What Is a Wire Transfer?
A wire transfer is an electronic transfer of funds via a network that is administered by banks and transfer service agencies around the world. Wire transfers involve a sending and receiving institution and require information from the party initiating the transfer, such as the receiver's name and account number.
Wire transfers don't actually involve the physical exchange of cash but are settled electronically. They can be sent between banks, or through a non-bank service such as Western Union.
- A wire transfer facilitates money transfers electronically across a network of banks or transfer agencies around the world.
- Senders pay for the transaction at the remitting bank and provide the recipient's name, bank account number, and the amount transferred.
- Most wire transfers can take as long as two business days to process.
- International wire payments are monitored by the Office of Foreign Assets Control to ensure the money isn't being wired to terrorist groups or for money laundering purposes.
- All transfers go through a domestic automated clearing house before they are settled.
Understanding Wire Transfers
Wire transfers, which are also known as wire payments, allow money to be moved quickly and securely without the need to exchange cash. They allow two parties to transfer funds even if they're in different (geographic) locations safely. A transfer is usually initiated from one bank or financial institution to another. Rather than cash, the participating institutions share information about the recipient, the bank receiving account number, and the amount transferred.
The sender pays for the transaction upfront at their bank. This party must provide their bank with the following information:
- The recipient's name, address, contact number, along with any other personal information required to facilitate the transaction
- The recipient's banking information, including their account number and branch number
- The receiving bank's information, which includes the institution's name, address, and bank identifier (routing number or SWIFT code)
- The reason for the transfer
Once the information is documented, the wire transfer can begin. The initiating firm sends a message to the recipient's institution with payment instructions through a secure system, such as Fedwire or SWIFT. The recipient's bank receives the information from the initiating bank and deposits its own reserve funds into the correct account. The two banking institutions then settle the payment on the back end after the money has been deposited.
Wire transfers are important tools for anyone who needs to send money quickly and securely—especially when they aren't in the same location. They also allow entities to transfer a large amount of money. Firms do limit the amount that can be transferred, but these caps tend to be fairly high. For instance, one company may use a wire transfer to pay for a large purchase from an international supplier.
Non-bank wire transfers do not require bank account numbers. One popular non-bank wire transfer company is Western Union, whose international money transfer service is available in more than 200 countries.
Types of Wire Transfers
There are two types of wire transfers: domestic and international.
Domestic Wire Transfers
A domestic wire transfer is any type of wire payment that takes place between two different banks or institutions within the same country. Senders may require a code or the recipient's branch number if they want to execute a transaction.
These transactions are generally processed on the same day they are initiated and can be received within a few hours. That's because a domestic wire transfer only has to go through a domestic automated clearing house (ACH) and can be delivered within a day.
International Wire Transfers
International wire transfers are initiated in one country and settle in another. Senders must initiate international transfers even when they send money to someone in another country who has an account at the same bank. These payments require a routing or SWIFT code.
These wire transfers are normally delivered within two business days. This extra day is required because international wires must clear a domestic ACH and also its foreign equivalent.
Domestic wire transfers can cost up to $35 per transaction or more. International wire transfers often cost much more. Some receiving institutions also charge a fee, which is deducted from the total amount received by their customer.
Risks Associated With Wire Transfers
Wire transfers are generally safe and secure, provided you know the person who's receiving them. If you use a legitimate wire transfer service, each person involved in a wire transfer transaction should be required to prove their identity so that anonymous transfers are impossible.
International wire transfers that originate in the United States are monitored by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, an agency of the U.S. Treasury. The agency makes sure the money sent overseas is not being used to fund terrorist activities or for money laundering purposes. In addition, they are also tasked with preventing money from going to countries that are the subject of sanctions by the U.S. government.
If the agency suspects that any of these scenarios are true, the sending bank has the authority to freeze the funds and stop the wire transfer from going through.
