Bank identification code: man happy with the document that he's reading

If you live in a foreign country, you already know that sending money home isn’t as simple as just putting some cash in an envelope and mailing it. Apart from the fact that sending money that way could be unsafe, money transfers have to be carefully tracked by banks worldwide. 

One way that banks help governments track the flow of money over their borders is with bank identification codes. When someone makes an international money transfer (or remittance), banks use these codes to ensure that the money they are sending gets to an exact bank and account.

Though these codes are important tools, you don’t always need to know a bank identification code to make a secure money transfer. For instance, you don’t need to know them to use the Remitly app, which makes affordable and safe transfers from your phone. Still, it can be helpful to know how such codes work and how to find one.

This article will take a look at the different types of bank identification codes and what they mean.

Types of bank identification codes

Man using a tablet

The term “bank identification code” can mean something different depending on the type of transfer you are making, where the money is coming from, and where it’s being sent. 

Here are a few of the more common terms you’re likely to see.

SWIFT/BIC codes

First, a bank identification code is often referred to as a BIC. You may also hear it called a SWIFT code. SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which registers these codes for banks worldwide.

As we’ll discuss in the next section, the most common bank identification codes are eight- to 11-character codes that refer to specific banks and/or bank branches. The codes are set according to a standard called ISO 9362. (In case you’re curious, ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization.)

There are also, however, 12-character codes that further determine a local terminal where the account information is actually sent. This 12-digit number is not universally used.

Finding the code for your particular bank can take a little while, but you can get it if you know where to look.

IBAN codes

IBAN stands for International Bank Account Number, and it is used for international transfers to different countries.

IBANs are assigned by the banks themselves, rather than a central organization like SWIFT. (SWIFT does, however, maintain the registry and standards for IBAN codes.)

The IBAN is not as widely adopted as SWIFT/BIC codes, though it is used throughout Europe as well as in some parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. These numbers are much longer than SWIFT/BIC codes and can contain up to 34 characters.

Unlike the bank identification number, you may need to know an IBAN code when sending money overseas. If the country you send to uses IBANs, then you’ll need it when sending   money directly to a bank account.

The standard format for these codes is contained in the IBAN registry, which you can download from the SWIFT website. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t need to wade through that document to find this code.

If you are trying to send money directly to an account and you are not sure whether or not an IBAN number is needed, you can have the account holder check their latest bank statement or online banking. The number should be listed with their other basic account statement information, like the holder’s name and address.

So, let’s say you work in the United States, but you are supporting your family back in Romania, which requires an IBAN to send money to a bank account. 

Here, you are trying to put in money to cover your family’s monthly expenses, so getting the money into their account is the easiest option. In that case, the IBAN is a critical piece of information.

On the other hand, you won’t need their IBAN if you send the funds to a company that does not require an account to pick up funds. Remitly can help you send money to a bank account or for cash pickup, among other options depending on your recipient’s location. 

How do bank identification codes work?

Bank identification code: grandparents playing with their grandchildren

Banks communicate with each other using codes. Remittance messages are communications between banks that show money being transferred to an account at the bank (an inward message) or sent from the account (an outward message). 

To the average person, these messages might look like nonsense, as they often contain long strings of letters and numbers that mean nothing to most bank customers. Therefore, we’ll take a moment to explain the basic structure of a bank identification code, as well as the different variations of those codes.

The basic BIC code consists of eight digits. For example, if you were in Japan and were sending a wire transfer to an American bank account at (the hypothetical) Giraffe Bank, you might use the following swift code: GIRAUSNY. That code breaks down as follows:

  • GIRA is the code for the bank’s name: Here, that’s GIraffe Bank.
  • US is the country code: In this example, that’s the United States.
  • NY is the bank location code: Here, we are sending the transfer to Giraffe Bank’s New York office.

An 11-digit code is structured much the same way, with the three extra characters being used for a particular branch. 

This might be important where you are sending money to a big national bank. In that case, the three-digit branch code helps route the money where it is going more quickly, so there are not unnecessary delays.

Let’s say we wanted to make a money transfer from the U.S. to Japan — to the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) in Osaka, Japan. Then, the code would be SMBCJPJTOSA:

  • SMBC is the code for the bank’s name.
  • JP is the country code for Japan.
  • JT is the bank location code.
  • OSA is the branch code, which in this case is the Osaka branch.

Do you need a bank identification code when using Remitly?

Person counting bills

Now that you understand the basics of bank identification codes, you might be ready to start scouring your bank’s website for its SWIFT or BIC code. If you use the Remitly app, though, you won’t need to take that extra step. 

Our app is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to transfer money. You will only need to know your recipient’s individual bank account information if you’re sending directly to a bank account. 

What’s more, with our app, you aren’t limited to sending money to a bank. You can choose cash pickup, mobile money, or even home delivery, depending on the country of your recipient. 

For example, let’s say you want to send money to your family in Mexico with Remitly. You could send the money to a bank if you wanted to. But you could also send it to a number of non-financial institutions for cash pickup, like certain gas stations, supermarkets, or pharmacies.

Learn to speak the banks’ language

Even if you don’t personally look up every SWIFT or bank identification code you ever use for a money transfer, knowing how the banks talk to each other can be a useful context when making  international money transfers. 

These codes make up the basic vocabulary of international payments, and knowing them puts the power and knowledge in your hands.

Further reading

This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover all aspects of the topics discussed herein. This publication is not a substitute for seeking advice from an applicable specialist or professional. The content in this publication does not constitute legal, tax, or other professional advice from Remitly or any of its affiliates and should not be relied upon as such. While we strive to keep our posts up to date and accurate, we cannot represent, warrant or otherwise guarantee that the content is accurate, complete or up to date.