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What is PCI DSS?

PCI DSS is the global security standard for processing cardholder data. Learn how it applies to your organization and what’s needed to prove compliance

Katrina Dalao
Sr. Content Marketing Specialist, CIPM
June 14, 2023

Woman holding a credit card as she shops online on a tablet computer.

Credit and debit card numbers are some of the most valuable digits linked to an individual. Not only are they equivalent to cash, a recent survey revealed more than 90% of Americans use credit or debit cards as their primary payment method. 

If your organization accepts card payments, you may have come across the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). 

PCI DSS is a set of security standards to help protect cardholder data during transactions. It pertains to any organization that processes, stores, or transmits credit card information, regardless of its size or number of transactions. (Yes, even if you process a single credit card payment a year, PCI DSS still applies to you!) 

In this article, we cover the basics of PCI DSS, its primary goals and requirements, and what you need to prove compliance.

Our latest webinar on PCI DSS walks you through how to streamline and accelerate your road to compliance. Click to watch now.

 

What is PCI DSS? 

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a set of requirements designed to ensure that all organizations that process, store, or transmit credit card information maintain a secure environment. 

It was created by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC), an independent body founded by the major payment card brands, namely American Express, Discover, JCB, MasterCard, and Visa.

The primary goal of PCI DSS is to protect cardholder data during payment card transactions, reducing the risk of breaches and fraud. By establishing standard policies and procedures, PCI DSS provides an actionable framework that prevents, detects, and reacts to security incidents. 

PCI DSS applies to all merchants, financial institutions, service providers, and any other organization involved in the payment card ecosystem. Failure to comply can result in fines, penalties, or card processing restrictions. 

It's important to note that PCI DSS is not a law. Rather, it’s a global security standard many jurisdictions have elected to incorporate into their regulations. For example, Nevada, Minnesota, and Washington have written portions of the PCI DSS into their state laws. PCI DSS compliance is also a common inclusion in contractual agreements between organizations and payment brands. 

Determining how PCI DSS applies to your organization can be complicated. The cards you work with and the number of transactions you process per year determine which PCI DSS controls apply to you. The first step is to find out whether your organization is a merchant, a service provider, or both.  

 

What is a Merchant? 

The PCI SSC defines merchants as “any entity that accepts payment cards bearing the logos of any of the five members of PCI SSC (American Express, Discover, JCB, MasterCard, or Visa) as payment for goods and or services.” 

While each of the payment brands has its own specific compliance program, merchants are classified into four general levels:

  • Level 1 Merchants: More than 6 million payment card transactions annually
  • Level 2 Merchants: Between 1 million and 6 million payment card transactions annually
  • Level 3 Merchants: Between 20,000 and 1 million payment card transactions annually
  • Level 4 Merchants: Fewer than 20,000 online transactions annually  

* Payment card transactions includes all in-person and online transactions

 

What is a Service Provider? 

Service providers are defined as “any business entity that is not a payment brand, directly involved in the processing, storage, or transmission of cardholder data on behalf of another entity.” 

This includes companies that provide services that control or could impact the security of cardholder data, such as call centers, hosting providers, and network support. Unlike merchants, service providers are only classified into two levels: 

  • Level 1 Service Providers: More than 300,000 payment card transactions annually
  • Level 2 Service Providers: Less than 300,000 payment card transactions annually

If an organization’s service includes storing, processing, or transmitting cardholder data on behalf of other merchants or service providers, then it’s considered both a service provider and a merchant. 

For example, an internet service provider is a merchant because it accepts payment cards for monthly billing. But it’s also a service provider if it hosts other merchants as customers. 

* Payment card transactions includes all in-person and online transactions

  

PCI DSS compliance checklist: Goals and requirements

Regardless of which level you fall under, PCI DSS outlines six goals and 12 requirements to enhance the security of payment card account data:  

Build and maintain a secure network and systems

  1. Install and maintain network security controls
  2. Apply secure configuration to all system components 

Protect account data  

  1. Protect stored accounts data 
  2. Protect cardholder data with strong cryptography during transmission over open public networks 

Maintain a vulnerability management program 

  1. Protect all systems and network from malicious software
  2. Develop and maintain secure systems and software 

Implement strong access control measures 

  1. Restrict access to system components and cardholder data by business need-to-know 
  2. Identify users and authenticate access to system components
  3. Restrict physical access to cardholder data  

Regularly monitor and test networks  

  1. Log and monitor all access to system components and cardholder data 
  2. Test security of systems and networks regularly  

Maintain an information security policy 

  1. Support information security with organizational policies and programs

Note: Every payment brand will also have its own assessment and audit requirements.

