SWIFT transfers: fees, duration, and alternatives

Huge volumes of international payments are made every day by people sending money to loved ones overseas, paying suppliers abroad on behalf of a business, and settling foreign currency invoices. If you’re making a payment overseas or in a foreign currency with your bank, you’ll probably be recommended to use a SWIFT transfer. That’s an international wire which is processed through the SWIFT payment network.

SWIFT has been in operation for over 50 years, is secure and reliable, and is the payment network favored by most banks globally. But how does it work? If you’re wondering what a SWIFT payment really is, how long they take or how much they cost, you’re in the right place.

Read on for more about SWIFT – plus a look at alternatives which may be able to save you money, such as OFX, Wise or Remitly. Specialist services like these can often be much cheaper than your normal bank – and offer a faster delivery time, too.

Learn more about WiseLearn more about Remitly

What is a SWIFT transfer?

SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, and was created some 50 years ago to make international payments more secure and reliable. SWIFT is used by 11,000+ banks and organizations around the world, and can facilitate payments to over 200 countries and territories.

What is a SWIFT code?

SWIFT issues and oversees unique codes – known as SWIFT codes or SWIFT/BIC codes – to participating institutions, which are used to guide payments to the right bank, even if it’s on the other side of the world. SWIFT then processes secure messaging and payment orders through its network, to make sure that transfers are moved safely to the destination country, bank and individual account.

In the US, banks may use different SWIFT codes for different types of payment, or depending on the specific branch which holds your account. In many other countries around the world, banks will use the same SWIFT code for all incoming transfers. The payment is then safely deposited to the right account using this alongside the other information you provide when sending a SWIFT payment – such as the account number, and country specific requirements like a sort code for the UK.

SWIFT transfer fees

SWIFT transfers tend to be one of the more costly ways to send a payment – options like ACH payments are usually cheaper, but unlike SWIFT, ACH transfers are usually only available within the US. If you’re sending a SWIFT transfer, there will pretty much always be a charge to pay – but exactly what that is can depend on factors like:

  • The way you set up your payment – online transfers may be cheaper than arranging your payment in person
  • Your own bank’s approach to charging, which can vary based on the account you hold, where you’re sending money and the value of the transfer
  • The exchange rate applied – many banks add a markup (an extra fee) to the exchange rate used to convert your funds to the required currency
  • The way your payment is routed – intermediary fees may apply depending on how your money moves through SWIFT

In addition to any fees you pay to set up your SWIFT transfer, there may also be charges applied by the recipient’s own bank, which can mean they get less than you expected in the end.

How to avoid SWIFT fees

SWIFT fees can be high, include several different fees – and can also be pretty unpredictable. That may mean you don’t know exactly what you’re paying when you confirm the transfer.

Here are a couple of ways you may be able to reduce or remove SWIFT fees when sending money overseas:

  • Check if your bank offers any accounts which waive SWIFT fees – this may be possible for premium account holders, or very loyal customers
  • Always send online if possible – this often reduces the fee you pay, and may mean no upfront transfer fee at all
  • Use an alternative provider like Wise, Remitly or OFX instead of your bank (more on that in a moment)
  • Open a digital multi-currency account to send in the same currency as your recipient needs to receive

Alternative international money transfer services like Wise, Remitly and OFX have created their own payment networks to avoid SWIFT. Usually this will mean you make a local payment in your home currency to the provider, and they then pay out the agreed amount to the recipient in the currency you need to send, from their own account in the destination country. This means no money really has to cross any borders, which cuts out intermediary fees and can also make the delivery time much faster.

You may also find you get a better rate with an alternative provider. OFX for example uses a small markup on the exchange rates used – which usually means a better rate than your bank can give you. Wise on the other hand splits out all the costs you’ll pay, and uses the mid-market exchange rate – the same one you’ll find on Google – to make it easy to see the total fees involved in your transfer.

Learn more about WiseLearn more about Remitly

Alternatives to SWIFT transfer to send money overseas

As we’ve noted, SWIFT isn’t the only way to process international payments. Alternative providers have emerged which use different approaches to moving money overseas, which can help customers avoid the fees applied by banks for international transfers.

Let’s look at a quick comparison of the costs of sending a payment with some major US banks compared to alternative providers OFX, Remitly and Wise:

Bank/providerTransfer fees
Remitly International TransfersFees vary by delivery time – Express payments may have a higher fee, but arrive in minutes. Economy payments arrive in 3 – 5 days, but have a lower charge
Wise International TransfersLow transfer fee – no exchange rate markup
OFX International TransfersNo transfer fee, only a small markup on the exchange rate applied
Chase International Wire Transfers5 USD for payments valued under 5,000 USD, no transfer fee above that

Exchange rate markups apply

Bank of America  International Wire TransfersNo fee for international wires sent in foreign currency

45 USD for international wires sent in USD

Exchange rate markups apply

Wells Fargo  International Wire TransfersStandard international wires from 30 USD (some account types may offer lower fees)

Exchange rate markups apply

As you can see, there are a variety of different fee structures when it comes to sending an overseas payment. Specialist providers tend to offer lower total fees – and some, like Wise, use the mid-market exchange rate with all fees split out for full transparency. This makes it far easier to see exactly what your payment is costing  you.

