Bank Transfer: All You Need to Know to Make International Payments

Jonathan Cusimano
Published: 08 Apr 2020

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    Suppose your business has grown internationally and you have to make bank transfer not only for receiving money from overseas clients but also making payments abroad.

    To make those cross-border payments, you’re asked by your bank to provide the bank details of your beneficiaries. This is when you find out about all sorts of codes, i.e. the likes of SWIFT, BIC, IBAN, BSB, ABA, CNAPS, are mandatory information to execute payments in certain countries.

    What are those codes for? Why are there so many codes?

    We’ve put together this payment guide to help you understand how international payments work, what the different codes are, what they mean, and which codes you need for which countries. We’ll keep enriching this page so contact us now if you can’t find the code you’re looking for.

    1. Main Bank Transfer Payment Networks

    1.1. SWIFT

    SWIFT is the acronym of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, an organisation based in Brussels that has been around since the early 1970s. It was created to help banks communicate more securely and faster among themselves in relation to the processing of Bank transfer payments.

    How does SWIFT work?

    Today, SWIFT is a communication network of more than 10,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries, making it the largest international payment network worldwide. We are insisting on the word ‘communication’ because SWIFT is nothing more than a messenger between banks.

    Basically, what SWIFT is doing is channelling the message enclosing payment instructions from the issuing bank, i.e. the bank of the payor, all the way to the remitting bank, i.e. the bank of the beneficiary.

    Now, that job may sound simple but you should never judge a book by its cover. Read our article on how the SWIFT network works.

    1.2. SEPA

    SEPA is the acronym of the Single Euro Payments Area. It was created in 2008 to simplify cross-border payments in Euros within Europe. In other words, a SEPA payment is similar to domestic payment.

    The SEPA zone comprises 36 countries: the 27 EU member states, the UK, Andorra, Iceland, Monaco, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, San Marino and the Vatican City State (see the full list here).

    How does SEPA work?

    SEPA works the same way as SWIFT except that it’s only for Euro payments within the SEPA zone. Banks either have direct relationships or indirect ones (i.e. use a network of intermediary banks).

    2. What payment code for which countries

    2.1. BIC (also known as SWIFT) for international payments

    BIC stands for Bank Identifier Code. It is a code assigned by SWIFT – the organisation – when the bank joins the SWIFT network.

    What is the difference between a BIC and SWIFT code?

    Technically, this is what is happening. In reality, you will also hear SWIFT code, BIC/SWIFT code, SWIFT/BIC code or SWIFT identifier. They all refer to the same code and are required when you’re making an international payment.

    What does a SWIFT/BIC code look like?

    It’s a series of 8 or 11 characters (letters and numbers) that identify a specific bank you are sending money to. The code includes details of the country in which the bank is based, its location and the branch number.

    This is what a SWIFT/BIC code looks like:

    2.2. IBAN code for SEPA payments

    Unlike BIC/SWIFT code, IBAN codes aren’t assigned by a central organisation. They are directly issued by the banks according to a format described in the IBAN Register.

    What does an IBAN code look like?

    It’s a series of up to 34 characters (letters and numbers) that identify the country, bank and account details you’re sending money to.

    The IBAN number consists of:

    • Two-letter country identification code
    • Two check digits
    • Up to 30 characters for the basic bank account number (BBAN)

    * The format of BBAN (up to 34 characters) is decided by each country to cater for their national standard. BBAN provides a bank identifier code and bank account number.

    Let’s have a look at what an IBAN looks like at:

    A French bank:

    A UK bank:

    At the time of writing this article, there are more than 100 countries registered with IBAN: 75 participants countries (including the 36 countries in the SEPA zone) and 25 countries which have partial/experimental use of the IBAN system.

    However, mainly European banks use IBAN. The U.S. and Canada are two major countries that do not use the IBAN system (but they recognise the system and process payments).

    2.3. BSB for Australian payments

    BSB is the acronym that stands for Bank State Branch. You must have this 6-digit code in addition to the SWIFT code when you make a payment to Australia.

    What does a BSB code look like?

    This is what this 6 digit-code means:
    • Two first digits refer to the bank or financial institution
    • The third digit refers to the state where the branch is located
    • Last three digits provide the unique address of the branch

    For more information on the BSB code, read this article.

    2.4. ABA for US payments

    ABA stands for a lot of things in the US, but when it comes to payment ABA is the acronym that stands for the American Bankers Association. You’d probably have guessed that the ABA number (also known as bank routing number or routing transit number – RTN) identifies the location of where a bank account was opened.

    What does an ABA code look like?

    This 9-digit code consists of:

    • 4 digits to represent the Federal Reserve Routing Code (which basically tells the Federal Reserve how to process the payment)
    • 4 digits to represent the Bank identifier
    • 1 digit to represent a checksum. The checksum is a complicated mathematical expression using the first eight digits. If the end result does not equal the checksum the transaction is flagged and rerouted for manual processing.

    2.5. CNAPS for RMB payments to China

    The banking world is a big fan of acronyms. Here’s another one: CNAPS standing for China National Advanced Payments System.

    You will need this code in addition to SWIFT code only if you are making a payment in RMB (or CNH for purists) to the People’s Republic of China. If you’re making a payment in other currencies (e.g. USD), you’ll only need the SWIFT code.

    What does a CNAPS code look like?

    CNAPS is a 12-digit code that may start with the code word CN to indicate the account is in China. This is what the 12-digit code refers to:

    • First 3 digits represent the bank code
    • Following 4 digits represent the city code
    • Next 4 digits represent the branch code
    • Last digit is the verification code

    2.6. Bank code for Hong Kong payments

    Sadly (or fortunately?) there is no mysterious acronyms for Hong Kong bank code. Unlike other jurisdictions, Hong Kong doesn’t set a format.

