Correspondent Bank: What They Are & How They Work

By Rebecca Lake · September 16, 2022 · 8 minute read

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Correspondent Bank: What They Are & How They Work

A correspondent bank helps to connect domestic and foreign banks that need to do business together. Correspondent banks can facilitate different types of transactions, including wire transfers, cash and treasury management, and foreign exchange settlement.

Correspondent banking plays an important part in the international financial system and the flow of cross-border payments. Correspondent banks are often a subject of scrutiny as they can also be used to perform illegal operations, such as money laundering.

If you’re wondering how they work and if you need to use one, read on to learn:

•   What is a correspondent bank?

•   How does correspondent banking work?

•   How much does it cost to use a correspondent bank?

•   What are nostro vs. vostro accounts?

•   What is the difference between correspondent and intermediary banking?

What Is Correspondent Banking?

Correspondent banking is a formal system through which banks in different countries are able to provide payment services to one another. Correspondent banking makes it easier for funds to move between domestic and foreign banks, regardless of whether they have an established relationship. This plays an important role in smoothing international transactions.

What is a correspondent bank? Simply, it’s the financial institution or bank that connects other banks within a correspondent banking system. Foreign banks may rely on correspondent banking if establishing one or more branches in another country isn’t feasible. While correspondent banking is often used to facilitate business transactions on a larger scale, individual consumers may also use correspondent banking to complete a money transfer from one bank to another.

For example, if you’re Canadian but living in the U.S. temporarily for work, you may use cross-border banking services to transfer funds between your U.S. and Canadian bank accounts. A correspondent bank would handle those transactions for you so that you never lose access to your money. (You’ll learn more details about how correspondent banking works below.)

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How Correspondent Banking Works

Correspondent banking works by allowing payments to move between banks located in different countries that may not have a formal relationship with one another. In a typical correspondent arrangement, you have two respondent banks and one correspondent bank.

The correspondent bank is effectively a liaison or halfway point between the two respondent banks. The main role of the correspondent bank is to provide necessary financial services to the two respondent banks. The types of services correspondent banks can provide include:

•   Wire transfers

•   Check clearing and payment

•   Trade finance

•   Cash and treasury management

•   Securities, derivatives or foreign exchange settlement.

In exchange for these services, correspondent banks can charge respondent banks fees.

Correspondent banks operate through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT network). SWIFT allows for the secure transfer of financial messages to correspondent banks and other financial institutions around the world. Millions of messages move through the SWIFT network on a daily basis, transmitting financial information.

Correspondent Banking Example

Curious about how exactly correspondent banking works? Money moves from respondent bank to respondent bank in a sequential way, with the correspondent bank in the middle. Here’s an example:

•   Say you run an auto repair business, and you need to order parts from a supplier in Canada. The supplier only accepts wire transfers as payment so you go to your local bank to schedule one.

•   Since your bank and the supplier’s Canadian bank do not have an established banking relationship, there needs to be an intermediary. In order to send the wire transfer, your bank will need to connect to a correspondent bank in the SWIFT network that has a relationship with the supplier’s bank.

•   Once your bank is connected to the correspondent bank, it can facilitate the wire transfer from your account. The money will move from your account to the correspondent bank, along with an added fee.

•   The correspondent bank will then send the money along to the supplier’s bank in Canada, less the amount of the fee.

You might also use correspondent banking if you’re working in one country and want to send part of your pay to your bank account in your home country. You could send a wire transfer through the local bank you have an account with, which would forward it to the correspondent bank. The correspondent bank would then send the money to your account at your home bank.

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Additional Considerations

Correspondent banks may operate largely behind the scenes for most consumers, but they play an important role in international financial transactions. Without correspondent banking, it might be much more difficult to complete international wire transfers as many banks do not have formal relationships with banks in other countries.

While correspondent banking is used to facilitate legitimate financial transactions, it can also be a vehicle for criminal activity. Two of the biggest concerns center around the use of correspondent banks to launder money and fund terrorist organizations. In the U.S., regulatory requirements exist that aim to bar the use of correspondent banking for these types of transactions, though they’re not always foolproof.

