How to use Western Union for an international transfer in 8 steps

7 minute read

If you need to send money abroad, you have a number of different options.

You could call your local bank and make a transfer to another bank account in person, or do the same transaction using online or telephone banking. Although this route can be fairly expensive, and it’ll likely take a few days to process your transfer, it’s familiar and simple for many people. It’s worth knowing that your bank will charge for making a transfer, and there’s a high chance your transfer will be processed using the SWIFT network. In this case, intermediary banks, and the recipient’s own bank could add their own charges, too.

If you don’t want to use your bank to send money abroad, you can choose an alternative provider, such as PayPal, Western Union or Transferwise.

When you’re deciding which option suits your needs, it’s important to check the exchange rates used by each service - more on that later - as well as the upfront charges. For many customers, using a provider such as Wise, which offers the best available exchange rate, can be the cheapest option.

Doing a bit of homework in advance can save you money. If you’re thinking of making an international transfer with Western Union, here’s all you need to know.

Sending money internationally? Wise could save you up to 8x versus your bank

Before you get started, a word.

Banks and money transfer providers often give you a bad exchange rate to make extra profits.

Wise is different. Its smart new technology skips hefty international transfer fees by connecting local bank accounts all around the world. Which means you can save up to 8x by using Wise rather than your bank when you send your money abroad.

Check out how to make your first transfer with Wise. And give it a try.

Oh, and while you’re at it, check out Wise’s borderless multi-currency account. You can also get the Wise multi-currency debit card, which you can use to pay for goods and services all over the world.

Now, back to what you came here to read.

Western Union fees

The costs to make a transfer will vary, depending on where you’re sending money, how the payment is funded, and how the recipient receives the money.

Here are a few examples, based on sending $1000 to various different popular destinations, using different payment and collection methods¹:

Recipient’s countryRecipient collects cash, transfer paid for using bank accountRecipient collects cash, transfer paid for using credit or debit cardTransfer to recipient’s bank account, paid for using bank accountTransfer to recipient’s bank account, paid for using credit or debit card

Western Union exchange rates

When you’re calculating the costs of a transfer on the Western Union website, you’ll find the following disclaimer in the footnotes:

“Western Union also makes money from currency exchange. When choosing a money transmitter, carefully compare both transfer fees and exchange rates. Fees, foreign exchange rates and taxes may vary by brand, channel, and location based on a number of factors.” ¹

So how do you compare the exchange rates used by different money exchange and transfer services?

Firstly, you need to understand the mid-market rate. That’s the only real exchange rate, used by banks and financial institutions on the open market. You can check the mid-market rate easily, using an online currency converter, or by googling the currency pairing you need.

Try comparing the mid-market rate with the exchange rate offered by your chosen transfer service. You’ll quickly find that many international money transfer services don’t offer customers the real exchange rate. Instead, they roll up their profit into the exchange rate they apply. This isn’t transparent and can mean that customers pay more than they need to.

However, services such as Wise, believe it’s fairer to use the mid-market rate, and apply only a small transparent fee to each transaction. That makes it much easier for customers to understand and compare the true cost of the transfer - and can be much cheaper, too.

Western Union conversion rate vs bank

The exchange rates used by both Western Union and traditional banks typically include a markup on the real exchange rate. However, the amount of this markup varies depending on the currency pairing involved.

That means that the best way to check which is the best value is to call into your bank to get their rates and then compare them online with the rate for your currency pairing offered on Western Union.

Don’t forget to compare both rates with the mid-market rate, too. And if you don’t think they offer a fair deal, try a different provider entirely, like Transferwise.

Step by step: Making an international transfer with Western Union

Making an international transfer with Western Union is fairly straightforward. You can go to a local location to process the transaction if you need some help and want to deal with someone face to face.² The costs and fees vary, depending on both how you fund the transfer and how you want it to be received.

Step 1: Be wary of fraudsters and scams

Before we begin, it’s important to know that there are many scams which ask people to send money via Western Union. Make sure you’re confident that you’re sending money to the right person, and for a genuine reason.

