Best Card Readers and POS Systems for UK Businesses

Updated: May 2021

Picking a card reader and POS (point of sale) provider can be a hassle for any business.

Searching through all the different options can be a daunting task as there are so many companies offering payment processing services.

To help new businesses decide which company’s services are right for them, we've assembled this guide in which we cover:

  • How important are card readers in 2021?
  • What are the different options for high and low revenue businesses
  • What are the differences between the new fintech generation of payment providers
  • How do traditional payment processing companies charge for their services?
  • A cost comparison over one year of all the newer payment providers (SumUp, Shopify, Square & Zettle)  
  • Our current favourite card payment providers


In addition to comparing all the different card payment providers, we also cover the POS (point of sale) systems these companies offer as part of their packages.

How important are card readers in 2021?

Gone are the days of cash-only corner shops, or burger vans at music festivals. Airlines are now even accepting contactless payments while flying at 30,000 feet.

The British public has used less cash every year since credit cards became widely used in the late 80s and early 90s. Since contactless cards became available in 2007 and phone-based payment apps like Apple and Google pay arrived in 2015, cash has become even less relevant. In addition, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced contactless transactions to become the norm.

As Brits rely more and more on card payments, businesses have no choice but to find ways to accept card payments, regardless of their business model.


What are your options?

There's a wide range of card payment providers, each with benefits and drawbacks that fall into two categories:

  • The new fintech generation (SumUp, Shopify, Square & Zettle) takes a percentage of every transaction and has rock bottom startup fees. Most of these providers have free software, and their card readers cost around £40.
  • Traditional merchant card machine providers like Worldpay and Barclaycard Business that mainly cater to high revenue businesses. These providers tend to charge flat monthly rental fees and prearranged charges per transaction; expensive for startups but essential for businesses regularly accepting large payments.


The new fintech generation; low startup costs help smaller businesses and startups get off the ground.

Since the early 2000s, several companies have sprung up worldwide, challenging traditional card payment providers like Barclaycard and Worldpay that have dominated the market for decades.

Companies like Square, Zettle, Shopify and SumUp give new businesses an easy way to get their brick and mortar stores up and running in no time by providing integrated card payment machines and POS software.

All four companies offer a wide array of different products and services, and each has its speciality, which we cover in detail below.

Square, Zettle and SumUp all offer relatively similar services, whereas Shopify is a little different. Shopify includes card payment services as part of a broader offering - mainly for their eCommerce platform.


Unlike traditional card payment providers, all four companies charge a percentage of every transaction, which works out cheaper for smaller businesses and startups with low earnings, but far more expensive for established businesses with high profits.

For this reason, we don't recommend any business with more significant profits move over to any of these payment providers.

However, small businesses and startups could greatly benefit from using these companies' services.

Card payment & POS provider comparison  


SumUp

SumUp is a London based company founded in 2012 that offers payment processing and POS systems worldwide.

The company charges customers a flat rate on every transaction, currently 1.69%.

SumUp has two distinct card readers available: The Air and the 3G. Both readers look fantastic and have excellent functionality.

There are no monthly minimum sales required to use either card reader, nor is there a cancellation fee if you decide to use another company.


SumUp Air Card Reader

The Air is SumUp's original card reader. The unit costs £29 upfront with no continuing costs or contractual obligations and comes in a clean, white minimalist design.

The Air accepts all the usual payment methods, including chip and PIN, contactless, and Google and Apple pay.

The Air works by connecting to the internet through the SumUp app, which works on smartphones or tablets. To use the app, you need to sign up for a SumUp account, which takes less than 5 minutes.

For £10, you can buy a charging dock for the Air card reader to display the card reader on a countertop for your customers while continuously charging the unit. The Air has enough battery for roughly 500 transactions with one full charge.


SumUp 3G Card Reader

The 3G Card Reader is SumUp's premium card machine. It has all the Air's utility in addition to extra roaming capabilities.

The 3G doesn't need a smartphone or tablet to work, like the Air, as it uses a built-in SIM card with free unlimited data.

To take card payments from anywhere with mobile data is incredibly useful, if not a necessity, for many businesses like mobile food trucks or restaurants with large outdoor areas (no more asking people to come in and pay at the bar).

Like the Air, the 3G has a charger, but for £30 rather than £10, as it includes a receipt printer.

The 3G has much less battery than the Air model, only supporting up to 50 transactions per charge, rather than the 500 that the Air can do, making the charging dock a necessary purchase.


SumUp Summary

In addition to its card readers and free app, SumUp also sells a POS system with a stronger feature set, Goodtill, for £29 per month. The system is highly effective, coming with a helpful range of back of house management and reporting features.

Overall, the SumUp readers are great card machines to get any small business like a cafe, bar or shop off the ground. One downside is both readers require extra hardware to print receipts.

Read our full SumUp Review

Zettle

Zettle is a Swedish company founded in 2010 that provides payment processing for small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, Europe, Mexico and Brazil.  

The company was previously called 'iZettle' but changed its name in February 2021 after being acquired by PayPal for $2.2B.

