What Is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT)?
Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) is a member-owned cooperative providing secure messaging for international transfers of money between participating banks.
Started in 1973 by 239 banks from 15 countries, SWIFT began providing messaging services in 1977. Its SWIFTnet messaging system lets banks share information about financial transactions. Financial institutions use SWIFT to securely exchange information including payment instructions.
SWIFT has grown rapidly over the years to serve more than 11,000 institutions operating in over 200 countries. In 2021, SWIFT processed 42 million messages a day, up 11.4% from 2020.
- Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) provides a secure messaging system for financial transactions between participating banks.
- SWIFT serves 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories.
- SWIFT assigns participating financial institutions a unique code to facilitate financial transactions.
SWIFT took over as the primary system for verifying international funds transfers from Telex, providing a unified coding convention to identify banks and describe transactions.
SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium and has offices in Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, and the United Kingdom.
The approximately 3,500 shareholder institutions are assigned shareholding stakes in SWIFT and the right to nominate directors to its governing board based on their country's usage of its messaging system. Shareholders from each of the top six countries using the system nominate two directors per country to the board. Shareholders from each of the next 10 countries by SWIFT usage nominate one director each, while other shareholders can nominate up to three directors collectively.
The board currently includes two directors each from the U.S., the U.K., France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Others are from Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, Singapore, China, Italy, Sweden, Luxembourg, Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan, and Hong Kong.
Although the directors represent shareholder institutions from particular countries rather than the countries themselves, in practice national governments may exert influence through their regulatory powers over financial institutions, as well as economic sanctions regimes.
Understanding SWIFT Transactions
For money transfers, SWIFT assigns each participating financial organization a unique code with either eight or 11 characters. The code has three interchangeable names: the bank identifier code (BIC), SWIFT code, SWIFT ID, or ISO 9362 code.
For example, the Italian bank UniCredit Banca, headquartered in Milan, has the eight-character SWIFT code UNCRITMM. The first four characters reflect the institute code (UNCR for UniCredit Banca), while the next two are the country code (IT for Italy), and the final characters specify the location/city code (MM for Milan). If an organization decides to use a code with 11 characters, the last three optional characters can reflect individual branches. For example, the UniCredit Banca branch in Milan uses the code UNCRITMMXXX.
Assume a customer of a TD Bank branch in Boston wants to send money to a friend who banks at the UniCredit Banca branch in Venice. The Bostonian can walk into a TD Bank branch with the friend's account number and UniCredit Banca Venice's unique SWIFT code. TD Bank will send a SWIFT message for a payment transfer to the specific UniCredit Banca branch via its secure network. Once UniCredit Banca receives the SWIFT message about the incoming payment, it will clear and credit the money to the friend's account.
SWIFT vs. IBAN
SWIFT and international bank account numbers (IBANs) are both used to identify parties in money transfers. However, while a SWIFT code is used to identify a specific bank, the IBAN code denotes a particular bank account involved in an international transaction.
SWIFT has expanded over the years to offer a variety of services beyond the SWIFTnet messaging system. These include cloud-based connectivity, compliance, and market infrastructure.
SWIFT has become so integral to global capital flows that access to its services has been barred as a form of economic sanctions.
In 2012, SWIFT cut off access for Iranian institutions as a result of European Union economic sanctions imposed on the country for its nuclear weapons program. It restored access for Iranian banks not affected by other sanctions in 2016. In 2022, several Russian banks were removed from SWIFT as punishment for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.