Sending money abroad

Sending money abroad

How to send cash overseas cheaply

If you need to transfer money to friends, family or businesses overseas (or even to your own overseas account), don't just do it blindly via your bank. Instead, find an online specialist currency transfer firm – these almost always have better rates, making your transfer much cheaper. This guide has full info on how international money transfers work and how your cash is protected, plus our top picks.

Looking for cheap holiday cash instead? Our Cheap Travel Money Tips guide has full info, or jump straight to... 

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What is an international money transfer and how do they work?

Whether it's wiring funds to a family member living overseas, or paying the bills on a foreign property, an international money transfer lets you move money from your account in the UK to one in a different country.

Yet it's not that simple – there are fees and charges involved, as the company doing the transfer for you needs to make money. The two costs are:

  • The fee (the obvious charge). A fee charged per transfer, this can be a flat fee or a percentage of the transfer. Some providers will advertise themselves as being fee-free, but don't fall for that. In that case, the company will be making its money by giving you a worse exchange rate...

  • The exchange rate (the hidden charge). It's often difficult to get hold of the exact rate and compare it, as some providers don't publish rates – you often need to call up or log in to find the rate you can get that day.

However, while the multitude of fees and rates can be confusing, you can compare companies quite easily by asking this one simple question:

"After all charges, how many euros/yen/dollars etc will I get for my pound sterling?"

It sounds simple but sometimes it's hard to get an answer. Exchange rates change throughout the day. To compare providers properly, you'll need to do it all in one go. Our section below on the cheapest ways to send money abroad has more info on how to do this. 

Once you've sent the money, it generally takes a few days to arrive with the recipient, though it depends on the method you use and the country you're sending the money to. You can opt for instant transfers, but these are usually at a high cost – we run through the best options below.

But before you start, we need to say this in big letters...

There's no guarantee your money's safe if a firm goes bust while it's holding your money

If you've got money in a UK savings account, there's a whole protection scheme set up to cover you if the provider goes bust. With foreign exchange money transfer companies it's a different ball game.

This is crucial to understand – if you use an online transfer company (or any transfer company that holds your money) and it goes bust while it has your money, THERE'S NO GUARANTEE YOU'LL GET ANY OF IT BACK.

Here's what protection does exist for these companies...

  • If it's 'authorised' by the Financial Conduct Authority (which all in this guide are), your money should be kept separate from the firm's own money, assuming it does things by the book.

    Each day, by the close of business, an authorised firm is supposed to separate your money from its own funds, putting it in a different account with whoever it banks with (often a high street bank). This is known as safeguarding. Provided the firm has followed this process correctly, you should be able to get your money back if it gets into difficulty – but there's no guarantee.

    It's also worth noting that even if a failed firm has followed the safeguarding rules, getting your money back may not be the quickest process. Unlike with savings, there's no given timescale for compensation – so getting a refund could take a while.

  • If it's only Financial Conduct Authority-'registered', there are no safeguards for your cash (but we don't feature such firms).

    Some smaller firms are only registered with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). This means there's no safety process if something goes wrong with the firm – and your money isn't protected.

To check how a firm is regulated (whether it's authorised or just registered), search for its name on the FCA register

illustration

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What's the cheapest way to transfer money abroad?

This is the million dollar (euro/yen/lira) question this whole guide revolves around – and, sadly, there's no straightforward answer. It depends on the amount you're sending, where you're sending it to and how quickly you need it to get there. 

We've set out a number of the options below so you can find the right one for you. Read on or jump to the relevant section for you:

Regular transfers to one place – free transfers via banks

A number of banks allow you to transfer money to linked banks overseas without a fee – though usually it's just an overseas arm of the same banking group. 

So if you and the person you want to send money to have the right accounts, moving money via the bank can work out cheapest. This is often best for regular movements of money to people who stay in one country, such as regular cash to family members who live overseas. The other option allows you to send money to a foreign account in your own name, so better suited to payments for services on homes abroad, for example.

Here's info on the two options:

Option one: Free worldwide transfers if you both have an HSBC account

HSBC's transfer service is free for Premier and Advance current account holders transferring money to any other HSBC account via its online banking (max £50k). If the recipient doesn't have an HSBC account, the transfer will cost £4 (£9 if done by phone or in branch). 

