A guide to international money transfers

Need to send money abroad? Our guide will take you through the various options for making an international money transfer.

Need to send money abroad? Our guide will take you through the various options for making an international money transfer.

Anelda Knoesen
From the Money team
19
minute read
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Posted 17 MAY 2021

What is an international money transfer?

An international money transfer is, in a nutshell, a safe way to make payments and to send money overseas.

International money transfers can be made via a bank, building society or specialist money transfer providers. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of these below.

To make an international money transfer you’ll need to use one of the following:

  • debit card
  • credit card
  • bank transfer
  • cash can also be used if you’re making a transfer in-person

What can I use an international money transfer for?

Among other things, you can use international money transfers for:

  • sending monetary gifts
  • supporting family financially
  • paying bills
  • making purchases
  • paying college or university fees for studying abroad
  • one-off or regular payments
  • collecting a salary or pension payments if you are moving abroad
  • paying a deposit on an overseas property

Can I transfer money anywhere in the world?

Not every provider will send money everywhere in the world. Some will only send major currencies or to major destinations while others will offer a more comprehensive service. Check that you can send money to your chosen destination before you sign up for a service.

The amount you can transfer may also depend on local money-laundering rules.

Does money have to go into a bank account at the other end?

Yes, if you are using a bank transfer. With money-transfer firms, there are some additional options, such as:

  • sending the money to a mobile account
  • collecting in person from a local agent
  • delivery to the door

There may be additional charges for these options. The delivery method may also make it faster or slower for the money to be available to the recipient, so check before you decide which method to use.

How can I send money abroad?

There’s a choice of routes you can use, from your high-street bank to more specialist providers

  • your bank
  • international money-transfer providers online or on the high street
  • foreign exchange (FX) brokers

Each of these have their pros and cons.

Banks

Pros

  • safe
  • convenient
  • good for making regular payments
  • some banks offer cheap or free transfers to accounts held in their branches overseas

Cons

  • not the best exchange rates
  • can be expensive
  • can be slower than other methods in some parts of the world
  • both sender and recipient need a bank account

International money transfer providers or high street providers

Pros

  • don’t need both sender and recipient to have a bank account
  • can send money quickly in an emergency
  • more options for ways recipients can receive money
  • can be done in person or online
  • exchange rates may be better than a bank

Cons

  • if you want to use online, you’ll have to set up an account
  • may have extra charges for collection in person or delivery
  • sending smaller amounts can be relatively more expensive than for larger amounts

Foreign-exchange brokers

Pros

  • potentially a wider range of currencies
  • exchange rates tend to be better than bank rates
  • additional services like exchange-rate monitoring and alerts typically offered

Cons

  • you’ll have to register for an account
  • may have minimum amounts that you can send unless for regular payments
  • sending smaller amounts can be comparatively expensive

Making an international money transfer via your bank

One of the safest and most convenient ways to send money abroad is through your bank or building society current account, and some banks will allow you to make an international money transfer online or through their app as well as in a branch or over the phone.

However, the downside of using your bank or building society is that you might not get a great exchange rate, and transfers for currencies other than the Euro usually come with a high fee – sometimes as much as £25. Charges may vary depending on whether it’s going to a branch of the same bank or a different bank. Receiving banks can also charge a processing fee as well as the bank sending transfer.

You can make both one-off and regular payments with your bank. Check to see if there are any upper and lower limits on the amount you can transfer, in case this is an issue. Have a look at your bank’s website, as this should explain how to go about it and what they will charge, or contact them for more help if you need it.

Once your funds have been processed, make sure you always ask the recipient to contact their bank or check their bank statement to confirm that they’ve got the money safely.

Check with your bank to see how long the payment will take to go through. In some cases it could be very fast, for example, if it’s to the same bank in a different country. Speed will also depend on where you’re sending money to; payments in Europe can be a day, elsewhere in the world it can take up to six to seven working days, but typically it would be around three days.

Making international transfers using online money-transfer services

Online money-transfer services have become popular in the last few years, as they often charge low or no fees and can offer a much better exchange rate than traditional high street banks.

In most cases, you’ll need to sign up via the money-transfer company’s website or app and link your account to your UK current account, debit card or credit card. Then, you’ll need to send your money in pound sterling to your online account. Transfer times are similar to those when using a traditional bank, between one and three days, but can be more depending on the country you’re sending the money to.

The recipient can usually access the money fairly quickly but, if it is paid into a bank account overseas, it will depend on the time the bank normally takes to process such payments.

