What Is the Difference Between ACH & Wire Transfer?

A money transfer envelope for Western Union.
Image Credit: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When money is moving through the banking system, it needs a high-speed electronic highway to reach its destination. Whether you're sending money to another individual,or writing checks against your bank account, these systems -- including the Automated Clearing House and other networks -- carry out the transaction almost immediately. The basic concept behind these systems is the use of digital networks in place of traditional paper.

Basic Wire Transfer Operation

Wire transfers provide a secure way to move money from one bank to another. A wire transfer uses a financial communication network, such as the one provided by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication or the Federal Reserve Wire Network. Instead of actual physical cash moving from place to place, the sending and receiving banks make electronic entries on their own accounting systems, and then reconcile credits and debits over the network.

Completing a Wire Transfer

To complete a wire transfer, you must have funds, either in cash or cleared and available in a bank account. Banks will complete wire transfers for customers in person, over the phone, or over the Internet, accessed through the bank's own website. Senders must designate the routing number of the account where the money is going and the identification code, such as the unique SWIFT code, used by that particular bank. The bank sending as well as the bank receiving may impose limits and charge fees to complete the transfer.

Automated Clearing House Payments

Wire transfer networks are designed for one-time, long-distance transactions. The Automated Clearing House, by contrast, is an electronic network used by U.S. banks, credit unions, and businesses to clear regular, recurring payments. If your employer deposits your paycheck directly into your account, for example, its bank probably uses the ACH network to make the transfer. If you pay a utility bill monthly directly from your personal bank account, the payment likely moves via ACH, as set up in an agreement you made with your bank and the payee.

Principle Differences

Wire transfers link banks directly. In an ACH transfer, by contrast, banks send and receive payments in large batches to and from the clearing house. The process is less expensive and a bit slower, as the batch file moves less frequently, and there can be a delay before funds actually clear. Wire transfers, although they charge higher fees, also provide more security because the sending and receiving banks must verify the users' identities. ACH transactions don't require verification of identity, making them more susceptible to fraud.

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