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The History of American Express

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This article was last updated Nov 26, 2018. Terms and conditions may have changed. For the most accurate information, please consult the issuer website.

Today, American Express® is the largest payments network in the world, but the company wasn’t always a credit card issuer. American Express was founded in 1850 as a freight forwarding company — in other words, a mail delivery company — and used their delivery services to establish trust with consumers. As the years progressed, Amex began to introduce new financial products and travel services to better satisfy consumers’ needs.

Now, American Express is a multi-billion dollar company, having generated $33.47 billion in revenue in 2017 from their various products such as credit cards, bank accounts and small business services. Looking at the number of cardholders Amex has, they increased membership 4% last year to 36.4 million cardholders. To put that in perspective, Visa has 123.9 million. When it comes down to how much cardholders spent last year, Amex came in third — behind Visa® and Mastercard® — with $703 billion. And, that’s expected to increase to $1.05 trillion in 2022, according to the Nilson Report.

Here’s a walkthrough of how Amex went from mail delivery to credit card juggernaut:

It wasn’t until 1958 that Amex introduced their first charge card. Amex wanted to provide consumers a product that expanded on the security of a travelers check and added the flexibility of a line of credit. This card was marketed to both consumers and businesses alike, but that changed in 1966 when they launched their Corporate Card program, which was tailored to commercial consumer needs.

In 1972, Amex began expanding their global reach. They established international partnerships in South America and Europe, and in the 1990s they expanded at a quicker pace.

Amex decided to expand upon their Corporate Card program in 1987. Amex started to provide tools and resources to help small businesses better manage their day-to-day tasks and plan for the future. Originally named the Small Business Partnership, it was later changed to OPEN: The Small Business Network, in 2002. You may be familiar with “OPEN” if you’re an Amex small business cardholder, since the network provides the OPEN Forum® — a place to get advice and information from fellow business owners and industry experts.

In 1991, the Membership Rewards® program was launched. Formerly Membership Miles®, the Membership Rewards® program began providing cardholders a wide range of benefits and partnerships. The various benefits cardholders received made Membership Rewards® the world’s largest card-based rewards program in 2001, and it continues to be the largest to this day. Membership Rewards® perks vary by Amex credit card, but may include the ability to transfer points to partner frequent flyer programs, annual airline fee credit, access to exclusive entertainment events and presales and much more.

More recently, Amex continues to expand its influence and offerings through various initiatives: Small Business Saturday®, digital efforts like its app and increasing flexibility with Pay with Points. You may have heard “shop small” or seen Amex Small Business Saturday® ads — this are Amex’s way of encouraging consumers to shop small and support businesses in their local communities. The Pay with Points feature is a helpful way for cardholders to apply Membership Rewards® points to pay for purchases at select merchants.

How Amex credit cards compare to competing networks

There are three additional major credit card networks besides Amex — Visa®, Mastercard® and Discover — and not all networks are created equal. Cards backed by each network provide differing benefits and merchant acceptance. Compared to the other networks, Amex credit cards aren’t as widely accepted but they offer cardholders premium perks that can include travel insurances and airline credits, depending on the card you have.

In general, you’ll have better odds using a Visa® or Mastercard® when making purchases — especially abroad — since those networks are accepted at more merchants both in the U.S. and worldwide. But, that doesn’t mean Amex cards aren’t accepted at a lot of merchants. Their acceptance rate has been on the incline and an Amex rep stated they are making good progress on their goal of reaching equal U.S. merchant acceptance with Visa® and Mastercard® in 2019.

Here’s how Amex credit cards stack up to Visa®, Mastercard®, and Discover cards in regards to merchant acceptance:

  U.S. Merchant Location Acceptance Worldwide Merchant Location Acceptance
Visa® 10.9 million 44.4 million
Mastercard® 10.9 million 44.4 million
Discover 10.6 million 42.9 million
American Express 9.0 million 22.1 million*


Source: 2018 The Nilson Report

From the table above, you can see that cards backed by Visa and Mastercard are accepted at over two times more worldwide merchant locations than Amex cards. This means you have greater chances of running into an issue while using an Amex card abroad versus a Visa or Mastercard. However, the difference in U.S. merchant location acceptance is less, with Amex only trailing behind Visa and Mastercard by 1.9 million locations.

Amex credit cards

American Express has continued to launch new products and deliver impressive offers to credit cardholders. They offer various credit cards for a wide range of uses from getting out of debt and financing new purchases, to earning rewards and cash back. Below we list some of our top picks for Amex credit cards in various categories:

Rewards and Financing Purchases

  • $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.*

  • NEW 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions & 3% Cash Back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more.

  • 1% back on other purchases*

  • Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
  • NEW 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
  • NEW 3% Cash Back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more.
  • 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations. 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
  • Over 3 million more places in the U.S. started accepting American Express® Cards in 2017 and 2018.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable rate, currently 14.49% to 25.49%
  • $95 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees

See additional details for Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

More Info

Luxury Travel

  • 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.*

  • Up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees & more at one qualifying airline*

  • No foreign transaction fees & exclusive airport lounge access*

  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
  • Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
  • Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
  • Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
  • $550 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees

See additional details for The Platinum Card® from American Express

More Info

Small Business

  • 0% for 12 Months, then 14.74% - 20.74% Variable

  • Earn 2X points on everyday business purchases up to the annual cap

  • Enjoy the flexibility to put more purchases on the Card

  • Get rewarded for business as usual. Earn 2X Membership Rewards® points on everyday business purchases such as office supplies or client dinners.
  • 2X applies to the first $50,000 in purchases per year, 1 point per dollar thereafter.
  • Enjoy the flexibility to put more purchases on the Card and earn rewards when you buy above your credit limit*.
  • You’ve got the power to use your Card beyond its credit limit* with Expanded Buying Power.
  • More buying power for your business means more opportunities to earn points. That’s everyday business with the Blue Business Plus Card.
  • *The amount you can spend above your credit limit is not unlimited. It adjusts with your use of the Card, your payment history, credit record, financial resources known to us, and other factors.
  • 0.0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months, then a variable rate, 14.74%, 17.74% or 20.74%, based on your creditworthiness and other factors as determined at the time of account opening.
  • Terms Apply
  • See Rates & Fees

See additional details for The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express

More Info

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