Both the Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) refer to requirements for companies to protect credit card information and secure payment portals.

While these standards share a common goal of protecting financial data, they are distinct in their focus, scope, and security requirements. In this article we’ll discuss the fundamental differences between PA DSS and PCI DSS to give you a comprehensive overview of their respective roles in enhancing payment security.

What Is PCI DSS?

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard is a set of technical requirements created by the PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) to protect credit card information during retail transactions.

PCI DSS compliance standards are applicable to all entities that store, process, or transmit cardholder data, regardless of that organization’s size or sector.

The Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council is an independent organization established by major payment card companies Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and JCB. It is responsible for oversight and enforcement of compliance with PCI DSS.

What Does PA DSS Compliance Mean?

The Payment Application Data Security Standard guidelines regulate software applications that handle cardholder data and sensitive authentication data. Its goal is to help software vendors build secure payment applications that don’t store “prohibited data,” such as full magnetic stripe, card verification code, CVV2, or PIN block data.

While PA-DSS compliance is important for the security of payment applications, using a PA-DSS-compliant application alone doesn’t guarantee compliance with the broader PCI DSS.

The PA-DSS requirements are derived from PCI DSS requirements and security assessment procedures. So any software applications that store, process, or transmit cardholder data fall under the scope of an organization’s PCI DSS assessment, even if they have been validated to meet PA-DSS standards.

To Whom Does PCI DSS Apply?

PCI DSS applies to a wide range of organizations, including:

  • Merchants. This includes businesses of all sizes that accept payment cards for goods and services, whether through physical point-of-sale (POS) terminals or on e-commerce platforms.
  • Service providers. These are companies that process, store, or transmit payment card data on behalf of merchants. Examples include website hosts and cloud service providers.
  • Processors. Processors enable merchants to accept payment cards, and must assure that the card transactions meet PCI DSS requirements.
  • Issuing banks. Banks that issue payment cards must adhere to PCI DSS to secure the cardholder data.

How Does a Company Obtain PCI Compliance?

Merchants must achieve a certain level of PCI compliance based on the volume of their credit card transactions within a given year. The more transactions a merchant processes, the more stringent the compliance criteria are. There are four levels of compliance for merchants and two for service providers.

The method of evaluating PCI compliance varies based on the nature of a merchant’s business and their merchant level. While all merchants must perform an annual assessment to maintain PCI compliance, the merchant level determines who performs that assessment and how detailed that assessment is.

PCI-DSS assessments generally fall into one of three methods:

  1. Qualified security assessor (QSA). A QSA is a third-party assessor certified by the PCI Security Council to perform PCI assessments. A QSA is required to perform assessments for all merchants at Level 1, the highest level of compliance.
  2. Internal security assessor (ISA). An ISA is an assessor internal to the organization being assessed. The ISA has also been certified by the PCI Security Council to perform PCI assessments, but only for their organization.
  3. Self-assessment questionnaire (SAQ): A SAQ is used by lower-level merchants (with fewer transactions) to self-assess their compliance. There are multiple SAQs available, with the specific SAQ used determined by how customers perform credit card transactions. (For example, card not present versus card present.)

What Does PA DSS Compliance Mean?

Compliance with PA DSS means a payment application has been independently assessed and validated to meet these security standards. This compliance is vital for both software vendors and businesses, as it not only helps protect cardholder data, but also enhances customer trust by reducing the risk of data breaches and financial fraud.

What Are PA DSS Requirements?

Below is a general overview of PA DSS requirements:

  • Avoid storing full track data, card verification codes, or PIN block data.
  • Protect stored cardholder data.
  • Keep a comprehensive log of payment application activity.
  • Implement authentication features.
  • Develop payment applications with strong security measures.
  • Test payment applications regularly for vulnerabilities and keep them updated.
  • Secure wireless data transmissions.
  • Enable secure remote access to the payment application.
  • Encrypt sensitive data when transmitted over public networks.
  • Assure a secure network setup.
  • Maintain a PA-DSS Implementation Guide for customers, resellers, and integrators.
  • Never store cardholder data on an internet-connected server.
  • Designate personnel for PA-DSS responsibilities and provide training for personnel, customers, resellers, and integrators.
  • Secure all non-console administrative access.

To Whom Does PA DSS Apply?

PA DSS applies to third parties — principally software developers and vendors — that create payment applications to process credit card transactions. So if you develop an in-house payment application, that application would be subject to PA DSS requirements.

What Is the Difference Between PCI DSS and PA-DSS?

Here are the key differences between PCI DSS and PA-DSS:

Scope and coverage

  • PCI DSS. PCI DSS applies to any organization that stores, processes, or transmits cardholder data, regardless of whether that organization develops its own payment applications.
  • PA DSS. This applies to software vendors and developers who create payment applications for processing payment card transactions.

Compliance validation

  • PCI DSS. Compliance with PCI DSS involves a self-assessment questionnaire (SAQ) for smaller merchants or an on-site assessment by a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) for larger organizations.
  • PA DSS. Compliance with PA-DSS involves a formal validation process by a Payment Application Qualified Security Assessor (PA-QSA). So vendors must submit their payment applications for review and approval.


  • PCI DSS. The standard is required by major card brands such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover, but it’s overseen by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council.
  • PA DSS. PA DSS is under the supervision of Visa.

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