Understanding OFAC Regulations: Which Bank Transactions Are Subject to Financial Sanctions

Financial sanctions are an important tool for governments to combat illicit activities, promote international security, and protect national interests. One of the key players in implementing financial sanctions is the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. OFAC administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives.

In the realm of banking, OFAC regulations play a crucial role in preventing prohibited transactions and ensuring compliance with international sanctions programs. Understanding which bank transactions are subject to financial sanctions is essential for banks, financial institutions, and individuals involved in international finance and trade. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of OFAC regulations, covering the types of transactions that are subject to financial sanctions and the consequences of non-compliance.

OFAC Regulations: An Overview

OFAC regulations aim to accomplish three main objectives:

1. Protect National Security: Financial sanctions are often imposed by governments to address threats to national security. By restricting certain transactions, governments can influence the behavior of targeted countries, organizations, or individuals.

2. Prevent Terrorism and Illicit Activities: Financial sanctions are an essential tool in combating terrorism financing, money laundering, weapons proliferation, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities. By cutting off access to the international financial system, governments can disrupt the flow of funds to these illegal activities.

3. Support U.S. Foreign Policy: Financial sanctions can be used to further U.S. foreign policy objectives, such as promoting human rights, democracy, or non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Types of OFAC Sanctions Programs

OFAC administers and enforces a variety of sanctions programs, which can be country-based, entity-based, or activity-based. Some of the major sanctions programs include:

1. Country-Based Sanctions: These sanctions target specific countries and restrict transactions with designated individuals, entities, or sectors. For example, the sanctions imposed on Iran restrict financial dealings with Iranian banks, individuals, and certain industries.

2. Entity-Based Sanctions: These sanctions target specific individuals, organizations, or entities that are involved in illicit activities or pose a threat to national security. Designated individuals or entities are added to OFAC's Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, and all transactions involving them are prohibited.

3. Activity-Based Sanctions: These sanctions target specific activities such as terrorism financing, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or money laundering. Financial institutions are required to exercise due diligence to prevent transactions with parties involved in these activities.

Bank Transactions Subject to Financial Sanctions

Under OFAC regulations, all U.S. persons and entities, including banks and financial institutions, are prohibited from engaging in transactions with individuals, entities, or countries under sanctions. The following types of bank transactions are subject to financial sanctions:

1. Wire Transfers: Any wire transfer involving a sanctioned individual, entity, or country is prohibited. Banks are required to screen all wire transfers against OFAC's SDN List and other relevant sanctions programs.

2. Trade Finance: Financing or facilitating trade transactions with sanctioned countries or entities is prohibited. Letters of credit, documentary collections, and other trade finance instruments should not involve parties under sanctions.

3. Correspondent Banking: Correspondent banks that maintain relationships with foreign financial institutions must ensure that transactions passing through their accounts do not involve parties under sanctions.

4. Swift Messaging: The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) messaging system is used by banks to exchange financial information. Banks should refrain from sending or receiving messages that involve sanctioned parties.

5. Foreign Exchange Operations: Banks should not engage in foreign exchange transactions involving sanctioned currencies, unless authorized by OFAC.

6. Asset Blocking: Banks are required to block funds or other assets owned or controlled by individuals, entities, or countries under sanctions. Blocked assets cannot be accessed, transferred, or dealt with until authorized by OFAC.

The Consequences of Non-Compliance

Non-compliance with OFAC regulations can have serious consequences for banks and financial institutions. The potential penalties for violating OFAC sanctions may include:

1. Civil Penalties: OFAC can impose substantial penalties for each violation, which can range from thousands to millions of dollars depending on the severity of the violation.

2. Criminal Penalties: In certain cases, individuals can face criminal charges for willful violations of OFAC sanctions. This can result in significant fines and even imprisonment.

3. Reputation Damage: Non-compliance with OFAC regulations can severely damage a bank's reputation, leading to loss of customer trust and potential loss of business relationships.

4. Regulatory Action: Regulatory authorities may take enforcement action against banks that fail to comply with OFAC regulations, including fines, sanctions, or license revocation.


Understanding OFAC regulations is essential for banks, financial institutions, and individuals involved in international finance and trade. By comprehending the types of bank transactions subject to financial sanctions, entities can ensure compliance and avoid the serious consequences of non-compliance. Staying updated on OFAC's sanctions programs and maintaining robust compliance programs are crucial elements in mitigating sanctions-related risks.

24 October 2023
Written by John Roche