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What the Credit Card Numbers Mean

Decoding the Numbers on Your Credit Card

The Goldman Sachs and Stephen Colbert debacle reached a high Tuesday night when Colbert received a letter from the lawyers at the bank. Here's a refresher of the drama: one of Colbert's staff found the credit card of Buckley T. Ratchford, a partner at Goldman Sachs, which the comedian used to try and blackmail Ratchford to come on his show by threatening to reveal a digit of his credit card number every night. This is part of his effort to get someone from one of the big banks to come onto his show to talk about Wall Street and bonuses, something that Colbert has been trying to do, but with no success.

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One of the funny highlights of the show was when Colbert reveals the first number of the card, a five, to which he says, "That's a good number. Indicates a high credit limit." Obviously it was a joke, but this made me wonder what what the first number of a credit card actually means. I found the answer on HowStuffWorks:

  • 3: Travel or entertainment cards, like American Express and Diners club.
  • 4: Visa, including Visa-branded debit and cash cards.
  • 5: Mastercard and Mastercard-branded cards.
  • 6: Discover card.

To satisfy your curiosity about what the rest of the digits mean, read on!

  • American Express: The first two digits of AMEX are 37 (while 38 is taken by Carte Blanch and Diners Club). The third digit on the card denotes the type — business or personal, while the fourth means the type of currency used. The fifth number until the eleventh is the account number, and the 12th to the 14th are the card number within the account. The last digit is the check number.
  • Visa: The second to the sixth number on the card identifies the bank. The seventh to the twelth or fifteenth (not all Visa cards have the same amount of numbers) represents the account and the last is the check digit.
  • Mastercard: The second number to the third, fourth, fifth or sixth is the bank number. The leftover digits signifies the account number of the card holder, and the last is the check digit.
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