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Credit Card Authorization vs. Pre-Authorization

Credit Card Authorization vs. Pre-Authorization
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In the payment processing industry there is a ton of jargon used interchangeably, and sometimes done so incorrectly. As a business owner processing credit cards, it is important you know what these terms mean so you use them correctly if a customer asks.

If you’ve landed on this blog, it’s because you’re trying to determine the difference between two industry terms: credit card authorization versus pre-authorization. Let’s dive in.

Credit Card Authorization

Typically every “successful” transaction gets an authorization, meaning it wasn’t declined. This is the card-issuing bank’s confirmation that there are funds available to complete the transaction, which will be accompanied by an authorization code.

Usually a declined transaction will not get an authorization code, but instead will get, yes you guessed it, a decline code. However, there are some exceptions to this. If a transaction declines due to AVS, CVV or no match on ZIP code, the card-issuing bank will still authorize the transaction. Receiving a decline in these scenarios depends on how your transaction settings are configured.

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Credit Card Pre-Authorization

Now that you have an understanding of credit card authorization, pre-authorization should be a bit easier to grasp. Pre-authorization is a way to test if a card “works.” This encompasses a few things: available funds, address match and whether the card is active.

The process of credit card pre-authorization is as follows:

  1. A transaction is initiated and a credit card is inserted, swiped or keyed in.
  2. A test transaction of $0 or $1 is charged.
  3. The card is tested for funds and address match.
  4. Depending on the pre-authorization success, the true transaction amount will either run or not.

If the pre-authorization test is successful the true transaction amount will be charged, and if it fails, the transaction will not run. The test transaction of $0 or $1 will not actually be charged to the customer’s card, but it will show up in their activity. This line item will eventually drop off and won’t show up on the final statement.

Credit card pre-authorization isn’t standard with every merchant account and not every Merchant Service Provider offers it. If it’s available, you should have the option to enable and disable this feature at your leisure. This service usually has a small, associated cost, but its benefits outweigh the minimal fees you’d pay to use it.

The Benefits of Pre-Authorization

Pre-authorization ultimately allows for you to have more successful credit card authorizations at your business and maintain a steady flow of funds. The number of AVS declines you might run into is decreased with pre-authorization, allowing your business to correct transactions before potentially tying up a large amount of the available funds or credit on your customer’s card. Customers also benefit from getting a real-time glimpse of their available funds.

If you ran a $3,000 transaction that came back with an AVS decline, that lowers your customer’s available funds by $3,000 until the pending charge is cleared. Attempting a second time with the correct address information may result in another decline due to insufficient funds or credit limits, confusion for the customer when they view their statement or accidental disputes against your business.

Whether pre-authorization is the best way to avoid declines depends on your provider and the types of transactions you’re taking. Speak with your Merchant Service Provider to ensure your account is set up to optimize credit card authorizations and maintain security for you and your customers.

Learn more about AVS declines.


Were you surprised to find out that credit card authorization and pre-authorization are different? Tell us if you have other questions. We’d love to provide more information.

Editors Note: This post was originally published in November 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

About Author
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Ursula Librizzi

Ursula is the sales and marketing operations manager for PayJunction. She oversees daily marketing tasks and liaises between the sales and marketing departments.

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