International money transfers: Western Union vs. bank transfers

We compare a well-known provider to your typical US bank on money transfers.

Western Union is a familiar name in the money transfer business, and nearly everyone has a bank account. But which should you use when sending money to friends and family? The answer: It depends on your circumstances.

western-unionchasebank
Western UnionBank transfers
FeesStarts from $5From $25 to $85 or more
Exchange ratesUp to 6% above the mid-market rateMore than the mid-market rate plus margin
SpeedDelivery speed varies with transfer optionsVaries by bank
Max Transfer AmountMaximum varies by method and paymentVaries by bank

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Western Union and your local bank: How they work

Both major US banks and Western Union can send your money next door or to the other side of the world.

Western Union

To make a transfer with Western Union, you go to its site, enter how much you’re transferring and to which country and see how much you’ll pay for the exchange. Once complete, Western Union converts and delivers your money to a bank account or for cash pickup at locations worldwide. You can also initiate a transfer by phone, through a mobile app or in person.

Major US bank

Bank wire transfers are a quick, efficient way to move your money from one bank account holder to another through banking networks. While in the past you had to visit a bank branch to initiate a money transfer, these days most banks allow you to initiate transfers online and by phone as well. However, delivery options are typically limited to bank account deposits.

Who offers lower fees?

Western Union

For domestic transfers, Western Union typically charges $5.99 to send up to $50 for cash pickup anywhere in the US, with the transfer fee soaring to about $100 for a transfer of $1,000. For transfers to a bank account, you’ll pay lower fees: $5 for transfers up to $50 and about $45 to transfer $1,000.

For international transfers, figuring out your transfer fee can be muddied. Although most fees start at $5, they can be as much as $45 when paying by credit or debit card for cash pickup in certain countries. When sending money to high-traffic countries such as Mexico or India, however, some agents offer fee-free transfer options.

Major US bank

While most major US banks offer free bank-to-bank domestic transfers (or waive fees for specific account levels), they’re typically your most expensive option when sending money internationally. Banks charge higher fees — anywhere from $25 to $85 or more, depending on the details of your transfer — and a bigger variety of fees: incoming, outgoing and other fees. On top of high fees, they offer weaker exchange rates than money transfer specialists. They also offer fewer options for your recipient, typically requiring they have a bank account in which to receive your cash.

  • Winner: Western Union

For international money transfers, Western Union’s typical starting fee is lower than your average fee at a major US bank. Not to mention more ways for your friends and family to receive your cash.
Sites like Western Union for sending money to someone

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Who offers better exchange rates?

To understand who offers better exchange rates, you’ll need to first look at the mid-market rate. This is the true exchange rate that averages the buying and selling rate of a global currency — and the rate banks and transfer services use when they trade among themselves.

Western Union

Depending on the country you’re sending money to, a typical exchange rate at Western Union could be up to 6% above the mid-market rate. If you’re sending a large amount overseas, this means hundreds of dollars that goes straight into Western Union’s coffers.

We’ll use the example of a transfer to euros (EUR):

  • If the mid-market rate is 1 USD = 0.96 EUR
  • Western Union’s exchange rate might be 1 USD = 0.88 EUR

Major US bank

Nearly all banks skew the published exchange rate for a profit, but you could pay higher margins than even those at Western Union.

Using the example of a transfer to euros (EUR):

  • If the mid-market rate is 1 USD = 0.96 EUR
  • Your bank’s exchange rate might be 1 USD = 0.86 EUR
  • Winner: Tie

Unless you’re transferring a considerable sum of money, the difference in exchange rates offered by Western Union or your bank is negligible. Though Western Union may offer rates that are slightly better, depending on where you’re sending your money.

Sites like Chase wire transfers for sending money overseas

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Who’s faster?

Western Union

Delivery speed varies with transfer options. At an agent location or by phone, your transfer could be delivered in minutes (at higher costs). Your cheapest options could take five days or longer, depending on the country.

Major US bank

While delivery speeds vary by bank, your recipient would wait up to a week to receive their money.

  • Winner: Western Union

Both Western Union and your typically US bank will take many days to deliver an international money transfer. However, Western Union offers expedited service that could shave that time down to minutes, depending on where you’re sending it.

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Who offers more options?

Payment MethodsMinimum and maximum transfersDelivery methodsTransfer speedsCountries and currencies
Western Union Bank account, credit or debit card, cash$1 minimum; maximum varies by method and paymentBank transfer, cash pickup, e-walletVaries from minutes to 5+ days200+ countries
Major US bank
Bank accountVaries by bankBank transferVaries from 4 to 7+ daysOften 200+ countries
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Bottom line

Depending on your transfer method and speed, Western Union could offer you lower fees and better exchange rates than your typical US bank will. It also offers your recipient ways to get your cash beyond a bank account.

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