Sending smaller sums can be comparatively more expensive than larger amounts.

Popular examples of these types of money-transfer services are Transferwise, Azimo and Revolut.

Making international transfers using high-street money-transfer agents

Money-transfer services on the high street can often offer fast cash transfers. You can make the transfers in:

  • high-street agents in standalone branches in larger cities that offer a wide range of transfer and collection services, currency exchanges, or as part of a service offered by some other high-street chains
  • some independent newsagents, corner shops, pawnbrokers or phone shops may also offer this kind of service
  • the Post Office

For example, if you want to sort it out in person, Western Union has its own dedicated branches in some very large cities, but elsewhere you may need to go into a currency exchange, a chain of travel agents, a newsagent, off-licence or convenience store. Moneygram, for example, works with Tesco and the Post Office as well as smaller independent stores.

If you want to send money in person, most of the big providers have tools or maps to help you find your nearest branch. Not all branches offer the same services, so make sure you check that they can do what you need before travelling.

There’s no need to open an account – you simply pay for the transfer and any fees upfront. You’ll be given a reference number to pass on to the person you’re sending the money to. They can use the number to pick up the cash from the transfer agent’s overseas branch or agency – just make sure there’s a branch they can get to.

But you might find that there’s an extra charge for collection in-person or delivery to their home, for example. These high-street transfers are quick, but can be expensive, so they’re better used as a last resort or in an emergency.

Making international transfers using foreign-exchange brokers

If you need to transfer a large amount of money, typically over £3,000, specialist foreign-exchange brokers can offer a good exchange rate and don’t usually charge a fee for larger amounts. Some brokers may have a minimum amount you can send, unless it is for regular payments. It can be quicker than a bank transfer, with many offering same-day transfers. But if speed is important to you, check the time it will take before you complete the transaction. They can offer services like monitoring exchange rates and send alerts when the rate you are looking for is achieved.

Popular examples are Global Reach, Xe and Moneycorp.

Which international money-transfer service is best?

There’s no one right answer for everyone as everyone’s needs and requirements vary. You’ll have to weigh up a number of things to be sure you choose the right service for you. You need to think about:

  • How much you want to send
  • Which country you’re sending the money to
  • How quickly you need the money to arrive
  • The current exchange rate you’re being offered
  • What fees you’ll be charged
  • How the recipient needs to get the money

It’s important to think about how the person at the receiving end of the financial transaction will access the money, as not all providers offer the same options. It’s worth doing some research beforehand so you and the other party can decide on the best service for you. Bear in mind that delivery-to-the-door or cash pick-up can be the most expensive ways of sending money.

For security reasons, recipients in person need to prove who they are. So be warned, many agent locations will not pay out a transfer if the name on the receiver's government-issued identification does not match exactly, so it is crucial you get this correct.

How much does an international transfer cost?

There are two main costs involved when making an international transfer:

The exchange rate – each bank sets their own exchange rates, so there can be differences in exactly how much you’ll ‘get’ for your money. Plus, you may find that you are offered better rates of interest if you’re sending larger amounts of money. It’s best to compare rates between different providers, as even small differences to the exchange rate can soon add up.

The fees involved – you can be charged fees by the provider sending the money, and by the provider receiving it. For example, if you were making an international money transfer via your UK bank, you could expect to pay the bank for the service. Then, when it reaches the service at the other end – such as the recipient’s bank account – you may have to pay them too. Other services, such as delivery-to-the-door, can also cost extra.

Whether you’ll be charged fees or not and how much they are depends entirely on the service provider you choose to use, so check their websites or speak to a customer service advisor to find out exactly how much you could be expected to pay.

Fees can vary a lot between providers. It could be a flat fee, or it could be a percentage of the money being sent. And, you may find that organisations offering low fees may not have the best exchange rates, so it’s worth doing your research first.

Some banks might not charge you at all if you transfer money to an overseas bank of the same banking group. And most won’t charge a fee for sending euros to Europe, though this may change in the future.

If you regularly send or receive Euros from Europe, you might want to consider opening an account with one of the newer, digital-only banks. Starling, for example, offers a euro account in the UK. It lets you hold, send and receive euros at the current exchange rate with just a small 0.4% conversion charge.

Do I need to be mindful of the exchange rate when making an international money transfer?

