An external transfer is a way to move money electronically from an account in one financial institution to an account in another financial institution. External transfers can be used to move money between accounts that you hold at different banks; to send money to the bank account of a friend or family member; or even to pay bills or pay for services.

External transfers are just one of the different types of transfers that you can make, and there are several different types of external transfers that you can use from the average bank account. They represent a no- or low-cost way to transfer money between accounts.

Key Takeaways

  • An external transfer is a way to move money electronically between an account you have with one financial institution and an account in another bank.
  • You can use external transfers to move money between accounts, to pay friends and family, or (with caution) to pay bills.
  • There are several different types of external transfers, with EFT (electronic funds transfer) and ACH (automated clearing house) being the most common. Each has different costs and time frames associated with it.

The Basics of an External Transfer

When you log into your online banking portal, use your bank app, or call your bank’s telephone banking number, you generally have the option to complete two different types of electronic transfers: internal and external. Internal transfers are used to transfer funds between accounts that you hold at the same institution, such as a savings account and a checking account; external transfers are used to send money from your account to a different institution.

Using an external transfer, you can send money to an account that you hold or one held by someone else. The process is usually the same, no matter where you are sending the money within the United States. External transfers can be used to send money to a friend or family member—for example, to settle a shared expense, or to send money for a birthday or a holiday. 

In some cases, a company might ask you to pay for goods or services via an external transfer. You should be cautious, as it could be a scam. The vast majority of companies now use secure online payment platforms, and there are very few legitimate uses for external transfers. Because there are fewer protections for your money with an external transfer, you should only use it to pay for goods or services if you know and trust the seller. It’s safer to use a credit card or PayPal if you are making a purchase from a seller you don’t know.

If you are asked to make an external transfer to pay for goods or services, it could be a scam, so proceed with caution.

How to Make an External Transfer

The information you will need to make an external transfer is the same, no matter which type of account you are sending money from and no matter where the funds are going. This is because almost all external transfers go through the same system—more on that below.

You can use your online banking platform or your bank app, call your bank’s telephone banking number, or visit a branch to make an external transfer. You will need:

  • The account number of the account from which you are sending funds.
  • The bank routing number of the account to which you want to send money.
  • The account number of the account to which you are sending money.

Sometimes, the person or organization to which you are sending money can help you set up a transfer, either by providing these details or even by guiding you through the process of setting up a transfer.

Recurring External Transfers

It may take extra time to set up your first external transfer. Not only will you have to find all the details that you need, but your bank may also do extra security checks to make sure that your transfer is genuine and that the recipient is legitimate.

However, banks usually make it easier to set up the same transfer again. Most banking apps will automatically add your recipient to a list of people to whom you can send money, and online banking systems will also remember that certain recipients have already been verified. 

You can also set up automatic external transfers from an account. (If you receive your paycheck via direct deposit, for example, this is a form of recurring external transfer from your employer’s financial institution to your account.) Most banks will allow you to set up a “standing order” to transfer a specified amount of money on a regular schedule to an external account.

History of External Transfers

External transfers are just one type of a broader set of money transfers known as electronic funds transfers (EFTs). Given that there are many types of EFTs, you probably use quite a few of them without realizing it. All types of electronic money transfers are overseen by the U.S. government. 

In 1978, in fact, the U.S. government passed the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA). This law put in place consumer protections around specific types of electronic transfers of money.

Several different types of external transfer are covered by the EFTA:

Wire transfers are another type of EFT payment that moves money quickly between financial institutions around the globe. Sending money internationally must be done via a wire transfer. Wire transfers are typically conducted via specific bank-to-bank networks like the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) or Fedwire systems.

The Difference Between EFT and ACH

One of the most common sources of confusion when it comes to external transfers is the difference between EFT and ACH. ACH stands for automated clearing house, which is becoming a very popular way to make external transfers.

The ACH network essentially acts as a financial hub and helps people and organizations move money from one bank account to another. ACH transactions consist of direct deposits and direct payments, including business-to-business (B2B) transactions, government transactions, and consumer transactions. This network now processes more than 20 billion transactions each year, totaling more than $40 trillion.

ACH transfers are a little different from standard EFT transfers. When you use your debit or credit card, for example, you are setting up an EFT transaction that happens in real time. ACH payments, by contrast, are processed in batches each day. 

This means that funds sent via ACH can take from one to four days to move from one account to another, depending on the two financial institutions involved in the transaction. Larger banks can often process ACH payments faster than smaller banks.

Funds sent via ACH can take up to four days to arrive in your recipient’s bank account because these transfers are processed in batches rather than in real time.

The Bottom Line

External transfers are a fundamental part of the modern banking system, allowing individuals and corporations to move money easily between accounts. They are typically easy to set up, but you should be careful if you are asked to make an external transfer to a company or individual you don’t know personally.