What Is a Wire Transfer?

man in bank counter sending a wire transfer

A wire transfer is a way to electronically transfer funds from one person's bank account to another's. Wire transfers can be completed domestically or internationally at a traditional bank or via non-bank companies like MoneyGram, Western Union or Wise.

Mobile payment services like Cash App, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle have made sending money to friends and family easy without using a wire transfer. But there may be times when a wire transfer is necessary—for example, to transfer a large amount of money quickly to a financial institution, as when sending a down payment to a mortgage lender.

Explore below how wire transfers work and how to keep your money safe when using them.

How Does a Wire Transfer Work?

You can typically make a wire transfer from your bank online or in person. No physical cash is transferred, but rather is moved electronically between institutions. It's possible to wire money to a domestic or international account; for international transfers, you can choose which currency you'd like your money to arrive in. Wire transfer limits are typically high, but you may be limited to transferring up to $100,000 per day.

For domestic transfers, you'll need to provide your bank with the recipient's name, address, bank account number and routing number. For international transfers, you may also be required to provide the recipient's bank's SWIFT code, which the recipient can find on their bank statement or on the bank's website. You'll also need to verify your identity, which may require a mobile phone for two-step verification if completing the transfer online.

In general, you can't cancel a wire transfer once it's been initiated. So make sure your recipient's details and the transfer amount are accurate beforehand.

How Much Does a Wire Transfer Cost?

The cost of a wire transfer ranges from $0 to $50. Many banks charge not only to send a wire transfer (outgoing fees), but to receive one (incoming fees). The least expensive wire transactions are typically incoming domestic transfers, and the most expensive are outgoing international transfers.

International wire transfers often come with additional fees. You may be charged a high exchange rate when the wire transfer provider exchanges the originating currency for a different one. A way to cut down on fees is to skip the bank and use a non-bank transfer provider, which may offer lower exchange rates and lower base fees. Ideally, the platform will show you the exchange rate offered before you send the transfer. That way you can search online for the live foreign exchange rate and see how much more you're being charged.

Another option when moving money domestically is an ACH transfer through your bank, which is cheaper than a wire transfer but will take longer—often more than a single business day—to process.

How Long Does a Wire Transfer Take?

Domestic wire transfers are handled the same day and can take just 24 hours. International wire transfers take longer—up to five business days. Keep in mind bank closing hours, holidays and weekends when calculating when your transfer might arrive, especially if it's urgent.

Banks and non-bank providers have cut-off times, which means they won't process a transfer on the same day if it's after a certain time. That can affect the delivery of your transfer. Your bank's website will list its cut-off times for deposits, transfers and payments in its Help or FAQ section.

How to Avoid Wire Transfer Fraud

Since it's difficult to cancel or reverse a wire transfer, scammers know they will have your money for good if you send it to them. That makes it extra important to ensure you know the person you're wiring money to, and to be able to recognize red flags.

In general, never wire money in response to an unexpected request, even from a supposed government agency. It's even possible that a friend or family member might seemingly ask you to wire them money via a Facebook message or email as a result of an online hack of their accounts. If you didn't anticipate a request to wire money, watch out for these red flags:

  • You feel pressured to act immediately.
  • You're asked for a confirmation code.
  • The request originates internationally from an unknown source.

One known wire transfer scam is called a fake check scam, in which a fraudster sends you a check and asks you to deposit it, then wire them money. They may send you a check for more than they ask to be wired. But the check is fake, and even if it shows up in your account, your bank will eventually discover it has bounced and will require you to repay the money you withdrew.

To avoid these scams, only wire money if you know the person you're sending money to and you have discussed the transaction previously.