Mastering PCI self-assessment: Essential tips

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The PCI DSS Self Assessment is a vital process that helps merchants and service providers evaluate and report their compliance with PCI DSS standards. Whether your business is large or small, completing a PCI Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) annually is a critical step in demonstrating a commitment to information security, and protecting against identity theft, and credit card fraud.

This blog post simplifies the PCI DSS process by providing clear steps to identifying the right SAQ for your business, and sharing best practices to protect against data breaches and avoid fines. Stay ahead of security requirements and gain the trust of your customers with our comprehensive insights into the PCI self-assessment.

Key takeaways

  • The PCI DSS Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) is an annual mandatory process for merchants and service providers to ensure compliance with PCI DSS standards, crucial for protecting against fraud and demonstrating security commitment.
  • Various types of SAQs cater to different transaction methods and merchant service provider statuses, with specific criteria determining eligibility and compliance requirements based on the nature of transactions (card-present or card-not-present).
  • Successfully completing a PCI SAQ involves selecting the appropriate questionnaire, gathering specific documentation for compliance evidence, and submitting the completed questionnaire and Attestation of Compliance (AOC) to the acquiring bank or payment card brand.

Understanding PCI DSS

The PCI Security Standards Council plays a significant role in shaping the landscape of global payment security standards. Their primary role is developing and maintaining these standards, ensuring they stay up-to-date with emerging and established payment technologies and threats. These standards are designed for all entities that handle payment account data, as well as developers and manufacturers of related products.

While the Council lays the groundwork for the standards, compliance lies in different organizations’ hands. The PCI SSC provides the necessary resources, such as an SAQ Instruction Guide, and sets guidelines for managing third-party service provider relationships, assisting organizations in completing annual self-assessments.

The importance of PCI compliance

Achieving PCI DSS compliance is no light task, but it’s an essential one. It’s a cornerstone of businesses’ responsibility to safeguard cardholder data throughout every transaction, maintaining rigid security policies and practices. Major card brands such as:

  • Mastercard
  • Visa
  • Discover
  • American Express
  • JCB

are the primary enforcers of PCI DSS compliance, ensuring that merchants and service providers adhere to stringent security measures for payment processing.

Beyond adherence to industry standards, achieving PCI DSS compliance aids in meeting global regulations like HIPAA, GDPR, and SOC 2. A business’s PCI compliance status can be a powerful tool for earning customer trust by demonstrating a commitment to high data security standards.

Conversely, non-compliance can lead to significant financial liabilities, including fines, legal expenses, and lost trust, leading to decreased business.

Different types of PCI DSS self-assessment

To accommodate the diverse range of payment processing methods and merchant service provider statuses, there are eight different types of SAQs, each tailored to address specific compliance requirements based on the organization’s operations.

At a glance, the different SAQ types are: 

SAQ Types


Description: E-commerce website (third party payment transaction)

# Questions: 22

Vulnerability scan?: No

Penetration testing?: No


Description: E-commerce website (direct post)

# Questions: 191

Vulnerability scan?: Yes

Penetration testing?: Yes


Description: Imprint machine or dial-out terminal

# Questions: 41

Vulnerability scan?: No

Penetration testing?: No


Description: Standalone PTS-approved payment terminal

# Questions: 82

Vulnerability scan?: Yes

Penetration testing?: No


Description: Manual entry into a virtual terminal

# Questions: 79

Vulnerability scan?: No

Penetration testing?: No


Description: Payment application systems connected to the Internet

# Questions: 160

Vulnerability scan?: Yes

Penetration testing?: No


Description: Hardware-only payment terminals managed by P2PE, with no electronic cardholder data storage

# Questions: 33

Vulnerability scan?: No

Penetration testing?: No


Description: All other categories & eligible Service Providers

# Questions: 329

Vulnerability scan?: Yes

Penetration testing?: Yes

(more detailed information can be found here)

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Identifying your business category

To select the appropriate SAQ, merchants and service providers must determine their method of payment processing in accordance with PCI DSS guidelines. The transaction mode is a determining factor in selecting the correct questionnaire.

Merchant categories vs. service provider classifications

Both merchants and service providers are subject to PCI DSS regulations, but they play different roles. 

Merchants are entities involved in the direct sale of goods or services and handle cardholder information during transactions. In contrast, service providers are third parties that offer services that facilitate payment card transactions and may handle cardholder data as part of their offerings.

Merchant classification

  • A merchant is defined as a business that accepts payment cards, like credit or debit cards, in exchange for goods or services
  • Merchants directly interact with customers during the sales process and are responsible for managing cardholder data securely
  • Merchants must comply with PCI DSS to ensure the secure processing and safeguarding of cardholder information

Service provider definition

  • A service provider is a third-party company that participates in the processing, storage, or transmission of cardholder data on behalf of a merchant
  • Examples of service providers include payment gateways, web hosting companies, and other businesses that offer services related to the facilitation of payment card transactions
  • Service providers are also required to abide by PCI DSS, with specific criteria outlined in the standards that must be met to guarantee the security of the cardholder data they process

Steps to complete the PCI self-assessment

Completing a PCI Self Assessment begins with understanding the environment and systems involved in the assessment. The scoping step ensures the cardholder data environment is isolated and condensed, simplifying the PCI self-assessment process.

