SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication)

This brief guide on SWIFT helps you understand SWIFT and its workings and limitations. Examples and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
min read
February 3, 2024

Content overview

1. Introduction

2. History and Background

3. How SWIFT Works


5. SWIFT's Global Reach


7. Challenges and Criticisms

8. Unique Examples for Better Understanding

9.  FAQs related to SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication):


SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a global messaging network used by banks and other financial institutions to securely send and receive information, such as money transfer instructions. Established in 1973, SWIFT has become the standard for global banking communications, ensuring that transactions occur smoothly, securely, and efficiently.

History and Background

In the early 1970s, international banking was a cumbersome process, reliant on telex for cross-border communications. Recognizing the inefficiencies and risks, 239 banks from 15 countries came together in 1973 to form SWIFT. The primary goal was to create a shared worldwide data processing and communications link, a standardised environment for financial transactions.

How SWIFT Works

  • Unique Identifier: Every financial institution on the SWIFT network has a unique SWIFT/BIC code. This 8 or 11 character code ensures that the money is going to a specific location and institution. Example: A bank in New York might have the SWIFT code 'BKUS33NYC'.

  • Message Types: SWIFT messages are categorised by numbers, such as MT103 (a standard customer payment), indicating the specific type of transaction.

  • Security: SWIFT uses advanced encryption and authentication measures. Each message is securely sent and received, ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of the information.


While SWIFT codes identify banks, IBAN (International Bank Account Number) identifies individual bank accounts. When making international transfers, both the SWIFT code and the IBAN are often required.

Example: Think of SWIFT as the postal code of the bank and IBAN as the exact street address of the recipient.

SWIFT's Global Reach

Today, SWIFT connects over 11,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries. Every day, millions of messages concerning payments, securities, treasury, and trade are exchanged over its secure network.

SWIFT GPI - The Next Generation of Cross-Border Payments

Recognizing the need for faster and more transparent cross-border payments, SWIFT introduced the Global Payments Innovation (GPI) initiative. With SWIFT GPI, banks can provide businesses and individuals with a faster, more transparent, and traceable international payments service.

Example: A company in Japan can now track its payment to a supplier in Brazil, much like tracking a parcel, knowing exactly where the payment is at any given moment.

Challenges and Criticisms

While SWIFT is a cornerstone of global finance, it's not without challenges:

  • Sanctions and Politics: SWIFT has been at the centre of international politics, especially when countries are sanctioned. For instance, Iranian banks were disconnected from SWIFT due to international sanctions, impacting the country's foreign trade.

  • Alternatives and Competitors: With the rise of blockchain and fintech, alternatives to SWIFT, like Ripples xRapid service, are emerging, promising faster and cheaper international transfers.

Unique Examples for Better Understanding

  • The Global Traveler: Imagine a traveller, Alice, who's lost her wallet in Italy. She urgently needs funds from her bank in Australia. Using SWIFT, her bank can quickly and securely send money to a bank in Italy for Alice to collect.

  • The Multinational Corporation: Consider a global company like Samsung, which sources components from various countries. When paying its suppliers in Taiwan, Hungary, or South Africa, SWIFT ensures that payment instructions are securely and efficiently communicated between banks.

  • The Antique Collector: John, an antique collector in New York, wins a bid for a rare painting from a Parisian auction house. To pay for his new acquisition, his bank in the U.S. will use SWIFT to send payment details to the auction house's bank in France.

SWIFT remains an integral part of the global financial system, ensuring that banks can communicate securely and efficiently. As the world of finance continues to evolve with new technologies and challenges, SWIFT is adapting, ensuring that it remains relevant in a rapidly changing environment.

FAQs related to SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication):

Q1. What exactly is SWIFT?

SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is a global messaging system used by financial institutions to securely exchange information about financial transactions, including payment instructions.

Q2. How does SWIFT differ from regular bank codes?

While regular bank codes are specific to each country and identify individual banks, SWIFT codes are international and identify specific banks globally, ensuring that cross-border transactions are processed correctly.

Q3. Is SWIFT only used for money transfers?

No, while SWIFT is commonly associated with international money transfers, it also facilitates various types of financial communications, including securities trades and treasury transactions.

Q4. How long does a SWIFT transfer take?

Typically, a SWIFT transfer can take 1-5 business days, but the exact duration depends on various factors, including the countries involved, the banks' operating hours, and the currency of the transaction.

Q5. Are SWIFT codes unique to each bank branch?

Yes, each bank branch has a unique SWIFT code, ensuring that international transactions are directed to the correct branch.

Q6. How secure is the SWIFT system?

SWIFT places a high emphasis on security. It uses state-of-the-art encryption and authentication protocols to ensure that messages are transmitted securely and are only accessible to the intended recipients.

Q7. Can I find a bank's SWIFT code online?

Yes, most banks list their SWIFT codes on their official websites. Additionally, there are online directories and databases where you can look up SWIFT codes for different banks and branches.

Q8. Why do I need a SWIFT code for international transactions?

A SWIFT code ensures that your money reaches the right bank and branch when making an international transfer. Without the correct SWIFT code, your transaction could be delayed or misdirected.

Q9. Are there any alternatives to the SWIFT system?

Yes, with advancements in fintech, there are emerging alternatives to SWIFT, such as blockchain-based systems like Ripple. However, SWIFT remains the dominant system for international banking communications.

Q10. How does SWIFT handle currency conversions?

SWIFT itself doesn't handle currency conversions. It facilitates the communication between banks. The actual conversion is handled by the banks involved in the transaction, based on their exchange rates.

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Tejas is an accomplished Chartered Accountant with a passion for finance. With a decade's worth of extensive experience in the banking and credit domain, he has a deep understanding of the financial landscape across consulting and start-ups. In his time away from work, Tejas enjoys sharing his knowledge and helping others understand the intricacies of this complex domain.

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