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Going abroad is not easy. Neither is managing your finances in two different countries. When I moved to France in September, I realized that not every country in the world has a banking system as electronic and fast as the United States. I had to submit document after document, wait for my applications to be processed, and then wait for my card, PIN, and online banking information to arrive in the mail (all in different letters, of course). In total, it took me about five weeks to get a bank account in France.
I couldn’t skip the process either. I specifically needed a French bank account with a French IBAN (International Bank Account Number) in order to pay my bills. For example, my Metro Pass account will only accept direct debit each month from a French bank account. Also, some online retailers will only authorize transactions with payment forms issued within the EU, which means my credit cards are sometimes declined when shopping online. Depending on where you live abroad, there are services that can manage your finances in multiple currencies or for US residents living abroad. Make it easy for consumers to send money.
Main Bank Transfer Payment Networks
SWIFT is the acronym for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a Brussels-based organization that has been in existence since the early 1970s. It was created to help banks more securely and quickly communicate with each other regarding processing of payments by bank transfer.
How does SWIFT work?
Today, SWIFT is a communication network of more than 10,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries, making it the largest international payment network in the world. We insist on the word ‘communication’ because SWIFT is nothing more than a messenger between banks.
Basically, what SWIFT is doing is channeling the message containing the payment instructions from the issuing bank, that is, the payer’s bank, to the sending bank, the beneficiary’s bank. Now that job may sound simple, but you should never judge a book by its cover. Read our article on how the SWIFT network works.
SEPA is the acronym for Single Euro Payments Area. It was created in 2008 to simplify cross-border payments in euros within Europe. In other words, a SEPA payment is similar to a national payment. The SEPA area comprises 36 countries: the 27 EU member states, the UK, Andorra, Iceland, Monaco, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, San Marino and the Vatican City State (see the full list here).
How does SEPA work?
SEPA works in the same way as SWIFT except that it is only for payments in euros within the SEPA zone. The banks have direct or indirect relationships (that is, they use a network of intermediary banks).
Payment codes by country
BIC (also known as SWIFT) for international payments
BIC stands for Bank Identification Code. It is a code assigned by SWIFT, the organization, when the bank joins the SWIFT network.
What is the difference between a BIC and SWIFT code?
Technically, this is what is happening. Actually, you will also hear SWIFT code, BIC/SWIFT code, SWIFT/BIC code or SWIFT identifier. They all refer to the same code and are required when making an international payment.
What does a SWIFT/BIC code look like?
It is a series of 8 or 11 characters (letters and numbers) that identifies a specific bank to which you are sending money. The code includes details of the country in which the bank is located, its location and the branch number. This is what a SWIFT/BIC code looks like:
IBAN code for SEPA payments
Unlike the BIC/SWIFT code, IBAN codes are not assigned by a central organization. They are issued directly by banks according to a format described in the IBAN Registry.
What is an IBAN code like?
It’s a string of up to 34 characters (letters and numbers) that identifies the country, bank, and account details you’re sending money to.
The IBAN number consists of:
- Two-letter country identification code
- two check digits
- Up to 30 characters for the basic bank account number (BBAN)
At the time of writing this article, there are more than 100 countries registered with IBANs. 75 participating countries (including the 36 countries in the SEPA area) and 25 countries that have partial/experimental use of the IBAN system. However, mainly European banks use IBANs. The US and Canada are two major countries that do not use the IBAN system (but do recognize the system and process payments).
BSB for Australian payments
BSB is the acronym that stands for Bank State Branch. You must have this 6-digit code in addition to the SWIFT code when making a payment to Australia.
What does a BSB code look like?
This is what this 6-digit code means:
- The first two digits refer to the bank or financial institution
- The third digit refers to the state where the branch is located
- The last three digits provide the unique address of the branch
ABA for payments in the US
ABA means many things in the US, but when it comes to payments, ABA is the acronym for the American Bankers Association. You’ve probably guessed that the ABA number (also known as a bank routing number or routing transit number – RTN) identifies the location where a bank account was opened.
