An overview of payment gateways

Payment gateways serve as the essential bridge between customers and businesses, facilitating secure and efficient transactions. Business owners must ensure the payment process is quick and seamless, or risk losing a customer. 

This is especially true in a period where many businesses process payments digitally, and unoptimized payment processes have contributed to a 70% abandoned cart rate in 2023 alone. 

This data proves that the more convenient and credible it is for customers to pay for intended purchases, the more likely they will make those purchases. This is where payment gateways come in.

In this article, we delve into the full spectrum of payment gateways, uncovering what they are, how they work, what types exist, their common features, and the factors to consider in choosing the right one for your business.

What is a payment gateway?

A payment gateway is a software solution that allows your customers to make online payments to your business without your direct involvement at the point of purchase. You can receive card and other non-cash payments while protecting customers’ sensitive information. 

Think of payment gateways as technological portals or tunnels for online payments. As the name implies, the payment gateway is the entrance or passage to a successful online payment.

How does a payment gateway work?

Now that we understand what payment gateways are, let’s explore how they work.

Step 1: Interest

Customers find something they wish to purchase and click the buy/purchase button. This is where the power shifts from your hands as a business owner to that of the payment infrastructure you have put in place for your business.

At this stage, your customer is required to enter their payment data, like cardholder information, into the browser.

Step 2: Encryption

The browser then packages this data and transfers it to the online store’s server, verifying the parties in the transaction and handing over the data to the payment gateway. There are also platforms where the data is transferred directly to the payment gateway from the browser. 

The payment gateway then acts as a shield, encrypting the customer’s payment data to ensure secure transfer to relevant parties throughout the payment process. The payment gateway checks for fraud at this stage, a core operational function. 

Step 3: Authorization

After the encryption and fraud checks are complete, the payment gateway sends the details to the acquiring bank (the financial institution that processes card payments on behalf of the merchant). The acquirer then transfers the data to the issuing bank (the financial institution that processes card payments on behalf of the customer) in an authorization request. The issuing bank then conducts an extra layer of security and verification checks — fraud, identity, bank details, available funds, etc.

Related: Guide to preventing payment fraud 

Step 4: Transaction decision 

Once the necessary screening measures are complete, the issuer will approve or decline the transaction. Whatever the decision, it is communicated to the acquiring bank, which reports to the payment gateway provider and, of course, the customer. The transaction decision informs the customer if their payment method has been approved or declined.

Step 5: Settlement

Throughout the day, the merchant gathers the approved authorizations or ‘auth’ into a batch to be sent to the acquiring bank at the end of the day to begin the settlement process. On receiving the batch, the acquirer sends it to the issuing bank for payment. Once the issuer transfers the funds to the acquirer, the money is transferred back to the merchant within 2-4 business days.

Types of payment gateways

When setting up a payment gateway for your business, it helps to know that there are four major options available to cater to different business needs and infrastructure.

Hosted payment gateway

With hosted payment gateways, your customer is redirected from your merchant page to a third-party website to complete their payment process. These third parties, known as payment service providers (PSP), manage the intricate payment process so you can focus on your business. 

If you don’t mind not completely controlling your customer’s checkout process, you can benefit from the stronger security protocols, easy integration process, and assurance of Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance that hosted payment gateways offer.

Self-hosted payment gateway

Unlike hosted payment gateways, where customers are required to input their data into a third-party site, self-hosted payment gateways collect that information directly on the merchant’s website. This data is encrypted and securely transferred to the payment gateway for authorization. 

With this option, merchants enjoy fuller control over their customers’ checkout experience while the customers themselves benefit from a more seamless experience with zero redirects and faster service.

API–integrated payment gateway

Choose an API-integrated payment gateway to build a custom payment system that completely integrates with your business’ branding and custom-designed checkout experience. Aside from having total control of your payment flow, API-integrated payment gateways can also be used on different devices and have become a top choice for merchants with more mobile shoppers. 

However, this option demands that the merchant be more hands-on regarding security, from securing customer data to running fraud checks and ensuring transactions comply with local and international financial regulations.

Local bank integration gateway

Local bank integration gateways are the same as hosted payment gateways, but banks host these gateways and not PSPs. Once the customer initiates the process, they are redirected to their local bank’s website to enter their payment information, and once that is done, they are returned to the merchant’s website to complete the process. 

