IBAN vs. SWIFT Code: Understanding the difference

Adam Rozsa
18.10.21
4 minute read

IBANs and SWIFT codes are used by financial institutions around the world to guide international money transfers to the right accounts.

IBAN numbers refer to individual bank accounts, while a SWIFT code identifies a bank or branch where the specific account is held. Depending on where you’re sending money to, you could find that both are needed to make sure your payment ends up in the right account in the end.

If you plan to send money overseas, or expect to receive international payments, you’ll need to know about IBANs and SWIFT codes.

Bank transfers can get pricey and slow. And if you want to save on fees when you make an international transfer, you’ll want to know about Wise, too. Use Wise to send money overseas up to 6x cheaper than with your regular bank - and arrange your payment in minutes online or using your smartphone.

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Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) Code

Let’s start with SWIFT - the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication¹. International transfers such as telegraphic transfers and wire transfers are often processed by banks using what’s known as the SWIFT network.

These payments usually require a SWIFT code to make sure the payment lands in the specific bank account it’s headed for.

The SWIFT network works by having partner banks cooperate to pass payments from one place to another, until they land in the correct account.

It’s like your money taking a series of connecting flights to end up in the final destination. SWIFT, technically, is the secure messaging system which sits behind this network.

By making sure banks can trust the communications they’re receiving about what money should be moved where, SWIFT provides a simple and safe way to make cross border payments.

⚠️ SWIFT payments are secure, but they’re not always the fastest option, and usually mean higher fees than alternatives like Wise. Up to 3 different banks can be involved in a single payment, which takes time - and each bank can also levy a service fee.

If you’re new to international payments, get your full guide to the SWIFT payment network here. See how SWIFT transfers work, what they cost, and what details you have to provide when sending money using SWIFT.

What does a SWIFT code look like?

SWIFT codes are one of the ways that banks in the SWIFT network make sure money arrives in the right account every time. It’s like having a zip code for your payment. You’ll still need an account number, just as you’d need a specific apartment number or street address if you were looking at a map. But a zip code is a good starting point to make sure your money is headed in the right direction.

SWIFT codes - which are also sometimes called SWIFT/BIC codes - have a standard format. You’ll have 8 - 11 alphanumeric characters, which contain all the information needed to get your payment on the way. SWIFT codes are made up of:

  • A 4 letter bank code
  • A 2 letter country code
  • A 2 letter location code
  • An optional branch code of up to 3 digits

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Not sure if you have the right SWIFT BIC code for your payment? Check with this handy SWIFT code look up tool.

International Bank Account Number (IBAN)

IBANs are international bank account numbers². These identify a specific bank account, including details of the country in which it’s held. Like SWIFT codes, IBANs have a specific format that’s standardized for ease.

IBANs are not used by all countries. All European Union, and most other European countries do use IBANs - but the United States and Canada do not. However, even in the US and Canada, IBANs are recognized as a format - and you’ll often need to provide one when you send a payment to a recipient elsewhere in the world.

How does an IBAN number differ from SWIFT?

You’ll have to provide a SWIFT code for most international transfers to show which bank and branch your payment is headed to.

However, the SWIFT code doesn’t specify a particular bank account - that’s where the IBAN comes in. An IBAN contains all a bank needs to make sure your payment ends up in your recipient’s account, even if it’s on the other side of the world.

IBAN lengths do vary slightly between countries, but the format is always the same. You’ll see the following in all IBAN numbers:

  • A 2-letter country code
  • 2 check digits
  • Up to 35 alphanumeric characters which consist of the bank code, branch code and bank account number

Here's an example of a UK IBAN code:

iban-vs-swift

Not sure if you have the right details to send an international transfer? Check out some more example IBAN numbers here.

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iban-vs-swift

IBAN vs. SWIFT: Bottom line

IBANs and SWIFT codes are similar in that they’re both essential to keeping international payments moving around the world. However, the information they convey and how they’re used does vary.

While a SWIFT code will identify the particular bank and branch your recipient’s account is held in, you’ll also need an IBAN for many international payments, to make sure your money ends up in the right place in the end.

Hopefully that’s all the IBAN and SWIFT questions you ever had - and some you’d never even thought of, covered in this one handy guide.

If you want to know more about sending money internationally, get a full guide to how bank codes, sort codes, IBANs and SWIFT numbers all work here. And next time you need to make an international transfer, check out how you can save with Wise and the 6x cheaper Wise account.


Sources:

1]SWIFT - Discover SWIFT
2]SWIFT - IBAN, international bank account number

All sources checked on 18 October 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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