It covers 200 destinations and 60 currencies (see the full list), and most transfers take less than three working days. However, it's worth checking HSBC's exchange rates, as they're not always the best. So compare with the specialist international transfer companies below. It may be that, even with a fee, their exchange rate's much better, and essentially cancels out the fee.

Option two: Fee-free to a foreign account in your name

Here you'd usually need to open a UK and foreign account with the relevant bank, based on which country you'd be sending money to: 

  • India. Open a State Bank of India UK Instant Access Savings Account and keep at least £500 in it to send money to any Indian bank account.
  • USA, Hong Kong and more. HSBC's Premier account offers fee-free same day transfers to 28 countries, but you need a £75k salary paid into the account plus an HSBC mortgage, life insurance or protection product, or £50k in savings to qualify.

    Lloyds Bank offers a similar Premier International account which operates in euros and US dollars. It requires a minimum £100,000 income, or the same amount saved. You'll be able to make free international money transfers online, by phone or by standing order.
     

  • To Scandinavian & Baltic countries. Danske Bank has branches in Northern Ireland, plus online banking, and allows transfers to any other account you hold in the Danske group – it operates in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden and the USA.

Know any not here? If you know of another bank offering fee-free transfers to a specific country, please let us know.

One-off or infrequent transfers under £5,000

There are a number of UK firms designed specifically for international money transfers. This is generally best suited for non-urgent transfers of smaller amounts of money, such as sending a one-off sum to a friend/family member overseas (for example, Christmas gifts) or payments for goods received.

You pay them in sterling, usually via internet transfer, which they convert and send to the receiving bank within two to four working days. You'll need to set up an account and have your address verified first, which can take a few days.

Top transfer providers under £5,000 – our review

Wise is the first provider we'd try as it's always had consistently top rates when we've checked, plus good feedback from those who use it. It does charge fees, but we've found the total amount of currency you get for your money is still competitive.

However it's always worth comparing against the fee-free options from OFX, FairFX and Currencies Direct, which gives newbies up to £200 in Amazon vouchers for transfers made via our link. Plus Azimo which gives newbies two free transfers and £10 off the first. Remember to get quotes around the same time, and you're ultimately looking for how much currency you're getting for your pound sterling, after all charges.  

Provider

Transfer fees? (i) Newbie perks? Currencies How to contact
Wise* Yes, 20p plus 0.35% of amount transferred (i) N/A 55 Online
Currencies
Direct*
None (min £100 transfer)
Free £20-£200 Amazon voucher on transfers of £2k+ made in first six months (ii)  28 Online
 OFX* None N/A 55+ Online/phone
Azimo* None for first two, then fees from £1 (i) Newbies get two free transfers, plus £10 off your first transfer over £100 with code AZ-MSE10 (iii) 60+ Online
FairFX* None (min £100 transfer) N/A 100+ Online/phone

Important. All of these providers are authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, so should keep your money separate. You should therefore be able to get it back if the firm gets into difficulty – but there's no guarantee with any company sending money abroad. (i) Exact fee shown when you make the transfer. (ii) Newbies who sign up via our link by Tuesday 30 November and make a transfer within six months are emailed a voucher based on how much is sent – £20 for £2k+, £40 for £10k+, £125 for £20k+ or £200 for £50k+. (iii) Excludes transfers to India. Code not working? Let us know.

Sending larger amounts overseas (£5,000+)

For large transfers – such as buying/selling property abroad – specialised foreign exchange brokers give the best rates. There are a lot of companies, and the same lack of protection applies as above – so be diligent in checking, as the amount you could lose may be huge.

It's also important to remember that even small differentials in exchange rates can make an enormous difference – a 1% rate improvement on £100,000 is a £1,000 gain. So finding the best rate takes on even more significance. As rates change all the time, aim to get quotes at the same time. Here's a step-by-step:

  1. Benchmark the top exchange rate. Check our TravelMoneyMax tool to see the best rates. That finds the top rates for getting cash when going on holiday, so you should be aiming to beat its best rate, after all fees.

  2. Ask your bank for a quote. It's rare your bank will actually be the best buy. But it's a useful second benchmark. Some have special facilities for existing customers, so it could actually come up trumps.

  3. Compare against a specialist currency broker. These companies buy and sell vast sums of foreign currency which allows them to offer excellent exchange rates, typically within 1% of the interbank rate – the rate banks use when borrowing from each other (banks are normally up to three percentage points worse than that).

