Sending and receiving foreign currency used to be my biggest headache.
When I was working and traveling in Australia, paying bills and sending money back home was nearly impossible. My wages were going into a foreign account, but I couldn't use my foreign card to pay bills in the United States. I couldn't find a practical way to transfer the money between my accounts, or even to send money to my family and friends back home.
I tried transferring money from my foreign account to my US account via bank wire, but I was getting charged $35 every single time. I tried using PayPal with multiple accounts hooked up to different cards in different countries—which was clunky at best—and I still had to deal with their criminal exchange rate. And Western Union not only took days but they charged something like $50-$100.
Like many expats and long-term travelers, I was on the other side of the world with no way to send, receive or transfer money at a reasonable rate. The banks had me locked out. It should have been so easy, but it wasn't. Instead, I watched the banks take hundreds of dollars in fees while I worked my ass off to afford my travels.
I first heard about TransferWise last year and I now use it to send money to friends, to pay bills abroad, and even to accept payments from my international clients. I send and receive money all over the world, to and from any account, in any currency, at the official conversion rate, for a flat fee of about 1%.
It's almost revolutionary.
TransferWise was launched in 2011 and has been backed by Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal, board of Facebook, an investor in Airbnb and Stripe) and Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines, Virgin Records, Virgin everything).
It's made by two Estonian fellas: Kristo Käärmannone, financial consultant, and Taavet Hinrikus, the first ever employee at Skype. They've got some serious street cred, and with $117 million in funding, they've got the money behind them to make TransferWise a household name.
It's my hope that, by using TransferWise, you'll be able to spend less at the bank and more on your travels.
How Does TransferWise Work (and Why Is It So Cheap)?
Traditionally, sending money has involved a middleman—the bank. You give the money to them, they convert it, take their commission, then send it to the recipient.
But with TransferWise you exchange currency with other customers.
This is the cool part: TransferWise operates like a peer-to-peer service. Rather than exchanging money with the bank, you exchange money with a peer—someone else who also wants to use TransferWise to send money overseas. It cuts out all the fees (and it's totally secure).
As an example, let's say I want to send $200 to a friend in Germany. In Germany, a guy named Markus is sending €200 to a friend in the States. Essentially, we're making the same transaction, but backward and in reserve. Instead of actually converting our cash, we just swap money.
Pretty neat, huh? Technically, your money never even crosses a border, which is why they don't have to charge you for the conversion.
Different Ways to Use TransferWise
The problem with a lot of money transfer services is that they only do one thing—they transfer money. TransferWise, however, is surprisingly versatile. Here are a few examples of how I've used them in the past:
1. Transferring Money Between Accounts – Since I have bank accounts in multiple countries, I use TransferWise to transfer money between them. All I have to do is enter the bank details of each one and TransferWise initiates the transfer at the real conversion rate, only charging a minimal fee.
2. Paying Bills Abroad – TransferWise makes it easy to pay bills from overseas, no matter which country you're in. Just enter the business info and their bank information/IBAN number and they take care of the rest.
3. Sending Money to Friends – Last year when I was in Bangkok, my friend Ben lost his bank card. Since he didn't have any money on him, he logged online and sent me €400 with TransferWise. He paid €4 in fees, and I received the exact amount in my bank account in US dollars (within 24 hours and at the official exchange rate). I then withdrew Thai baht at the ATM and Ben could finally afford his dinner once again (though I obviously lent him enough to pay for dinner and a few beers in the meantime).
4. Invoicing Freelance Clients – As a blogger, I do business with clients all over the world. I've found international wire transfers to be one of three things: costly, confusing, or unreliable. With TransferWise, I can send a simple money request to a client, who then initiates a standard bank transfer to TransferWise.
Because TransferWise has a bank account in each country, it's technically a local transfer for the client and a local transfer for me, so they charge just 1%. The best part is that my clients don't even have to sign up for an account, and neither one of us has to pay large fees! It's all very simple.
TransferWise vs. PayPal vs. The Bank
For years, PayPal has been the big player when it comes to sending and receiving money online. Since a lot of people have a PayPal account these days, it's the go-to option because it's just plain easy. But is convenience worth paying 6.9%?
Not only do they charge about 3.9% to send money, but they charge you an extra 3% on top of their already criminal exchange rate. Once you have the money in your account, they force you to convert the currency with them. It's locked in your PayPal account and you can't withdraw it unless you use their conversion rates.
I'll be honest, I used to be a big fan of PayPal, but I've come to despise them. For a long time they've been the only option, and even today I'm forced to use them a lot to run my business—they're a necessary evil. I was really excited to find TransferWise because it means I can phase PayPal out of my life.
The other difficulty with PayPal is that, if you want to transfer money between your own banks, you have to sign up for multiple accounts. Since you're only permitted to have one PayPal account per country, you have to log in and out multiple times, and you're still stuck paying the excessive exchange rate.
With TransferWise, you pay about 1% per transfer. So if I send $1,000, the fee is about $10. With Paypal, it would cost $69. Using an international bank transfer, sending $1,000 could cost up to $100 in fees. It's kind of a no-brainer.
So What's the Catch?
That was my first question, too. I'm so used to getting cheated by banks that I couldn't understand why a company would charge reasonable fees. It's the peer-to-peer functionality that makes TransferWise cheap (not to mention it's really clever). Rather than having to constantly convert currency, TransferWise is matching up users from around the world, and it's totally secure.
Realistically you don't see anything that happens behind the scenes. I'm not searching for a guy named Markus to make an exchange with. TransferWise has a huge pot of money to draw from in each country, so you don't have to worry about waiting for someone else to make a transfer, too. The platform is set up to operate like a traditional money transfer service—just enter the recipient and the amount, and press send.
And here's something else: in most major currencies, TransferWise allows you to send money using your credit card as the funding source. And all they charge is 1%!
That definitely beats PayPal's 6.9% and the bank's hefty cut.
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. By clicking the links, and by making your first transfer, I receive a small commission. This commission comes at no extra cost to you and it helps to support this site. I never recommend products I don't believe in. Thanks for reading!