Merchant account allows vendors / sellers to accept credit/debit cards payments from customers. Merchant account is literary that , an account you must open with your bank to accept deposits. As a seller you approach your bank and apply for a merchant account. Once you have a merchant account linked to your bank account, now your next step as a merchant is to get a swiping device e.g speedpoint from your bank approved service providers, the bank will help with installation.
Before the advent of internet and e-commerce, merchant account were mostly used on POINT OF PAY devices. Payment gateway allows accepting credit payments online with/without a merchant account.
Example 1 : Payfast, Payza or Skrill does not require merchant account to allow sellers to accept credit card payments but the vendor must register and active gateway account using credit card to accept payments.
Receipts from customers are deposited on payment gateway account linked to a credit card/ debit card and not business account like merchant account option.
Example 2 : VCS require bank merchant account for a vendor to accept credit card payment online. How it works it that you open an account e.g VCS, they then link your BANK MERCHANT ACCOUNT (issued by your bank) with payment gateway account. When customers pay online , receipts go to your PAYMENT GATEWAY ACCOUNT. Gateway will then release funds to your bank account 2-3 days later. So the seller/vendor pays for the merchant account and gateway fees.
Unfortunately in South Africa the answer is absolutely not. Merchant accounts were mainly designed for brick and mortar type of business. If you are a small and upcoming business, applying for a merchant may prove kinda hard. See FNB merchant account criteria :-
Yes a merchant account attracts monthly service and transaction fees. That’s why banks issue merchant to businesses with sustainable model. The device used to accept credit/cards do not come free and banks pay for it. So whether you sell or not merchant account attracts monthly fees once its open.