Specialist providers like OFX and Remitly may include an exchange rate markup – but this is typically far lower than the markups used by banks, so you could still save overall.

  • Remitly Review – send money to bank accounts, mobile money accounts, or for cash collection, on popular remittance routes. Different fees and delivery schedules are available depending on your personal needs and preferences
  • Wise Review –  send in 50+ currencies, to 80+ countries, with low fees and the mid-market exchange rate. More than 50% of payments arrive instantly, and 90% are deposited within 24 hours
  • OFX Review – send money in 50+ currencies, all over the world, online, in-app or by phone. There’s a helpful 24/7 phone service, which allows you to talk through your options in detail before you confirm your payment

Go to WiseGo to Remitly

How to make a SWIFT transfer

The SWIFT network doesn’t process international transfers itself. Instead, SWIFT facilitates transactions between financial institutions through secure transaction orders using SWIFT codes.

SWIFT payments are processed using a standard format, no matter where in the world you’re sending from or to.

When you send a SWIFT transfer you’ll need a SWIFT code. This isn’t the same as an IBAN (International Bank Account Number).

SWIFT codes identify the bank a payment is being made to – while an IBAN includes information about the bank and the specific account the payment should be deposited to.

What information do you need for a SWIFT transfer?

Before you can set up your SWIFT transfer you’ll need to gather some information from and about the recipient, including:

  • Name and surname of recipient, as shown on their bank account
  • Recipient’s IBAN or account and banking details
  • BIC/SWIFT code of the recipient
  • You’ll also need to give some information about yourself for verification when you set up the transfer

The specific information that’s needed can depend on the payment itself. Some countries need additional banking information for example, like a sort code for the UK. Some transfers – especially high value payments – may also call for additional verification, including information about the reason for the transfer and the source of the funds.

Good to know:
If you don’t have your recipient’s SWIFT code, you can easily look it up with this handy SWIFT code checker.

How to make a SWIFT transfer online

You’ll usually be able to make a SWIFT transfer online through your normal online banking service. Here are the basic steps you’ll have to take:

  • Log into your online or mobile banking and navigate to payments
  • Look for the option for SWIFT transfers or international payments
  • Enter the details of the transfer including the amount and currency you need
  • Add the recipient’s personal and banking information following the onscreen prompts
  • Check the fees and exchange rate, and confirm your payment – a verification step may be required at this point, too

Is it safe to make a SWIFT transfer?

Yes. SWIFT is used by banks because it is a highly secure and reliable payment network that’s been used for decades. In fact, it’s estimated that almost half of all cross-border payments globally use the SWIFT network.

How to find a SWIFT code?

It’s important to make sure you have the correct SWIFT code if you’re sending money to someone overseas. Similarly, if you need to receive an international payment, you’ll need to ensure the sender has all your details correctly.

You can usually find your SWIFT code by logging into online or mobile banking, or by looking on an account statement. If you’re unsure you can also call your bank.

Ask the person you’re sending money to what their SWIFT code is before you set up your transfer – and if you’ve got a code but want to double check, try this SWIFT code checker tool.

How long does a SWIFT transfer take?

SWIFT payments can take 1-5 working days, or a little longer for transfers in exotic currencies. The exact delivery time will vary based on when you set up your payment, where the money is going, the value of the transfer, and the processes used by the banks involved.

Here’s a look at the expected delivery times for the US banks we profiled earlier:

Need to get your money moving faster? Specialist services like Wise, Remitly and OFX can often arrange far faster transfers. 50% of Wise payments are instant, and Remitly Express payments may arrive in minutes.

Pros and cons of SWIFT transfers

The SWIFT network is popular and secure – making it a common choice for banks. However, it’s not right for every payment – and it does have a few drawbacks to consider. Here are some pros and cons to think about before you make your payment.

Pros of SWIFT transfersCons of SWIFT transfers
  • Trusted network which offers safe transfers around the world
  • Banks can track a payment if required, for additional peace of mind
  • SWIFT transfers are standardized and so can be understood and processed by banks and around the world
  • Usually only available through banks, which can mean extra fees
  • Exchange rate markups are commonly applied which push up costs
  • Intermediary fees – also called correspondent fees – can apply, which means the recipient gets less than expected in the end
  • SWIFT transfers can take several days to process

SWIFT vs international wire transfer: what’s the difference?

