Disruptive startups lowering the cost of sending money abroad

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Banks were once the natural place to turn for UK businesses and consumers looking to transfer money abroad.

But new players in the world of international transfers are making it faster, cheaper and easier to send funds across borders. Statistics from FXcompared, a transfer comparison service, show that banks routinely charge more than three times what other providers charge for transfers equivalent to £1,000.

International bank transfer fees are more than just an inconvenience for consumers. Each year UK SMEs spend £4 billion in fees, creating a serious burden on small businesses. Fortunately, however, the market is changing. Below are five industry disruptors aiming to win business by taking the sting out of international transfers.


TransferWise was born out of frustration. The firm’s founders, Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus, were losing large sums of money in bank transfers between the UK and their native Estonia. So, in 2011, they started TransferWise to help others like them save.

Users of the service deposit the funds they want transferred into the company’s bank account. TransferWise then converts the funds using the day’s mid-market exchange rate and pays recipients from a local bank in their country. TransferWise is cheaper than bank transfers because, unlike big finance firms, it doesn’t add a margin to the day’s ‘real’ exchange rate. Independent transfer comparison website Monito found that the platform was on average 83 percent cheaper than the UK’s big four banks.


This Dublin-based peer-to-peer exchange platform has been described as an online-dating resource for people looking to swap currencies. Its premise is simple: buyers and sellers create accounts and meet on the CurrencyFair marketplace to swap money. There are two ways to go about a trade. Where speed is key, customers can use the platform’s ‘create an auto-transaction’ feature, which searches the CurrencyFair system to find the best available rate for immediate transfer. On average, the company claims this will be 0.35 percent of the interbank rate, the rate charged on short-term loans between banks.

Alternatively, customers can set their own exchange rate and wait for someone in the CurrencyFair marketplace to match it. All in all, transfers take between one and five working days to complete. The service currently supports exchanges in 18 currencies.


Users can transfer money to more than 190 countries in over 80 currencies using Azimo’s website or smartphone app. The firm reports that customers can save up to 90 percent on rates set by “banks or other money transfer services”. Receivers can choose where their money should go: to a bank account, a mobile wallet or a designated Azimo pick-up point.

In 2016, the company launched the world’s first Facebook Messenger chat bot. Azimo customers can request a friend’s details via the instant messaging service, which has more than one billion monthly users. Once the transfer initiator receives a reply, they simply tap it to confirm the exchange.


This social payments app uses blockchain technology — the digital ledger software that records bitcoin transactions — to facilitate international exchanges. By converting euros, US dollars or UK pounds into bitcoin before transferring them, the service is able to operate instantly and with negligible fees. The app is also integrated with Apple’s iMessage service, enabling iPhone users to send and receive payments with a simple message. Circle launched in the UK in April 2016 and was the first digital currency company to be granted an e-money licence by the Financial Conduct Authority. Circle plans to expand to China in the near future.

World First

Founded in London in 2004, World First is one of the older challengers in the field. It handles transactions of £1,000 or more, making it ideal for business transactions and large personal transfers such as tuition fees and mortgage payments. World First requires users to set up an online account and assigns them a personal specialist to guide them through the process.

Customers can use the company’s app, website or telephone service to set up an exchange. Funds to be exchanged are sent to World First, which transfers the money to the beneficiary on an agreed date. World First claims it can save users between 0.25 percent and 4 percent of the value of a transfer simply by taking a smaller margin than banks do.

As the number of international exchange options grows, businesses and individuals no longer need to rely on banks. The currency exchange market has been disrupted by new technologies and services, and today there are more and cheaper ways to transfer money than ever before.

Photo: From Getty of TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus

Jesse Onslow Norton is a writer, editor and communications consultant at Flibl. A former coder, his editorial work focuses on fintech, digital transformation, policy and regulation. His clients include corporations, governments, startups and SMEs from across the world. Follow him on Twitter @JesseOnslow.

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