Virtual Account Numbers: What Are They and When to Use Them?

Photo to accompany story about virtual account numbers. Getty Images | Venmo
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Venmo is going virtual.

The digital payment platform, which is owned by PayPal, announced on Monday the launch of its first credit card. It’s a physical card, with a number, just like traditional cards you might already carry in your wallet. But in addition to that, it also has a “virtual” card number that you can use when shopping online. 

Virtual account numbers are touted as a way to protect your real credit card number from fraud when shopping online, where some sites may be less secure. But the products themselves have often been clunky and difficult to use, perhaps making any added security benefits not worth the trouble.

The Venmo card is one of several products offering a new kind of virtual account number, one that’s easier to use and might help people more safely shop online.

What Are Virtual Account Numbers?

Traditionally, virtual account numbers worked like an alias to your real credit card number. Large issuers of credit cards like Bank of America and Discover have discontinued them, but others like Capital One and CitiBank still offer them. 

If you’re shopping online and are concerned about your card being compromised, you can request a virtual credit card number to use for the transaction. That way, scammers would only have access to the virtual number instead of your real one. 

There are no fees associated with virtual account numbers, and they in no way affect your credit, but exact specifications vary by issuer. Some issuers allow you to request a unique 16-digit card number for every transaction, while others restrict how many you can have active at one time. 

“I tend to think it gets very confusing, though, like if you’re trying to remember ‘OK, I’m using this number for Amazon and this one for Netflix’,” says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at ( shares an owner with NextAdvisor.) One possibility could be to use a password manager to create profiles for unique credit card numbers.

The safety of a virtual account number that’s easy to reset or ditch in the case of fraud, however, can be beneficial. Some issuers have recognized this, and a new category of products is making the feature easier to use and keep track of. 

New Products

New products are emerging to take the place of traditional virtual account numbers. While these products don’t follow the exact model of traditional virtual account numbers, they offer similar safety benefits that can keep your online transactions secure. 

Venmo Credit Card

The new Venmo Visa card is notable for offering cash back on a sliding scale: it gives you 3% on the category you spend the most on — like groceries or dining, for example — 2% on the next, and 1% on everything else. It has no annual fee. It also has a QR code stamped on the card, and when friends scan it with their phone, your Venmo profile pops up and they can send you money or request a payment just like they would with a regular Venmo transaction.   

When you open a Venmo credit card account, you get a physical card in the mail, but a separate “virtual card” — with a virtual number — to use online. If your virtual card is ever compromised when you’re shopping online, you can request a new number directly in the Venmo app.

The Venmo credit card is available only to select random Venmo customers to start, but will become widely available in the coming months, according to a Venmo spokesperson. 

PayPal Key

PayPal Key, which launched in September, is a virtual card that acts as an intermediary between your sensitive account information and retailers. It also allows you to use PayPal at retailers that do not accept payment directly from a PayPal account. 

PayPal Key generates a Mastercard number for your online transactions so that your account information is protected. What’s especially interesting about PayPal Key is that it can also be used to protect your debit card and bank account information, not just your credit card number. 

“Your debit card or bank account are much more sensitive,” says Rossman. “I would be much more worried about fraud on either one of those than on a credit card.” 

PayPal Key isn’t widely available yet, but some existing PayPal users are eligible

Apple Card

The Apple Card has been around for more than a year, and offers only a virtual account number— there is no number printed on your physical credit card. You can use your number online immediately after you get approved. 

If your Apple Card is compromised, you can change your number online to prevent any further fraudulent activity. 

“The Apple Card is virtual by nature,” says Rossman. “You can use the virtual card immediately, and it’s super easy to reset if you ever need to.”

Bottom Line

Traditional virtual account numbers are waning in popularity. If you want to use traditional virtual account numbers, though, they are still available via certain issuers. 

“If you’re going to do it, the best way to use [a virtual number] is to keep it isolated and use it just on one site,” says Rossman. ”If you use it on multiple sites then you’re at risk for compromising that number too.”

These new hybrid virtual account products are digital in nature and much easier to reset in case of fraud. This can save you time and hassle when your account is compromised. Plus you won’t have to juggle multiple separate account numbers at once.

Note, however, that while virtual account numbers and products can help keep your online shopping secure, they are not a replacement for checking your account regularly for fraud