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A fierce battle is taking place in the lucrative foreign exchange (forex) market. Traditionally, banks got our patronage while competing among themselves and money transfer services, such as Western Union and MoneyGram. In the past ten years, the landscape has changed significantly with the rise of financial technology companies (fintechs), which seek to disrupt traditional lines of business, namely, how money is sent between people.
Fintechs leverage the internet and technology to create innovative cost-saving solutions. Also, they focus on keeping overhead costs low to pass savings to their customers. While banks continue to offer terrible rates wrapped in high/hidden fees, some fintechs exchange at interbank/spot rates and charge less than 1 percent or nothing at all.
There are at least a dozen online money transfer companies that offer currency conversion services with some focused mainly on remittance. For example, Remitly enables transfers from the United States to the Philippines, India, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Perú, & El Salvador. However, residents of those countries can’t send money to individuals in the United States. Here is a short-list of companies that facilitate online money transfers:
- Payza (not recommended)
- Skrill (not recommended)
- Travelex (not recommended)
- Western Union
- Xoom (Owned by PayPal)
Azimo doesn’t appeal to me. Although it charges low fees, its exchange rates aren’t the best. Furthermore, the pool of countries in which I can send money from is shallow and excludes the United States. Azimo appears to be a small, regional player in Europe and nothing more. For instance, I can only select from a handful of European countries when I attempt to set up my profile. Furthermore, Azimo doesn’t offer me enough services to manage my money. By contrast, PayPal, Revolut, and TransferWise provide multiple services for global citizens, remote workers, digital nomads, and frequent travelers. All three offer a range of services, including money transfer services, current accounts, and prepaid debit cards. Let’s review what PayPal, Xoom (a PayPal company), Revolut, and TransferWise offer individuals (as opposed to businesses).
PayPal provides online payment and money transfer solutions. It enables its users to transact money through their account balances, bank accounts, and credit cards. Its money transfer and payment platforms include Braintree, Xoom, and Venmo. It “believes that now is the time to democratize financial services so that moving and managing money is a right for all citizens, not just the affluent.” PayPal’s services and products include:
- Buyer’s insurance
- Donation transfer
- Money transfer
- Current account
- Online payment
- Prepaid debit card
Revolut is a digital banking alternative. Its app allows users to transfer, exchange, and spend money with a multi-currency card that is accepted everywhere. It is on “a mission to build a fair and frictionless platform to use and manage money around the world.”
- Commission-free stock trading
- Commission-free cryptocurrency trading
- Current account
- Medical insurance
- Mobile phone insurance
- Money transfer
- Savings account (Vaults)
- Travel insurance
TransferWise has financial services for everyone including people who travel, live, and work abroad. Sending money overseas with TransferWise is up to eight times cheaper than banks, and its borderless account allows users to hold, manage, and spend money in 20+ currencies. It provides “the fairest, easiest way to manage your money internationally.”
- Money transfer
- Current account
- Prepaid debit card
Money Transfer Services
Local & Single-Currency
- PayPal offers single-currency transfers. When users send and receive money in the same currency, no fee is applied. Sending money in the same currency can be accomplished through PayPal and Venmo (within the U.S. only).
- Revolut offers single-currency transfers. When users send and receive money in the same currency, no fee is applied.
- TransferWise doesn’t support single-currency transfers. It’s a currency conversion service, so it doesn’t receive and send out the same currency in a single transfer.
International & Multiple Currencies
Regarding foreign exchange transactions, there are a few items to consider:
- The quoted exchange or conversion rate. The best exchange rate you can get is known as the real-time or mid-market rate. I call it the “Google rate” because Google showcases real-time rates between two currencies in its search results. Most money transfer providers quote non-real-time rates to profit from bid-ask spreads. For example, if real-time rates are 1.31/1.32, a dealer might quote 1.28/1.35. The dealer would buy at 1.28 and sell at 1.35.
- The fixed or percentage-based fee. Companies will quote a fixed or percentage-based rate to convert currencies. For example, $3.99 or 1 percent of the total amount exchanged.
- Funding methods. Funding methods may include bank transfer, debit card, credit card, or cash for in-person transfers.
- Ways to send money. Ways to send money might include in-person, phone, online, and app.
- Ways to receive/collect money: Ways to accept money might include bank account, online money account, and cash pickup.
- Processing times. Processing times vary depending on how a transfer is funded, sent, and received. For online transfers, the process can take minutes to a few business days.
- Transparency. Transparency refers to how transparent a company is regarding its exchange rates, fees, and processing times. For example, the company provides a transfer calculator/transaction estimator and does not force a user to create an account or submit payment before getting transaction details.
- Tracking. Tracking methods might include SMS/mobile notification, email notification, account activity/status, and customer support.
- Currencies. Currencies matter to the point that the currency or currencies you need are supported.
