Sending a Small Amount of Money Overseas

For reasons I won’t go into details, I need to send US$100 to someone in Mexico. I’m not in a big hurry. The money doesn’t have to be there in minutes or hours, but I don’t want it to take weeks or months either. Obviously I’m interested in reliability and cost, both in fees and the hit on the exchange rate. What are my options?

Mail a check

A check in the mail probably takes a week to get there. Then my recipient can take it to their bank and have the bank collect it. I don’t know how long that will take. I’m guessing another week or two. So total 2-3 weeks.

In terms of cost, there is only postage (< $1) on my side. The recipient’s bank perhaps will charge a small amount for collecting a check from the U.S. but I imagine it will be minimal too. This is probably the lowest cost option but it will take longer than I’d like.

Wire Transfer

I can also go to a bank and use their wire transfer service. This is expensive for transferring a small amount because the fee is usually fixed for any amount. An outgoing international wire transfer can cost $40 unless you get free wire transfers.

Western Union

With Western Union, you can add Western Union as a payee in your online billpay. When Western Union receive the money, it will send it to your recipient. The fee is zero, but there is a spread in the exchange rate. That’s how Western Union makes money on the transaction.

Bank Partnership Remittance Service

I don’t know if that’s the proper name for this kind of service. Some banks established service partnerships with some other banks in other countries. They offer remittance service which lets customers send money to those specific countries.

The recipient either sets up a bank account with the partner bank or picks up cash from the partner bank. Because it’s a bank-to-bank partnership, the service does not cover all countries. It also requires the recipient to do something with a partner bank on the other side. If they happen to use that bank or that bank has a branch location near them, great. If not, the partner bank may not be convenient for them.

This is the service I ended up using. Fortunately Mexico is a popular country for this kind of service. At the bank I used (Wells Fargo), their ExpressSend service covers Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, China, India, Philippines, and Vietnam. For Mexico, the partner banks are HSBC Mexico, Banorte, and BBVA Bancomer. My recipient also happens to use one of these banks. That made things a lot easier. I went to the bank and I gave them the recipient’s name, address and phone number. If I need to send money regularly, I can also give them the recipient’s bank account number and set up an ongoing link. Because it was only a one-time transfer, I selected the “cash pickup” option.

Two days later, my recipient told me he got the money. Problem solved. Because of my other account relationships with Wells Fargo, they didn’t charge me any fee for this service (otherwise $5). The exchange rate was about 2% less than the wholesale rate reported on Yahoo! for that day. So that’s how the banks make money. For a one-off transfer of $100, a cost of $2 is reasonable for me.

[Update on Sept. 1, 2013] If I need to do this again, I will useĀ  Western Union. It covers more countries and it doesn’t limit the recipient to specific banks on the other side. If you pay by online billpay, the fee is zero. For sending a small amount, the cost of the exchange rate spread is minimal.

If someone needs to send money regularly, there are probably other more convenient and/or less expensive options. Do you know any of them?

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  1. arvind says

    To India, good option is to use If the recipient has an account with ICICI (popular Indian bank) and you do ACH transfer, the only cost for you is Rs. 25 ($0.5).

  2. csoren says

    I don’t send to others but have to pull dollars from the US often (I work in France but most of my salary is paid in USD.) My french bank takes 4 weeks to credit a US check and wires as you say are expensive; also the French banks pay a lousy exchange rate. So my spending money comes from the ATMs. VISA pays a good exchange rate, Bank of America lets me pull $1500 a day at no add’l cost if I use an ATM from their partner bank here, and my Fido SmartCash card lets me pull $500 a day from any ATM with no ATM fee.

    For anyone who needs to send money to another country regularly (i.e. a family member), I would suggest setting up a bank account for that purpose & give them a debit card.

  3. csoren says

    Edit to above: I meant to say, Bank of American lets me pull $1500 a day at NO additional cost if I use their partner bank.

    [Note from Editor: I added the word ‘no’ to your previous comment to avoid confusing other readers.]

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