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Bookkeeping 101: Is ACH the same as SWIFT?

Smooth payments are crucial for any business, big or small, that values its relationships with vendors and suppliers. The problem is that making heads and tails of all the different payment methods can be confusing. 

ACH bank transfers are among the most popular payment methods in the U.S., but many people still have a hard time understanding what makes them different. In previous articles, we talked about how they differ from EFTs and wires. Now, we’ll compare them to another finance-related acronym you probably love: SWIFT.

Are SWIFT and ACH one and the same? 

The short answer is no. While both ACH and SWIFT can be used to refer to types of electronic fund transfers (EFTs), they are different systems. In very few words, the ACH system is mostly used for domestic bank transfers within the U.S. while SWIFT is often used for international transactions. 

Read on to find out more about the distinction between the two.

What’s ACH? 

ACH stands for Automated Clearing House and refers to a network of banks and financial institutions (also known as clearing houses). The network enables the electronic transfer of funds between accounts, most commonly, within the U.S., the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

The popularity of ACH transfers among businesses is in constant growth thanks to their low cost, reliability, and safety. According to Nacha (the National Automated Clearing House Association), which governs the ACH network, the total value of business-to-business (B2B) ACH transactions grew from $22.4 trillion in 2011 to $49.8 trillion in 2021. 

What’s SWIFT? 

SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. It’s a messaging system that enables electronic communication between banks and financial institutions around the world.

The SWIFT system can be used for many different purposes but is mainly known for enabling domestic and international wire transfers. 

To facilitate safe communications, member organizations use SWIFT codes (also known as BIC codes). These codes are composed of a series of 8-11 digits and act as an identification number for financial institutions, ensuring both parties know who they are talking to.

So, SWIFT codes are the same as IBANs?

Not really, but we get why that’s confusing. IBANs and SWIFT codes are both series of characters representing bank information that is used for international transactions, but they differ in several meaningful ways. 

Most importantly, an IBAN refers to a specific bank account, while a SWIFT code is used to identify the financial institution that manages it. Another significant difference is that IBAN is mostly used in Europe while SWIFT is more common worldwide, especially in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. 

When sending money overseas you will need to provide your recipient's IBAN, SWIFT code, or, in some cases, both, depending on the specific country and bank the payment is headed to. 

But, there’s no need for guesswork. When making an international payment via Melio, you’ll be prompted to provide the relevant number to ensure it arrives at its destination as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Main differences between ACH and SWIFT

To summarize, here are the four main differences between ACH and SWIFT. 

Geography

ACH bank transfers are mostly used for domestic transactions in the U.S., the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. While it's possible to send ACH payments internationally, this isn't currently supported by many payment processors and banks.

SWIFT, on the other hand, is widely used for both domestic and international payments. As of 2022, the SWIFT system serves over 11,000 member institutions from more than 200 countries and territories.

Speed

An international wire can take 5-6 business days to complete. A domestic wire, on the other hand, is much faster and the recipient can usually see the money in their bank account on the same day.

This makes domestic wires faster than ACH transfers, which typically take 1-3 business days to process. While not the fastest way to transfer money, ACH does offer an easier and more affordable process, as long as you plan ahead and don't wait for the last minute to send your payment. 

This is all the more reason to use a digital payment tool (like Melio) that allows you to schedule all your payments in advance and specify exactly when they need to go out. This way, you never have to wait until the last minute to make a payment and risk it arriving too late and jeopardizing your relationship with the vendor.

Price

ACH transfers are far cheaper than SWIFT, typically costing less than $1 per transaction. On some services, including Melio, they’re even free.

Domestic SWIFT wires typically cost around $10-$15. For international wires, SWIFT transfers can be expensive, with an average cost of $44 per transaction. Melio charges a flat $20 fee for international payments, regardless of their destination or sum.  

Safety

ACH is typically safer, as Nacha enforces strict regulations for compliance to ensure there’s no foul play. Unlike SWIFT, ACH transfers also have a grace period that allows you to recover funds lost due to fraud or error. 

However, when you use a platform such as Melio to send funds, you enjoy many of the same protections, whether you’re using ACH, SWIFT, or any other payment method. 

So, what should I use for business payments, SWIFT or ACH? 

That really depends on where your vendor is located. If you’re paying someone in the U.S., ACH is usually an easier and cheaper method to do so. But, if you’re sending an international payment, SWIFT (or, in some cases, IBAN) is what you’ll likely need. 

Send payments online

Regardless of where in the world your payment is headed, save time and money by using Melio. It’s free to sign up and fees for international transactions and other premium payment options are tax-deductible and highly competitive. Take a few minutes to sign up for Melio today.

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