Steps to making an international transfer

Zorica Lončar
04.10.21
7 minute read

When transferring money to foreign bank account, you want to find an option that is simple, fast and doesn’t cost you more than it should. There are lots of ways to send money internationally, but an online international bank transfer is a secure, fast option.

Banks are no longer the only way to make an international transfer. Alternatives, like Western Union, MoneyGram, PayPal and the industry-changing Wise are often cheaper than traditional banks.

Let's take a quick look at an example payment of sending £2000 to USD¹.

ProviderExchange rateTransfer feeRecipient gets
Wise1.36235 - real mid-market rate (no markup)£7.322,714.73 USD
Monzo, powered by Wise1.36235 - real mid-market rate (no markup)£13.282,706.61 USD
Barclays1.32176£0.002,643.51 USD
Nationwide1.3344²£20.00³2,642.11 USD
PayPal1.28835£6.992,567.69 USD

Options available - use your bank or an alternative money transfer provider?

Your bank may seem like the most convenient option if you need to send money internationally. However, it can often end up being the most expensive choice, as well as potentially the slowest.

This is in part because most banks send international transfers using the SWIFT network. Whenever the SWIFT network is involved there are usually hefty fees too. Banks also have a tendency to state an upfront fee that they’ll charge, then hide more fees in the exchange rate that they offer you. It's called adding a markup to the mid-market exchange rate - and these are essentially hidden fees.

Combine these two things, and your international transfer is likely to cost you more than it needs to.

This is where an alternative like Wise can help. Wise is different from traditional banks - it only charges a low, transparent fee for conversions and always offers the real mid-market rate with no markup. It can also help you avoid SWIFT fees. We’ll look at how it works in more detail in just a moment.

Option 1: Your bank. In this case you’ll want to know about SWIFT transfers.

The SWIFT banking process is the global standard for transferring money from one country to another. Because not all banks have direct connections, the SWIFT network includes participating banks across the world.

The SWIFT network is a little like travelling via plane. If there’s no direct route from one airport to another, you may need to take a connecting flight or two. The SWIFT network operates in a similar manner. Instead of your money travelling straight from its origin to its destination, there may be anywhere from one to three banks that your money needs to go through to make sure it gets there. Unfortunately, that also means each of those banks will take a fee.

In summary what you’ll want to keep in mind about SWIFT transfers:

  • Despite the name, SWIFT transfers aren’t all that fast. They can take anywhere from 1-5 working days⁴.
  • Multiple banks can charge you a fee along the way, and these fees can quickly add up.
  • If your money is converted into another currency, be prepared for unfavourable currency exchange rates. This is another added expense to factor in.

Option 2: An alternative money transfer provider (often the cheapest, and sometimes the fastest option)

Banks can be expensive as they hide their fees on foreign currency transactions, but this is where alternative options can help. Alternative providers are often faster and more convenient. However, you’ll still need to be aware of potential fees involved in sending money internationally.

We’ve included an overview of some alternative providers to help you in your search.

Wise

Wise works differently than traditional banks, and was created to provide fast and affordable international transfers. In fact, it’s on average 6x cheaper than leading UK banks⁵. But how exactly does it work?

Wise has bank accounts all over the world linked together by their smart technology. For example, if your bank account is based in the UK and you want to send USD to a bank account in the US - then you would first send your deposit for the payment locally to their GBP bank account in the UK, and then Wise would pay the money out to your recipient via their bank account in the US.

The crucial thing you need to know is through this method, your money doesn’t need to be sent via the SWIFT network. This reduces the fees that will be charged for your transfer. And with Wise, you’ll always get the real, mid-market exchange rate with no markup - so there are no hidden fees to worry about.

Wise is quick, secure and transparent, as well as being FCA regulated and offering global support in a range of languages.

Join Wise today

PayPal

PayPal is a popular option for many looking to send money internationally. It provides a reliable service, and is available across many currencies and countries. However, the main drawback with PayPal is its fees, which can quickly add up.

PayPal has a number of fees that are applied when you want to make an international transfer - and they can get a little complicated. The fees PayPal charges will differ depending on whether you are sending money as an individual, or receiving money as a business. It will also be dependent on the currency that you are sending, and where your account is registered.

The UK PayPal fees, can be broken down like this:

  • PayPal cross border fees.
  • PayPal currency conversion fee.
  • Paypal commercial payment fee (only applies to commercial payments).

You can avoid PayPal fees by using PayPal alternatives for international payments.

