A bank's SWIFT number is a code used to identify an individual bank and sometimes bank branch for money transfers, especially across international borders. Keep in mind that it's different from the routing numbers that are used to identify banks within the United States. Use the money transfer system that best meets your needs for pricing, speed and compatibility with the bank systems involved.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
A bank's SWIFT number is a unique code, from eight to 11 digits long, that allows the bank to quickly and accurately receive money transfers, even from overseas locations.
Understanding the SWIFT Network
SWIFT is an international organization of banks and similar organizations that make it possible to send money from one financial institution to another, even across borders. The name is an acronym for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. The SWIFT system was set up to facilitate easy electronic transfers between bank accounts at different institutions with relatively little room for error.
When you go to a bank and request a wire transfer of funds from one account to another, and the accounts are in different countries, the money will often be sent via SWIFT. Transfers within the U.S. are usually handled through a domestic system instead, like the Federal Reserve's Fedwire system.
The Role of SWIFT Numbers
When you send money through the SWIFT system, you generally will need to tell your bank where the money is going by providing the destination bank's unique SWIFT number, as well as the recipient's name and account number. The SWIFT number identifies the bank, what country it's located in, the city where the bank will be found and sometimes the identity of an individual bank branch. The SWIFT number is also sometimes known as a BIC, or bank identification code, and is typically either eight or 11 characters long.
If you provide an incorrect SWIFT number, it can hold up your funds transfer or cause the money to go to the wrong place. Make sure you verify the SWIFT number with your recipient rather than try to guess or infer it. If you need to know a SWIFT number you can use to receive money at your bank, contact your bank for help.
While SWIFT numbers themselves aren't secret, your own bank account number should be kept relatively private since people can potentially use it to steal money from your account. Be cautious how widely you share it, and be wary of scams where people may claim they intend to send you money as a way to gain access to your private information.
SWIFT Numbers and Routing Numbers
If you bank in the U.S., you might be more familiar with domestic routing numbers than SWIFT numbers. Routing numbers serve a similar purpose, identifying a particular bank and potentially a branch, but they're distinct from SWIFT numbers. They're mostly used within the U.S. banking system, such as if you need to move money from one bank account to another, or if you are setting up direct deposit at work.
You can find out the routing number for your bank account by calling or visiting the bank, or see if it is available online. The routing number is also printed on your checks or deposit slips if you have any. If you're not sure whether someone needs a U.S. routing number or a SWIFT number to transact business with you, make sure to clarify, since you may hold up your payment if you use the wrong number.
Consider Money Transfer Alternatives
There are often multiple ways to transfer money and make payments, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Wire transfers through networks like SWIFT can be relatively expensive, but they're also fast and reliable. In the U.S., you can sometimes send money through the automated clearing house, or ACH, system, commonly used for direct deposits. This can be slower but cheaper than a wire transfer.
For person-to-person transfers, services like Square Cash, PayPal and Venmo are also options. Each offers a way to send money from one person to another for free, often with options to pay for speedier transfers. Services like Western Union and MoneyGram can be used to rapidly send cash from one person to another, with pickup locations in stores and financial institutions around the world. However, there's a fee to use these services.
- Bank of America: Wire Transfer FAQs
- Investopedia: How the SWIFT System Works
- Federal Reserve: Fedwire® Funds Service
- Investopedia: Automated Clearing House (ACH)
- Digital Trends: PayPal vs. Google Pay vs. Venmo vs. Square Cash vs. Apple Pay Cash
- Western Union: Home Page
- Moneygram: Home Page
- The Motley Fool: What Is the Difference Between Swift Codes and Routing Numbers?
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology and business. He has written for a variety of business publications including Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Leader and Ad Age. He was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.