What Are Intermediary Banks? What Do They Do?

By Dan Miller · November 21, 2023 · 7 minute read

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What Are Intermediary Banks? What Do They Do?

When money moves from one bank to another, you may think it travels in one speedy step, but in truth, an intermediary bank may be involved. When funds move between a sender and a receiving account at the same bank, the money typically moves directly. But if the money is moving from one bank to another, the processing may be more involved and an intermediary bank is likely needed.

As the name implies, an intermediary bank is a bank that acts as a go-between, connecting two different banks. Smaller banks require intermediary banks or correspondent banks to facilitate transactions with other banks, while larger banks may have enough connections to serve as their own intermediaries.

Generally, retail bank customers do not have to worry about finding intermediary banks — instead, they work behind the scenes with the banks themselves.

Key Points

•   An intermediary bank acts as a go-between, connecting two different banks for transfers and transactions.

•   Intermediary banks are commonly used for international wire transfers and handling multiple types of currencies.

•   Retail bank customers usually don’t need to find intermediary banks as they work behind the scenes.

•   Intermediary bank fees are charged for their role in facilitating transactions, and the fees vary.

•   Intermediary banks are necessary when transferring money between two banks that don’t have an existing relationship.

What Is an Intermediary Bank?

An intermediary bank is a third-party bank that helps facilitate transfers and transactions between two other banks. Often, intermediary banks are dealing with international transactions such as wire transfers between different countries. If you are sending money to others abroad, your bank may end up using an intermediary bank.

You may not be aware of how the intermediary banks work behind the scenes, but be aware that you may be charged additional fees for the work that intermediary banks are doing.

How Do Intermediary Banks Work

If you are doing a bank account transfer, especially to an account in a different country than the one where your own bank is located, it is likely that an intermediary bank will be involved. During a monetary transfer between accounts at different banks, an intermediary bank works in between the sender’s bank account and the account at the receiving bank.

Here’s how the transaction might work:

•   A person with an account at Bank A wants to send money to another person, a client with an account at Bank B.

•   However, Bank A doesn’t have an account or banking relationship with Bank B.

•   Bank A and Bank B do, however, each have an account with Bank C.

•   Funds can be funneled through Bank C, the intermediary bank, to make the transaction successful.

Intermediary Bank Example

Intermediary banks are like an international travel hub through which transfers flow. They are especially important for fund transfers made via the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunications) network.

Here’s a simple example to show how intermediary banks usually work. Let’s say that John is an importer-exporter based in the United States who banks at the Acme Bank. He needs to make a payment to Angela, a supplier of his based in Germany, who banks with Big Bank. He gives Angela’s bank’s information to his bank to make the transfer.

If Acme Bank does not have an account at or a relationship directly with Big Bank (Angela’s bank), it will use an intermediary bank; let’s call it Central Bank. This intermediary bank will have accounts at both Acme Bank, John’s bank in the United States, as well as Big Bank, Angela’s bank in Germany.

Central Bank can transfer the money between the two banks. It will likely charge a fee for their role in the transaction. The transaction will be completed by the three banks working together.

When Is an Intermediary Bank Required?

Any time that money is being transferred between two banks that do not have an existing relationship, an intermediary bank is usually involved. Whether you have a single account or a joint bank account, when you transfer money to a user at a different bank (especially internationally), an intermediary bank will generally be required.

This is likely to occur as a commercial banking transaction. In other words, the use of an intermediary bank is not something the consumer has to initiate.

The Need for Intermediary Banks

Intermediary banks are important as part of the global financial system. Since banks generally do not have accounts with every single bank around the world, there is a need for intermediary banks to help facilitate monetary transfers.

The good news is that you typically do not have to worry about finding an intermediary bank yourself. Instead, the banks themselves have intermediary banks that they use to transfer money between other banks.

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When Will an Intermediary Bank Be Involved in a Transaction?

An intermediary bank will usually be involved whenever there is a need to transfer money between accounts at two separate banks. If the sending bank does not have its own account with the receiving bank, it will usually use an intermediary bank.

Even if a business thought it could get around the need for intermediary banks (and save money; see more on fees below) by opening multiple bank accounts, its main bank would still probably use an intermediary bank at some point to transfer funds on its behalf.

Difference Between Intermediary and Correspondent Banks

When considering how bank transfers work, you may hear two different terms: intermediary banks and correspondent banks. Depending on which part of the world you’re in, there may or may not be a difference between the terms “intermediary bank” and “correspondent bank.”

•   In some countries, the terms correspondent banks and intermediary banks are used interchangeably.

•   In the U.S. as well as in a few other countries, correspondent banks are often ones that handle multiple types of currencies.

•   Intermediary banks may be smaller banks that only typically handle transactions in one currency.

What Are Some Typical Intermediary Bank Fees?

Because intermediary banks typically do not work directly with consumers, they also do not regularly post a breakdown of the fees they charge. Instead, you can look at your own bank’s fees for financial transactions such as domestic wire transfers or international wire transfers.

The fees that your bank will charge you for these transactions generally include the fees that your bank will have to pay to the intermediary bank it uses. These bank fees can range anywhere from $15 to $50 or more.

Recommended: How Do Banks Make Money?

Who Pays for Intermediary Bank Fees?

Intermediary bank fees are paid in different ways, depending on the specific transaction. Let’s say Person A is sending money to Person B. There are three ways the fees may be handled, depending on what the parties involved agree upon:

•   “OUR” is the code used when the sender will pay all fees. An average fee for an international transfer can be about $70.

•   “SHA” is the code indicating shared costs. Person A will likely pay their bank charges (perhaps $15 to $30 on a typical transaction) and then Person B pays the rest: their bank’s and the intermediary bank’s charges.

•   “BEN” indicates that Person B, the recipient of the funds, will pay all charges.

The Takeaway

If a bank customer wants to send money to someone at a different bank and the two banks involved are not connected, an intermediary bank typically plays a role. Intermediary banks work with other banks to help facilitate monetary transactions such as domestic and especially international wire transfers. You, as a consumer, usually do not have to find or hire your own intermediary bank. However, your bank will likely pass along any intermediary bank fees if you initiate a transaction that requires one.

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What is an example of an intermediary bank?

An intermediary bank is one that moves funds between other banks. They do not typically work directly with consumers, so you likely neither need to know their names nor contact them. For instance, Bank of America might offer this service, or it might be provided by a foreign bank with which you are not familiar.

Why do you need an intermediary bank?

Intermediary banks are usually used when someone needs to send money to a person with an account at a different bank. An intermediary bank can serve as a middleman and facilitate the transaction. One common example is sending a wire transfer, especially internationally.

How do you find an intermediary bank?

In most cases, you will not need to find your own intermediary bank. The bank you use will have its own intermediary bank that it collaborates with as needed. Depending on what kinds of financial transactions you need, in some cases, you might also want to consider alternatives to traditional banks for international transfers.

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