    What you’ll need in addition to the SWIFT code is a 3-digit bank code, 3-digit branch code and 6 to 9-digit account number.

    What does a Hong Kong code look like?

    If it’s an HSBC account, it should look like this:

    The bank code is always given separately, HSBC bank code is 004.

    It’s also common to see HSBC 812-852456-888.

    2.7. Sort code for UK payments

    Sort is not an acronym for anything. The name of this code dates back from last century when the 5-digit national codes (for manual processing) were replaced by the 6-digit sorting codes (for automated processing).

    So, the sort code is literally a code that helps the bank sort payments to the right UK account.

    What does a sort code look like?

    Sort code is a 6-digit code that is always written as three pairs of numbers. The first two digits identify the bank, the following four identify the branch.

    3. Fees

    When you make an international payment, these are all the fees that add up:

    • Sending fees – This is the fee that the payer’s bank would charge for making an international payment
    • Correspondent banking fees – This is the fee that any intermediary bank would charge when banks do not have a direct relationship (remember the example at the beginning of this article?)
    • Receiving fees – This is the fee that the recipient’s bank would charge for receiving an international payment
    • FX fees / mark-up – This is the exchange fee when an international payment is made in different currencies

    How much does it cost to make a SWIFT payment?

    It’s virtually impossible to estimate how much an international transfer will cost, it varies with the banks involved in the transaction, the currencies involved, the amount, whether there are intermediary banks’ fees, etc.

    You could pay up to USD50 to transfer money from Country A to Country B. Make sure you’re using a correct SWIFT code to avoid delaying your payment and paying a returned payment fee.

    When you make a SWIFT payment, there are three ways to pay the international transfer fees:
    • OUR = you (as the sender) pay all the banking charges. Your beneficiary will receive the full amount of the payment. Normally, you are billed separately for those charges.
    • BEN (BENeficiary) = you pay nothing, and your beneficiary pays everything. The charges will be deducted from the amount they receive.
    • SHA (SHAred)= you pay your own bank’s outgoing transfer fee, and your beneficiary pays its bank’s receiving fee AND the correspondent banking fees.

    How much does it cost to make a SEPA payment?

    When you’re making a SEPA payment, it will cost you a domestic transfer fee (which usually means it’s free).

    4. Processing time

    Usually, bank transfers are only processed on the same business day if they are requested before the bank’s cut-off time. In some cases, they are processed the next business day because of the time difference.

    In Hong Kong, those cut-off times will vary +/- 30 minutes from one bank to another. You can see below the international transfer cut-off times for major currencies.

    Currency Cut-off time (HKT) Payment date
    HKD – Hong Kong Dollar 17:30 Same business day
    USD – United States Dollar 17:30 Same business day
    AUD – Australian Dollar 17:00 Next business day
    CAD – Canadian Dollar 17:00 Same business day
    CHF – Swiss Franc 17:00 Next business day
    RMB – Chinese Yuan 17:30 Same business day
    EUR – Euro 17:30 Same business day
    GBP – British Pound 17:30 Same business day
    JPY – Japanese Yen 17:00 Next business day
    NZD – New Zealand Dollar 17:00 Next business day
    SGD – Singapore Dollar 16:00 Same business day

    Beware though, a bank processing an international transfer on that business day does not mean that it will hit your recipient’s bank account that same day. What happens after you make the payment instruction is beyond your control. Like you, we would love to see real-time SWIFT transfers but we’re not there yet.

    Normally, international transfers take 1 to 5 business days to arrive at their final destination. But there are many factors that can delay your transfer: erroneous banking details, bank holidays, weekends, time zones, destination country, regulatory checks, number of intermediary banks, etc.

    In the case of a SEPA payment, it usually takes 1 to 2 business days for the money to arrive. This is faster mainly because there’s only one currency involved.

    Conclusion

    One more thing before you go. Have you already opened your bank account in Hong Kong? Have a look at this guide we’ve put together for you

    Or if you want to save time and money, open a business account with Statrys:

    • Application is 100% online – no need to visit a branch
    • 10 minutes of your time – skip your next coffee break, and you will have finished the application
    • Quick response – guaranteed to hear back from us within 48 hours after the request is submitted.
    • No account opening fee, no initial deposit, no minimum balance – our pricing plans are easy to understand and transparent. However, we may charge an account opening fee for certain companies raising compliance questions (doing business with a company registered in an exotic island has a cost!).
    • Phone, Wechat, WhatsApp, Live Chat – get in touch with a real person to answer your questions!

    Your Statrys business account will empower you to manage your banking affairs easily: 100% online experience, receive payments, make payments, innovative forex tools for SMEs

    author
    Jonathan Cusimano

    Jonathan Cusimano is Head of FX at Statrys. With nearly a decade of experience in banking and Fintech, Jonathan has advised and assisted many SMEs in their FX hedging and treasury management strategies.

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    Statrys Limited is licensed as a Money Service Operator (No. 19-02-02726) in Hong Kong. ‍ Statrys UK Limited is a Small Payment Institution (FRM: 911226) registered with the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom. Statrys UK Limited (FRM: 902805) is a registered agent of PayrNet Limited (FRM:900594), an Electronic Money Institution authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom under the Electronic Money Regulations 2011 for the issuing of electronic money. Trade financing services are offered by our partner, Velotrade Management Limited, regulated by the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong (CE Ref #BJL007)