SWIFT Meaning In Banking: What Is It?

Olga Shirimova
December 20, 2019
Swift meaning in banking article featured image

SWIFT means Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. It’s a global network used by 10,000 financial institutions. SWIFT helps them exchange information about money transfers.

The main page of the SWIFT website

The main page of the SWIFT network website.

What Are SWIFT Payments: Definition And History

SWIFT was founded in Brussels in 1973. Its target was to ease financial transactions across banks. Cross-border payments were a major problem back then. Banks didn’t have a uniform communication standard.

To address this issue, 239 banks from 15 states decided to form SWIFT. It replaced the outdated and faulty TELEX technology. Originally, the new network consisted of a messaging platform and a computer system that validated and sent messages. It also included a set of standards. These standards helped reconcile various communication rules and avoid misunderstandings.

The new system proved to be more efficient and secure and banks quickly adopted it. Here are some facts and numbers:

  • The 80s marked a boost of traffic and rapid growth of SWIFT popularity. In 1983 alone the network processed over 45 million transactions.
  • By 1996, the number grew to process 3 million transfers per day. With the adoption of the Internet SWIFT became even more efficient, secure and affordable due. It received tech improvements and became cheaper to use.
  • By 2009, the network connected over 9,000 financial institutions across 200 countries, sending 3.7 billion messages annually.
  • Today, it remains one of the leaders of the sector, with its traffic steadily growing. By September 2019, it was sending over 34 million messages per day, on average.
SWIFT payments use intermediary banks to reach the recipient.

SWIFT network functioning explained. Source: Fin.

SWIFT Payments: Pros And Cons

As with any financial solution, SWIFT has its advantages and disadvantages.

Pros

The main benefits of SWIFT are:

  • Transparency and clarity. The system uses standardized messages that are easy to interpret. It’s a good way to ensure seamless communication between institutions. SWIFT-based transactions are processed correctly and rapidly.
  • Consistency. As the messages are coded, banks can decipher the information even if the sender and recipient’s banks ‘talk’ different languages. It helps overcome a major barrier that created many problems in the past.
  • Traceability. The messages include all the details about the payment route and other important data. It allows you to trace all the way your money has passed, with every step confirmed.

Cons

As a customer, you should be aware of cons, too. They are:

  • Additional (and sometimes unexpected) fees. Sending money through this network can be more expensive than you think, especially small amounts. Fees are often charged by all the correspondent and recipient banks, too. Most banks give you an opportunity to decide which party (sender or recipient) will pay their extra fees, or share them. Despite this flexible approach, a transfer can still cost a lot.
  • Poor exchange rates. If your transfer needs several currency exchanges, banks tend to apply very unfavorable exchange rates.
  • Speed. Though SWIFT, as the name suggests, makes things faster, in some cases it takes up to 5 business days to make a transfer.
  • Need for automated solutions. Many SWIFT customers operate large volumes of money and make a lot of transactions. It means the manual entry of message tests and instructions is very inconvenient for them. They ask for automated solutions that would fasten things up, but it comes with additional costs. The network should find a balance between these two issues to keep its client base.

SWIFT Payments: How Do They Work

Now, let’s explore how payments function in this network.

Basic principles

SWIFT messages travel as a person would travel between countries. Sometimes it’s impossible to go directly from one location to another, and one takes several connecting flights. These flights may be operated by different air carriers. The travel company combines them to build up your route from point A to point B.

With SWIFT, your money travels from one country to another, using ‘connecting’ banks. It’s important to understand, that the network itself does not operate any money. Rather, it sends payment orders from one bank to another. To eliminate errors, special unified codes are used. It helps recognize the recipient bank and speed up payment processing.

What Is a SWIFT FIN Message

SWIFT FIN is a core concept of the network. It is a special type of message to transfer financial info between banks. FIN is a language used for programming these messages.

All the messages in the network include 5 blocks: 3 headers, message content and a trailer. To identify the message content, there is a 3-digit code that defines its category, group and type.

Example:

MT304
MT = (Message Type)
3 = treasury markets (the category of financial tools)
0 = financial institution transfer
4 = notification (the type of message)

Swift website welcome page, explaining the registration procedure step by step.

BIC code structure consists of 4 blocks.
SWIFT/BIC code structure explained. Source TT Capital&Loans

What is a BIC code

BIC is an organization identifier that SWIFT gives to all banks in the network.

BIC stands for Bank Identifier Code. It’s also called the SWIFT code.
BIC consists of 8 to 11 characters. The first 4 symbols are the coded name of the bank, then comes the country code (RU, IT, FR, etc.) followed by the code of the city. The last 3 symbols refer to a regional branch of the bank.
Example:
CCBPFRPPMTG = Banque Populaire Rives De Paris, France

What Is SWIFT: Conclusion

This payment network remains one of the most important financial organizations that has transformed the banking sector for the better. But it has a lot of problems. Until recently it offered the highest level of transparency. It also made money transfers faster and easier.

But Blockchain brings a lot more advantages and fixes many problems of SWIFT. For example, it makes oversea payments much faster. It is possible that SWIFT will lose its leading position to cryptocurrency.

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