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What are Payment Rails?

Welcome to Learn, where we provide straightforward, easy-to-understand definitions of the payments industry.

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Payment rails are the underlying systems and networks that facilitate the movement of funds between parties in financial transactions. These networks ensure the secure and efficient movement of funds electronically, regardless of distance, currency, or payment method. They operate similarly to train tracks, guiding financial data between payers and payees through a defined and secure route.

How Do Payment Rails Work?

The mechanics of payment rails involve several key steps:

  1. Initiation: The payment process begins with the payer initiating the transaction, providing their payment information through a platform like an e-commerce store or mobile application.
  2. Authorization: The platform transmits the payment details to a payment processor, which verifies the payer's information with the issuing bank (debit card) or network (credit card).
  3. Clearing and Settlement: Upon successful authorization, the payment processor transmits instructions via the chosen payment rail network, facilitating communication between the payer's bank and the payee's bank.
  4. Funds Transfer: Based on the settlement timeline of the chosen payment rail, the payer's bank transfers the funds to the payee's bank.
  5. Confirmation: Once the transfer is complete, the platform receives confirmation and updates both the payer and payee accordingly.

Types of Payment Rails

Different types of payment rails offer unique characteristics, making them suitable for specific needs. Here's a breakdown of some of the most common payment rails:

Automated Clearing House (ACH) Payments

ACH (Automated Clearing House) transfers involve direct electronic transfers between bank accounts, making them ideal for high-volume, low-value transactions such as payroll deposits or bill payments. It allows for automated, electronic debiting and crediting of both checking and savings accounts. It's the most widely used electronic processing network for bank transfers in the United States.

Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA)

SEPA simplifies cross-border transactions in the Eurozone by enabling easy transfer of Euros from one bank account to another. It covers direct debit, instant card transfers, and credit transfers within SEPA zone countries.

Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT)

SWIFT is a global messaging network that financial institutions use to securely exchange information, primarily for international wire transfers. It acts as a secure communication platform, transmitting standardized messages containing payment instructions, account details, and transaction details.

Card Networks

These globally recognized networks facilitate credit card, debit card, and prepaid card transactions, offering near-instant settlements. Common card networks include Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, and more.

Real-Time Payments Network

RTP (Real-Time Payments) is a payment processing network used to send money electronically between banks in the United States. It transfers funds between two bank accounts instantaneously and is available year round. RTP processes transactions on bank holidays and weekends, and after business hours.

FedNow

FedNow is a new payment rail that enables faster bank payments for financial institutions of any size, in any community, 365 days of the year. Designed by the Federal Reserve, FedNow was the first new payment rail in the United States since the introduction of the Automated Clearing House (ACH) in the early 1970s when it launched in July of 2023.

Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are digital currencies that use blockchain technology for secure, decentralized transactions. Blockchain creates an immutable, transparent ledger of transactions, enabling direct transfers without intermediaries.

FeatureACH PaymentsCard NetworksReal-time PaymentsSingle Euro Payments Area (SEPA)SWIFTCryptocurrencies

Speed

Slowest (1-3 business days)

Fast (seconds)

Fastest (real-time)

Fast (within SEPA region, 1 business day)

Slower (1-5 business days)

Variable (can be slow or fast)

Cost

Low (often free for debit transactions)

Variable (merchant fees, variable fees)

Variable (may have higher fees)

Low (within SEPA region)

Higher fees

Variable (transaction fees can be high)

Suitability

Everyday payments, direct deposits, bill payments

In-person and online purchases

Urgent payments, low-value transactions

Euro-denominated cross-border payments within SEPA

High-value international payments

Not widely accepted yet, speculative investments

As a backbone of the modern digital payment ecosystem, payment rails enable seamless, secure online transactions worldwide. By understanding the different types of payment rails, their advantages, limitations, and strategic selection criteria, businesses can optimize their payment processing strategies to meet evolving customer expectations and drive growth in the digital economy.

FAQ on Payment Rails

Q: What is the difference between ACH payments and card network payments?

A: ACH payments are slower (1-3 business days) but have lower fees, while card network payments are real-time but typically have higher transaction costs.

Q: How can businesses ensure the security of transactions when using payment rails?

A: Best practices include partnering with reputable payment processors, maintaining strong data encryption, regularly updating software and systems, implementing robust fraud prevention measures, and educating employees about online security.

