China UnionPay has overtaken Visa as the world's largest payments card scheme, according to Retail Banking Research (RBR).
There were eight billion payments card in circulation in 2010, says RBR, of which 29.2% carry the UnionPay brand, compared to 28.6% for Visa. However, Visa is still well ahead in terms of usage and spending.
MasterCard accounts for 20%, American Express just 1.1%, JCB 0.8% and Discover 0.7%. Private label cards make up 10% of the total with the same proportion coming from domestic banks.
Globally, the pre-paid and debit card sectors each grew by more than 10% in 2010, whilst the credit card sector contracted by six per cent. Debit now account for 62% of all cards, credit for 28%, charge six per cent and pre-paid three per cent.
RBR predicts steady growth in the market, with 10.1 billion cards in circulation by 2015 as a slowdown in issuance in the mature North American and Western European regions is more than offset by rapid growth elsewhere.
The trend away from credit to debit will continue over the next few years, while pre-paid cards will see significant growth, accounting for five per cent of all plastic by 2015.
Established in 2002, China UnionPay has grown at an extraordinary rate, strongly helped by rules that mean foreign companies are not allowed to issue their own cards denominated in its currency, build networks, or process interbank point-of-sale transactions, instead having to co-brand.
This has led to tension with Visa, which is eager to gain access to the massive Chinese market, prompting the American firm to approach the US government about filing a WTO trade complaint.