Wire transfers may be flagged for several reasons, alerting officials to possible wrongdoing by either the recipient or the sender in the case of:
- Transfers to safe-haven countries
- Transfers to non-account holders
- Regular transfers for no viable reason
- Incoming and outgoing wires with the same dollar amount
- Large amounts wired by cash businesses
Advantages and Disadvantages of Wire Transfers
Wire transfers offer a convenient way to send money and pay bills to a recipient who uses a different bank. International wire transfers now take only a few days to settle, and domestic wire transfers often settle on the same day. Unlike mailed checks, they are unlikely to be misplaced or lost in the mail. Moreover, they are also reliable: While checks can bounce, a wire transfer can only be initiated if the sender has sufficient funds in their account.
However, there are some drawbacks. Banks often charge a flat fee for wire transfers, which can range between $15 and $50. This can eat up a large percentage of the transferred amount, especially for smaller transactions. In addition, some banks place a limit on the amount that can be wired in a single day.
Moreover, evolutions in fintech have provided alternatives that may be even faster than wire transfers. Tools like PayPal and Venmo allow domestic transfers in extremely small amounts, even faster than a bank wire, and for lower (or no) fees.
Pros and Cons of Wire Transfers
Fast settlement, even across borders.
Cannot be bounced or held due to insufficient funds.
Bank fees make wires impractical for some amounts.
Banks may impose a limit on the maximum transfer.
Alternative payment methods can be even faster and cheaper than wires.
Other Options to Wire Transfers
Prior to the development of computer networks, the main alternative to wire transfers was to mail a physical check or money order. This had obvious disadvantages since mail could sometimes be lost or delayed in transit. While it is also possible to pay by credit and debit over the phone, this method was vulnerable to credit card theft.
If the money is not needed immediately, it is also possible to send payments through the Automatic Clearinghouse, or ACH, an electronic network run by the National Automatic Clearinghouse Association. Because they are often batched together, ACH transfers are frequently used for bill payments, payroll, or tax refunds, but they can also be used for one-time transactions.
Following the widespread use of the Internet, innovations in financial technology created new ways to send money. Peer-to-peer financial services such as Venmo, Zelle, Square, and PayPal provide a fast, convenient way to send money, with small or zero fees. Moreover, they do not require any banking information about the recipient in order to do so.
How Is a Wire Transfer Done?
A wire transfer is most often used to transfer funds from one bank or financial institution to another. No physical money is transferred between banks or financial institutions when conducting a wire transfer. Instead, information is passed between banking institutions about the recipient, the bank receiving account number, and the amount transferred.
The sender first pays for the transaction upfront at their bank. The sending bank sends a message to the recipient's bank with payment instructions through a secure system, such as Fedwire or SWIFT. The recipient's bank receives all the necessary information from the initiating bank and deposits its own reserve funds into the correct account.
The two banking institutions then settle the payment on the back end (after the money has already been deposited).
What Are the Advantages of Wire Transfers?
Wire transfers allow for the individualized transmission of funds from individuals or entities to others while still maintaining the efficiencies associated with the fast and secure movement of money. The sender can initiate a wire transfer quickly and the recipient can access the funds immediately as there are usually no bank holds on the money. Wire transfers also allow people in different locations to safely transfer money to locales and financial institutions around the globe.
How Safe Are Wire Transfers?
A wire transfer is generally safe and secure, provided you know the recipient. A legitimate service will vet the identity of each entity involved in a transaction so that anonymous transfers are impossible.
International wire transfers that originate in the United States are monitored by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, an agency of the U.S. Treasury. This agency makes sure the money being sent overseas is not being used to fund terrorist activities or for money laundering purposes. They are also tasked with preventing money from going to countries that are the subject of sanctions by the U.S. government.
How Long Does a Wire Transfer Take?
Domestic bank wires may take up to three days in the United States, but they are usually much faster, especially if the sender and recipient use the same banking institution. International wires can take up to five business days. However, human error and other factors can sometimes cause delays, in extreme cases of up to three weeks.
The Bottom Line
Wire transfers allow money to be sent over an electronic network between different banks. Bank wires are a relatively painless way to send large transactions, whether domestic or international. However, there are fees involved and wires may take some time to clear.