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Bank Guarantee vs Letter of Credit: What’s the Difference?

By Jacqueline DeMarco · August 08, 2022 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Bank Guarantee vs Letter of Credit: What’s the Difference?

A bank guarantee and a letter of credit are quite similar. With both instruments the issuing bank accepts a customer’s liability if the customer defaults on the money it owes, is a promise from a lending institution that ensures the bank will step up if a debtor can’t cover a debt.

Bank guarantees are often used in real estate contracts and infrastructure projects, while letters of credit are primarily used in global transactions.

Bank guarantees represent a more significant contractual obligation for banks than letters of credit do.

With a guarantee, the seller’s claim goes first to the buyer, and if the buyer defaults, then the claim goes to the bank. With letters of credit, the seller’s claim goes first to the bank, not the buyer. Although the seller will likely get paid in both cases, letters of credit offer more assurance to sellers than guarantees generally do.

What Is a Bank Guarantee?

Bank guarantees serve a key purpose for businesses. The bank, through their due diligence of the applicant, provides credibility to them as a viable business partner in a particular business dealing. In essence, the bank puts its seal of approval on the applicant’s creditworthiness, co-signing on behalf of the applicant as it relates to the specific contract the two external parties are undertaking.

A bank guarantee is an assurance from a bank regarding a contract between a buyer and a seller. Essentially, the bank guarantee acts as a risk management tool. A bank guarantee provides support and assurance to the beneficiary of the payment, as the bank guarantee means that the bank is assuming liability for completion of the contract.

This means that if the buyer defaults on their debt or obligation, the bank makes sure the beneficiary receives their payment.

Any business can benefit from a bank guarantee, but especially small businesses that would be more affected if a payment from a business partner or customer falls through.

Bank guarantees only apply to a certain monetary amount and last for a set period of time. There will be a contract in place that dictates in which scenarios and at what point in time the guarantee is applicable.

Before taking on a bank guarantee, the bank does research on the applicant to make sure they are credible and will act as a reliable business partner. In a way, a bank guarantee serves as a seal of approval as the bank has good reason (they’re on the hook for the money) to only accept creditworthy applicants.

Types of Bank Guarantees

There are a few different types of bank agreements, here’s a closer look at the main ones.

Financial Bank Guarantee

With a financial bank guarantee the bank guarantees that the buyer repays all debts they owe to the seller and if they fail to pay those various types of debts, the bank has to assume responsibility for the money owed. The buyer will need to pay a small initial fee when the guarantee is issued.

Performance-Based Bank Guarantee

When it comes to a performance-based guarantee, the beneficiary has the right to seek reparations from the bank if contractual obligations aren’t met due to non-performance. If the counterparty doesn’t deliver on promised services, then the beneficiary will have the choice to claim resulting losses caused by the lack of performance.

Foreign Bank Guarantee

Foreign bank guarantees can apply to unique scenarios such as international export situations. In this case, there may be a fourth party involved — a correspondent bank operating where the beneficiary resides.

What Is a Letter of Credit?

A letter of credit (sometimes referred to as a credit letter) is a document provided by a financial institution such as a bank or credit union that guarantees a payment will be made during a business transaction. The bank acts as an impartial third party throughout the transaction.

When the bank issues a letter of credit, they are assuring that the purchaser will in fact pay for any goods or services on time and in full. If the buyer doesn’t make their payment on time and in full, the bank that issued the letter of credit will guarantee that they will make the payment instead. The bank will cover any remaining overdue balance as long as it doesn’t surpass the full purchase amount.

Letters of credit are commonly used in international trade (but can be used domestically as well) where, understandably, companies require more certainty when making deals across borders. A letter of credit can provide security and confidence to importers and exporters since they know the issuing bank guarantees the payment.

Applicants for letters of credit need to work with a lender in order to secure this backing. The applicant will need to provide a purchase contract, and a copy of the purchase order or export contract (among other documents) during the application process. Applicants will pay a fee to obtain the letter of credit and it usually equates to a percentage of the amount the letter of credit backs.

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Types of Letters of Credit

There are multiple types of letters of credit, with some being more common than others, and some applying to unique situations. Here’s a look at the main types.

Commercial Letter of Credit

This type of letter of credit applies to commercial transactions and is commonly used for international trade deals. In this case the bank makes a direct payment to the beneficiary.

Standby Letter of Credit

A standby letter of credit acts as a secondary payment method. The bank will pay the beneficiary if they are able to prove they didn’t receive the promised product or service from the seller.

Revolving Letter of Credit

A revolving letter of credit can help secure multiple transactions when two parties anticipate doing multiple deals.

Traveler’s Letter of Credit

With a traveler’s letter of credit, the issuing bank guarantees to honor letters of credit signed at certain foreign banks.

Confirmed Letter of Credit

This type of letter of credit specifies that the seller’s bank will be the party to ensure that the seller receives payment if the buyer and their issuing bank default on the agreement.

Special Considerations

Bank guarantees and letters of credit differ slightly, but both serve the same purpose — to give confidence and protection during transactions. Because the financial institutions that back these guarantees confirm that the buyer is creditworthy in the case of a bank guarantee or a letter of credit, the seller can be confident that the transaction should go through as planned if they have one of these agreements in place. If it does not, they know they’ll still receive payment from the institution that backed the agreement.

Key Differences between a Bank Guarantee and Letter of Credit

These are the most important differences to know about a bank guarantee vs. a letter of credit.

Liability

With some letters of credit the bank pays the seller directly so they take on the primary liability.

With a bank guarantee they only pay if the buyer fails to do so, so they take on a secondary liability.

Risk

The bank takes on more risk with a letter of credit as they take on the primary liability, but that means the seller and customer take on more risk with a bank guarantee.

Number of Parties Involved

At least three parties are involved in letters of credit and bank guarantee transactions. To start there is the buyer, seller, and a bank or other type of financial institution. With a letter of credit, a lender also gets involved. Sometimes two banks (more common in foreign transactions) are involved in a letter of credit or bank guarantee.

Payment

With a bank guarantee, the bank only makes payment if the buyer fails to do so. With a letter of credit this is also usually the case, but the bank can be more involved in the transaction, so disputes tend to be resolved faster.

The Takeaway

When considering a letter of credit versus bank guarantee, both can help two parties involved in a transaction feel more confident that the seller will be paid and the buyer will receive the goods or services promised — or they will be reimbursed by the bank that issued the agreement. Each type of agreement is especially helpful when conducting business across borders.

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FAQ

How is a letter of credit different from a bank guarantee?

When it comes to a bank guarantee vs. a letter of credit, both letters of credit and bank guarantees function very similarly. The main difference is that with a letter of credit the bank takes on more risk than they do with a bank guarantee.

What is a bank guarantee and how does it work?

Essentially a bank guarantee is an assurance from a bank that a contract between a buyer and a seller will be executed or they will reimburse the wronged party accordingly.

What is the primary difference between a standby letter of credit and a bank guarantee?

The main difference between a letter of credit and a bank guarantee is risk level. With a bank guarantee the bank takes on less risk than they do with a letter of credit.


Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

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