Yes. The exchange rate can act like a charge, so while fees may be low, you might find that you get less foreign currency for your pound than elsewhere. In some cases, it might be worth paying a small fee to get a better exchange rate on the amount of money you are sending. You’ll have to compare providers and see who is offering the best value when all fees and exchange rates have been considered. You need to know if you have exchange-rate certainty for the money you are sending or not and what that could mean for your payment.

What types of exchange rate options are available for international transfers?

There are different kinds of exchange-rate options and the one that’s right for you may depend on:

  • the amount of money you need to transfer
  • how soon you need to transfer money
  • how you think exchange rates are likely to move in the coming months.

Your options will vary between providers (many may offer only current rates) and the amount of money involved. Typically, more options are available for larger sums and from FX brokers, but these exchange-rate alternatives can carry risks as well as advantages. You may have to search out a provider who offers the particular service you want. Options can include:

  • Spot deals – here you simply agree to transfer the funds immediately at the current exchange rate available
  • Forward contracts – if you think the current rate is especially favourable, you can lock in a particular exchange rate for a fixed amount of time that can range from days to one or two years. You may have to pay a deposit and then pay the balance when the contract is executed. To use this option, you’ll probably need to be sending in the region of £1,000 upwards. It can be useful for situations where you know you are going to have to pay a fixed amount in the foreign currency on a set date, such as for a property purchase or wedding arrangements. This kind of contract can allow you to budget effectively as you know what you’ll be paying and protect you from potential losses. On the other hand, if the rate changes the other way, you could pay more than you would with a spot deal on the same day.
  • Limit orders – this can be useful if you are going to send a large amount of money, but a low exchange rate is what really matters, rather than a date that the money must arrive on. Here, you set an exchange-rate figure that you are happy with, and when that figure is achieved the transfer will be made. Again, here the downside is that the rate could go even lower and if you had picked a lower figure you may have got a better deal. But no one can be certain about how interest rates will move.

Should I send money in pound sterling or the recipient’s currency?

Whether you want to send money in pound sterling or the currency of the recipient is completely up to you, but there are some things you should bear in mind.

Exchange rates – if the exchange rates for the transfer aren’t fixed, it could impact both the sender and the recipient. For example, it could cost the sender more than expected, or the recipient might not receive the amount they were expecting.

Costs – if you send the money in pound sterling, the recipient may need to pay a fee to convert the money into their local currency, or it may be deducted from the transfer itself. Check with the provider you choose to use, as it may be that both parties need to pay – which could be an unexpected nasty surprise. You should also ask for estimates on how much any extra costs could be.

What documentation will I be given about my transfer for my records?

Safe and legal money transfer firms or brokers should give you written information before and after you make a payment that tell you.

  • what exchange rate will be used for the transfer
  • what charges and fees you should expect to pay
  • a reference number for completed transfers
  • how the recipient will be able to collect it
  • confirmation of the transaction details, including the final cost and exchange rate and how long it will take for the money to be transferred.

How long does an international money transfer take?

It depends on the bank, organisation, and the country you’re sending the money to, but it could take one to six working days or more. Bank holidays and bank cut-off times, where a payment may not be processed until the next day, can also affect the speed of payments too.

A transaction made by a Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) transfer can arrive the same day, but may take up to two working days. This depends on the bank.

If speed matters to you, check what is being promised before you send the money.

You may have to pay a premium for fast transfers, if they are offered.

Top tip

Regardless of how you decide to transfer your money abroad, you should always check exactly how much foreign currency you’ll get for your pound sterling. Not only do you need to be aware of the exchange rate, but also of any fees. Sometimes these charges can be hidden in the exchange rate you’re offered, so do check.

What is a SEPA transfer?

A Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) transfer is a safe and simple way of transferring euros within the EU. The idea is that SEPA payments should cost the same as a transfer within the same country – which, in most cases, is free.

Although the UK has now left the EU, it’s still counted as a member of SEPA. For now, the rules still apply, so sending euros to most EEA bank accounts should still be fee-free.

There are a few European banks that may charge an extra fee for SEPA transfers – usually this is if they also charge for domestic transfers. In this case, the charge might be paid in full by the person you’re sending the money to, or the cost may be split between you both – this is known as ‘shared costs’.

In some cases, there might also be a currency-conversion charge for converting your sterling into euros, or vice versa. As we said, most SEPA banks don’t charge a fee, but it’s a good idea to check before sending or receiving a SEPA payment.

And don’t forget the exchange rate. Most SEPA transfers may be fee-free, but the exchange rate is often adjusted to make up the difference, which means you might get a lot less in euros for your pounds sterling.

