What Were the World’s First Money Transfers?

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A Brief History

International money transfers is the perfect example of why money was the most important and profound invention. Using a standardised object in order to exchange value — that represents a reasonably fixed value — is what made us more productive, efficient and ultimately more prosperous.

Of course, it is not entirely standardised. We all use currency, but it is different currency. Exchanging one currency for another, so you can use it to buy foreign goods or services, is both necessary and easy. It hasn’t always been as easy and fast as it is today, though. Asking a local to exchange your domestic currency for his could lead to confusion — how does he know if he’s being ripped off? How much more valuable is his compared to mine?

Digging Deeper

Well, before printed money there was, of course, other mediums, that were more universal, such as metals. Let’s take a look at the exact evolution in chronological order:


The oldest international trade was recorded at around 3000 BC. This was between the Harappan and Mesopotamia. In fact, from this point onwards until around 600 BC, international trades were entirely barter-based. Anything valuable could get exchanged for something else that was valuable, from hold to wine and silk.


By around 600 BC, universal currency seemed to appear. This was when gold and silver coins were first discovered, and eventually was the national currency within a part of Turkey (originally known as Lydia). These two metals eventually dominated international trade, and was becoming a means to trade other things based off the metals’ value.

Bank notes

Whilst metals were still being used up to 2000 years later from when it was first introduced, the Chinese invented a much more efficient system in 700 AD. These bank notes were essentially the same as the paper currency that exists today — they would denote the core value of the payment which it refers to. This made it extremely easy to use an intermediary/3rd party broker, instead of taking your coins with you wherever you went. This was a revolutionary idea.

Gold Standard

The British empire brought about the Gold Standard in 1834. This was to reduce the volatility and uncertainty of exchange rates and currency. Instead, whilst different currencies had different values, they were backed by gold. This meant that you could be sure to exchange your currency for gold at any point, thus giving a tangible value behind your money. This really promoted international money transfers, as they were now much more secure — though, the Gold Standard didn’t last for very long.

Western Union

Despite it having a different name back then, Western Union was founded in 1851 and launched the first wire transfer that was widely available in 1872.  This was an electronic fund transfer from one person or business to another. This profoundly changed how money was internationally transferred, and seemed to be the first, initially modern (technological) stepping stone to where we are today.

Wire transfers actually become mainstream in the late 19th century, when industrialisation become globalised and boomed. This really is when labour started becoming globalised — you could now more easily hire overseas workers and pay them — as well as of course international banking. Individuals could now send and receive money to each other.


The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) was introduced in 1973 to facilitate international money transfers. Whilst SWIFT doesn’t actually send the money itself, it ends messages among banks that help make the transfers happen. This is still widely used today.


Just before the turn of the millennium, PayPal was founded and was introduced to the world by none other than Elon Musk. Whilst SWIFT still very much exists and is a powerful process, PayPal really revolutionised the democracy of international money transfers. In fact, you didn’t even need the banks anymore. It was somewhat seen as an email payment system, in which you could perform transfers abroad faster and more cheaply than banks.

Money Transfer Companies

This is roughly where we are today — an abundance of fintechs offering extremely efficient international money transfers. These payments are making PayPal look out-of-date, with international borderless cards, instant payments and some even offering the interbank rate.

WeChat and PayPal were two early adopters of mobile apps being used to facilitate payments and online wallets. Nowadays however, there is an abundance of 2020-ready apps, many of which perform with outstanding functionality and usability. The world has never been more closely knit, and it is a far cry from the physical partering of 1500 years ago.


Blockchain and more specifically cryptocurrencies are emerging, and look to potentially be the future. Deserving of its own mention in the evolution of currency and bartering, cryptocurrency could be what gives the world a single currency, utterly efficient and secure, and completely democratised away from any government, bank or even for-profit company.

Whether or not the future of currency and internal transfers is with cryptocurrencies, one thing is for sure: fintechs are paving the way. With the leveraging of algorithms, AI and competition, the dominant form of money transfers in 20 years time will no doubt be more effective and efficient than ever before.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have many of the above different ways have you transferred money internationally?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Jackson, Eric M.  The PayPal Wars: Battles with eBay, the Media, the Mafia, and the Rest of Planet Earth.  WND Books, 2012.

The featured image in this article, an image by mohamed_hassan, is licensed under the Pixabay License.


About Author

Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland