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What Are SWIFT Transfers?

Last updated 03/18/2024 by

Benjamin Locke

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SWIFT is an electronic network and messaging system that allows banks and financial institutions to make transactions throughout the globe. SWIFT can be used for domestic and international transfers but is more commonly used in the United States for international transfers. Access to the SWIFT system has also been used as a negotiating tool by some governments that utilized it to enact sanctions on other countries.
Have you ever contemplated what it would be like to win the lottery in another country? Say you go to Brazil, buy a lottery ticket, and end up winning. As you bounce up and down with glee, you might wonder about the logistical challenges of winning the Brazilian lottery. How are you going to transfer all these reals you won back to the United States? Regardless of how that money gets back to you, the bank will probably use the SWIFT system. The SWIFT system helps money travel worldwide and explains how Vietnamese dong can become Mexican pesos and eventually end up as U.S. dollars at a bank in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more about this system below.

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What is SWIFT?

SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication and is a Belgian second-level cooperative society. A cooperative society is different from a company in that it consists of autonomous persons in a democratically controlled network. In other words, it’s basically a network of different entities, in this case, banks, that all agree to use the same system. With the SWIFT system, the cooperative network allows banks and financial institutions to send money and engage in different types of financial transactions. Started in 1973, SWIFT is now used by 11,000 financial institutions in 200 countries. The SWIFT international payment network is absolutely vital to the current global economy.

How does SWIFT work?

SWIFT is a messaging system that allows banks and other financial institutions to engage in financial transactions such as international money transfers. Individuals and businesses can accept payments with the SWIFT system via credit card, debit card, or ACH. If you’ve come across the word SWIFT before, it’s most likely because you were sending or receiving an international transfer. Think of it like a global financial language that helps banks understand where and how to make a transaction.
When you engage in a SWIFT transaction, you are sending a message to a financial institution. Once they receive that message, they must validate it and then reply to the financial institution that sent it to say that it has been received and all is well. Once this happens, the money can now transfer and should appear in the account of the receiving financial institution shortly. SWIFT transfers can take as little as a day or as much as three to five days. Always assume a SWIFT transaction will take longer than one day if you need to transfer money.

How a SWIFT code is structured

Each member of the SWIFT network comes with a unique identifier code, called a SWIFT code, or sometimes a BIC. A SWIFT code will comprise 8-11 characters that indicate the exact location of where the money is being sent. A SWIFT code will typically include the following:
  • Bank identifier code (four letters identifying the bank)
  • Country identifier code (two letters identifying the country)
  • City/location identifier code (two letters identifying the city or location)
  • Branch identifier code (three letters identifying the branch)

HSBC Hong Kong example

This is what the code would look like for HSCB Bank in Hong Kong.
HSCB = Bank name
HK= Country (Hong Kong)
HH = Location identifier
HKH = Branch code

Pro Tip

Recently, SWIFT has begun to dip its toes into the account-to-account network, which is a similar network for financial transactions used by large credit card companies such as Visa or Mastercard. Effectively, they are making a move into the customer payments space rather than their bread and butter, which is financial messaging between banks and large financial institutions.


If you’ve participated in international transactions before, you might have also seen an IBAN code. IBAN stands for International Bank Account Number. A SWIFT code is more of a larger-scale international bank identifier whereas an IBAN code is usually associated with accounts within a bank. In some cases, you might be asked for the SWIFT code as well as the IBAN, but this is only in certain circumstances and also depends on the transfer details.

Example: Using a SWIFT code to buy property overseas

One of the most common reasons you might need a SWIFT code is to transfer money from your bank in your home country for an overseas property purchase. Adam Hannam, an international real estate broker in Hong Kong with 20+ years of experience helping investors in Asia buy property overseas, has dealt with this quite a bit. “SWIFT or BIC codes are almost always needed to make property purchases out of Asia to places like the U.K. or U.S.,” he says. “The trick is to make sure the client is crystal clear about the process before they go to their bank.”

Where do I find my bank’s SWIFT code?

Say that your friend in Malaysia owes you $100 for some money you lent him and has asked for your SWIFT code so he can send you the money. At first, you had no idea what SWIFT code was until you read this article. Now that you know, finding your bank’s SWIFT code is easy.

Call the bank

A surefire, guaranteed way to get the right SWIFT code.

Go to your bank’s website

Many times, the code will be listed in the international banking section of a bank’s website.

Google it

SWIFT codes are not hard to find in different databases on the internet. However, be careful to quadruple-verify the code in different locations if you are not getting the information directly from your bank.

Find a money transfer service

When you’re ready to send money, you can compare your options and find a convenient money transfer service that works for you.

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The SWIFT system is an important tool for governments

As SWIFT is one of the main lubricants for financial transactions around the globe, not having access to SWIFT is a problem. Therefore, SWIFT is a tool that can be utilized for sanctions. As the United States is the dominant player in the global financial system, they can convince SWIFT to block access to certain banks and certain countries that are being punished with sanctions. Russia and Iran are two of these countries that, as of this writing, have multiple financial institutions that have been blocked from using SWIFT.

Did blocking SWIFT hurt Russia?

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, one of the main tools being discussed was blocking Russia and its financial institutions from the SWIFT network. Although this has had a negative effect, it hasn’t caused the severe pain that Western Europe and the U.S. hoped for. Why? Because even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had been slowly weaning itself off the SWIFT system and had not been using it as much as previously thought. For illustration purposes, have a look at the graph below that compares December 2021 to February 2023.
While more than 40% of payments processed on SWIFT were in U.S. dollars, only .21% were in Russian rubles in December 2021.


What is a SWIFT money transfer?

SWIFT stands for the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. A SWIFT money transfer uses the SWIFT messaging system, which constitutes a network of banks worldwide. Although it is used for domestic transfers, it is more commonly associated with financial institutions worldwide that use it to transfer money between countries.

How do SWIFT transfers work?

Each bank has a unique identifier code. The code consists of letters indicating the country where the bank is located, the bank’s city/location, and the branch. One bank will send a message to the receiving bank, which then sends a message to the sending bank. Once that message is received back by the sending bank, the money can move to the receiving bank.

How long do SWIFT transfers take?

SWIFT transfers can take 24 hours and sometimes up to three to five working days to go through. Be sure to allow plenty of time when making a transfer.

How do I make a SWIFT transfer?

First, you need to identify the SWIFT code of the receiving bank. Once you have done that, either walk into your bank to make the transfer or, depending on your bank, you might be able to send it online.

Key takeaways

  • The SWIFT international payment system is an electronic network and messaging system that allows banks and financial institutions to make transactions throughout the globe.
  • In the United States, the SWIFT system is most commonly associated with international transfers, in which the sending party must be aware of the receiving party’s SWIFT code.
  • Each SWIFT code comes with a unique identifier for the bank, country, city/location, and branch. The sending bank and receiving bank send messages to each other to realize the transaction.
  • As SWIFT is important for the global financial system, governments sometimes utilize it as a tool in sanctions-related policies.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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