How to Use Western Union

A sign advertises the money transfer service Western Union
••• Sean Gallup / Getty Images

If you need to send or receive money from somebody, you have several options, including banks, P2P payment apps, and money transfer services. Services like Western Union can help you accomplish things that are impossible with your bank, like having somebody pick up cash at their local grocery store. But sending money with Western Union also can be risky, so you need to use caution and make sure it's the right tool for your needs.

A highlight of Western Union is the network of physical locations available for sending and receiving funds. Customers can drop off or pick up cash at Western Union outlets, often located in grocery stores, convenience stores, and check-cashing stores.

Where Western Union Shines

Western Union is best for quickly sending money to people you know and trust. You can bring cash to a Western Union representative, enter bank or credit card information online, or handle everything by phone.

One-Off Transactions

If you need to send funds to somebody and you can't wait several days for funds to move through the banking system, Western Union can get the job done quickly. For example, if your child is stranded in another city and needs cash to get out, a trip to a nearby Western Union location might provide a solution. You also can send money online.

Your bank could move money for you, but sometimes requires a series of forms and phone calls. Perhaps most importantly, your bank might not have branches located near the recipient. Emergencies don’t always happen during banking hours, so it might be worth paying transfer fees to get things done quickly. If you need to send money to the same person regularly, it’s worth investigating alternatives.

Money Orders

When you need to pay with a money order, Western Union is a good option. Money orders generally cost around $1, and there are plenty of locations to choose from.

Selling Online

Getting cash from a Western Union money transfer is a safe way to sell online because it’s virtually impossible to reverse the transaction after you walk away with the money. You don’t have to worry about buyer protection issues on PayPal or the possibility of credit card chargebacks. However, most buyers realize this puts them at a disadvantage, so they might prefer a safer (for them) form of payment. Unless they’re certain you’ll deliver or you have a strong reputation, this may be a challenge.

Specialized Services

Western Union is one of several options for money transfers and money orders. But in some situations, you don’t have many options. For example, Western Union makes it fairly easy to send funds to inmates in certain correctional facilities.

Western Union Scams

If you’re sending money for any reason, be aware that money transfer services like Western Union are a favorite tool of scammers. Once you send, the money is basically gone for good. The recipient can pick up cash in-person and more or less disappear. It’s often difficult to track down who exactly picked up the money, especially if the money goes overseas.

Fees

Costs with Western Union depend on how you send the money, how the recipient will get it, and where you’re sending. Online, Western Union generally limits you to $5,000, but there may be ways to go above that limit.

Assuming you want to send $500 within the U.S. and you’ll drop off the money in person:

  • It costs $21.50 to send the money to a recipient's bank account or have them pick up in person.

If you want to send $500 online without going to a store:

  • It costs 99 cents to send from your bank account to the recipient’s bank account (potentially several business days).
  • It costs $11 to send from your bank account if your recipient will pick up cash in zero to four business days
  • It costs substantially more if you want the recipient to be able to pick up funds instantly.

If you send using the Western Union app or by calling customer service, the fees are similar to online fees. Sending to other countries can be more or less expensive.

You also might have to pay fees to your bank or credit card issuer. If you use a credit card, the transaction will be treated as a “cash advance,” which means you’ll pay a fee and you’ll pay interest at a higher rate without any grace period. If you use a debit card, you can avoid those costs.

Other Ways to Send Money

Western Union is great, but it’s not always your best option. There are numerous ways to send money to somebody else, and you might save money or make things easier for everybody by using a different service.

Several online services and apps allow you to send money for free. The funds typically take 2-3 business days to transfer, but if you’re not in a hurry you can save a trip to the Western Union desk. A wire transfer allows you to make instant transfers of any size from your bank account to somebody else’s bank account, although you’ll need the recipient’s routing and account information to complete the wire.

Note that Zelle is an option for instant money transfers between banks, in some cases.

Where most online services fall short compared to Western Union is with speed. While transfers might appear to be instant, the recipient can’t necessarily pick up cash or spend the money right away. Plus, everybody needs to sign up for an account, and overseas transfers might not be easy.

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Article Sources

  1. Western Union. "What's the Fastest Way To Send Money for a Cash Pick Up?" Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  2. Federal Trade Commission. "Using Money Transfer Services." Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  3. Western Union. "Send & Transfer Money Online Now." Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  4. Zelle. "Introducing Zelle." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.