What is Payment Gateways? And How Do They Function in Commerce

Dec 10, 2023 By Triston Martin

As 2024 progressed, American shopping habits changed. We estimated that over 80% of U.S. purchases would be non-cash. From 2020 to 2025, online payment transactions were predicted to rise by over 15%.

This shift towards a predominantly cashless society emphasizes the importance of digital and credit card payments. Payment gateways have emerged as vital tools in this landscape, streamlining transactions and benefiting consumers and businesses.

A payment gateway is a service for merchants that facilitates credit card payments in both e-commerce and physical stores. It acts like a digital cash register, which is crucial in electronic transactions.

The effectiveness of a payment gateway hinges on its security and ease of use. Understanding how these gateways operate, their features and the options available is essential for anyone considering them.

Payment Gateway

A payment gateway is a mechanism that enables merchants to process payments via debit or credit cards. This term encompasses the physical devices in stores and the online payment portals used by e-commerce sites.

Payment gateways in physical stores have adapted to include modern payment methods, such as QR codes and NFC-based payments via smartphones.

These gateways are the frontline in electronic payment systems, relaying customer data to the merchant's bank for processing. Historically, credit card transactions involved magnetic strip reading and customer signatures. However, technological advances have led to the adoption of chip and PIN systems and, more recently, contactless smartphone transactions.

The structure of the best payment gateway varies based on its setting. Online gateways utilize APIs for website integration with payment networks. In contrast, in-store gateways use POS terminals connected to these networks through the internet or phone.

Distinguishing Payment Gateways from Payment Processors

Digital transactions need to know the difference between a payment gateway and a processor. A payment processor processes consumer payment information, while a payment gateway collects it. It connects the customer's bank to the merchant's account, enabling money transfers.

Payment gateways collect payment data, while payment processors work with banks to transmit payments between accounts.

Example of a Payment Gateway

Merchants have various ways to access payment gateway services. They can partner with merchant-acquiring banks or use independent payment gateway systems. Central banks like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase offer sophisticated payment gateway services alongside their merchant banking solutions.

The key for merchants is to select a payment gateway technology that aligns with their chosen merchant-acquiring bank for smooth payment processing.

A notable example in the field of payment gateways is Square, known for its adaptability in mobile payments, particularly for retail businesses. Block Inc.'s Square Reader is designed for versatility and is ideal for use in diverse locations such as conventions, farmers' markets, or mobile businesses like food trucks.

The Square Reader, a compact device attachable to a mobile phone, allows merchants to process card payments directly through the phone’s electronic interface. This technology sends the payment details to the merchant's acquiring bank, which promptly processes the transaction.

The future of payment gateways looks bright and dynamic, with continual advancements enhancing their versatility and efficiency. Recent years have seen the emergence of blockchain-based startups introducing payment gateways tailored for cryptocurrency transactions.

Costs of Payment Gateways

There's a mix of fees involved when it comes to the pricing of payment gateways. Typically, businesses might face initial setup charges, a consistent monthly expense, and a nominal amount per transaction. Additionally, some gateways might take a percentage of each sale. Square's fees include 10 cents per card transaction and 2.6% of payment volume. Stripe's model charges 2.9% + 30 cents every transaction. Moreover, there could be extra costs related to equipment and its installation.

Different Types of Payment Gateways

Payment gateways can broadly be categorized into three types:

On-site Payments

Large-scale businesses often favor this model. It involves handling payments directly on the company's servers. This means the checkout experience and the payment process are managed in-house. The advantage here is the business's heightened level of control and responsibility over the transaction process. For retailers with significant sales volumes, even minor improvements in the shopping experience can substantially impact profits.

Checkout On-site, Payment Off-site

In this approach, while the initial checkout happens on the merchant's site, the payment is processed on the gateway's end. This setup offers a balance, simplifying the payment process and bolstering security. However, businesses might have limited control over the complete user experience. Security of the payment gateway is a crucial factor to consider here.


Redirects are commonly used to incorporate alternative payment methods, like PayPal. In this setup, the customer is redirected to a separate payment page (like PayPal's) to complete the transaction. This gateway type benefits small businesses, offering them the ease and security of larger platforms. While it simplifies the process for the retailer, it does mean relinquishing some control and potentially adding an extra step for the customer.

Key Limitations to Consider

Limited Card and Payment Acceptance

Despite the common claim of universal acceptance, many payment gateways have restrictions on certain card issuers and processing portals. Before choosing a gateway, it's crucial to understand these limitations and ensure they align with your customers' needs and preferences.

Challenges for International Customers

For merchants aiming to reach a global audience, the capability of the payment gateway to support diverse international payment methods is vital. For instance, payment methods popular in one region, like Alipay in China, might be unknown in another, like the U.S. Additionally, international transactions incur higher fees, as some gateways charge extra for cross-border transactions. Tools like Webinterpret can be integrated into e-commerce platforms to offer localized checkout processes and support for multiple currencies.

Security Concerns

In a digital era, security is paramount. Reports indicate that two-thirds of consumers would reconsider shopping with a retailer that has experienced a security breach. High-quality payment gateways typically offer robust security, but there are still vulnerabilities to be mindful of:

  • Data Breaches: While TLS encryption is commonly used to protect sensitive data like card information during processing, the stored data on servers remains vulnerable.
  • Mobile Payment Risks: While merchants can control transaction security to an extent, the protection of the customer's mobile device, often used for transactions, is out of their control.
  • Malware Threats: Malware capable of reading passwords and infiltrating accounts can pose a threat, as it can facilitate fraudulent transactions that appear legitimate through secure gateways.
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