 

Who performs a PCI DSS audit?

A Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) is an individual certified by the PCI SSC to perform an onsite audit.

Some entities may also sponsor an employee to train as their Internal Security Assessor (ISA). ISAs are able to conduct internal assessments and act as a liaison with an external QSA.

During an audit, the QSA will assess whether the entity has met PCI DSS requirements. This includes scoping or identifying all system components and workflows included in your cardholder data environment, completing the required documentation (more on this in the next section), and other forms of gap analysis or remediation to prepare for the upcoming audit.

  

What are the PCI DSS compliance reports? 

While PCI DSS compliance is different for every organization, the process typically involves three types of reporting documentation:

 

Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) 

The Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) is a validation tool for entities that are not required to submit a Report on Compliance (ROC) and eligible to perform their own assessment.  

A SAQ is composed of yes-or-no questions. There are eight available SAQ forms for merchants and one for service providers, varying by the type of business activities, transaction methods, or other criteria.

 

Report on Compliance (ROC) 

A Report on Compliance (ROC) is the most thorough documentation of compliance, detailing whether the entity meets all 12 standard requirements or if any deficiencies were discovered during the assessment. 

ROCs are completed by a QSA after performing the on-site audit, and then submitted to the acquiring bank and payment brand for verification. 

 

Attestation of Compliance (AOC) 

An Attestation of Compliance (AOC) is documented evidence of an entity's PCI DSS compliance, affirming that its security practices effectively protect the cardholder’s data. AOCs must be signed by the entity and the QSA (if applicable) and submitted to the acquiring bank or payment brand, along with the SAQ, ROC, and any other requested documentation. 

  

How long does PCI DSS take? 

The PCI DSS assessment typically takes six to 12 weeks. The exact duration, however, varies depending on the project’s size, the number of systems, and how many security measures and policies are already in place. (Note that this is only the estimated time for performing PCI SAQs.) 

PCI DSS implementation also fluctuates from company to company. As PCI DSS only applies to the infrastructure that contains credit card data, a good way to lower implementation cost and time is by limiting the server storage and management of credit card data as much as possible. 

PCI DSS compliance certificates are valid for one year. To maintain compliance, entities are required to complete a self-assessment questionnaire.

If there are any changes in infrastructure or environment, or even a new feature release, that impacts cardholder data, then PCI DSS compliance is no longer valid. The organization will need to revalidate compliance for its current state.

Furthermore, the PCI DSS requirements are frequently updated (with the latest version PCI DSS v4.0 issued March 31, 2022), which requires entities to implement new standards.

 

How often should you get a PCI DSS audit? 

Certain entities are required to undergo annual audits in order to maintain PCI DSS compliance. This includes:

  • Level 1 Merchants that process more than 6 million payment card transactions annually
  • Level 1 Service providers that process more than 300,000 payment card transactions annually
  • Any entity that recently experienced a breach or cyberattack 

The exact frequency of audits, however, depends on the payment brand you choose to work with, as the PCI DSS does not mandate a specific frequency.

 

How much does a PCI DSS compliance cost?

The cost for PCI DSS compliance can be divided into three main categories: 

  1. The cost to prepare and implement PCI DSS standards 
  2. The cost to certify or document your compliance status
  3. Annual costs to maintain PCI DSS compliance

While the exact PCI DSS compliance cost depends on the organization, it’s usually based on a few key factors:

  • Organization type (merchant, service provider, or both) 
  • Organization size
  • Number of annual transactions (as classified by PCI DSS)
  • Any other requirements from acquiring bank or payment brand
  • Current security environment and compliance readiness

In most cases, the cost for PCI DSS compliance can range from at least $20,000 (for startups and small organizations that handle fewer transactions) to upwards of $300,000 for larger enterprises. The exact amount will depend on the factors listed above and your merchant or service provider level. 

 

Prepare for your PCI DSS compliance with OneTrust

Despite its numerous benefits, maintaining a PCI DSS compliant system can be a complicated process. OneTrust helps streamline the process with our automated scoping wizard that generates all the required PCI DSS controls, policies, and evidence tasks. Stay continuously compliant with automated evidence collection capabilities that can integrate directly into your tech stack.

With OneTrust Certification Automation, you can build, scale, and automate your security compliance program, reduce your cost of compliance up to 60%, and obtain certifications 50% faster.  


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Uncover ways to define what trust truly means to your business and quantify how it can drive growth, and build best practices for the security team.