Western Union

Western Union is a popular service for international transfers, and operates in over 200 countries and territories⁶. You can use it to arrange transfers online, and your recipient can even pick up the cash through one of 500,000+⁶ Western Union agent locations worldwide.

The fees they advertise vary depending on where you’re actually sending money.

The fees involved in a transfer will be shown to you just before you complete a payment with Western Union. They vary depending where you’re sending money, and your choice of payment and collection methods (i.e. bank transfer, collection in cash).

Western Union converts your money at the current exchange rate, plus their own markup⁷.

This means that in addition to the upfront fees that you’ll see when you start your transfer, there is also a hidden fee in the exchange rate. This is how the company makes a profit on the transfer, and it can make your transfer more expensive than it needs to be.

What do I need to make an international wire transfer?

Keen to make your first international transfer? Before you start, make sure you have the following details to hand

  • Your recipient’s name and address
  • Their bank account details and International Bank Account Number (IBAN). Check the recipient’s IBAN number with our IBAN checker or calculate any RBS IBAN number here.
  • The Bank Identifier Code (BIC) or SWIFT code of the recipient’s bank
  • The bank’s name and address.

How to make an international bank transfer

Setting up an international bank transfer can be quite straightforward, depending of course on the bank or provider. It’s similar to making an ordinary transfer (especially if you are registered for online banking), except that a few more details are required. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Login to your online banking account. Alternatively, you can call your bank or visit a branch to arrange your transfer.
  2. Make sure you have all the required details (see the section above for a full list of what’s needed for international transfers) and that you have enough money in your account to cover the payment, plus any fees.
  3. Enter the recipient’s bank details, including their IBAN and the SWIFT/BIC code for their bank.
  4. Enter the amount you want to send and choose the currency you’d like your recipient to receive the money in. You might find that the currency is set automatically when you enter your recipient’s information and bank details.
  5. Double check all the details, the amount, exchange rate and fees - and confirm.

FAQs

Still have questions about international wire transfers? You’re likely to find many of the answers below, so take a look.

How long does an international wire transfer take?

Despite the name, SWIFT transfers aren’t always very fast. They can take anywhere from 1-5 working days⁴, depending on a number of factors. For example, if the destination bank account is in a drastically different time zone, or they have different days of the week on which their banks work. Also, as the money doesn’t always travel directly from one bank to another, it will take time.

You’ll want to keep these things in mind when setting up your transfer, leaving extra time for any delays in completing the transfer.

What is an IBAN number?

Made up of up to 34 letters and numbers, the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) is a code that helps banks process international transfers. It’s in addition to the ordinary account number and sort code associated with the account.

You can get this information upon request from the bank, or find it on your recent bank statements or by logging into your online banking. You can also calculate an IBAN number, if you know your recipient’s account details.

What is a SWIFT/BIC code?

A SWIFT code is a standard format for a Business Identifier Codes (BIC) - and it denotes the exact bank the recipient account is in.

Your bank may be able to find out the recipient’s BIC/SWIFT code using the recipient’s name and account number, but you can also just ask the recipient bank for the information.

Alternatively, you can use a handy online BIC/SWIFT code finder like this one from Wise.

How much can you send via an international bank transfer?

You can send a large sum of money abroad, as the UK government doesn’t limit the amount of money that can be sent abroad from the UK⁸.

However, your bank or money transfer provider may have their own limits in place, so it’s always best to double-check before attempting to set up your transfer.


In this guide, we’ve covered everything you need to know on how to make an international transfer. This includes the options and main providers available, the details you’ll need and a step-by-step guide to the process. We’ve even busted jargon around IBAN, SWIFT and BIC codes, all to make it easier for you to send money worldwide when you need to.

But the most crucial thing to remember is to compare costs carefully before choosing a provider. This means exchange rates as well as upfront fees, as these can hide hidden extra charges which make your transfer more expensive.

Wise makes international transfers easy, with low, transparent fees and the guaranteed mid-market exchange rate. It’s also FCA regulated and uses sophisticated security measures to keep your money safe, so you can send and receive even large sums with complete confidence.

Get started sending money with Wise today in just a few clicks.

Join Wise today


Sources used for this article:

  1. Wise - exchange rates
  2. Nationwide - foreign exchange rates
  3. Nationwide - SWIFT/SEPA international payments
  4. GoCardless - international bank transfer times
  5. Wise
  6. Western Union - about
  7. Western Union - send money online with Western Union
  8. Telegraph - how much money can I send abroad

Sources checked on 28-September-2021.


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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