Back to blog
Industry insights

Best 4 Swift alternatives for cross-border payments in 2024

Swift is the dominant global system for cross-border payments, but alternatives can help businesses move funds faster and more reliably.

By
Mar 20, 2024
4 min read

Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) is the dominant method of making cross-border payments. That position has been built over 40 years. But as businesses increasingly approach payments as a lever for growth, they are reevaluating Swift. Despite its scale and trusted technology, international payments made with Swift can be slow, costly, and lack transparency. This impacts cash flow and financial planning, and can stunt the very expansion that Swift has been designed to facilitate. 

In recent years, the payments industry has undergone significant transformation. New cross-border payment solutions have been built on the emergence of banking APIs, fintechs, and blockchains. The latter of these offers enormous promise to solve many of the frustrations of Swift. Blockchains are territory-agnostic, operate 24/7, and enable straight-through payments (ie directly from payer to payee with no intermediaries). 

In this article, we will explain how Swift works in practice, the benefits and challenges of using it to make cross-border payments, and why businesses are turning to new technologies such as blockchain and cryptocurrencies to realise competitiveness advantages in their payments strategy.

A quick introduction to Swift

What is Swift? 

Swift is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications. It was founded in 1973, and became operational in 1977. 

In simple terms, it is a vast information messaging network that allows banks and other financial institutions around the world to send money to each other, by using a standardised code system. 

Swift is the dominant provider of cross-border transactions. It is used by more than 11,000 member institutions. They include all sorts of financial organisations that need to move money internationally — banks; brokerages and trading houses; securities dealers; asset management companies; clearing houses; depositories; remittance services; and non-financial businesses. Collectively they send an average of 44.8 million messages daily through the network. The majority of these messages relate to securities (51%) and payments (44%). Treasury, trade, and system transactions are other examples of international money flows that Swift processes.

All members pay a one-time joining fee plus annual support charges that vary by member classes. Swift also charges users for each message based on message type and length. These charges vary depending on volume. 

Alongside cross-border money transfers, Swift also offers additional services to members, such as real-time business intelligence, market insights and compliance tools.

Swift is overseen by the G-10 central banks — Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Accelerate cross-border payments

Settle funds anywhere in under 24 hours and convert between currencies with BVNK
Learn more

How does Swift work?

Swift works through a combination of codes and messaging protocols. In this section we’ll take a look at the main components that go into making Swift work. 

BICs

Swift assigns each financial organisation a unique code, called the ‘bank identifier code’ or BIC. It is also known as the Swift code, Swift ID, or ISO 9362 code. BIC codes are either eight or 11 alphanumeric characters. They are made up of: 

  • First four characters: the institute code 
  • Next two characters: the country code 
  • Next two characters: the location/city code
  • Last three characters: the organisation’s branch code (optional) 

Here are three examples of BICs: 

  • HSBC – HSBCHKHHHKH
  • Standard Chartered – SCBLHKHH
  • Bank of China – BKCHHKHH

Behind each BIC, Swift store information about the institution, such as its legal name, registered address, and business-type. Members must confirm these details at least once per year, or whenever there is a change. 

SwiftNet

Swift’s messaging platform is called SwiftNet. It uses hundreds of different codes to distinguish between different types of cross-border payments and money transfers. These are grouped into 10 categories:

  • Category 1 - Customer Payments and Cheques
  • Category 2 - Financial Institution Transfers
  • Category 3 - Treasury Markets - Foreign Exchange, Money Markets and Derivatives
  • Category 4 - Collections and Cash Letters
  • Category 5 - Securities Markets
  • Category 6 - Reference Data
  • Category 6 - Treasury Markets - Commodities
  • Category 7 - Documentary Credits and Guarantees/Standby Letters of Credit
  • Category 8 - Travellers Cheques
  • Category 9 - Cash Management and Customer Status
  • Category n - Common Group Messages

SwiftNet messaging services

SwiftNet has four different messaging services: 

  • FIN: FIN is the oldest of Swift’s messaging services, and remains its most widely used. It is used for making single transactions (also known as ‘message-per-message’). FIN works in ‘store-and-forward’ mode, which means that messages can be sent even if the recipient is offline. Other functionalities of FIN include: ‘user-selectable priority’, where messages can be flagged as urgent to allow for faster processing; delivery notification and non-delivery warnings; and retrieval of messages that have been exchanged in the previous 124 days.
  • InterAct: InterAct offers all the capabilities of FIN, and additional features such as real-time messaging, and real-time query-and-response options. InterAct uses the new XML-based Swift MX (Message Exchange), which is a non-proprietary message format. This enables additional data elements from other financial software systems to be included, making messages more comprehensive and so easier to trust and process. 
  • FileAct: FileAct enables bulk payment processing, and is also used to transfer large batches of other message types, such as images, reports and operational data. 
  • WebAccess: WebAccess (previously known as Browse) leverages SwiftNet to let users securely upload and browse web applications and financial portals. 


