A gift card is “Branded Value”. In other words it is money (value), typically associated with a particular brand or merchant. There are many different types but are typically broken into two main types: Open Loop and Closed Loop.
Open Loop cards are cards that clear through one of the card networks (Visa, Mastercard…) and typically can be used anywhere those brands are accepted. They can be branded with the company who provides them (as a bonus, gift or reward) or you can even brand an open loop card with your own picture if you want to give it as a gift. These cards are similar to prepaid debit cards and are used/cleared in the same way as debit cards in that they follow the same standards as debit cards (16 digits…). They are ‘loaded’ with a certain value that you can use until that value is used up.
Closed Loop cards are only good at a particular brand or merchant (or family of brands). So if you have a Walmart Gift Card, they are only good at a Walmart. Many brand families share their gift cards. So you can use a Banana Republic gift card at Old Navy (or any other Gap brand). Because they are closed loop (only work at one merchant) each brand can have their own unique structure and clearing method. Thus the gift card number may not be unique, they can have no PINs, 4 digit PINs or 12 digit alphanumeric PINs, they can be 6 digits or 28 digits. Basically anything goes.
For both versions, they can come in physical or virtual forms. Physical is your standard plastic credit card form. Virtual just means there isn’t a plastic card. It can just be the numbers or it can be a printable form/barcode (like a ticket for a game).
Physical/virtual are different than where the card can be used. Sometimes you can only use a card in a physical store or only online or both. And just because it is virtual doesn’t mean you can only use it online and vice versa.
There are also lots of different variations of the above. One example is a restricted access network card. This is an open loop card (again one that works like a Visa) but is restricted to certain stores or types of stores. So it may only work at home improvement stores. The variations are endless.
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Where to find them?
Obviously any brand that has a gift card will likely sell their own.
The next biggest source are Networks – Blackhawk Network and Incomm are the two biggest. These players make deals with the large brands who have gift cards to sell and make deals with distributors (like Grocery Stores or Amazon or other retailers) or with rewards companies (ex: turning your miles or points into gift cards).
Lastly there are numerous online retailers for gift cards. Many are digital distributors of other’s cards or you can create your own. GiftCardMall.com, GiftCards.com, Gyft | Gift Cards Made Easy and many more
One other place to find them are secondary markets such as Cardpool.com. These markets buy unwanted gift cards and resell them at a discount. If you are buying for self use these are the best place to get a deal.
In terms of countries, North America, UK, and Australia have the most mature markets. Continental Europe and Asia are quickly catching up. The regulations do vary by country. For example generally gift cards don’t expire in the US but it is more common that they do in Europe.
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Hope that helps!