Bank codes demystified: IBAN and SWIFT

We break down these international systems that move your money between countries.

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With the volume of transactions running into the thousands daily, how does a bank keep track of it all? One way is by using a system of unique codes assigned to each bank it does business with. These codes help financial institutions process worldwide transactions with fewer errors and less confusion, which are good things when it comes to your hard-earned cash.

These IDs have different names in different countries, but two systems you’ll hear about quite often are IBAN and SWIFT codes. These codes are internationally recognized by other financial institutions to identify your specific bank among worldwide payments and other transactions.

What is a SWIFT code?

SWIFT is short for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Despite its oversized name, it too is simply a worldwide bank ID.

Unlike IBAN, which identifies specific bank accounts, SWIFT refers to a specific bank only, including banks in Canada. Some 40,000 banks and offices worldwide are part of the SWIFT network. You’ll also hear the term “BIC” thrown around. BIC, standing for Bank Identifier Code, is just another name for SWIFT code.

What does a SWIFT code look like?

A SWIFT code is an alphanumeric code containing information that identifies a bank and branch. It can be 8 or 11 characters long, depending on which bank office it refers to.

An example of a SWIFT code is this one for the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in Vancouver: ROYCCAT2VIC

We can break down this SWIFT code to discover:

  • A four-letter bank code
  • A two-letter country code
  • A two-letter location code
  • A three-digit branch code

Where can I find my SWIFT code?

If you live in a country that’s part of the SWIFT network, you can find your SWIFT code by either looking on your bank statement, signing in to your online banking system or calling your bank.

If you’re sending money internationally and need a SWIFT code, ask your recipient for the SWIFT code of the bank to which their account belongs.

What is an IBAN?

Short for International Bank Account Number, an IBAN is a unique number assigned to specific bank accounts involved in international business. Though not exclusive to Europe, IBAN is used in most European countries. Canada only uses SWIFT codes instead of IBANs.

What does an IBAN look like?

An IBAN is an alphanumeric code containing information that identifies a bank, country and account number. With lengths fixed by country, IBANs can be up to 34 characters.

An example of an IBAN at the UK’s National Westminster Bank is GB 29 NWBK 601613 31926819.

Breaking down this UK IBAN, we find:

  • A two-letter country code
  • A two-digit transaction number
  • A four-letter bank code
  • A six-digit bank sort code
  • A unique number specific to the bank account

Where can I find my IBAN?

If you live in a country that uses IBAN, you can find your IBAN on your bank statement or by signing in to your online banking system.

If you’re sending money internationally and need an IBAN, ask your recipient for the IBAN of their deposit account. Some countries you’re sending money to may require you to provide one. In this case, you can combine your BSB and account number without any spaces.

Bottom line

The mysterious IBAN and SWIFT codes are anything but: They identify specific banks among the many financial transactions conducted worldwide among bank accounts. And they’re especially important when it comes to international money transfers.

Learn more about getting the best rates and fees to friends, family and businesses abroad in our guide to international money transfers.

Frequently asked questions

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