How to accept payments online

If you want to accept payments online, you have two main options: Credit (or Debit) Card and Direct Debit. To help you get to grips with your online payment options we've run through the main choices at a high level here.


If you want to accept payments online, you have two main options: Credit (or Debit) Card and Direct Debit. Within each of these two payment methods there's a whole range of options to choose from which can be quite confusing (particularly the whole payment gateway vs payment processor distinction). To help you get to grips with your options we've run through the main choices at a high level here.

We have also looked at these options in further detail for recurring payments in our recent Recurring Payments guide.

Credit Card

Credit and Debit card are probably the main way that organisations accept payments online and if you need to collect instant payments or payments from across the globe then cards are probably your best option.

There are several ways that you can accept card payments online from DIY to newer, full service providers like Stripe which do a lot of the hard work for you and save you from onerous PCI compliance requirements. For more details on how these options measure up you may find our guide to recurring payments helpful.

1. DIY

Unless you choose to use an all-in-one payment processor like Stripe or PayPal, you’ll need to set up a merchant account and payment gateway:

A. Merchant account

A merchant account is a bank account that allows you to accept payments using credit or debit cards. It is an online bank account that temporarily holds your money until it is moved to your actual business account.

Options: Most banks including HSBC, Barclays and RBS.

Note: Your merchant account doesn’t need to be with the same bank as your business account.

B. Payment gateway

A payment gateway connects your website to one or more of the processor networks (similarly to a credit card machine in a shop or restaurant). It lets your customer submit their credit card details and then tells you whether the charge is approved by the cardholder’s bank and submits your charges for settlement.

Options: Braintree, Authorize.net, PaymentExpress, TrustCommerce

Outsource to a full service payment provider

2. Payment Service Provider

If you don’t want to do it all yourself you can choose to use a payment service provider or a payment processor to help you accept online payments.

These act as a middleman between you and the banks – it makes sure that all the money ends up in the right place by taking it from the cardholder’s account and delivering it to your account. Full service payment service providers typically act as both the merchant account and the payment gateway letting you accept online payments without a merchant account of your own.

Using a payment service provider or a payment processor typically reduces the burden of PCI compliance as you will never actually touch sensitive financial information. Online Payments Providers like Stripe also offer a full stack of services such as subscription billing, fraud management, payouts and transfers, etc. making the payment process even easier.

Options: Stripe, Braintree, PayPal, Adyen

Which you choose will depend on what you need:

  • If you want a great API then look at Stripe.
  • If you want a really well known name then consider PayPal.
  • If you want a great mobile experience try Braintree.

3. Subscription management service

A subscription management service (or subscription wrapper) lets you easily handle recurring payments. Services typically have a credit card vault (where customers can store their credit card details for future use); automate billing, customer sign up and billing related emails; and make sure the right people get charged the right amount every month. You’ll typically still need to use either a merchant account and payment gateway or a payment processor.

Options: Zuora, Recurly, Chargify

Direct Debit

You can also use Direct Debit to accept payments online. This is typically a cheaper way to take payments but is not suitable if you need instant payments (e.g. for things like e-commerce). Similarly to card payments, there are several different options for accepting online payments with Direct Debit. Which is right for you will depend on your business and the amount of payments you collect.

Make sure you check that any provider has included online payments in their price - this can be one of the extra costs not mentioned upfront.

1. DIY

If you choose to collect online Direct Debit payments in-house then you’ll need your own SUN and to invest in Bacs approved Bacstel-IP software.

A. SUN

This is basically a merchant account for Direct Debit. You can either apply for one yourself or through a Direct Debit bureau.

Options: Most banks including HSBC, Barclays and RBS.

Which you choose will depend on what you need:

  • If you want to accept online Direct Debit payments then start by speaking to your bank.
  • If you want a good API, an automated service or an online payment specialist look at using GoCardless.

B. Bacs approved Bacstel-IP software

Bacs Approved Software is software which Bacs have assessed to meet Bacstel-IP software and customer service standards for quality including:

  • Easy-to-use and secure connections.
  • Bank account data validation prior to submission of a file, using the latest version of the Industry Sorting Code Directory.
  • Compliance with the Bacstel-IP interface for digital signing and Secure Socket Layer (SSL) standards.

Bacstel-IP software lets you access the Bacs system so you can take online Direct Debit payments yourself. If you’d like to find out more about Bacstel-IP you may find this post useful.

Options: Fundtech, Bottomline and AccessPay.

2. Direct Debit bureau

A Direct Debit bureau is a third party which handles Direct Debit payments on your behalf either using your own SUN or using the bureau’s SUN allowing you to accept payments online or offline.

Options: Eazy Collect, FastPay and SmartDebit.

A bureau is great if you need the full-suite of phone, paper and online Direct Debit and want to manage everything yourself from scratch; if not take a look at Direct Debit Management Software and GoCardless.

3. Direct Debit Management Software

Direct Debit Management Software is a full-featured software suite that includes integration with other systems and the ability to take a range of payment types including SEPA, SWIFT and BACS. It allows you to generate Bacs files, upload submissions, automatically apply notifications from Bacs to a database.

Options: Bottomline c-series or Bottomline Webseries

Direct Debit Management Software is good if you want to consolidate various online (and offline) payment types like Direct Debit, Faster Payments, card payments and cheques all under one tool but it is very expensive and involves lots of manual processes. If you want a simpler solution which automates as much of the process as possible you might want to look at GoCardless.

4. GoCardless

GoCardless is a secure, online payments specialist which let you accept online Direct Debit payments via our API or online dashboards. We offer two options: (1) with GoCardless you can use the GoCardless Master SUN to manage everything online without the kerfuffle of applying for an SUN (with this option you can get set up and start taking payments straight away); and (2) with GoCardless Pro we can get you your own SUN and give you complete control over the payment experience and notifications.

How do you know which is the best online payments option?

If you're still not sure which is the best option for you to accept online payments, you may find our guide to recurring payments helpful. This guide compares each of the main options on costs, ease of access, international reach, timings, support etc. helping you to find the right option for you.

If you think GoCardless might be the right option for you, sign up now for free and start taking payments today.

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