Send cash down the wire... not socks in the post

In an alternative Christmas shopper's guide, Melanie Bien reports on the best way to transfer money to friends or family abroad,
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The Independent Online

It may not be the most original gift in the world, but cash is always welcome. If you are the giver, you don't have to spend any time agonising over finding just the right present. And if you are on the receiving end, you can buy exactly what you want - without forcing yourself to look pleased as you receive yet another pair of slippers.

Cash really comes into its own, though, if you're sending presents to relatives and friends overseas, since unwanted gifts will be hard to return and you won't, in any case, want to rely on the post or risk fragile items being damaged in transit.

But if you are planning on sending cash abroad this Christmas, remember that cheques and postal orders can easily go missing in the post.

Electronic money transfer is the quickest and most reliable route, although it also tends to be the most expensive. MoneyGram and Western Union both transfer cash internationally in just 10 minutes. The service is completely guaranteed, with the sender receiving confirmation that the money is ready for collection.

It is also convenient, as agents are widespread: Western Union has more than 150,000 in 170 countries, while MoneyGram has around 55,000 outlets - including 3,100 Post Office branches in the UK - in 155 countries.

To send a MoneyGram, go to your nearest agent, fill out a form and pay the agent in cash (not by cheque or credit card). The recipient can visit any Money- Gram agent, fill out a form, show proof of identification and then get the cash in the local currency. It costs £12 to send up to £100 by MoneyGram, up to £180 for £5,000 to £6,999. You cannot transfer more than this in a single transaction.

For the personal touch, MoneyGram also lets you include a brief message of up to 10 words free of charge - just enough to say "Merry Christmas".

Banks also arrange electronic transfers from your account to someone else's. The cost depends on who you bank with, where the cash is going, the amount sent and how quickly you want it to arrive.

The problem with bank transfers is that they can be more expensive and take longer than if you use MoneyGram or Western Union. The recipient must also have a bank account and, even then, may find it difficult to get hold of the cash outside office hours if there isn't a 24-hour cash machine.

Barclays has several options for customers wishing to send money abroad. International Electronic Payments lets you transfer up to £2,000 for a £10 charge. This takes six working days.

If you need to send more money, faster, Standard Payments charges £20 to transfer as much cash as you want in three working days. Alternatively, if you have left it to the last minute, you can opt for Barclays' Priority International Payment. This costs £35 but funds are received within a day, depending on the final destination. There is no limit on the amount of cash you can transfer.

If you decide to take your chances and rely on the post, bear in mind the last dates for guaranteed delivery in time for Christmas. The deadline for outside mainland Europe, excluding Canada, the United States and Japan, is just over a week away on 8 December.

Those posting money or gifts to Canada, the US, Japan or eastern Europe must do so by 12 December if they want their presents to arrive in time for Christmas. The deadline for western Europe is 15 December. For cash and gifts sent within the UK, the deadline is 18 December for second-class post or 20 December for first class.

Once you know your Christmas deadlines, you must decide how best to send the money. Never risk sending cash through the post - use postal orders or cheques instead.

Postal orders are a secure way to send cash to someone who doesn't have a bank account. Introduced in 1881, they used to be terribly old-fashioned before their revamp last year; now they look more like gift vouchers and come with a presentation card and envelope. But if you are sending large sums, they aren't suitable, as they are only available in fairly small denominations of up to £20 (the smallest denomination available is 50p). A 50p order costs 25p, while a £20 order costs 95p. Postal orders can be cashed in 47 countries.

Most banks offer international money orders as well: Barclays charges £8 for any amount transferred up to £10,000. This works like a postal order, and transfers are accepted by most overseas banks.

A personal cheque is another way of sending cash - as long as the recipient has a bank account - but it isn't always convenient. Apart from the problem that cheques can go astray in the post, currency difficulties can arise if you are sending money outside the UK.

If you are sending cash to the US, for example, it may be tempting to cross out the word "pounds" on the cheque and replace it with "dollars". But cashing this in could be expensive, if not impossible, for the recipient and would take several days at the very least.

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