Anyone who has ever sent or received payments between countries will know that the process is either expensive, complex or both.
PayPal, for example, is a really simple way to send money to someone, and it takes care of the currency conversion – but at a really terrible rate. Direct bank-to-bank transfers typically offer somewhat better rates, but setting up an international payment can be complex, and the rate you get usually ranges from the poor to the borderline criminal.
Other apps allow peer-to-peer payments, but usually through integrations with existing payment services that offer the same poor rates. Circle Pay claims to be different, offering mid-market rates (the same ones you’ll see if you Google the exchange rate) and no fees at all …
Based in Boston, Circle is backed by more than $135M in venture capital, some $50M of it led by Goldman Sachs. It originally focused on trading Bitcoin before switching into traditional currencies.
Most currency-conversion services make their money in one of two ways, often both. First, by charging fees. These may be for sending money, for receiving it or for withdrawing it into a bank account. Second, they usually have a ‘spread’ of conversion rates, which means the company takes a bite out of the currency exchange.
For example, when I Google £1 in $ at the time of writing, Google tells me the rate is $1.30. However, if I try to change pounds into dollars at a typical currency bureau, I’m offered $1.27 instead. Do it the other way around and the rate becomes $1.33. The net result is that the company makes 6 cents for every pound it converts to dollars.
Circle, however, doesn’t charge any fees, and its conversion rate is almost bang-on the mid-market rate. Testing the service, I found that it was within one cent. I asked Circle how it made its money, and the answer was simple: it doesn’t.
The company tells me it is currently focused on acquiring customers, and at a later point it plans to launch lending and savings products that will make money. For now all it wants to do is break even.
So, let’s look at how it works …
You start by opening a Circle account. Provided your phone number, currency and bank address match, this is really quick and easy, taking just a couple of minutes. Things can get more complicated if they don’t.
For example, my British father currently lives in Portugal. For convenience, his UK mobile is the one he continues to use as his primary number, for people to contact him. Because he entered a UK phone number, Circle assumed that his bank account was also in the UK – whereas the one he actually wanted to use was in Portugal. You can get around this, but the short version of the story is that you are best entering a phone number that matches the location of your bank.
Once you have your account open, you’ll get an alert anytime anyone sends you money. In this case, you can see that Circle sent me £10 and that this is my new balance.
The app screen is quite cluttered, with the company’s customer-acquisition focus very clear from the huge banner inviting you to invite other people to the platform. But the basic UI is straightforward. (The web screen is far cleaner.)
You can tap the transaction to see the details, which includes a message from the sender.
Sending money is equally straightforward. Tap the Send button and it will ask for permission to access your contacts. This done, it finds any of them who have a Circle account. You can then search these contacts for the person you want to send to. Select the amount in your local currency, add a message, and it is sent.
Google told me that the mid-market rate for £10 into Euros at that time was €11.06. I asked the recipient to let me know the amount she actually received, and it was €11.05 – just one cent out. That’s way better than any bank rate, and massively better than PayPal.
Requesting money is just as simple: just choose the amount in your local currency, select the contact you want to send it and they will receive your request.
Once you’ve received money, you simply tap Banks and then Cash Out. You’re texted a verification code to enter into the app, and then receive confirmation of the transfer. If you select a debit card, the funds are transferred instantly. If you choose a bank account, Circle says the transfer can take 1-4 days, though in my test it was just a few hours.
The complication over mis-matched currency and phone number was the only issue we hit. Solving that was also less than straightforward as the fix was to enter an address – and it turned out that the one it actually wanted was the bank’s address, which the app didn’t make clear. Some content also wasn’t obviously present until you scrolled.
Circle’s European marketing director told me that they had taken this feedback on board and would be asking the UX team to address it.
But that aside, the app is easy to use, and the rate is unbeatable. It’s not only an app I can recommend, it’s what I’ll be using for currency transfers from now on.
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