Given its rudimentary features, this option is easy to set up and implement and may be ideal for small businesses or sole traders with low sales volumes.

What are the advantages of payment gateways?

The following are some benefits of payment gateways.

Increased sales and revenue

A payment system that guarantees that customers can easily and securely complete transactions is one that they are more likely to trust with their purchase decisions and return to in the future. For business owners, this means increased customer loyalty and retention, which, in turn, leads to increased sales and revenue.

Improved cash flow management

With payment gateways, businesses process payments on time, reducing the need for manual reconciliation and allowing for better financial planning.

Reduced dependency on cash

The use of payment gateways helps businesses reduce cash dependency by accelerating the conversion of sales to cash.

A better customer experience

Seamless, user-friendly payment processes contribute to a positive customer experience, leading to customer satisfaction and potentially fostering repeat business.

Payment tracking and analysis

While some payment gateways offer more extensive reporting and analytics features than others, all payment gateways give business owners room to monitor transactions and track sales performance. These insights can be used to influence strategic decision-making and success for the business.

Accepts recurring payments

Payment gateways are also vital in managing recurring payments, making them almost indispensable for subscription-based businesses. When a customer signs up for a recurring payment, the payment gateway securely stores their information and initiates the transaction on the scheduled payment dates. 

Regulatory compliance

Businesses must adhere to a few international and local financial regulations when dealing with the payment industry and sensitive cardholder information. Among those regulations is the PCI DSS. Payment gateways typically ensure that business transactions remain compliant with regulations, relieving business owners of the burden of managing security compliance complexities.

How to choose a payment gateway

Deciding that your business needs an integrated payment gateway is the first step to securing seamless online transactions for your customers. The important next step is understanding what to consider when choosing a payment gateway. 

Below are some of the crucial details to think about. 

Define your must-have features

You need to evaluate features that are critical for your specific business needs. Key features, like recurring billing, enable multiple pricing models and are crucial for SaaS businesses. Robust fraud protection is essential, especially if you operate globally or have high value orders. 

Identify 2-3 non-negotiable must-have features based on your business needs before comparing providers.

Payment method

A payment gateway should support accepting all major payment modes such as Visa, Mastercard, and AMEX credit cards to allow customers flexibility. Processing debit cards is essential for those wanting to pay from bank accounts.

Allowing bank transfers via ACH and wire enables frictionless cash flow. Digital wallets like PayPal, Apple Pay, and Google Pay are becoming common, so supporting these is also vital. 

Consider the pricing model

Pricing models vary greatly amongst payment gateways. Transaction fees are charged on each payment, typically ranging from 2% to 4%. Monthly fees for maintaining the gateway account are also common. 

Pricing tiers based on your processing volume determine rates. For online businesses, estimating your annual payment volume and calculating total projected costs with each shortlisted provider’s pricing model is a good practice. This will allow you to identify the most cost-effective option.

Recurring billing and subscriptions

If you have a recurring revenue-based subscription model, automated recurring payments are a must. Customers can securely store card data for future billing without reentering details. It’s also important to consider how you will prevent revenue leakage due to expired cards or other payment processing issues. 

Most payment gateways facilitate creating plans, schedules, and metered usage billing, all tied to tokens/profiles. This recurring engine simplifies complex client billing.

Integration and APIs

The implementation process can be straightforward or complex depending on the gateway’s platform compatibility, developer resources for integration, and timelines. If choosing a gateway with plugins or extensions for your e-commerce platform (WooCommerce, Shopify, etc), setup is much easier vs. directly using APIs. 

If you’re dependent on developer resources, ensure ample documentation and libraries are available in your tech stack of choice. Also, confirm the estimated go-live duration to gauge the integration effort.

Fraud detection and risk management

Just as the reliance on non-cash transactions is increasing by the second, so is the sophistication of online payment fraud. To mitigate these risks, you should choose a payment gateway with a robust fraud detection and prevention system with the latest technology and advanced authentication methods. 

With e-commerce losses to online payment fraud estimated at $48 billion in 2023 alone, ensuring fraud detection and prevention mechanisms are in place for online payments has become non-negotiable for business owners.   

