Government purchase cards are credit cards issued to government employees. The Small Business Administration says there are more than 3 million cards divided among 350 agencies, resulting in 100 million transactions worth $30 billion. The advantage to the government is that paying with the cards rather than through individual purchase orders reduces paperwork and streamlines payment for small purchases. It also makes it easier for small stores and vendors to do business with the government.
Learn the different types of government cards. Onvia, a consulting company, says that in addition to the purchase card for routine expenditures—which can be anything under $2,500—there’s a basic corporate card, which works as an electronic expense account; a travel card for travel-related expenses; and fleet card for charging gas, service and maintenance on automobiles. The military has its own purchasing cards. If one particular agency does a lot of business in your community, contact them and ask what card they use.
Equip your business for level 3 credit purchases with more advanced card scanners that will submit required information to the credit card company. North Carolina’s Small Business and Technology Development Center says there are three levels of credit-card purchasing: personal credit cards, corporate cards and government cards. Level 1 credit purchases just need the business name and the amount; level 2 purchases require a record of the tax on the item and the corporation’s “customer code”; level 3 must have all that plus identifying and describing all items sold, the number or amount of items and any freight or duty involved. Among other things, this cuts down on agency paperwork and makes it easier for the government to spot the fraudulent use of cards.
Set up your business to accept as many cards as possible. Omnia says most government cards are Visa or MasterCard but some agencies still use American Express or Diner’s Club, or fleet cards issued by someone else. Contact an acquirer—a bank with a business relationship with the card—to secure authorization; you can check with your local bank, or find a list of approved acquirers on the card company websites.
Tell people that you take purchase cards. Once you’re set up for level 3 sales, mention this in your sales literature and post a sign in your store. If you hope to do business with a particular branch of government, contact the local administrators or procurement managers and introduce yourself.
If you don’t have level 3 capacity, government employees can still use invoices to make purchases, but that means more paperwork, and a bigger time lag before you’re paid. With a purchase card, the money is usually in your account within 48 hours.
Some employees will try using purchase cards to pay for personal expenses. If you’re asked to use a purchase card for stuff that doesn’t seem government related—DVDs or a copy of Playboy—you have the option to refuse.
- If you don't have level 3 capacity, government employees can still use invoices to make purchases, but that means more paperwork, and a bigger time lag before you're paid. With a purchase card, the money is usually in your account within 48 hours.
- Some employees will try using purchase cards to pay for personal expenses. If you're asked to use a purchase card for stuff that doesn't seem government related---DVDs or a copy of Playboy---you have the option to refuse.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.