July 20, 2022

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Infographic

GRC & Security Assurance

The state of IT & third-party risk infographic

In this infographic, you'll discover third-party risk and learn how to operationalize a "3A approach", including addressing evolving risk factors and timelines.

July 19, 2022

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eBook

Third-Party Risk

Building your third-party risk management program

Understand what it takes to build a successful third-party risk management program through OneTrust's third-party risk management guide.

July 08, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

Elevating your third party risk program with an integrated infosec platform

Join this webinar to learn how you can integrate your Third-Party Risk Management program within a broader IT Security platform

May 26, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

How successful security teams manage risk to build trust and drive growth

In this webinar we discuss the emergence of trust as a key agenda item for executive boards and what this means for security teams.

May 12, 2022

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Webinar

Third-Party Risk

Accelerating automation: How the pandemic forced third-party management to scale

Watch this webinar and see how the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to accelerate automation and scale their third-party management.

April 26, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

4 ways you can reinforce enterprise insights with an integrated IT, security & third-party risk solution

Watch an interactive demo on our integrated IT, security, and third-party risk solution and reinforce your enterprise insights.

March 31, 2022

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Webinar

Third-Party Risk

Ready, set, launch your TPRM program: A 30-day implementation roadmap

Watch this webinar and learn how to launch an effective third-party risk managment program and practical methods to track success.

March 30, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

Security & Trust Series Part 2: Integrating security, risk, and compliance to take your security program to the next level

Learn more about security frameworks and what factors to look for when selecting the right one for your cybersecurity program.

March 23, 2022

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Webinar

Privacy & Data Governance

Cybercrimes Act & POPIA: Managing data security and privacy

Watch our free webinar and learn the Cybercrimes Act, its key provisions, and what it means for your business and obligations. 

March 03, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

5 critical mistakes to avoid when answering security questionnaires

Avoid these 5 critical mistakes when answering security questionnaires and streamline responses with this webinar.

March 01, 2022

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Resource Kit

GRC & Security Assurance

Trust and Security resource kit

Download our Trust and Security Resources kit designed to show you how security teams can build trust as a competitive advantage.

February 24, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

What you need to know: NIST updates on software supply chain cybersecurity & proposed landmark US legislation

Watch this webinar where we delve into the new NIST updates on software supply chain cybersecurity and proposed US legislation.

February 14, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

Security and trust webinar series part 1: Establishing intelligence-enabled SecOps and risk teams

Learn how to establish intelligence-enabled specops and risk teams to reinforce your cybersecurity strategy.

February 05, 2022

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Webinar

Third-Party Risk

5 Ways to step-up your business resilience with better third-party management

Join this webinar to learn best practices on how your organization can step-up business resilience with better third-party risk management.

February 02, 2022

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Webinar

Third-Party Risk

Optimizing third-party risk: enhance automation with an integrated IT risk platform

Watch our free webinar to discover how to optimize your third-party risk program and reduce manual data management with automation.

February 02, 2022

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Webinar

GRC & Security Assurance

How successful security teams manage risk to build Trust and drive Growth

Watch this webinar to learn what makes a successful risk management program and how effective security teams build trust.

January 12, 2022

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eBook

GRC & Security Assurance

Vendor risk management for privacy professionals

Download the OneTrust Vendor Risk Management Handbook for an in-depth understanding of updated regulations, requirements and more.

November 17, 2021

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eBook

Governance & Policy Management

From static to cyclical policy management

Learn about common challenges and opportunities for efficiency in the policy management lifecycle, along with 20+ ways technology can help.

October 18, 2021

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eBook

GRC & Security Assurance

10 Steps to Build Your Vendor Risk Management Program eBook

Download OneTrust's Vendor Risk Management Handbook for an in-depth understanding of updated regulations, requirements and more.

July 25, 2021

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eBook

Third-Party Risk

Mastering the third-party risk management lifecycle

Download our third-party risk management eBook and get a complete roadmap to your TPRM lifecycle.

July 13, 2021

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Video

GRC & Security Assurance

IT and Security Risk Management demo

Enhance collaboration through simplified engagements and communicate risk, from your line of business to risk and compliance teams and leadership.

April 08, 2021

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Infographic

GRC & Security Assurance

The future of GRC: 10 drivers and trends

In this infographic, we cover the top 10 GRC drivers and trends that will impact the future of organizations, including fragmented internal data and systems.

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Webinar

Third-Party Risk

Third-party management academy

Join this webinar series, which will focus on the four foundational pillars of Third-Party Risk Management: Automation, Compliance, Reporting, and Collaboration.

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Fundamental to Comprehensive: Where Does Your Compliance Program Stand? Infographic | Resources | OneTrust

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