For example, if a third party contacts you to say that a friend or family member has had an emergency and needs cash quickly, you should always verify the details directly with the person involved. Similarly, Western Union isn’t intended for online shopping like a service such as PayPal, and so it doesn’t have the same levels of buyer or seller protection as a service specialised in this area. This means it’s not usually a good choice for online shopping or buying products through a service like Craigslist.

Step 2: Check all the details of your transfer

Once you’re sure that the person you’re sending money to is genuine, you have to collect and verify some details to make sure the process goes smoothly. If they’re going to collect the cash in person from a Western Union office, then they will need a government-issued ID to do so.² Make sure you know which office they’ll visit to collect the money from, and you have their name as written on their ID document when making the transfer.

If you’re sending money directly to a recipient’s bank account then you’ll need the full details of their account, bank branch, and address. You may also need a BIC/SWIFT code and IBAN depending on where you’re sending money to.

Step 3: Process the transfer in a Western Union branch

Now you need to decide how to process the transfer - in a branch, online, or on the phone². If you’d rather deal with someone face to face, you can send money via a Western Union office, using cash or sometimes a debit card, depending on the location.²

You'll need:²

  • Recipient’s exact name as it appears on their government-issued ID
  • Recipient’s city/province/state and country
  • You may also need to provide your own government-issued ID

Step 4: Process the transfer online or with the Western Union app

If you want to process your transfer online you’ll need to first create a profile to do so.

Once you have a profile, either on the website or app, you just select Send Money and follow the steps set out². You can pay with cash by later visiting a Western Union office, or online by using a credit or debit card, or a bank transfer².

Step 5: Process the transfer on the phone

Some transfers can be carried out on the phone using a credit or debit card. However, this option won’t be available for all transfers, so check the availability in your particular circumstances².

Whichever route you choose, you must complete a form - either online, on the phone, or in hard copy - giving the details of both the payment and recipient.

Step 6: Choose how you want to pay

You’ll be asked how you wish to pay for the transfer, and in most cases, you can choose between cash if you’re in a branch, while online you can use credit or debit card, or a bank transfer. The charges and fees for these different payment methods vary widely. In general terms, it’s much more expensive to pay with a credit or debit card - although this might mean that the transfer is quicker - compared to a bank transfer.

Step 7: Pass the details of the transfer to the recipient

When you place the transfer, you’ll get a MTCN reference number.3 This is used by the recipient to collect the cash³. You’ll need to give the MTCN number to the recipient if they’re planning on visiting a local Western Union outlet to collect their cash³.

Optional step: Trace the transfer

The MTCN is a tracking number given when you place your transfer and can be used if you need to trace the payment³. You can do this online, or by visiting a branch for help³.

Step 8: Recipient collects the payment once processed

Processing time can vary from a few minutes to several days, depending on the payment method and whether the recipient is collecting in person or not. The estimated processing time is shown at the point you place your transfer, and you can then track the progress of your transfer using your reference number if you need to.

Once the transfer is processed your recipient can collect it in a Western Union office, or draw it directly from their bank account if you opted for a bank transfer instead.

Western Union payment methods

You can choose to make a payment in cash, by visiting a branch in person - or using a credit or debit card, or bank transfer. The fees applied vary depending on the payment method, with credit or debit card payments usually costing more than a bank transfer, for example.

Western Union limits

Generally, you’ll find the following limits apply to making a Western Union payment⁴:

  • Payments arranged online or using the Western Union app

    • Sending money using In Minutes, Three Day, and WU® Pay - $2,999 per transfer
    • Next Day payments and Mobile Money transfer - $500 per transfer
    • Prepaid payment cards - limits set by the card issuer and can vary
  • International payments arranged online through Western Union FX, involving currency conversion - $10,000 per transfer automatic limit which can be altered by application

  • Payments made at a Western Union office - usually unlimited

  • Telephone payments - $300 to $2,500 limit

Making an international transfer with Western Union isn’t too complicated. Just a few simple steps and you’ll be on your way. However, before you start, it’s well worth checking out other methods of making the transfer to see if there’s a cheaper way to move your money.

You might find that using an alternative provider which offers the real exchange rate and specialises in international money transfers, like Wise, is a better option.

1. (September 18 2018)
2. (September 18 2018)
3. (September 18 2018)
4. (September 18 2018)

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.

Wise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more

Tips, news and updates for your location