What information do I need to make an international money transfer to a bank account?

To make an international money transfer via your bank, you’ll need to give them essential information about the person you’re sending the money to (the payee), including:

  • their name
  • the name of their bank and bank address
  • their IBAN – International Bank Account Number – or equivalent
  • the bank’s SWIFT code – also known as a BIC code – or equivalent
  • the amount you want to transfer to them

You may also need to identify who is paying the charges, you, the recipient or if charges are to be shared.

What are IBAN and SWIFT codes?

An IBAN is an International Bank Account Number, which is used in international transactions. It’s usually made up of 34 characters and contains necessary information about the account holder and their bank: the country code, for example ‘GB29’; the bank’s identifier code; plus the account holder’s sort code and bank account number.

A SWIFT code, also known as a BIC, is used to identify a specific bank. It’s made up of letters and numbers that identify the bank’s name, country, location and branch.

Some countries don’t use IBAN or SWIFT/BIC, in which case you’ll need an NCC (National Clearing Code), also known as a Routing Code.

And, if you’re sending money to Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, you’ll be asked to enter the payee’s Bank State Branch (BSB) code instead of a SWIFT or NCC.

In the United States, you may be asked to enter an ABA (American Bankers Association) code instead of a SWIFT or NCC.

Are international money transfers safe?

The level of risk will depend on who you use to send the money. Money in a UK savings account is protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) if a firm goes bust. With foreign exchange money transfer firms, it isn’t. There’s no compensation scheme for customers of transfer firms that go bust.

All UK-based firms handling overseas money transfers must be either ‘authorised’ or ‘registered’ by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Firms that are authorised have to offer a higher level of protection for client money by keeping that money separate from their own. These rules will increase the chance of getting your money back should the firm get into trouble.

So if you’re sending a lot of money, it makes sense to use an authorised firm to increase the chance of your money being protected so you’ll be more likely to get your money back if a firm goes bust. All larger firms must be authorised.


If a firm isn’t registered with the FCA – or another EU regulator – you should avoid it, as it might be operating illegally.

You can check whether a company is authorised or only registered on the FCA register.

If a company loses your money in transit, but hasn’t gone bust, you have the right to take your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service if it can’t be sorted out.

Always check the money transfer company you use is ‘authorised’ by the FCA.

Beware of money-transfer scams

Money-transfer scams are big business for unscrupulous criminals who will try anything to get access to your money. You should take extra care to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate company – and check that they’re authorised by the FCA. If they are not authorised, don’t use them.

Foreign money-transfer scams often come in the form of emails or phone calls. The FCA offers advice on how to protect yourself and avoid being scammed:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
  • Look out for emails or letters with spelling mistakes and poor English – a sure sign that it’s not legit
  • Be cautious of calls or emails that come out of the blue (phishing) and offer a great deal – they can be very persuasive
  • Never click on an email link if you don’t know who it’s come from
  • Never give out your bank or personal details unless you’re certain you’re dealing with a legitimate company
  • Always double-check the URL and contact details of a company to make sure the website isn’t a ‘clone’

If you think you’ve been scammed, contact your bank ASAP and report it to Action Fraud.

Can I cancel an international money transfer?

Possibly. It can depend on which provider you use, how soon after sending the money you decide to cancel and where in the process the money has got to. If you realise there’s a mistake once the transfer has been processed, you should contact your bank or transfer provider as soon as you can, so they can take steps to get the money back from the destination bank or company, if possible.

It’s not guaranteed you’ll be successful, but if the details are wrong, the payee’s bank will most likely reject the payment and send it back anyway.

If you’re successful in getting the payment recalled you might be charged an admin fee.

If the transfer has been completed you typically won’t be able to cancel it. For example, Transferwise says the ability to depends on what stage the payment is at. If the transfer’s been completed, it can’t be cancelled, and they won’t get involved with any disputes between the sender and payee. Western Union says that you can cancel a money transfer only if it has not been picked up by your receiver. If you sent money to a bank account, you can cancel it if the transfer has not been completed by your receiver’s bank. So before you set up a transfer, make sure you fully understand any cancellation terms and conditions and any potential costs involved.

Luckily, most of the major UK banks now use a name-checking service called Confirmation of Payee (CoP). It’s a security measure introduced by the Payments Systems Regulator (PSR) to help avoid mistakes and protect customers from banking scams.

CoP helps you to make payments safely by checking the name and details of an account before you go ahead with the transfer.

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