Q: What are the fees associated with using different payment rails?

A: Fees vary depending on the specific payment rail, transaction type, and chosen payment processor. It's crucial to compare fee structures before selecting a payment rail.

Q: How are cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology impacting payment rails?

A: Cryptocurrencies and blockchain enable secure, decentralized transactions without intermediaries. As adoption grows, they may offer faster, more transparent payment alternatives to traditional rails.

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Everything you need to know about the payment rails that power the world’s economy, from ACH and wires to RTP, FedNow, and more.

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An ACH credit refers to the process of electronically depositing, or “pushing,” funds into a bank account using ACH.

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In an ACH debit, funds are electronically withdrawn, or “pulled,” from a bank account using ACH.

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A Notification of Change (NOC) is used to notify the sender of an ACH payment to correct or change information related to a customer’s bank account.

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A return is a credit or debit entry initiated by the Receiving Depository Financial Institution (RDFI) that returns a previously originated payment to the Originating Depository Financial Institution (ODFI).

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ACH return codes identify the reason an ACH payment was returned by the recipient's bank. They make it easier to spot and resolve payment failures.

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An ACH reversal refers to an erroneous ACH payment that a payment originator requests to take back, or reverse.

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The Clearing House Interbank Payments System, or CHIPS is the largest private sector USD clearing system for wire transfers.

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Credits and debits are two kinds of ACH transactions. Whereas a credit involves depositing, or “pushing,” funds into a bank account, for a debit, funds are withdrawn, or “pulled,” from an account.

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FedACH is the automated clearing house (ACH) service of the Federal Reserve Banks.

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Part of the FedACH system, FedGlobal ACH offers low-cost and efficient cross-border ACH payments.

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Fedwire Funds Services, commonly known as Fedwire, is a real-time gross settlement transfer system that allows participating financial institutions to send and receive same-day fund transfers.

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Fiat money is a form of currency issued by a government and declared legal tender, though not backed by a commodity.

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The two kinds of financial institutions in the ACH network are ODFIs (Originating Depository Financial Institution) and RDFIs (Receiving Depository Financial Institutions).

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A Standard Entry Class or SEC code is a three letter code that describes how a payment was authorized by the consumer or business receiving an ACH transaction.

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A SWIFT code, also known as a SWIFT ID or Bank Identifier Code (BIC), is a unique 8-11 character code assigned to a bank for SWIFT wire transfers.

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US companies moving money internationally will likely weigh the pros and cons of SWIFT vs. Global ACH when it comes to attributes like speed and cost.

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The Clearing House (TCH) is a banking association and payments company owned by 20 of the world’s largest commercial banks.

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Payment rails are the underlying systems and networks that facilitate the movement of funds between parties in financial transactions.

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Pix is Brazil’s instant payment platform that launched on November 16, 2020. Created and managed by the Central Bank of Brazil, Pix enables fast payments and transfers at any time, year-round.

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SWIFT payments or international wires are global payments made through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network.

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ACH (Automated Clearing House) is a payment processing network that’s used to send money electronically between banks and financial institutions in the United States.

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An electronic funds transfer (EFT), also known as a direct deposit, is the digital transfer of money between bank accounts. As digital transfers, they reduce the need for manual input and paper documents.

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FedNow is a new payment rail that enables faster bank payments for financial institutions of any size, in any community, 365 days of the year.

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Global ACH can help companies move money from US-domiciled accounts across borders using local rails. Learn how and when to use this payment rail.

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RTP (Real-Time Payments) is a payment processing network used to send money electronically between banks in the United States. It transfers funds between two bank accounts instantaneously and is available year round.

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A Request for Payment (RFP) is an ACH Network message that can be used by businesses to send electronic invoices to their customers.

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Same-Day ACH is an improvement to the ACH network that allows the processing of credit, debit, and return transactions several times a day.

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An International ACH Transfer—also known as Global ACH—is an ACH payment made cross-border from a US-domiciled account.

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The Faster Payments Service (FPS) is a banking service in the United Kingdom. The FPS was instituted in order to reduce payment times between accounts held by different customers.

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The Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) is a system of payment schemas that standardizes cashless transactions in euros.

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Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is a real-time payments system for mobile applications designed and launched by the National Payments Corporation of India.

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