SWIFT Transfers: Fees, Duration and Alternatives 2023
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 money transfer 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 favoured 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 or Wise. Specialist services like these can often be much cheaper than your normal bank - and offer a faster delivery time, too.
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 organisations around the world, and can facilitate payments to over 200 countries and territories.
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.
Cost of a SWIFT transfer
SWIFT transfers tend to be one of the more costly ways to send a payment - options like Interac-e transfers (more on them later) are usually cheaper, but unlike SWIFT, Interac transfers can normally only be sent within Canada.
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.
Alternatives to SWIFT: how to avoid the high fees
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.
Alternative international money transfer services like Wise or 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.
Wise for example splits out all the costs you’ll pay, and uses the mid-market exchange rate - the same as the one on Google - to make it easy to see the total fees involved in your transfer.
OFX on the other hand uses a small markup on the exchange rates used - which usually means a better rate than your bank can give you.
Let’s look at a quick comparison of the costs of sending a payment with some major Canadian banks compared to alternative providers OFX or Wise:
|Wise||Low fees depending on the payment destination and value|
|OFX||No transfer fee + small exchange rate markup|
Up to 25 CAD
Exchange rate markups will apply
From 45 CAD
Exchange rate markups will apply
Exchange rate markups will apply
Generally, you’ll get a lower overall cost if you choose a specialist service rather than a bank for your international transfer. Bank SWIFT fees can be confusing and complex, with several different transfer types and fees, including intermediary fees you may not know in advance, and an exchange rate markup which is tricky to spot.
Specialist providers like Wise split out all costs you’ll pay to make it easier to see the real fee for your transfer - and can usually offer lower overall prices and faster delivery times, too.
SWIFT vs Interac e-transfer: what’s the difference?
There were over 960 million Interac transfers in 2021, for both consumer and peer to peer payments, as well as transfers for business purposes.
The difference here is that while SWIFT is primarily used for international payments, Interac e-transfer is for CAD transfers made within Canada. Theoretically it is possible to send an international Interac, but in practice, this service is currently only available for National Bank account holders.
Interac e-transfer is usually available only for CAD transfers to Canada based bank accounts
SWIFT is available globally and favoured 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.
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.
The information you’ll need
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 an ABA routing number for payments to the US. 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.
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, it's safe to make a SWIFT transfer. 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 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.
Advantages and disadvantages 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.
Trusted network which offers safe transfers around the world
Banks can track a payment if required, for additional peace of mind
SWIFT transfers are standardised and so can be understood and processed by banks and around the world
SWIFT transfers are usually used by banks, which can set their own fees for this service. That can mean it’s a fairly expensive way to send your transfer. Some other points to consider include:
SWIFT transfers can take several days to process
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
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.
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.
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 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.
FAQ - SWIFT Transfers
SWIFT payments can be sent to 200+ countries and territories in a wide range of currencies. Interac transfers can usually only be made in CAD to bank accounts in Canada.
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.
SWIFT transfers can take 1 - 5 days on major currency routes, and a little longer when sending to more exotic currencies.