What is a BIC Code?

9 min read

What is a BIC Code?

The week is almost over, and you finally close that deal with a supplier you’ve been eager to bring on for months. But before starting work, they need a deposit. What’s more, the supplier is located outside of the country, and since the project is time-sensitive, funds must arrive fast. The quickest method, you decide, is a wire transfer. But what’s required, and how can you ensure that the process will go smoothly?

Most people know they need the recipient’s account number for a wire transfer, but what they miss is the need for a bank identifier code (BIC). This code acts like a physical address for where your money will be sent, and without it, the financial institution can’t route funds to the correct location.

This code acts like a physical address for where your money will be sent, and without it, the financial institution can’t route funds to the correct location

But what is a BIC code, and how does it work? And what is the most efficient way to find the right code and get the transfer completed quickly? Keep reading to learn more about BIC codes, the SWIFT system that uses them, and where to find the right code.

International Wire Transfers: A Quick Primer

Wire transfers aren’t a new idea; in fact, they were first launched back in 1872 using the existing telegraph network. A telegraph operator could “wire” money that was paid in the local office. This method quickly gained popularity; by 1877, the service was used to transfer over $2 million each year.

The process today is more advanced but pretty similar. The person or business that wants to conduct a wire transfer provides the relevant details, including an identification code, so the wire transfer provider knows where to send the funds. The sending bank wires a message, typically via SWIFT, which is the entity that requires BIC codes, to indicate how much money is being sent and to which account it should be posted. Deposits can take several days to post for international wire transfers.

A bank SWIFT code does not move any money or physical assets but instead is a communication system for completing transactions.

But let’s get back to SWIFT, because this is actually the system that conducts transactions and requires a BIC code. SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. A bank SWIFT code does not move any money or physical assets but instead is a communication system for completing transactions. What’s more, SWIFT is not a corporation but a cooperative, which means it’s owned by the institutions that use the network. More on this in a minute.

First, let’s return to the basics of the wire process and why a BIC code matters. If you are using your bank, the international wire transfer process may look something like this:

Find the wire transfer section in your online banking. Typically this is at the top bar of the page, under a “Transfer” tab. You should be able to select an option for international wire transfers.


Check your transfer limit. Some financial institutions put a limit on the amount you can transfer online. For example, if your limit is $5,000 and you need to wire $10,000, you may need to contact the financial institution and request a limit increase prior to completing your international wire transfer. This is usually a relatively easy request to complete.


Enter the recipient’s bank details. This is the part of the transaction where the BIC code is necessary, and you may wonder, “What is my BIC code?” You can try asking the recipient. But if he or she doesn’t know it, there is an easy way to locate it, and we’ll talk about that shortly.Provide additional details. You’ll also need the recipient’s account number or IBAN (International Bank Account Number).


Also be prepared for fees, which usually run anywhere from $40 to $50, but in some cases can be as much as $80. Most banks will list their fees online, so check with yours or view an online list of the most popular ones to get a sense of what to expect. Sometimes people are surprised by “hidden” fees or fees imposed to exchange the funds to local currency.


For example, if you pay in US dollars but your supplier uses euros, the supplier may want to have dollars converted to euros, incurring a cost for the conversion. A supplier that transacts in US dollars frequently, however, may elect to keep the currency as is, thus avoiding the additional fees.

BIC Codes and the SWIFT System

As mentioned previously, SWIFT is the institution that most banks use to complete international wire transfers, and it requires a BIC code.

It’s also important to note that sometimes the BIC code is called a SWIFT code or a SWIFT/BIC code, and all of these terms are interchangeable.

SWIFT doesn’t handle the actual money but instead acts as a secure method for financial institutions to communicate for the purpose of wire transfers. As the most popular infrastructure, it is used in over 200 different countries to send and receive funds. Prior to the advent of SWIFT, many financial institutions used a system called telex to handle wire transfers, but this system was notoriously slow and there were security concerns around the infrastructure and the transfers being conducted.

Since SWIFT isn’t a corporation but rather a cooperative, a company joining it receives shares and voting rights and becomes involved in the running of the cooperative.

