Transferring money around internationally in an economic way

Not so long ago there were all kinds of restrictions on transferring money abroad due to currency controls that lots of countries had in place. They’re almost all gone now and it has become more of a natural thing for “ordinary people” to need to transfer money abroad.

Most of the time it’s due to holidays, of course, but an increasing number of us are becoming small scale international jet setters with homes in more than one country and with both of those come a need to transfer money abroad.

Holidays usually involve a different category of currency conversion in that you are on the spot when you need the money, the amounts involved are smaller and you probably don’t have a local bank account. However, whilst the amounts may be smaller individually, added up over the years they will come to quite a hefty sum. Also, many of those who holiday in the same country each year may be considering the purchase of a property there and so have that local account too.

Most people ignore the costs of all those international transactions to their detriment. One friend of mine found that almost 10% of his entire salary was going in such bank charges simply because he was living abroad and using his “home” account in exactly the same way that he always had ie lifting small amounts frequently.

Saving money on those transactions is usually fairly easy. If you don’t want to change your bank, check out exactly how they charge for use of credit, debit and cash cards abroad. You will usually find that debit and cash cards are more economic ways of getting cash than credit cards are in that you won’t be paying interest on the money. However, that’s not to say that they are cheap. Typically a withdrawal of £100 in the local currency will cost you £4 to £5 but note that this includes a fixed transaction charge so withdrawing £20 will cost you around £2 ie 10% whereas £200 would be about £7 ie 3.5%. You can eliminate these charges altogether with some travel money cards.

It’s slightly better if you buy things, usually. Using a typical Mastercard or Visa card will only incur the foreign exchange charge ie buying £100 of goods will cost you £2.75 and that £20 item would be 70p. Therefore you should buy things with the card directly rather than lifting the cash to pay for them.

What about larger amounts ie if you’re living abroad or have a holiday home abroad? Well, if you follow our advice and get one of the better travel money cards you can lift £500 per day which means that it’s quite viable to use that card in conjunction with a local bank account to transfer amounts equivalent to several thousand pounds. You certainly couldn’t buy a house in that way but it’s enough to fund the payments for electicity bills and the like.

If you are talking thousands, then the usual way is to ask your bank to do a SWIFT transfer. This will cost around £25 plus there’s a currency exchange charge (which isn’t widely known). However, that too can be eliminated in some circumstances. For example, if you bank with HSBC then you can do free transfers to an HSBC account elsewhere in the world but the HSBC Premier account that you need to avail of this costs £20/month (unless you have £50,000 or more on deposit with them) so it’s not as useful as it first appears. However, if you are buying in Spain, the Halifax run to a free account which offers free transfers from Halifax UK accounts to Halifax Spain ones. What’s less obvious is that this route gives you a pretty much free way from pounds sterling to euros anywhere in Europe as banks are required to transfer euros at the same level of charges in other European countries as they do domestically ie to get euros in an account in France, you could transfer from the Halifax UK to Halifax Spain and from there to a French bank.

Other options include the use of the specialised money transfer services such as HiFX (there are lots of similar services around).

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