The numerals on your credit card mean different things, depending on where they fit on the up to 16-digit card number. Here’s what each section means.
It’s easy to use credit cards almost every day, without giving the numbers on the cards a second thought.
When we’re typing the numbers to buy something online, however, we can start to wonder about things like, “What do all these numbers mean?” or “Why are there so many numbers?”
We have the answers here.
First, let’s talk about why there are so many numbers. Your credit card may have as many as 16 digits. A trillion is just a 1 with 12 zeros after it, which would be far more than enough to give every card in the world a unique number. Why so many digits, then?
The answer to this mystery is that the numbers mean different things, depending on where they fit the pattern on your card. Here’s what each section of your credit card number means.
Major industry identifier (MII)
The first number on your credit card signifies your type of card. Not type-of-card, like balance transfer or rewards, but rather the card providing company or industry. It’s known as the major industry identifier (MII). For example, if you have a Visa card, your credit card number starts with the number 4.
Here are the nine MII numbers:
2: Airlines and financial
3: Travel and entertainment, including American Express
8: Health care and communications
Card issuer numbers
Banks use up to the next five numbers to identify the credit card company or issuer. American Express specifies the type of card and currency using digits three and four.
Your account number
The remaining numbers, except for the last digit, are your account number and are specific to you. When you get a new credit card number — for example, when your card is lost — only these numbers and the last digit will change.
The final number
The last number on your credit card is special. It’s the only number that is determined by a formula, called the Luhn algorithm, using the preceding numbers on your card.
If you mistype one number on your credit card when you are entering it online, an online validator knows you have not entered a valid credit card number because the number won’t be correct according to the Luhn algorithm.
That’s good for you because you know immediately that you should recheck the number — instead of finding out later when your purchase is declined.
There’s one more set of numbers on your card — the CVV, or card verification value.
If you have a Visa, Mastercard or Discover card, the CVV has three digits and is on the back of your card, on the right side of your signature strip area.
On an American Express card, the CVV has four digits and is on the front of the card, just above and to the right of your credit card number.
Your CVV is intended to prove to online merchants that you actually have the card. Someone who stole your credit card number but not the CVV and the expiration date would not be able to make purchases online. Be very careful who sees your physical credit card or where you enter your account number, including your expiration date and CVV.
Don’t confuse your PIN, or personal identification number, with your CVV. Your PIN is the number you use at an ATM, when getting a credit card cash advance or when making an in-person purchase with a debit card. Never enter your PIN in place of the CVV.
The numbers on your credit card have different meanings depending on their position within the 16-digit credit card number. The first number signifies the type of card company or industry, the next five numbers identify the credit card issuer, the following numbers are your account number and the last number is determined by the Luhn algorithm. Along with the three or four-digit CVV, these numbers are what make your specific credit card unique and help identify and protect you from fraudulent purchases.