1. Identify the correct PCI DSS self-assessment questionnaire

The first step towards a successful PCI Self Assessment is identifying the correct questionnaire. Merchants and service providers must select the most appropriate SAQ based on their payment processing methods, cardholder data handling, and eligibility criteria.

Identifying the correct questionnaire is vital because each SAQ type is designed to address specific aspects of PCI DSS. The questionnaire will provide a comprehensive checklist of requirements that the merchant or service provider needs to meet to demonstrate their compliance with PCI DSS. 

Once the correct questionnaire is identified, the next step is gathering the necessary documentation. Accurate documentation is critical for demonstrating compliance during the PCI DSS Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) process, as it provides evidence of the security controls and practices implemented to protect cardholder data.

Documentation is required to substantiate responses to the SAQ questions, especially when a question is answered with ‘No,’ as it must include additional details, such as reasons for non-applicability or the status of remediation efforts.

Maintaining updated documentation like the Attestation of Compliance and Responsibility Matrix from third-party service providers is essential to ensure ongoing adherence to security standards and protect customer payment information.

3. Submit the completed questionnaire

After completing the SAQ and gathering all the necessary documentation, the next step is submitting the completed questionnaire. Companies are required to submit the SAQ along with an Attestation of Compliance (AOC). SAQs and AOCs are submitted through an online portal or a secure file transfer service.

Once the SAQ and AOC have been submitted, they must be submitted to the organization’s acquiring bank or payment card brand. After submission, the organization will wait for confirmation of compliance from the relevant party. They may need to address any non-compliance issues identified during the process.

While this 3-step process may sound straightforward enough, many organizations turn to third-party compliance experts for assistance with the process. This can significantly simplify the process.

Leveraging third-party solutions for PCI compliance

Outsourcing cardholder data functions, such as payment processing, to a PCI DSS-compliant payment processor can significantly reduce a merchant’s compliance scope by minimizing the amount of cardholder data they handle directly, thus simplifying the PCI DSS compliance process.

Benefits of third-party solutions

Leveraging third-party service providers (TPSPs) can simplify a merchant’s compliance validation assessments and reduce the scope of their PCI compliance efforts. Businesses can potentially lower audit costs and achieve overall cost savings by strategically using third-party service providers for PCI DSS compliance. 

With service providers defined as those who are already compliant, merchants can focus on their core operations. Outsourcing services related to the cardholder data environment (CDE) allows businesses to concentrate on their primary business functions. 

Selecting the right provider

Selecting the right third-party provider to support PCI compliance efforts requires comprehensive due diligence. Businesses must:

  • Ensure third-party service providers’ PCI DSS compliance is current
  • Check their Attestation of Compliance
  • Review providers on the payment card brands’ registry list of compliant service providers

When selecting a third-party provider, it is essential to consider the following:

  • Their qualifications and history, including their experience with data breaches
  • Their incident response plan
  • Employee background checks
  • Their overall reputation and reliability, as indicated by client testimonials

A responsibility matrix is a vital tool for:

  • Clarifying which PCI DSS requirements are managed by the provider
  • Aiding in delineating the division of responsibilities
  • Ensuring the proper selection of the right third-party provider

Further resources and support for PCI DSS compliance

To learn more about PCI DSS compliance, check out these helpful posts:

Foster trust through PCI DSS compliance with Thoropass

PCI DSS Self Assessment is a critical process for any business that accepts card payments. By understanding the PCI DSS requirements, identifying the correct questionnaire, collecting necessary documentation, and submitting the completed questionnaire, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to protecting cardholder data.

PCI Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) is required for any businesses that process, store, or transmit credit cards and is enforced by the Card Brands and Acquiring Banks. Thoropass streamlines and accelerates your certification by combining automation with self-assessment support and expert insights. Get certified PCI compliant faster with less work and headaches.

More FAQs

A PCI self-assessment is a validation tool for merchants and service providers to evaluate and report their compliance with PCI DSS through self-assessment questionnaires designed for different environments.

Yes, you can do PCI compliance yourself by completing a self-assessment questionnaire to evaluate and report your PCI DSS compliance. However, larger businesses may need to hire third-party auditors for assessment.

To do a PCI assessment, start by identifying vulnerabilities, threats, and risks within your environment, then analyze your risk levels, map out your card data flow, and create a risk management strategy. This will help in conducting a comprehensive PCI assessment.

SAQ, in the context of PCI DSS, stands for Self-Assessment Questionnaire. It is a tool merchants and service providers use to evaluate their compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS). The SAQ includes a series of questions about the security measures an entity has in place for protecting cardholder data.

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