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Are cryptocurrencies a good way to send money abroad?

Are cryptocurrencies a good way to send money abroad?

  • Published: 12th August 2021

The small central American nation of El Salvador doesn’t make international news very often. 

Yet it grabbed the world’s attention in June 2021, when its government announced an ambitious plan to make Bitcoin legal tender, meaning the cryptocurrency will have to be accepted as payment for goods and services (unless a business is unable to obtain the technology needed for the transaction.) Bitcoin now looks set to become the country’s national currency

El Salvador is making the move for a variety of reasons – not least the ambition of president Nayib Bukele to turn the country into a crypto investment hub. 

But a primary consideration in popularising digital currencies was the amount of money El Salvador receives in remittances each year: an estimated $5.9 billion in 2020, almost a quarter of its GDP. 

Bukele argues that Bitcoin will provide a new and more attractive avenue to send this money into El Salvador, which adopted the dollar after its currency collapsed in 2001, and open up financial services to the 70% of El Salvadoreans without bank accounts.

Money transfers cost average 7% 

Although fees can be reduced by going through a money transfer company, sending money abroad can be a complicated, slow and costly process. The UN reported in 2019 that currency conversions and fees eat up 7% of the amount sent through remittances each year. 

And remittance corridors aren’t created equal. In El Salvador the average cost is 3%. The world’s largest remittance flow is between the US and Mexico, where the average cost is 4.22% of the transaction. And senders paid an average 8.9% to send money into sub-Saharan Africa in the last quarter of 2019. 

Do cryptocurrencies, which can be sent through the blockchain rather than any third party, offer a way to lower these costs? 

How to send money abroad in cryptocurrency

Sending remittance payments in crypto, in simple terms, goes something like this: 

If you’re not already familiar with buying and selling crypto, those steps may raise a few questions, so let’s talk through them. 

Step 1, buying the coins. 

You can do this in a variety of ways, such as through a centralised cryptocurrency exchange – these are private companies which allow you to trade coins and require registration and identification. 

There are many options out there with various pros and cons, so this will require some research if you’re not already trading. Nowadays it is not difficult to buy Litecoin, Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.

For example, Coinbase allows you to buy and sell a variety of currencies and has strong security and transparent pricing, but has higher transaction fees than other services unless you pay for the premium version, according to Investopedia. 

Meanwhile, Cash App is an option with a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to buy and sell Bitcoin – but no other cryptocurrencies. 

Some sites, like Wirex and Paxful, are specifically geared towards people who want to transfer money in crypto. 

Pay particular attention to transaction fees and withdrawal fees when you choose an option. 

Steps 2 and 3, sending the coins. 

The person you are sending money to will also need access to a cryptocurrency exchange/digital wallet, so this is probably not the best way to send money to your grandma who can barely work her iPad (unless your cousin John can help her out). 

It doesn’t matter if they use a different exchange to you – all you need is their digital wallet address. You can scan the QR code associated with the address, or paste their public address (a long string of letters and numbers). It’s crucial you don’t make a mistake here, as exchanges are irreversible. 

The specifics may vary depending on your method of exchange, but you should then follow its instructions for sending. 

The speed of transaction can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days – this may depend on how high a transaction fee you pay. 

Step 4, the recipient sells the coins. 

The value of various cryptocurrencies in fiat money is notoriously volatile. 

If the recipient waits too long to exchange their coins, it’s possible they could lose out considerably if the price drops. Conversely, if the price rises, they could end up with more than you intended to send. 

You should also consider exchange rates at the time of making the transfer, since the money will be exchanged twice – into the cryptocurrency when you buy it, and back out of it when they sell it. 

The recipient could, of course, also keep the cryptocurrency and spend it directly (in the limited places it’s possible to do so) or hold it as an investment. 

Is sending remittances through cryptocurrencies safe? 

There are risks at each step of the process, though these shouldn’t necessarily scare you off. 

As step 4 shows, the biggest risk is the element of uncertainty over how much the coins will be worth when the recipient sells them. Then there’s the risk of you making a mistake when making the transaction, as trades cannot be reversed and you are unlikely to find a recourse to get it back. 

However, if you use a major crypto exchange, the transaction and your money will be secure. 

What are the benefits of using cryptocurrency to make international money transfers? 

After all this, you may find yourself asking: what’s the point?

MoneyTransfers.com asked the team at crypto exchange Paxful

Artur Schaback, Paxful COO and co-founder, said the main benefits are usually cost, with crypto exchanges avoiding the high transaction fees and unfavourable exchange rates of some traditional providers; speed, because transactions can be done at any time on any day, and can take as little as a few minutes; and the access provided for people who may not have a bank account or may live in areas where payments are censored by governments or corporations. 

“Sending a cross-border payment is not always easy, especially for people living in countries where there is low access to financial services or the government places restrictions on its citizens sending and receiving money,” Schaback explains.

Sending through crypto to markets such as Ethiopia, Schaback adds, can “heavily undercut what traditional services charge, as the seller can typically earn money by trading Bitcoin.”

Schaback believes economies are currently only scratching the surface when it comes to use of crypto. In higher-income economies, crypto is primarily seen as an investment asset. 

Yet with financial education and more widespread adoption, he believes crypto exchanges will provide a way to complement the gaps in the current financial system.

In the case of El Salvador, recipients of remittances in Bitcoin should soon be able to hold onto those coins and spend them directly, without the need to exchange them back into fiat money. 

MoneyTransfers.com’s verdict

“Cryptocurrency exchanges are certainly an interesting new way of transferring money abroad, and can be useful for sending money to countries that are difficult to transfer money to due to sanctions or their financial system, like Iran,” says Jonathan Merry, founder and CEO of MoneyTransfers.com.

“If the recipient has a specific reason for wanting the money they are owed in cryptocurrency then it’s clearly also a good option. Perhaps they want to invest in a currency anyway, or believe they can make a profit on the exchange. 

“If both the parties in the exchange want to experiment with transferring money through crypto, and can afford to potentially take a loss on the transaction, there are secure ways to do so. 

“But for the majority of transactions between easy-to-access markets, customers may wish to stick with traditional money transfer providers – at least until cryptocurrencies are more widely accepted as payment.” 

The quality and costs of popular digital banks varies based on many factors, like location, laws and of course on what’s happening on the outside world – crypto having no small role on the banking evolution over the last years.

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Money transfers, foreign exchange, remittance and currency research and insights from our newsdesk team.