The phrases SWIFT transfer and international wire transfer are often used interchangeably.

International wire transfers are any payment sent from one bank to another, to be deposited directly into the recipient’s account.

SWIFT is a payment network, which is commonly used by banks when sending wires overseas. That means SWIFT payments are pretty much always international wire transfers – however, not all international wire transfers are SWIFT payments.

That’s because there are other payment networks in place in some countries and regions – such as SPFS which is commonly used in Russia. However, the most popular globally by far is SWIFT.

  • SWIFT is a payment network
  • SWIFT transfers are usually international wire transfers
  • Some international wire transfers are processed using payment networks other than SWIFT

SWIFT vs ACH: what’s the difference?

Whether you know it or not, you’ll use ACH all the time in your day to day banking. ACH payments are used for things like direct deposits – getting your salary or government benefits deposited into your US bank account. They’re also the most common way of paying invoices – so you may well use ACH to pay a mortgage or for your cell phone.

The difference here is that while SWIFT is primarily used for international payments, ACH is more common for USD transfers made within the US. Theoretically it is possible to send an international ACH, but in practice, it’s not commonly available from US banks.

  • ACH is usually available only for USD transfers to US based bank accounts
  • SWIFT is available globally and favored for international payments

What are the types of SWIFT transfer available?

If you’re sending a SWIFT transfer to a bank outside the EEA, you can sometimes decide how the fees are split between the recipient and the sender.

When you set up a SWIFT transfer you may find you’re asked to decide between the following payment structures:

  • SHA: In this case the fees are divided between sender and recipient, with the sender paying the charges their own bank levies, and the recipient covering any fees for their bank.
  • OUR: With an OUR payment the sender covers the fees applied by both the sending bank and those of the recipient’s bank.
  • BEN: In a BEN payment, all of the fees from both the sending bank and the recipient’s bank are covered by the recipient.

Not all banks offer all of these different payment types – check the options available before you set up your transfer.

The verdict: is it worth sending money via SWIFT?

SWIFT payments are safe and reliable but can be pretty slow and expensive too. Whether or not a SWIFT transfer is the right option for you depends on where you’re sending money to, the value of the transfer, and how quickly you need it to arrive.

Alternative providers like Wise, OFX and Remitly may be able to offer better exchange rates, lower overall fees, and a speedier service. It’s well worth comparing a few options before you decide on SWIFT for your payment – shopping around may mean you spend less, and your money arrives faster too.

Conclusion: What is a SWIFT Transfer?

SWIFT payments can be the right option, particularly if you’re sending money to an exotic currency. However, they may not be the most cost effective or convenient way to go.

Compare the options for SWIFT payments offered by your normal bank against money transfer providers like Remitly, Wise or OFX. Specialist services like these may be cheaper, faster, and just as safe to use, if they cover the destination you’re sending to.

Go to WiseGo to Remitly

FAQs on Making SWIFT Transfers

Is a SWIFT transfer the same as a wire transfer?

SWIFT payments are wire transfers – but wire transfers may not be SWIFT payments. Wire transfers can be sent domestically in the US, or internationally. SWIFT is a payment network commonly used to send international payments. If you’re sending an international wire, it’s probably a SWIFT payment, as this is the payment network preferred by banks globally.

Related: How to transfer money to someone else’s bank account

How can I avoid SWIFT fees?

The easiest way to avoid SWIFT fees is to send your payment with a specialist provider, like Wise, OFX or Remitly. Services like these have built their own payment networks, which allow for safe, speedy transfers which avoid SWIFT (and SWIFT fees) entirely.

Who pays the SWIFT transfer fees?

Depending on the payment you make, you may be able to choose to pay SWIFT fees yourself, split the costs with the recipient, or pass the full fee to the recipient to pay themselves.

How to make a SWIFT transfer?

You can usually make a SWIFT transfer through your online or mobile banking service – although some banks do still ask you to visit a branch to arrange your payment.

How long does a SWIFT transfer take?

SWIFT transfers can take 1 – 5 days on major currency routes, and a little longer when sending to more exotic currencies.

How can I track my SWIFT transfer?

Your bank will be able to help you track your SWIFT transfer. However, there’s often a fee for this service.

Claire Millard
Fintech Content Writer
Claire Millard is a content and copywriter with a specialty in international finance. Her work has featured in The Times and The Telegraph, as well as industry magazines and leading personal finance blogs.
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Seyma Mektepli
Seyma is an experienced content writer and editor-in-chief at Exiap, delivering informative articles on personal finance, and money transfers.
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Last updated
December 30th, 2023