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Vostro vs. Nostro Accounts: How Banks Settle Cross-Border Transactions

Correspondent banks handle large amounts of money every day, which can easily get confusing. They keep track of the movement of funds between respondent banks using nostro and vostro accounts. These accounts allow one bank to hold another bank’s money on deposit during the completion of international financial transactions. Here’s the difference:

•   Vostro means “yours” in Latin, while nostro means “ours.” Vostro and nostro can be used to describe the same account for recordkeeping purposes. The label that’s used describes which bank holds the funds.

•   For example, say a Canadian bank has an account with a U.S. bank and funds are held in U.S. currency. The Canadian bank would apply the nostro label to that account signifying that the money in it is “ours.”

•   Meanwhile, the U.S. bank would refer to it as a vostro account, acknowledging to the Canadian bank that the money is “yours”.

Correspondent banks use nostro and vostro accounts to settle transactions and identify accounts as money flows between them. For every vostro account, there’s a corresponding nostro account and vice versa.

Correspondent vs. Intermediary Banking

Intermediary banking is similar to correspondent banking in that it involves the transfer of funds between banks that do not have an established relationship with one another. Similar to a correspondent bank, an intermediary bank acts as a middleman for the other banks involved in the transaction.

But consider these distinctions:

•   Intermediary banks primarily assist in completing wire transfers between different banks, either domestically or internationally. For example, the U.S. Department of the Treasury acts as an intermediary bank in wire transfers between other banks.

•   In intermediary banking, there are three parties: the sender bank, the beneficiary bank, and the intermediary bank. It’s the intermediary bank’s role to ensure that money from the sender bank gets to the beneficiary bank.

Typical Correspondent Bank Fees

As mentioned, correspondent banks can charge fees for the services they provide. The fees charged can depend on the bank itself and the service that’s being provided. Fees are typically charged in the currency of the payment.

A general range for wire transfer fees for this kind of transaction can be anywhere from $0 to $50, depending on the bank. The easiest way to get a sense of what you might pay for correspondent banking is to check your bank’s fee schedule for wire transfers. Banks can charge fees for:

•   Incoming domestic wire transfers

•   Outgoing domestic wire transfers

•   Incoming international wire transfers

•   Outgoing international wire transfers

International wire transfers are typically more expensive than domestic transfers. Some banks may charge no fee at all to receive incoming domestic or international wire transfers. But you may still be charged a fee by the correspondent or intermediary bank. It can be wise to investigate before you conduct the transaction so you can be prepared.

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Difference Between Correspondent and Intermediary Banks

Correspondent and intermediary banking share some similarities, but it’s important to understand what sets them apart. Here are some of the key differences between correspondent and intermediary banks:

•   Correspondent banks can handle transactions in multiple currencies.

•   Intermediary bank transactions typically involve a single currency.

•   Correspondent banks can be used to facilitate a number of different transaction types.

•   Intermediary banks are most often used in situations involving wire transfers between two unconnected banks.

•   Correspondent banks are the middle ground between two respondent banks, which may or may not be located in the same country.

•   Intermediary banks act on behalf of sender and beneficiary banks.

The Takeaway

Correspondent banks make it easier for money to move across borders and around the world. If you simply need to move money between banks in the same country, there are alternative banking options you can turn to.

For example, you can open a checking and savings account with SoFi and connect them to accounts at traditional banks. SoFi’s high-yield bank accounts may help you grow your money faster, too, thanks to our competitive APY when you sign up with direct deposit and our no-fee policy. What’s more, eligible accounts can access their paychecks up to two days early.

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Why is a correspondent bank needed?

Correspondent banks are necessary because they help to facilitate cross-border payments between banks that have no formal banking relationship. Without correspondent banking, it would be more difficult to complete international financial transactions.

What is the difference between correspondent bank and beneficiary bank?

A correspondent bank is a go-between for two different respondent banks in an international financial transaction. A beneficiary bank is the bank that receives money from a sender bank through a third-party intermediary bank.

What is correspondent and respondent bank?

A correspondent bank is a financial institution that helps respondent banks to complete financial transactions. A respondent bank is a bank that needs help connecting to another respondent bank through a third-party, i.e., the correspondent bank.

Photo credit: iStock/Auris

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