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SWIFT, SEPA or Bitcoin? It pays to consider how you pay



People tend to stick with what they know when making overseas payments, but newer options like SEPA are providing an alternative for many.

3 min read

Electronic currencies, such as Bitcoin, have the potential to revolutionise payments in the future but still have a considerable way to go before they can replace the current best methods.

At the other end of the innovation scale are cheques, but they are slow to clear and can cost you up to four times as much as an electronic transfer.

Which payment option is best for you?

For decades the most commonly used electronic payment method has been SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). This is a huge network that connects banks and other financial institutions across the globe.

But there is another way to make payments when they are in euros which could be more suitable for you – SEPA. The Single Euro Payments Area is a European Union (EU) scheme that makes payments throughout the region simpler and more efficient. It has eliminated the need to use lots of payment platforms and numerous identification numbers within the region.

While Brexit negotiations are ongoing and nothing is set in stone, we at Coutts do not currently believe the UK will be removed from the SEPA system when the UK leaves the EU. Several other countries which are not within the euro area are already included as part of SEPA.

Here are the main points to bear in mind for each payment option.


“When making a payment overseas, it’s always a good idea to consider each method rather than simply sticking with the same one you’ve always used.”

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Europe’s payment platform is cheaper than SWIFT but may take a little longer. It can cost less than £10 and payments are usually received one business day after they are made.

SEPA only applies to euro payments to and from the 28 member states of the European Union, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and Andorra. But it basically means you can move money across borders in a way that is almost as simple as if you were doing it within one country.

You also only have to provide one number for SEPA – the IBAN – making the process a little more straightforward.


This is the fastest and most wide-reaching electronic payment method. Depending on the currency and whether it’s made before the cut-off time, a payment can often reach the recipient the same day. The cost to you of making a payment through SWIFT is at least £20.

It’s a global payments system enabling quick and secure payments anywhere in the world in any currency. At the last count it connected more than 11,000 institutions across more than 200 countries or territories.

With SWIFT, you have to provide two important numbers every time you make a payment – the Bank Identifier Code (BIC) and either the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) or your everyday account number.

These numbers are internationally recognised and help banks process overseas payments faster and more securely. For Coutts clients, they can be found at the top of their bank statements.


Bitcoin believers v sceptics 

Bitcoin fever is being called both an epochal step change that will positively transform the world of finance for ever and a speculative bubble that will inevitably end in tears.

Read the full article here


The proponents of cryptocurrencies believe they present a convenient, quick and low-cost alternative to international exchange.

But while the ‘blockchain’ technology behind Bitcoin certainly has the potential to disrupt the world of payments, we are nowhere near that stage yet.

They are not something we process at Coutts and not something we would currently recommend.

Despite being free of bank charges, transaction fees for Bitcoin can be quite high. Also, the volatility in Bitcoin prices in recent months means in some cases the amount the vendor finally receives could vary considerably from the original amount, either up or down.


Cheques are by far the slowest and most expensive payment method. As well as potentially quadrupling the cost compared to an electronic transfer, they can take up to six weeks to clear.

At Coutts, we do not recommend using cheques for payments, particularly when receiving money, because of these possible delays.

Generally, when making a payment overseas, it’s always a good idea to consider each method rather than simply sticking with the same one you’ve always used. You can then be sure of sending or receiving the money in the best possible way.

It’s also worth thinking about the best channel for the payment as arranging it yourself through a digital service such as Coutts Online is cheaper than having someone at your bank do it for you.

While Bitcoin is an exciting new payment method for some, and cheques are still popular in some parts of the world, SWIFT and SEPA remain the main options we recommend for clients.

Past performance should not be taken as a guide to future performance. The value of investments, and the income from them, can go down as well as up, and you may not recover the amount of your original investment.

Key Takeaways

It’s important to consider all your options when sending or receiving money overseas. While Bitcoin is a headline-grabbing innovation, SWIFT and SEPA remain the main options we recommend for clients. Bitcoin payments can take time to process and volatility can make pricing overly complex. In the meantime, SWIFT is faster and global while SEPA is cheaper and used in Europe. Cheques are another option, but not one that we would recommend.

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