PCI Standards

How Payment Card Transaction Works (Overview)

Two actors, the merchant (e.g. a store etc) and a bank want to both make sure:

  • They can process a credit card
  • There is enough found to go ahead with the purchase
  • The person is who they say they are

For this, the merchant sends an Authorization Request to the bank. The bank responds with an Authorization Response.

This first exchange is the first step of a series of steps in a transaction:

  • Authorization (auth)
  • Clearing
  • Settlement
  • Undo: Chargeback and Refunds

Data Stored on a Payment Card

See Data on Payment Card.

The Four-Party Model

This model permits (with a lot of irregularities based on country etc) a merchant to talk with every card issuer banks.

The parties are:

  • Merchant
  • Acquirer, or acquiring bank, who talks with a Card Scheme/Card Brand (Visa, JCB, Mastercard, Union Pay), who themselves talk with the
  • Issuer (or issuing bank)
  • Card-holder

There is also a three-party model where there is no acquirer or issuer and the card scheme gives cards directly to card-holders and build relationship directly to merchant (for example American Express Discover (Diners) and JCB).

Clearing and Settlement

This step is where the merchant gets paid.

In clearing, the merchant sends a summary of all their day’s transactions to their acquirer. The data sends are the PAN, the authorization reference and the amount. The acquirer relays the information to the relevant card scheme which works out which transactions for which issuing bank to send the information to. This step is called clearing.

The issuing bank sends back the owned money to the card scheme. This is called settlement. The acquirer receive the money from the card scheme and sends it to each merchant.

E-Commerce Transaction

The steps for an e-commerce transaction is similar to the transaction in the real world, with the addition of (sometimes) a Capture step after Authorization. It’s used because there’s a delay between the merchant acceptation an e-commerce transaction and the goods actually being sent to the customer.

On Internet, a client enters its PAN, CVV2, Cardholder Name and Expiration Date. The merchant adds an merchant ID, name and amount and sends everything to the acquirer. Like in the real world, the issuer receives everything, check the transaction and sends back a Response/Reference.

In some case, the merchant will also send a Capture Request to the acquirer which contains a PAN and a Reference number. This is to confirm the transaction is really happening.

Often, a new party called the Payment Service Provider (PSP) comes between the merchant and the acquirer. Nowadays they are often called Payment Facilitator (PF).


Their are two main undo possibilities:


In the refund case, a merchant sends a refund message with a PAN, cardholder name, expiration date and receive a response. With a PSP, online, it’s even easier: the merchant only sends a reference and the amount. The PSP does the rest.


The second is chargeback. It is initiated by the cardholder, contacting their bank and stating that the transaction wasn’t valid or was fraudulent.

The issuing bank sends a PAN, merchant ID, reason and the amount to the card scheme that then forwards it to acquirer. The acquirer contacts the merchant to ask to prove the transaction was valid.

If the merchant agrees to the chargeback, the transaction is undone and the card holder gets their money back. Otherwise, a dispute resolution process starts, which is decided by the card scheme if the issuing bank or acquiring bank can’t agree.

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