The majority of SWIFT members are banks, but SWIFT is also used by money brokers, security broker-dealers and investment management firms. Since SWIFT isn’t a corporation but rather a cooperative, a company joining it receives shares and voting rights and becomes involved in the running of the cooperative. Membership requires a banking license, but not all those that join are traditional banks; there are many alternative wire transfer methods and institutions available.

Each financial institution that participates in SWIFT has a unique code that ranges between 8 and 11 characters long, and provides directions as to where funds should be sent. The BIC code includes a series of numbers and letters that tells the recipient key pieces of information about the location of the financial institution. Let’s take a look at the various parts of the code and what they mean.

BIC Code: What Is It? Understanding the Code

The BIC code was designed to identify each financial institution, to make the transfer of international funds streamlined and more accurate. The code includes a combination of numbers or letters in a specific order, as detailed here:

Bank code: The first four letters of the BIC code represent the bank’s name. Typically this is a shortened version of the bank’s name. For example, the first four letters of Bank of America’s BIC code are BOFA. The first four letters of Wells Fargo’s BIC code are WFBI. The characters that appear in the bank part of the code are always letters.

Country code: The next two characters of the BIC code represent the country where the bank resides. For example, Bank of America includes the code US to indicate the country is the United States of America. Therefore, the first six characters of the code would be BOFAUS. This two letter code always uses numbers.

Location code: The next two characters can be a combination of numbers or letters that identify where the bank’s head office is located.


Branch code: The last three characters of the code are optional and, if included, show the specific branch of a financial institution. The branch code is also what determines if the BIC code will be 8 or 11 digits long as it adds an additional 3 digits to the sequence. This additional coding is useful if a bank has numerous branches, and it helps route the funds more efficiently.


For example, Wells Fargo has the following code for its El Paso, Texas, branch: WFBIUS6SELP. The last three letters, ELP, indicate that the BIC code references El Paso, Texas. Usually the letters XXX are used to indicate the head branch.

Answering the question “What is a BIC number?” is a good start, but the question you most need the answer to is “What is my BIC code?” Let’s take a look at how to locate your BIC code if you’re receiving a transaction and also how to find a recipient’s number if you’re sending funds internationally.

Finding the Right BIC Code

Getting a BIC code is relatively easy if you know where to look. Here are a few different options for locating this code.

  1. Ask the recipient. This is the easiest and most straightforward option. The BIC code is often printed on account statements, so the recipient would just need to take a look or ask his or her local bank. But sometimes the recipient can’t find the code or, in the case of working with a supplier, will see that finding out from the accounting department can be cumbersome and time-consuming. In those cases, it’s best to move on to another option.
  2. Locate the code online. Another simple way to locate a bank’s BIC code is to search the financial institution’s name, city and the words “BIC code.” For example, when I search “bank of Hawaii Honolulu bic code,” the search results show the code is BOHIUS77; we know BOHI indicates the financial institution, US indicates the country and 77 is the location code. This creates the 11 digit code that you need to transact.
  3. Search a database. Finally, you can search a BIC code database to locate the required code. For example, IBAN offers one where you can quickly search codes in an online database. This is also a good method for double-checking and confirming the BIC code that you received elsewhere is accurate.

Once you have your BIC code in hand along with the recipient’s account number, you’re ready to initiate your international wire transfer. The amount of time it takes for funds to post varies, based on the financial institution and the location from which the transfer is sent. There are alternative methods for sending wire transfers that can speed up this transfer time.

BIC Codes and your business

Answering the question “What is a bank BIC number?” and understanding how the SWIFT system works can help you speed up the amount of time spent conducting international wire transfers. But it’s also important, when completing international wire transfers, to consider other factors, such as fees.

When a business makes transfers using a traditional bank, fees may be assessed by numerous banks — anywhere from three to five along the way.

Businesses that conduct a large number of wire transfers may not notice the impact of fees until they start adding up, and over time, this can be costly and eat away at potential profits and revenue. When a business makes transfers using a traditional bank, fees may be assessed by numerous banks — anywhere from three to five along the way. Thus, it’s worth it to check out alternative options for wire transfers. Shopping around is a good starting point, and having your BIC code available upfront will save you time once you’re ready to transact.

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