Sending a Swift message

In order to use any of Swift’s messaging services, institutions need to connect to SwiftNet. They can do these via a telephone landline, a direct internet connection, Swift’s cloud service (Lite2), or indirectly via partners. Swift also provides a range of interfaces that make it easier for users to assign codes, receive messages, and integrate with other financial systems.

The bank or institution sending the money creates a new message. As well as their BIC and the message code, the message package must include the recipient's bank details, the payment amount and currency, the purpose of the payment, and proof of funds. Swift encrypts the messages and transmits it to the receiving bank or institution. 

A direct Swift transfer is only possible if the sending and receiving bank have a direct commercial relationship, with corresponding Nostro/Vostro accounts for receiving transfers. Otherwise, Swift will direct the payment through a series of intermediary banks (also known as correspondent banks) until the message reaches the recipient institution. 

A SwiftNet message will also include an instruction for which party will pay the processing fees. There are three options: 

  • OUR”: the sender of the money pays.
  • BEN”: stands for “beneficiary” and indicates that the recipient pays.
  • SHA”: stands for “shared” and indicates that the sender and receiver will divide the fees.

Once the message has been safely delivered, the two banks will credit and debit their accounts accordingly.

The benefits of Swift for businesses

Before Swift, telegraphic transfer (also known as Telex) was the only way for banks and other financial institutions to transfer money internationally. But Telex lacked a unified data standard, which meant transfers were slow, insecure and prone to human error. 

Swift has become the dominant method for processing cross-border payments because it has fixed many of the problems of Telex. 

Data standards

SwiftNet messaging services use a common ML data standard, while the introduction of XML-based MX messaging has created opportunities to integrate data from third-party systems. Swift is now transitioning to the new ISO 20022 message standard, which supports enhanced data in a richer, more structured format. 

Security and reliability

Security and reliability is delivered by a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that ensures privacy and protection through encryption, authentication controls, integrity controls and non-repudiation protocols. 

Innovation

Swift continues to innovate and release new payment services. 

  • Swift gpi (‘Global Payments Innovation’) was launched in 2017, unifying previously dislocated domestic real-time payment networks. It uses a unique end-to-end transaction reference (UETR) to pinpoint the status of payments in real-time, and redirect them to faster paths. It also offers a pre-validation feature, which reduces the likelihood of transaction failure. Swift gpi already enables $300 billion of daily transactions, 50% of which are completed within 30 minutes, and 96% in under 24 hours. 
  • In 2021, Swift Go was launched on this new payment rail, and is targeted at SMBs that make low-value (less than 10,000 USD, GBP or EUR) cross-border payments. 
  • In addition, Swift offers hundreds of other services from its platform, including tools to support compliance, analytics, issue resolutions and record keeping.

These capabilities of Swift provide businesses with a number of benefits:

Single network

Rather than using multiple systems for different tasks involved in making cross-border payments, businesses can now access everything they need from Swift’s single platform. This translates into significant cost savings.

Faster payments

Swift’s messaging network and integrations allow for straight-through processing of cross-border transactions, which can reduce settlement times from days to minutes. This benefits institutions’ cash flow positions. 

Transparency

Banks using Swift have visibility of the status of a payment and processing fees. Swift gpi uses a unique end-to-end transaction reference (UETR) to pinpoint the progress of payments in real-time. As well as reducing any need to recipients to manually chase payments, it also reduces exceptions and investigations as banks can act faster.  

Trust

With more than 44 million messages sent through its network daily, and with 40 years of proven technology, Swift is highly trusted, giving banks and financial institutions peace of mind that their customers’ money is safe. And with the release of new services and features, Swift is proving that it can innovate to meet their customers evolving needs.

Key challenges of using Swift

Despite recent innovations, Swift remains an imperfect 40-year-old technology that impacts how banks and financial institutions serve their business customers. In turn, businesses can face higher costs, slower settlement times, and have to implement complex and manual business processes, making them less competitive and putting pressure on cash flow. 

These challenges are nuanced. Businesses will be impacted in different ways, depending on the volumes and values of their transactions, how many markets and currencies they operate in and their access to affordable IT resources. 

The key challenges are:

Opaque fees

Banks and financial institutions using Swift are free to determine the fees they pass on to their business customers. This creates an inconsistent fee structure; and more so if intermediary banks are involved in processing a cross-border transaction. Businesses may not be aware of the fees they are paying until the payment has settled. This creates issues for reconciliation (as the amount received is different from that expected), and financial planning.

