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How to Get PCI Compliant

October 12, 2021

Your business is uniquely yours, but every business owner has the same general goal: to have a stable and successful business that is beloved by loyal customers. It can take time to earn consumers’ trust, but if you aren’t maintaining the security you should, a data breach can torch that trust instantly.

That’s why PCI compliance is so critical: it’s a way to ensure that you’re taking the strongest reasonable precautions to protect your customers’ vital payment data. It’s also a way to avoid potential fines and complications from banks.

If you’re not sure how to become PCI compliant, this is a helpful place to start. Follow these PCI compliance steps to keep your customers and your business secure.

Step 1: Determine your PCI level

The PCI Security Standards Council or PCI SSC divides businesses into several levels depending on the way they use cardholder data and the number of ways that data transactions can impact people and businesses. For merchants, or businesses that accept card payments for goods or services, there are four levels. Level 1 merchants, for example, the highest level, include businesses that process six million or more credit card transactions per year.

There are also levels for service providers: Businesses that don’t take card payments directly, but come into contact with cardholder data in other ways, like storing, transmitting, or processing payments. A level 1 service provider deals with 300,000 or more credit card transactions annually.

Your level will determine the steps you need to take to achieve PCI compliance. Specifically, level 1 service providers and level 1 merchants need to have a third-party auditor complete an on-site audit for their compliance. Those at levels 2-4 self-assess their compliance with a questionnaire instead.

Step 2: Understand the PCI standards

The PCI Data Security Standard, or PCI DSS, is a set of standards your business needs to follow for PCI compliance. PCI DSS compliance involves twelve key steps, though there are smaller and more detailed criteria within the steps as well.

These are the PCI compliance 12 steps to know:

  1. Use and maintain a firewall to protect cardholders’ information.
  2. Ensure all passwords have been changed from the vendor-supplied default passwords.
  3. Protect stored data about cardholders.
  4. Encrypt any cardholder data that is transmitted over open or public networks.
  5. Use up-to-date antivirus software.
  6. Maintain secure systems and applications.
  7. Limit access to cardholder data to those in the company who need to access it.
  8. Set up a security ID system that assigns a unique ID code to each person in the company who uses a computer.
  9. Restrict access to any physically stored cardholder data.
  10. Monitor all digital activity that accesses network resources and cardholder data.
  11. Test security systems and processes frequently.
  12. Establish and maintain a security policy for employees and contractors.

Step 3: Determine where you stand

You know you need to satisfy all 12 PCI standards to be compliant, so the next step is to find out how many of them you already meet. This can be a time-consuming challenge to do manually.

Step 4: Tackle any remaining items on your to-do list

Now that you have a checklist of the PCI standards you don’t yet meet, you can use this as a to-do list. If you’ve been wondering, “How long does it take to become PCI compliant?” This step will largely answer that question for you. If you already meet most of the criteria, it could be a quick process. If not, your PCI compliance can take weeks or months to reach.

One step that any business will need to complete is to get a vulnerability scan. The PCI SSC requires a third-party scan from one of their approved scanning vendors or ASVs each quarter. This scan looks for potential security risks in your system so you can correct them, and it’s one of the requirements of standard 11.

Step 5a: For Level 1 merchants and Level 1 service providers: Complete a Report on Compliance

If you are a level 2-4 merchant or a level 2 service provider, your process for how to be PCI compliant is simpler so you can skip this step. If you’re a level 1 merchant or level 1 service provider, though, this is a pricy stage: hiring a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) to complete a Report of Compliance (ROC). The QSA is like having a third-party auditor who will complete an on-site audit, the ROC, of your security systems to determine if you meet all the compliance criteria.

Step 5b: For non Level 1 merchants or service providers:

Merchants considered level 2-4 and service providers at level 2 will need to complete a Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ). There are 8 different types of SAQs, and the first step is determining which Self-Assessment Questionnaire applies to your business. Then the SAQ must be completed, which can take anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks. The final step is completing an Attestation of Compliance (AOC), which is a signed document confirming your PCI compliance and your SAQ’s accuracy. This whole process must be done annually, unless you use an automated compliance platform which can alleviate the annual manual labor.

Step 6: Complete and submit your paperwork

Congratulations - the hard part is over! You’ve ensured that you’ve met all the criteria to get PCI certification, so the last step is to complete and submit your paperwork.

If you are a level 1 service provider or level 1 merchant, this includes completing an AOC and submitting it along with your auditor’s compliance report and your ASV scan. For all other levels, your paperwork includes a SAQ, and an AOC.

Making your PCI compliance smoother

PCI compliance requires in-depth security measures and it can be a long and challenging endeavor. If you’re still in the process of learning how to do PCI compliance (or even if you’re a pro), the right tools can make a world of difference.

Get PCI compliant

Vanta’s automated PCI DSS compliance tool

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A PCI DSS overview