PayPal doesn’t transact mid-market rates. They state, “We receive a wholesale rate quote from our bank twice a day.” It charges a currency conversion fee of 2.5 to 3.5 percent. Funding methods include PayPal balance, bank transfer, debit card, credit card, and PayPal Credit. Users can send money through its website and app. Recipients must have PayPal accounts to receive money. Regarding transparency, processing details are all over the place, for example, on its PayPal fees page, and in its user agreement. Also, customers learn of transaction outcomes right before clicking submit.
Xoom doesn’t use mid-market rates. They say, “Exchange rates are based on world currency markets, which change all the time. Foreign exchange rates listed in newspapers or elsewhere are generally wholesale or inter-bank rates that are not available for individuals.” Xoom charges a fixed fee, which may be waived depending on the payment method, transfer amount, currency selection, and receiving option. Funding methods include bank transfer, debit card, and credit card. Users can send money through Xoom’s website and app. Recipients can receive money in one of three ways including cash pickup, bank deposit, or home delivery. Regarding transparency, Xoom provides fee and exchange rate calculators on its “Fees and Exchange Rates” page.
Revolut uses mid-market rates but states,
If you exchange currencies on weekdays (Mon-Fri UTC) you will receive the interbank exchange rate without any markup on all currencies except for Thai Baht, Russian Rubbles, Ukrainian Hryvnia, and Turkish Lira where we add a 1% markup, with a small 0.5% fee for anything above £5,000 each month. On the weekend (Sat-Sun UTC) we fix the rate we provide to protect ourselves against fluctuations, this means we apply markups of:
- +0.5% to all major currencies (ie. USD, GBP, EUR, AUD, CAD, NZD, CHF, JPY, SEK, HKD, NOK, SGD, DKK, PLN, and CZK); and
- +1% to all other currencies including THB, RUB, UAH and TRY. (this means over the weekend THB, RUB, UAH, and TRY have a 2% markup.)
Since the interbank exchange rate is constantly fluctuating, the rate that we lock in for the weekend may not be the same as the rate that is available when the markets open on Monday morning. (Source: Revolut-What foreign exchange rate will I get?)
Revolut does not charge a currency conversion fee for transfers up to £5,000 or equivalent per rolling month, after which a 0.5 percent fair usage fee applies. Funding methods include bank transfer, debit card, and credit card. Users can send money through its app. Recipients can receive money into their bank accounts and Revolut current accounts.
TransferWise uses mid-market rates. It charges a combination of percentage and fixed fees. Percentage fees range from 0.5 to 2 percent, in most cases, depending on the payment method, transfer amount, and currency selection. Funding methods include bank transfer, debit card, and credit card. Users can send money through its website and app. Recipients can receive money into their bank accounts and TransferWise current accounts. Regarding transparency, TransferWise has an exchange rate and fee calculator on its homepage.
PayPal and Xoom don’t provide mid-market rates, and their fees are high compared to other providers. Revolut and TransferWise exchange at mid-market rates and charge small fees. While Revolut promotes mid-market rates and free transfers, it has weekend markups and monthly limits.
A current (checking) account is a bank account that allows you to conduct everyday financial activities such as deposits, withdrawals, bill payments, and recurring payments. A current account typically doesn’t attract interest but may receive if it maintains a minimum amount as set forth by the bank, for example, £25,000.
PayPal offers a current account, which allows users to deposit and withdraw funds, send and receive funds, request funds, pay for goods and services online, and hold and convert multiple currencies. Xoom doesn’t offer a current account.
Revolut offers a current account, which allows users to deposit and withdraw funds, send and receive funds, request funds, and hold and convert multiple currencies. Users can get international bank account numbers (IBANs) for the U.K. and Europe.
TransferWise offers a current account, which allows users to deposit and withdraw funds, send and receive funds, request funds, and hold and convert multiple currencies. Users can get bank account details for the U.K., U.S., EU, Australia, and New Zealand.
All three companies offer current accounts with different benefits and drawbacks. For example, PayPal facilitates paying for goods and services online but doesn’t offer bank accounts. Revolut and TransferWise offer bank accounts but those accounts don’t support shopping online.
The big three all have prepaid debit cards as a regional product. PayPal’s card is available to U.S. citizens, whereas Revolut and TransferWise issue cards to U.K., EEA, and Swiss residents.
When comparing prepaid debit cards, consider the following:
- Features and benefits
- Delivery method/cost, card purchase, secondary cardholder, and replacement fees and options
- Monthly fees
- Transaction, purchase, withdrawal, and ATM fees
- Daily and monthly transaction limits
- Funding fees and options to reload, deposit, transfer, and top up
- Card issuer and operator (the company behind the card like Mastercard or Visa)
- Rewards and perks
- Exchange rate and currency conversion fees and policies
PayPal, Revolut, and TransferWise offer more than many established money transfer and fintech companies. They are responding to technological changes and mindful of customer needs. Although all three companies have strengths and weaknesses, they can fully support your financial objectives no matter where you are in the world.