Slow settlement cycles

Swift can be slow. A transaction can take up to five days to process if it has to go through more than one intermediary bank. Speed can also be compromised by higher standards of fraud management that creates friction. 

Ecosystem vulnerabilities

Processing cross-border payments across the Swift network relies on the operational resilience of every party in the chain. Issues at any institution can create a chain reaction that delays a payment, or can even block it.   

Technically complex

Unlike most modern business software, Swift is not a plug-and-play solution. It can require significant resources to set up and maintain. The costs involved will usually be passed on by the bank to their customers. Swift can also be difficult to integrate with other financial systems, limiting the benefits of automation. 

Political

Oversight of Swift rests with the G-10 central banks, which are (to various degrees) controlled or influenced by their national governments. Political tensions and conflicts can dictate which banks and financial institutions can access Swift. Banks in Russia, Iran and North Korea are currently unable to use Swift.

The top 4 Swift alternatives for 2023 

Businesses have a range of alternatives to Swift that they can use to improve cross-border payments. Again, these improvements are not uniform. The suitability of each method depends on the needs and nature of a business, and also their ability to access it.

Other banking networks

Global ACH (also called International ACH Transfer) is a method for moving money between US and foreign bank accounts, using other country payment rails including EFT, SEPA, BACS and BECS. SEPA (Single Euro Payment Area) is a dominant international banking network in Europe.

Domestic banking networks can also be used in combination to process international payments, such as Fedwire (US), CIPS (China), BACS (UK), BECS (Australia) and EFT (Canada). India and Singapore have recently linked their digital payments systems, UPI and PayNow, to enable instant and low-cost fund transfers, with customers from eight banks able to benefit. 

Card networks

International card networks (eg Visa, Mastercard, Amex) are popular ways for businesses to process payments from foreign customers. Card payments using these networks can be a good option for cross-border transactions as they are widely accepted, convenient, and secure.

They are becoming more important in the B2B sector as more commerce there moves online. They can also incentivise businesses to buy more through reward and protection schemes. However, card transactions may be subject to currency conversion fees and other charges. Card networks also typically use Swift infrastructure underneath so face some of the same challenges, such as slow settlement.

Fintechs

Fintechs layer services on top of banking networks, usually leveraging their APIs, to solve some of the traditional challenges of moving money internationally. Examples of these services include pre-funding to simulate 'instant' payments; automatic rerouting of payments to identify the fastest and most effective settlement path; real-time information about the progress of the payment; ease of integration with other services, such as FX; management of compliance obligations; and enhanced customer support.

A fintech provider allows businesses to offload much of the work involved in processing cross-border payments, freeing up resources that can be redeployed to core activities. Some of the leading fintech providers of cross-border payments are Airwallex, Nium, and Wise.

Blockchains and cryptocurrencies

A blockchain is a shared database, or ledger, distributed among nodes on a computer network. It is separate from traditional banking and card networks, and so is not subject to their operating times and geographical constraints. A blockchain is territory agnostic, with a single currency and transparent protocol for every user, wherever they are in the world.

Users on a blockchain can pay each other directly, eliminating the need for third-parties, and so minimising cost and settlement times. Though blockchains are a proven technology for securely transacting, the cryptocurrencies that run on them (eg bitcoin) are largely unregulated and their value can be relatively volatile. Stablecoins, which peg their value to a fiat currency, fix the volatility issue. The largest stable is Tether USD (USDT), which is pegged to the US dollar. It has a market cap of around $83 billion. 

Blockchains and cryptocurrencies can also be used to process fiat currency payments efficiently. The payer ‘on-ramps’ with a fiat currency, which is then converted to a cryptocurrency (typically a stablecoin) that is transferred across the blockchain before being converted and paid out in the payee’s preferred fiat currency.  

Leading providers of blockchain cross-border payments include BVNK’s Global Settlement Network’ and Ripple/XRP.

Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) are another crypto alternative to enabling cross-border payments using blockchains. They are issued by central banks, and so provide greater regulatory protection. There are now over 100 CBDC projects around the world in various phases of development and testing.

Conclusion

Swift remains the dominant cross-border payment method and in recent years it has demonstrated an appetite to improve with a range of innovations.

Despite this, businesses have an increasing number of alternatives. Fintechs are providing the necessary means for them to explore and enable these emerging solutions, most notably open banking APIs and blockchain-enabled payments.

Yet even the most forward-thinking business is unlikely to move away from Swift entirely. Instead, we will see a period of coexistence, as businesses try and test methods that make the most sense for them. Ultimately, this competition will drive more innovations in cross-border payments and more competitive advantages for businesses. 

Unlock faster global settlement

Settle funds anywhere in under 24 hours and trade between currencies with BVNK.
Learn more
Subscribe

Get payment insights straight to your inbox

Thank you! You're signed up for the BVNK newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.