    In addition, most brokers don't charge fees to send money, and will pay for any receiving fees, so all you pay is the margin they take via the exchange rate. It's also worth considering calling up to try your luck at negotiating an even better rate – though you'll likely have better bargaining power the more you are transferring, whether as a lump sum or as regular payments over a lengthy period of time. 

Top brokers for transfers over £5,000 – our review

There's no hard and fast rule to which currency broker is best, so we'd suggest getting quotes from all three below to find the best rate for your currency. 

All our top picks are fee-free for transfers over £5,000, and offer potential perks for newbies, such as vouchers. Currencies Direct has the lowest transfer threshold to qualify for its bonus Amazon vouchers, so we'd start there.

Though ultimately it's the amount of currency you're getting for your pound sterling that matters, so make sure you're not distracted by the freebies when comparing. 

Provider

Transfer fees? Newbie perks? Currencies How to contact
Currencies Direct* None (min £100 transfer) Free £20-£200 Amazon voucher on transfers of £2k+ made in first six months (i) 28 Online (less than £25k) /
phone (£25k+)
Global Reach* None (min £3k transfer) Free £40-£200 retail voucher on transfers of £10k+ made in first six months (ii) 38+ Online/phone
Moneycorp* None via our link £150 credit if making total transfers of £50k+ in first three months (iii) 30+ Online/phone

Important. All providers are authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, so should keep your money separate. You should therefore be able to get it back if the firm gets into difficulty – but there's no guarantee with any company sending money abroad. (i) Sign up by Tuesday 30 November. The voucher is emailed based on how much is transferred – £20 for £2k+, £40 for £10k+, £125 for £20k+ or £200 for £50k+. (ii) Sign up by Friday 31 December. You've the choice of an Amazon, B&Q, M&S, Sainsbury's or Ticketmaster voucher. The value is based on how much you send – £40 for £10k+, £100 for £25k+, £150 for £50k+ or £200 for £75k+. (iii) Sign up by 31 Dec 2021.

Instant transfers (last resort)

The methods above all usually take a few days for the money to hit the destination, so if you need to move cash at speed – or where the recipient doesn't have a bank account in that country (ie, emergency funds for someone travelling) – then there are other options. But these are very expensive. Here's how it works:

  1. Check if there's an agent/branch where the recipient can pick up the cash. The two big operators are MoneyGram* and Western Union*, both authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority, though there are others. Fees and rates vary based on the amount and country you're sending to, so check both (if you have the choice) to see which is cheaper. Typical fees range from £1.90 to £4.90.

  2. Pay the money to your chosen transfer firm, in branch or online. If you're not comfortable doing the transfer online, there are many money transfer agencies in newsagents, post offices and banks across the UK. 

  3. The recipient then picks it up at an agency at the other end. Once the transfer's complete, they just need to go along and pick it up. In general the recipient will be asked for ID or, if that's a problem, a code (that you are given and pass on to them).

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Cashback sites may pay you for signing up

As an extra boon, members of specialist cashback websites can be paid when they sign up to some financial products. Do check that it's exactly the same deal though, as terms can be different. And remember the cashback is never 100% guaranteed until it's in your account. 

Full help to take advantage of this and pros and cons are in our Top Cashback Sites guide.

International money transfer FAQs

  • It depends how you've sent it and which company you've used. Some do it via email and long-winded processes. Most are set up for you to transfer cash to the company account, from which it then transfers funds into the required account overseas.

  • The first port of call should be the company you've used, if it's not arrived where it should have done.

    Double-check it left your account and ask your bank to confirm the cash reached the transfer company's account as extra backup. The company you've used should be able to trace the payment journey and tell you what's happened.

    If a firm loses your money, you have the right to complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service if the company can't sort it out for you. It will investigate on your behalf and if the company's in the wrong, you should get the money back. See Your Financial Rights for more details.

  • In short, you don't. But the firms included here do have Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) authorisation – the highest level of protection you can get for a payment service institution – what the FCA classifies money transfer companies as.

    If you're really unsure, try sending a smaller amount first. See if it arrives and test out the service before you send what you need. Make sure you get receipts or confirmation that you've sent money and keep track of any documentation to do with the transfer – you might need it to keep track of payments.

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