next trend after this? I suppose it will be the removal of the magnetic strip. Like embossed numbers, these strips are for a method of collecting payment that is dead in many places in the world and dying out rapidly elsewhere. Indeed here in Norway (where I live) it is not possible to use the magnetic strip anywhere that I know of. The only time I use them is on trips to the US and even then the frequency has been going down rapidly. I don't think I did this once on my last trip there. Getting rid of the strip would already be fine for many users and frees up even more space. Plus it makes copying card information with simpler tools like magnetic skimmers impossible. Indeed a quick search leads me to Mastercard announcing the planned removal of these already, from next year in Europe (2024) and from 2027 in the US.

Swiping left on magnetic stripes [Mastercard]

By 2029, no new Mastercard credit or debit cards will be issued with a magnetic stripe.

Personally I am all for it. I love these simpler, design friendly and more secure cards. The only thing I worry about is the obvious final step where the cards are entirely virtual. Granted many people already have purely virtual cards and just use Apple Pay and Google Pay on their smartphones. My wife never carries any cards (or money!) and relies solely on her phone but as a non smartphone user, that option is not really a possibility for me right now. 😉

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