Like SumUp, Zettle doesn't charge its customers a flat monthly fee, instead choosing to take a percentage of every transaction, which at 1.75% is slightly higher than SumUp.

Zettle hardware works in conjunction with the Zettle GO app, which is a fully functional POS system. The app is easy to set up and has many valuable features like in-depth reporting and easy to manage products and categories. The app also integrates easily with third-party apps like Xero, QuickBooks and Wix.

Zettle currently offers one card reader, called the Zettle Card Reader 2, which comes with either the standard or sustainable design, called the Ocean model. The sustainably designed Ocean model is identical in every way except material to the standard model.  


Zettle Card Reader 2

Zettle's Card Reader 2 is a straightforward, well-designed card reader that comes in either back or white and costs £29.  

Like SumUp's Air reader, the Zettle Card Reader 2 needs a connection to a tablet or smartphone with the company's app installed to take payments. Most businesses will find it easiest to use a tablet, as the bigger screen shows far more items per page.  

Both Zettle's Card Readers accept all major card brands, including Visa, Mastercard, Maestro, JCB, American Express and Union Pay.

Zettle also sells an accompanying charging dock for the reader at £39 and additional hardware like receipt printers, cash drawers, and barcode scanners.


Ocean Model

The Ocean model is identical in every way to the Zettle Card Reader 2, except look and source material. Zettle produces the Ocean model using entirely recycled plastic fishing nets.

The Ocean model helps businesses demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and is a great talking point with new and existing customers while processing payments.

Zettle has publicly stated their commitment to donate 20% of the Ocean model proceeds to charities working to rid the oceans of plastic.  

Zettle Summary

Overall, Zettle's card readers are a strong option for businesses seeking a top of the line POS system and a way to start taking card payments with almost no startup costs.

Additionally, the Ocean version is a unique selling point for sustainably focused companies.

The only downsides are the readers don't accept card swipes due to security concerns, nor do they print receipts without additional hardware.

Read our full Zettle review

Square

Square is a US-based POS and payment service provider founded by Jack Dorsey of Twitter in 2009.

Like Zettle and Sumup, Square only charges a preset percentage fee on every transaction, currently 1.75%.

Square does not require any minimum time commitment from businesses wanting to use their services. You can order a card reader, set up the app and start taking payments in less than a week.

Square has two card readers: its iconic Square Reader, from which the company takes its name, and the Square Terminal, a more advanced model with additional utility.


Square Reader

The Square reader is unlike any other card machine on the market. It's small, white, square, and has no built-in screen.

Despite lacking a pin pad, the Reader lets customers use chip and PIN by inputting their pin on a smartphone or tablet linked to the reader.

The reader's battery usually lasts for an entire day, even with heavy use. Similar to the Zettle reader, Square's reader doesn't accept card swipes without additional hardware.

The Square reader is currently priced at £19, making it the cheapest card reader on today's market. While some may find it irritating to need two connected devices to accept card payments, it's an acceptable sacrifice considering the incredibly low startup cost it allows.

Square's Reader accepts all the usual card providers like Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and Apple and Google pay.  


Square Terminal

The Square Terminal is the company's premium card payment offering.

The unit is stylish, looks similar to a modern smartphone, and comes in a mixed black and white design. The Terminal includes a large touch screen on which your customers can input their PIN.

As the Terminal is larger than the Reader and lets you print receipts, it's more suitable for shops and cafes with a fixed payment location, although you can move it around wirelessly.

Square Summary

Square's hardware is a good option for any small business or startup with the Square Terminal an ideal upgrade for companies looking for more functionality from their card reader.

We were  impressed by the POS system, which works for almost any business type. In particular, the functionality aimed at hospitality businesses.

The two downsides are the readers don't accept swipe payments (although this is the same for many of the low priced options), and the square reader requires customers to enter PINs on a separate device, which may put some customers off.

Read our full Square review.


Shopify

Shopify is the premier website creator for companies looking to set up an eCommerce website that integrates with their physical stores. In fact, we have a full review on Shopify's website platform.

We can only partially compare Shopify's prices to SumUp, Square and Zettle, as Shopify includes a range of extra features like website creation and their POS system as part of their card payment packages.

Additionally, some of their prices are only available in USD, so UK customers' exact price will vary.

Shopify currently charges varying rates for card transactions depending on which payment plan you choose, ranging between 1.6% - 2.2% +20p per transaction.

Shopify's prices for payment processing are noticeably higher than its competitors.

Whether Shopify is right for you and your business really depends on whether you need an online store that fully integrates with your physical stores. If not, the other companies like SumUp or Square would likely be a better fit.

Shopify currently offers one card reader, the WisePad 3, and an array of accompanying hardware like tills, iPad stands and receipt printers.


WisePad 3 Reader

Although the WisePad 3 is undeniably functional, it does look quite basic and dull compared to those sold by Square and SumUp. Unfortunately, this isn't reflected in the price as the WisePad 3 is among the more expensive card readers, currently priced at £ 49.

Despite its appearance, the WisePad 3 is every bit as functional as any other card reader on the market. It accepts chip and PIN, contactless, as well as Google and Apple pay.

