ACH vs EFT: What Is the Difference?

By Timothy Moore · August 12, 2023 · 7 minute read

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ACH vs EFT: What Is the Difference?

Banking today has a lot of one-click convenience, and you may hear the terms EFT and ACH used interchangeably. There is, however, a key difference between these two acronyms: ACH is one kind of EFT.

To understand this better, first know your definitions. Automated Clearing House (ACH) is a national network linking U.S. financial institutions. This electronic system allows them to debit money from one account and then credit it to another. ACH payments are one variety of EFT, or electronic funds transfer. The term EFT includes additional methods of moving money electronically, such as wire transfers.

So all ACH transactions are considered EFT, but not all EFTs are ACH.

Keep reading to learn more including:

•   Which payments are considered ACH?

•   What are some other EFT payment methods?

•   How do EFT vs. ACH vs. wire transfers compare?

ACH Transfers

ACH stands for Automated Clearing House, a network governed by Nacha (National Automated Clearing House Association). The first ACH association appeared in 1972 in California; by 1974, multiple regional networks joined together to form Nacha, which has since overseen the ACH network nationally.

But what is ACH? Put simply, ACH is a type of electronic fund transfer (EFT) that allows individuals, corporations, and even the government to electronically move money from one bank account to another. It can be thought of as a hub that keeps funds flowing.

ACH payments work domestically; that is, among banks and credit unions within the United States. You may be able to send money via international ACH transfers, but other countries will have their own networks and governing bodies. Some countries do not have an equivalent network at all.

Funds first go to the Automated Clearing House, which then reviews the payments and releases them in batches throughout the day. For this reason, ACH transfers are not immediate. How long ACH transfers take can vary: Traditional ACH transfers can take one to two business days, but in recent years, Nacha has enabled same-day transfers for eligible transactions.

How Do ACH Transfers Work?

ACH transfers work thanks to a data file that includes information about a prospective payment. The file goes to the payor’s bank to the clearing house and then on to the payee’s bank, with details on the transaction. The funds get moved into the intended location, and the process is completed, transferring money from one account to another.

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How Is ACH Used?

Consumers and businesses can use ACH for a variety of purposes. For example, employers often use the ACH network for direct deposit. This enables them to deposit paychecks directly into employees’ bank accounts. When an entity, like an employer or the government, initiates the ACH process to send funds, this is classified as an ACH credit.

Individuals can provide bank account information to businesses, such as mortgage lenders and utility companies, to enable ACH debit transactions as part of their electronic banking. This means those companies are able to directly debit funds from the individual account using ACH as a form of electronic bill payment. Businesses and individuals may utilize ACH debit for autopay (recurring payments) or for one-time payments.

Even peer-to-peer (P2P) payment methods like PayPal and Venmo can utilize the Automated Clearing House network for electronic transfers. (When such services offer instant payments, they may charge a fee and use your credit card instead, so proceed carefully in these situations.)

Typically, the employer or merchant enabling ACH payments is the one to pay ACH fees.

Recommended: ACH Payments vs. a Check

What Is EFT?

Electronic fund transfers (EFTs) refer to a much broader range of electronic payments. ACH is a type of EFT, but EFT can also include payments like wire transfers, debit card payments, credit card payments, local bank transfers, instant P2P payments, and even ATM transfers. Electronic fund transfers can be domestic or international in scope.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau refers to electronic fund transfers as “any transfer of funds that is initiated through an electronic terminal, telephone, computer, or magnetic tape.”

Note: Another common term in finance is ETF (exchange-traded fund). The acronyms are similar, so it’s important to recognize that an ETF is an investment security, not a payment method.

How Do EFT Payments Work?

EFT payments may use the ACH network, or they may not. An example of a transaction that doesn’t use ACH is tapping or swiping your debit card to make a payment. It’s an instantaneous transfer of funds, without banking information being exchanged. The money is moved from your account to the store’s without any verification other than your PIN.

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Types of EFT Payments

EFT payment is a broad category, including common transfers like ACH and wire transfers. Here is just a short list of payment methods that can be classified as EFT:

•   ACH transfers

•   Wire transfers

•   Peer-to-peer payments (often done through ACH)

•   Debit card transactions (in person or online)

•   Credit card transactions (in person or online)

•   ATM transfers

•   E-checks

•   Telephone orders

Do EFT Payments Have Fees?

Typically, a merchant will pay a small percentage of a transaction’s amount for the privilege of using an EFT method. In some situations, you, the consumer, may be assessed a fee for using these methods. For instance, some merchants may add a surcharge for credit card vs. cash or debit card payments. Or if you pay by phone, there may be a surcharge. You should be alerted to these add-on costs, however, in advance, so you can decide if you want to proceed or not.

What Is the Difference Between ACH and EFT?

We’ve established that the key difference between ACH and EFT is that an ACH is a type of EFT. This table further breaks down the distinction:



AvailabilityTraditional ACH is available domestically (in the U.S.).Various types of EFTs can be used internationally.
SecurityTransfers pass through the ACH, which provides an added level of security over paper checks and debit card transactions.While ACH and wire transfers are less prone to fraud, other forms of EFTs (like debit and credit cards) can be susceptible.
SpeedCan be same-day but never instant; may take multiple days.Can be instant.

ACH vs EFT vs Wire Transfers

When banking, you’re likely to hear about different ways to move money, including ACH, EFT, and wire transfers. Here’s a closer look: ACH is a type of EFT, but another common type of EFT is a wire transfer, which can be used to send money to someone’s bank account.

Wires can be both domestic and international and often have a fee for both the sender and the receiver, depending on the banks or transfer service agencies (like Western Union) involved. Wire transfers allow you to make an electronic payment “by wire,” such as through SWIFT, the Clearing House Interbank Payments System, or the Federal Reserve Wire Network. Wire transfers can take up to two days to fully process; international ones might take longer.

Should You Use Electronic Transfers?

Electronic transfers are common in modern banking. It is likely that you already utilize some form of electronic transfer, whether you receive a direct deposit from your employer like 96% of American workers, have your utility bills on autopay, pay for groceries with a debit card, or use peer-to-peer transfer apps to split the dinner bill or pay a friend for concert tickets. When you buy a house, the mortgage company may even ask you to wire funds in time for the closing.

The Takeaway

Automated clearing house (ACH) transfers are a type of electronic funds transfer (EFT), which allows for the direct debiting and crediting of funds from one bank account to another. Common examples of ACH include direct deposit from an employer into your bank account or an automatic bill payment debited from your account.

ACH is only one type of EFT, however; other types include wire transfers and debit and credit card payments, among others. These kinds of payments are commonly used today to keep funds flowing quickly and securely and play an important role in your banking life.

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Is EFT the same as direct deposit?

EFT stands for electronic funds transfer. Direct deposit is one example of EFT.

Is ACH a wire transfer?

While ACH and wire transfers are similar transactions, they operate on different timelines and according to different rules. Wire transfers (especially domestic ones) can occur almost immediately, while ACH transactions can take a couple or a few business days.

What is the difference between ACH and autopay?

ACH is a method for electronically transferring funds between accounts. Autopay involves your setting up recurring payments of bills with a vendor. It typically uses the ACH network to complete those transactions.

Is ACH the same as direct deposit?

Direct deposit is one kind of ACH payment, but other kinds of ACH transactions are possible as well.

What is the best EFT payment method?

The best EFT method will depend upon various factors, such as timing and the technology you can most easily access or are most comfortable using.

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SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a recurring deposit of regular income to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government benefit payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, or are non-recurring in nature (e.g., IRS tax refunds), do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.

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