Founded in 1973, the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network connects more than 11,000 financial institutions around the globe, enabling reliable wire transfers in a secure environment. SWIFT is owned by member institutions like banks, securities dealers, and clearing houses. Each member is assigned a unique code whose purpose is comparable to that of U.S. routing numbers and will be detailed throughout this article.
SWIFT supports a wide variety of message types including customer, foreign exchange, security, treasury, trade, and administrative. This versatility makes the network a popular choice for international transfers and has been the primary reason for its rapid growth. Note that SWIFT itself doesn’t facilitate money movement, but rather provides a standardized messaging system for institutions to communicate.
What are SWIFT/BIC codes?
A SWIFT code identifies a financial institution, often including the specific branch. It allows international bank transfers to occur efficiently and accurately. You’ll need to provide a SWIFT code when sending or receiving funds from a different country.
A common misconception is that SWIFT and BIC codes are different. However, the terms can be used interchangeably and refer to the exact same thing. To further add to the confusion, some institutions toss “SWIFT ID” or “BEI (Business Entity Identifier)” into the mix of equivalent terms. For a given transaction, financial institutions may be using two different terms for the same code.
You can find a SWIFT code in several ways:
- On your paper bank statement
- Through your online banking portal
- Using a free search tool like The Swift Codes
- Publicly listed on a bank’s website (usually in the FAQ section)
- By contacting a bank directly
It’s important to note that IBAN codes are different from SWIFT. While a SWIFT code focuses on a bank’s specific location, an IBAN code identifies a bank account (along with some general location info). Depending on the type of transfer, you may need to provide both types of codes to ensure funds are transferred smoothly.
How to read a SWIFT code
SWIFT codes follow a specific format defined in ISO 9362, an international standard that was last updated in 2014. The code is 8 or 11 alphanumeric characters formatted as
AAAAis a bank code
BBis a country code
CCis a primary office location (typically city) code
DDDis an optional branch code
If the branch code is not present, it’s assumed that the overall code is referring to a bank’s primary office location.
As an example, let’s take a look at the SWIFT code
DSBAidentifies Dah Sing Bank
CNis the country code for China
BXis the location code for Shenzhen
SHArepresents the Shanghai branch of Dah Sing Bank
If an incorrectly-formatted or nonexistent code is used, the transfer will be cancelled, your account will be refunded, and your bank may charge a fee. Using a valid SWIFT code for the wrong bank will follow a similar process一the receiving bank will return the payment to its source. To avoid unnecessary fees or delays, it’s important to always double-check a SWIFT code is valid.
Banks typically charge both senders and recipients a fee for wire transfers on the SWIFT network. If making a payment online, this fee is usually significantly reduced for senders. Payments also take one to four business days to complete, as processing time includes anti-money laundering checks and potential routing to third parties behind the scenes.