Transferring money internationally is rarely the frictionless experience that it should be. In this guide, I explain how to transfer money internationally by comparing the most popular transfer methods.
How to transfer money internationally
The banking industry, for a number of reasons, is one of the slowest moving and most fragmented. There are literally hundreds of currencies, clearing systems and sets of rules. While the value stored in a currency can be transferred to another currency, doing so can be tricky not to mention expensive. In some cases, it may even be near impossible due to government restrictions, liquidity issues and a lack of infrastructure. Near is the keyword here as with the proper knowledge, nothing is impossible.
The most efficient transfer method will vary based on your circumstances and the countries involved. Below are my favourites, with the multi-national banks and the money transfer services being the ones I personally use most.
If you frequently travel, you may have noticed that some banks seem to be everywhere you go. Citibank and HSBC have the widest coverage but others, including ANZ, Bank of China and Scotiabank, also offer decent coverage especially in their respective sphere of influence. In most cases, it is possible to transfer money between accounts held with those multi-national banks, even if the accounts are domiciled in different countries. Some banks will even process those transfers free of charge (and they will be instant). If you regularly need to make transfers, this can be a game changer.
My favourite strategy to make use of this feature is to open accounts with the same multi-national bank in each of the countries where you regularly transfer money to and from. You can then use those accounts as a sort of international backbone, linking your “real” accounts.
In practice, this looks like this:
Chase (US) -local transfer- Citi (US) -Citi global transfer- Citi (SG) -local transfer- OCBC (SG)
For smaller personal transfers, the fintechs can be an excellent option and that is especially true of Revolut. To minimize fees, you should load your fintech account with a free source (usually local debit cards and wire transfers) and initiate the transfer during normal business hours (the spreads increase during weekends).
Money transfer services
For large transfers that involve a currency conversion, using a money transfer service will often be the most efficient option. The rates tend to be more competitive than the banks not to mention the smoother overall experience. I am personally a big fan of TransferWise and have always been happy with their rates and service.
Using cryptocurrencies to transfer money internationally will not work for everyone but could still be an option in some cases. For example, to get around capital controls or geographical restrictions. If the amount is small, using a site like Local Bitcoin may work well but for larger amounts, you will likely need to go through an exchange. Be careful regarding the banks, however, as in many countries they will close any account that is associated with cryptocurrencies.
Wires (SWIFT, SEPA etc)
This is the most popular method used to transfer money internationally, especially for businesses. In most cases, however, it can be expensive and inconvenient, especially if you have to physically visit your bank to initiate a transfer. SWIFT and SEPA transfers are monitored by the EU and the US for tax evasion so this method of transfer can also be risky depending on your setup. If you decide to rely on the SWIFT or SEPA system for your transfers, I recommend opening an account with a bank that offers them free of charge.
Using actual cash may sound like a strange money transfer strategy but in some cases, it can work pretty well. If you travel regularly between your business locations it can make sense to carry cash on you. Same thing if your business locations are close-by (Hong Kong and Shenzhen for example). In some cases (undeclared income for example), carrying cash may be your only safe option. Keep in mind that in most countries you will have to fill a tax declaration form if you are carrying more than 10000 USD equivalent.
Using a merchant account as a means to transfer money internationally is both unusual and expensive but can be very useful in some circumstances. For example, you have an undeclared corporate offshore bank account and you want to transfer funds into it. You obviously cannot send a wire transfer or use a money transfer service and moving actual cash around is too expensive (travel costs). In such a situation you could open a merchant account for your offshore corporation and link it to your offshore bank account. You could then invoice yourself the amounts you wish to transfer and pay the invoices with a credit/debit/anonymous gift card. If your company is properly set up, such a transfer will leave no obvious traces. This is a last resort method though as such a transfer can be expensive (2-3%) and resource intensive (merchant account maintenance).
Using debit cards to move money around can work nicely if you or a trusted associate are physically present in the destination country. You or your associate can simply withdraw cash from an ATM using the card and deposit it locally. You can also provide a debit card to a third party to whom you frequently send money. You then only have to reload the card and they will immediately have access to the funds.
For example: if you bank in the United States but live in Malaysia, you could get a no ATM/FX fee bank account in the US and draw cash from that account using a debit card in Malaysia. You could then either spend the money or deposit it in a local Malaysian bank account.