What is an ABA code like?
This 9-digit code consists of:
- 4 digits to represent the Federal Reserve’s routing code (which basically tells the Federal Reserve how to process the payment)
- 4 digits to represent the bank identifier
- 1 digit to represent a checksum. The checksum is a complicated mathematical expression that uses the first eight digits. If the final result does not equal the checksum, the transaction is flagged and redirected for manual processing.
CNAPS for RMB payments to China
The banking world is a big fan of acronyms. Here’s another one: CNAPS stands for China National Advance Payment System. You will need this code in addition to the SWIFT code only if you are making a payment in RMB (or CNH for the purists) to the PRC. If you make a payment in other currencies (eg USD), you will only need the SWIFT code.
What is a CNAPS code like?
CNAPS is a 12-digit code that can start with the keyword CN to indicate that the account is in China.
This is what the 12-digit code refers to:
- The first 3 digits represent the bank code
- The next 4 digits represent the city code
- The next 4 digits represent the branch code
- The last digit is the verification code.
Bank code for payments in Hong Kong
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) there are no mysterious acronyms for the Hong Kong banking code. Unlike other jurisdictions, Hong Kong does not set a format. What you will need in addition to the SWIFT code is a 3-digit bank code, a 3-digit branch code and a 6-9 digit account number.
What is a Hong Kong code like?
If it’s an HSBC account, it should look like this. The bank code is always given separately, the HSBC bank code is 004. It is also common to see HSBC 812-852456-888.
Classification code for payments in the United Kingdom
Sort is not an acronym for anything. The name of this code dates back to the last century when the 5-digit national codes (for manual processing) were replaced by the 6-digit classification codes (for automated processing). So the sort code is literally a code that helps the bank to sort payments into the correct UK account.
What does a classification code look like?
The classification code is a 6-digit code that is always written as three pairs of numbers. The first two digits identify the bank, the next four identify the branch.
When you make an international payment, these are all the fees that add up:
- shipping rates – This is the commission that the payer’s bank would charge for making an international payment
- Correspondent banking commissions – This is the fee that any intermediary bank would charge when the banks do not have a direct relationship (remember the example at the beginning of this article?)
- reception fees – This is the fee the recipient’s bank would charge for receiving an international payment
- FX Fees/Surcharge – This is the exchange fee when an international payment is made in different currencies
How much does it cost to make a SWIFT payment?
It is virtually impossible to estimate how much an international transfer will cost, it varies depending on the banks involved in the transaction, the currencies involved, the amount, if there are intermediary bank fees, etc. You could pay up to USD 50 to transfer money from Country A to Country B. Make sure you are using the correct SWIFT code to avoid delaying your payment and paying a returned payment fee.
When you make a SWIFT payment, there are three ways to pay international transfer fees:
- OUR = you (as sender) pay all bank charges. Your beneficiary will receive the full amount of the payment. Normally, you are billed separately for these charges.
- good (BENeficiary) = You pay nothing and your beneficiary pays everything. Charges will be deducted from the amount they receive.
- SHA (SHARED) = you pay your own bank’s outgoing transfer fee, and your beneficiary pays your bank’s receiving fee AND correspondent banking fees.
How much does it cost to make a SEPA payment?
When you make a SEPA payment, it will cost you a domestic transfer fee (which usually means it’s free)
Wire transfers are generally only processed on the same business day if requested before the bank’s cut-off time. In some cases, they are processed the next business day due to the time difference. In Hong Kong, those cut-off times will vary +/- 30 minutes from bank to bank. You can see international transfer deadlines for major currencies below.
However, be careful, a bank that processes an international transfer on that business day does not mean that it will arrive in your recipient’s bank account that same day. What happens after you make the payment instruction is out of your control. Like you, we’d love to see real-time SWIFT transfers, but we’re not quite there yet.
International transfers typically take 1-5 business days to reach their final destination. But there are many factors that can delay your transfer: wrong bank details, holidays, weekends, time zones, country of destination, regulatory controls, number of intermediary banks, etc.
Final words: How to Make International Payments
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