Shopify Summary

Overall, Shopify is a viable choice for some startups and small businesses, mainly those desiring an online store that integrates with brick and mortar stores.

Read our full Shopify POS Review.


Cost comparison


Below is a table comparing the price for all the newer card payment providers discussed above and in our separate articles. You can see the monthly costs at a range of of revenue’s.

Provider
Monthly Cost
Card Reader
£1k sales p.m.
£5k sales p.m.
10k sales p.m.
SumUp
£0
£29.00
£16.90 p.m.
£84.50 p.m.
£169.90 p.m.
Zettle
£0
£29.00
£17.50 p.m.
£87.50 p.m.
£175.00 p.m.
Square
£0
£19.00
£17.50 p.m.
£87.50 p.m.
£175.00 p.m.


We haven't included Barclaycard, Worldpay or Take Payments as their exact rates vary enormously based on volume.We have also not included Shopify in the table as the offering is not like for like with an e-commerce store included in the pricing structure. Read more about Shopify POS and the costs here.

The best options for high revenue businesses

The three companies described below are known as the more traditional payment processing providers.

All three give varying rates in exchange for services depending on your business' average number of card transactions and sales volume.  


Worldpay

Worldpay is one of the oldest card machine providers worldwide, operating in 146 countries and supporting more than 400,000 businesses. The company offers a range of card machines for either countertop, portable or mobile use, manufactured by Ingenico and PAX.

All Worldpay card terminals have built-in receipt printers and come with charging cables or a charging dock, depending on the model. All units accept chip and PIN, contactless as well as Apple and Google Play. The card machines all integrate with most POS software, letting you combine all different payment types into one system.

Worldpay offers three different payment plans: Custom, Simplicity and Pay As You Go. Both Custom and Simplicity plans lock you in for a minimum of 18 months but have no setup fee, whereas the Pay As You Go plan requires no minimum time commitment but has a £150 set up fee.

How much you pay per card transaction depends on your plan. Worldpay offers custom rates to businesses with high earnings, which can be much lower than any of the new fintech companies like Square or Zettle.

But, the Pay As You Go and Simplicity plans offer rates of 1.75% and 1.5% per transaction, which are comparable to the newer providers.

It's unlikely any new business will be best suited to Worldpay, as you need to negotiate the fees when setting up, so if you have little or no sales figures, the company is unlikely to give you a favourable rate.  


Take Payments

Take Payments is a UK based payment solution company that, until 2019, traded as Payzone.

Similar to Worldpay, the company offers a wide range of card machines covering any possible use. Take Payments offers shorter contracts than Worldpay and other traditional payment solution providers (a 12-month minimum) compared to others that can require up to 60 months minimum commitment.

Also similar to Worldpay, Take Payments charges businesses varying rates depending on sales. They request those interested in their services fill out a form online to speak to one of the company's representatives.

Take Payments charges a minimum of £10 for their card machines and between 0.3% and 2.5% on every card transaction.

Take Payments likely won't give you a favourable rate if you're a new or small business, in which case you would be better off working with one of the new fintech companies compared above.


Barclaycard

Barclaycard is the merchant services division of Barclays bank, one of the world's oldest banks.

The company sells a vast array of card machines, including countertop readers, portable card readers, mobile card readers and Barclaycard mobile - a fully mobile card reader ideal for events like festivals or trade shows.

Barclaycard does give some fees and rental charges upfront on the website. Still, the exact fees charged per transaction depends on your business' sales volume and average transaction size, similar to Take Payment and Worldpay.

Barclaycard's card machines cost £10 per month + VAT and upward, the online payment gateway costs between £20-£75 to access, and there is a minimum £15 monthly fee for Barclaycards services.

Similar to Worldpay and Take Payments, Barclaycard's services are best suited to established businesses.

Summary and Our Top Picks

There are a range of excellent choices in the payment solutions market. No matter what type of business you currently operate or are starting up, one of the providers we've looked at in this article will be suitable.

Below, we've highlighted our top picks=.


SumUp is the best all round option for startups and small businesses.

The company's two-card machines and additional hardware are easily affordable for any new business, highly functional and easy to set up.

SumUp also offers the lowest percentage transaction charge of any new generation payment provider.  

Plus for businesses requiring greater POS functionality the higher-end software, Goodtill, is a good option costing a £29 a month.

Read our full SumUp review.


Square is our pick for restaurants and other hospitality businesses

This is due to Square’s POS system designed specifically for restaurants that includes various useful innovations that would benefit  hospitality businesses.

Square also has some of the best looking and most functional payment processing hardware available. While the square reader does need a smartphone connected, Square's Terminal and Register are excellent standalone devices that give any business the tools they need to get their businesses running.


Shopify for retail businesses with eCommerce stores*

Shopify is best known as the premier eCommerce website builder, and for good reasons.

The company provides businesses with the easiest possible way to build an online store that perfectly integrates with any number of physical stores. No other POS systems offer this level on integration, which is why Shopify one of our favourites.

Read our full Shopify POS review.

Also, take a look at out Shopify e-commerce platform review.