Radar-like systems assess risk levels of transactions based on historical patterns, location, devices etc. Also, using 3D Secure verification, CVV checks, and address verification systems adds extra layers of protection. Zuora Fraud Protection, an add-on solution to Zuora Payments, leverages adaptive AI to tackle online payment fraud. 

Evaluate global capabilities

Your best bet is to choose a payment gateway that supports cross-border, multi-currency, and multilingual transactions. Key aspects to examine are supported currencies, languages, and countries for payment processing. 

This ensures customers from various locations can pay with familiar payment methods and localized interfaces. Having in-house foreign exchange capabilities and consolidated global reporting simplifies operations. 

QR code links

Since the popularity of QR code payments during the pandemic, many e-commerce customers, especially mobile shoppers, have preferred it. Projected to surpass $55.60 billion by 2033, this payment option has become a customer favorite.

If your business caters predominantly to mobile shoppers, a payment gateway that supports QR code links for payment initiation should be a top priority.

Customer support and service

Solid technical support during and after onboarding is key when issues arise. Many providers offer dedicated account management and 24/7 customer service via multiple channels (email, phone, chat). For larger accounts, customized implementation consulting before rollout is invaluable. 

Examining service partners, SLAs for support response times, and self-help options provides visibility into the reliability of ongoing support.

Automatic card reader

If you run a business with physical, on-site needs, then a payment gateway that can be integrated into your point-of-sale (POS) system is another important requirement.

Are payment gateways secure?

Payment gateways create robust security measures due to the sensitive information they collect. Below are some elements of the typical security apparatus of a payment gateway. 

PCI DSS-Compliant gateways

Established by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) to protect sensitive cardholder information throughout the transaction process, PCI DSS compliance is a set of security standards and best practices that all players working within the payment industry must adhere to. 

A PCI DSS-compliant gateway is a payment gateway that meets these set standards and has been certified PCI-compliant. By law, only PCI-compliant payment gateways can process sensitive cardholder data.

Data encryption

Data encryption is a major way payment gateways secure cardholder data. When a customer enters their payment data onto the platform, the payment gateway turns it into ciphertext that only its private key can decrypt. This guarantees that its contents are kept secure even as the data moves from one party to another.  

Secure electronic transaction (SET)

VISA, Mastercard, and other major credit card companies created SET to protect cardholder data in electronic transactions. This is achieved by concealing personal information on the card during the transaction so it is safe from hackers and thieves. 


While encryption turns sensitive cardholder data into unreadable text that only a private key can decrypt, tokenization creates a nearly irreversible and non-sensitive value called a token. The generated token is used for the transaction, securely storing the original data instead of transmitting personal data from one party to another.

Secure socket layer (SSL) and transport layer security (TLS)

SSL and TLS are different versions of the same communication protocol designed to encrypt data for secure transmission between different platforms. Payment gateways use SSL and TLS to create secure pathways between a user’s browser and the payment gateway, ensuring that any data exchanged during the transaction period is hidden from malicious actors. 

Regular security audit

Given the increasing sophistication of payment fraud tactics, regular security audits of payment gateways have become non-negotiable. Once conducted, these security audits identify threats and vulnerabilities in the security system and patch identified risks.

What is the difference between a payment gateway and a payment terminal?

Payment gateways and terminals are used to process electronic and card transactions. However, while payment gateways facilitate online payments by transferring cardholder data across different parties in the exchange, payment terminals process card payments in person and through a physical device.

What is the difference between a payment gateway and a payment processor?

The payment gateway and payment processor are crucial components of online payment processing. Payment gateways act as middlemen in an online payment transaction, transmitting encrypted and authenticated payment data between major actors, such as the merchant, the acquiring bank, the issuing bank, and the payment processor. 

On the other hand, the payment processor is primarily concerned with ensuring the transfer of approved funds from the customer’s account to the seller’s. 

Overcome challenges with a centralized payment management system

Using multiple payment service providers offers flexibility and expands payment options, but it also presents operational challenges. Managing the complexity introduced by multiple integrations, diverse payment methods, various support and maintenance requirements, and fragmented data can strain your resources and hinder efficiency.

Zuora Payments is a centralized payment management system that simplifies this complexity by streamlining operations, making it easy to operate multiple payment services. Zuora can help you save time and resources while ensuring seamless customer experiences as you scale your digital subscription services and build your business.

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