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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