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What Is a Wire Transfer?

Written by Ken Tumin | Edited by Ali Cybulski | Published on 4/26/2024


A wire transfer is a common way to move money electronically from one bank account to another. It allows you to send a large sum quickly, whether you are paying an invoice, helping a family member or completing a real estate transaction.

Wire transfers are generally secure and reliable as long as you know the sender. Here’s more about the wire transfer process, including how to use a wire transfer safely.

On this page:

What is a wire transfer?

A wire transfer allows you to send money electronically — meaning no physical cash is exchanged — between bank accounts. People use wire transfers to move large amounts of money quickly all over the world.

The term “wire transfer” dates back to when banks communicated over telegraph wires.

You can make a domestic or international wire transfer through a bank or a money transfer service such as Western Union. You can do this in person, online or by phone.

How much money you can send varies by provider, but limits tend to be high. Wire transfers also involve fees that depend on the provider, the dollar amount transferred and the destination.

The sender initiates the wire transfer, providing all instructions and details that may include the recipient’s name, bank, account number and transfer amount. An international bank wire requires additional information, such as the SWIFT/BIC code for the recipient’s bank.

Types of wire transfers

You’ll find two types of wire transfers, domestic and international. Here’s more about both:

Domestic wire transfers. A domestic wire transfer occurs between bank accounts in the same country. This type of wire transfer may be completed in one to three business days. Domestic wire transfer fees vary, with outgoing fees often ranging from $0 to $35 and incoming fees ranging from $0 to $15.

International wire transfers. An international wire transfer, also called a remittance transfer, moves money between two people in different countries. A wire transfer sent from your U.S. bank to one in India is an example of an international wire transfer.

International wire transfers may take longer to complete and have higher fees than domestic wire transfers. Outgoing fees for international wire transfers can range from $35 to $50, and incoming fees range from $0 to $16.

How long does a wire transfer take?

The time it takes to send a wire transfer can depend on whether your transfer is domestic or international. An international wire transfer can take two to five business days to complete, and a domestic wire transfer can take one to three days.

But an important part of the time it takes to complete a wire transfer is before the bank even initiates the transaction. The bank must verify the authenticity of the request and availability of funds. This is done, in part, to prevent fraudulent transactions.

How much does a wire transfer cost?

Federal laws do not establish a limit to how much a bank can charge for wire transfers, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Banks can decide how much to charge for the service, subject to applicable state laws.

The sender and the recipient may pay wire transfer fees. Fees can range from nothing to $50, depending on the type of transfer. Costs can depend on factors such as:

  • Are you the sender or the recipient?
  • Are you sending a domestic or international wire transfer?
  • How much money are you sending or receiving?
  • What is your bank or provider?

Are wire transfers safe?

Wire transfers are generally considered safe when the sender knows and trusts the recipient. But because payments are usually irreversible, they can also be the target of scammers. Take steps to avoid problems with your transaction:

Check the recipient’s information twice. Confirm all details of the transaction, including the recipient. If you make a mistake, you may not be able to get your money back. Do not call a new number or respond to an email with different wire instructions.

Do not rush. Never act immediately upon unexpected requests. Scammers may be trying to trick you into making wire transfers. Always verify the source before taking action.

Watch out for scams. Homebuyers can be a target, for instance. Scammers attempt to suggest last-minute changes to wiring instructions to divert closing costs or down payment funds to a fraudulent account. Another common scam can be a request to wire a payment to fix a “problem account.” However, a legitimate financial institution won’t ask you to send a wire to resolve an account issue.

Note that federal laws provide some protections to consumers who send international transfers. You typically have up to 30 minutes to cancel the remittance transfer at no charge, unless it has already been picked up or deposited into the recipient’s account.

You also have 180 days to notify the provider of a mistake, and providers generally have 90 days to investigate the matter. For certain types of errors, you may be able to get a refund or have the money resent.

Pros and cons of wire transfers

Consider these pros and cons of a wire transfer to decide whether it’s your best option for sending money:

Should you use a wire transfer?
Pros Cons
You can typically send and receive money quickly. You and the recipient could pay fees.
You can generally send payments securely. You could have transfer limits.
You can transfer large amounts of money. You usually can’t cancel a wire transfer if you make a mistake.

How to do a wire transfer

Even though wire transfer requirements differ by bank, these general steps can give you an idea of what to expect.

  1. Confirm that your bank offers the wire transfer capabilities that you require. Not all banks offer international transfers or transfers to third parties such as Western Union.
  2. Ensure that the necessary funds are available in your account.
  3. Review the bank’s wire transfer instructions.
  4. Gather the recipient’s information based on the bank’s instructions.
  5. Submit the transfer request with the recipient’s information as instructed by the bank.
  6. Authorize the transfer. Your bank may require additional verification, such as a phone call. Plan to be available during this time.
  7. Receive confirmation that the bank has sent the wire transfer. A confirmation number should be provided.
  8. Notify the recipient that the transfer should have been received. Request that the recipient confirm payment.

Alternatives to wire transfers

You can find a number of alternatives to wire transfers. Here are some to consider:

  1. ACH. Automated Clearing House (ACH) is a common way to transfer funds electronically between accounts from different banks. It’s used for all types of transactions and is often free but may be slower than a wire payment.
  2. Peer-to-peer payment services. PayPal, Venmo, Zelle and other peer-to-peer payment services are primarily intended for small payments between friends and family members. They’re often free. Correcting mistakes can be difficult with these, as with wire transfers.
  3. Paper checks. Traditional paper checks are still common as a way to make payments. Unlike wire transfers, checks can take several days to clear before the funds become available. A check may pose a risk of fraud if it is stolen, and check payments can bounce.
  4. Cashier’s checks. These checks are written and backed by a bank, which means they won’t bounce. You must purchase a cashier’s check directly from the bank.
  5. Money orders. You can buy money orders from most financial institutions. No bank account is required. Money orders are available at many convenience stores and check-cashing companies as well as the U.S. Postal Service. They have fairly low purchase limits, and fees are charged for each purchase.
  6. Mobile wallets. Consumers can store payment credit card or debit card information on their smartphones in mobile wallets, such as Google Pay and Apple Pay. You can send money to a mobile wallet, though limits will depend on the recipient’s wallet provider and other factors.

Frequently asked questions

Can you cancel a wire transfer?

A wire transfer can sometimes be canceled, but it depends on several factors, including the type of transfer, the timing of the request, and the rules of the sending and receiving banks. You typically have up to 30 minutes to cancel an international wire transfer at no charge, unless the transfer has already been picked up or deposited into the recipient’s account.

What’s the difference between ACH and wire transfer?

ACH transfers generally take longer than wire transfers because banks process ACH transactions in batches daily. They tend to be free or low cost and used for direct payments or direct deposits.

How can I save money on a wire transfer?

If you’re looking to trim wire transfer fees, you may want to do your transfer yourself online. Banks may also offer lower fees to convert U.S. dollars before you send your money. And if you send regular payments, check to see if setting up a recurring wire could offer savings.

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