Introduction to forex

Learn about the basics of forex and important considerations for trading currency pairs.

Forex trading is provided by Charles Schwab Futures and Forex LLC.

What is forex?

Forex, or the foreign exchange, allows investors to speculate on changes in currency prices. Forex is traded in pairs, meaning you are buying one currency while simultaneously selling another. For an in-depth break down of the basics of forex, read our article, "What is Forex trading?"

To trade forex, you must have a brokerage account that is approved for forex trading. Log in to apply for forex approval.

Upbeat music plays throughout.

Narrator: The foreign exchange, or "forex", market is the world's largest financial market, and it plays a vital role in the global economy. Every day, trillions of dollars are exchanged from one currency to another. This kind of currency exchange is essential for international business.

Forex market participants include governments, businesses, and, of course, investors.

Governments use the forex market to implement policies. For example, when conducting business with another country, whether it's borrowing money, lending money, or offering aid, a country needs to convert its currency into a foreign currency.

Businesses use the forex market to facilitate international trade. For example, they may need to convert payments for goods and services bought overseas or to exchange payments from international customers into their preferred currency.

And investors use the forex market to speculate on changes in currency prices.

On-screen text: Currency trading involves high risks, and you can experience a significant loss of funds invested. Currency products are not suitable for all investors.

Narrator: Currency prices change almost constantly during the week because the forex market is open continuously from Sunday at 4 p.m. Central time until Friday at 4 p.m. Central time. The market is closed on Saturdays. A market day starts at 4 p.m. Central time and ends at 4 p.m. Central time the following day. At Schwab, forex trading hours are 23 hours a day, opening at 5 p.m. Central time, and closing at 4 p.m. Central time, and closed on Saturdays.

Let's go over some basics of how trading forex works. When you trade forex, you're not just trading one product; you're trading two currencies against each other. This is known as a currency pair.

The quote for a forex currency pair defines the value of one currency relative to the other. The easiest way to understand any quote is to read the pair from left to right.

On-screen text: For illustrative purposes only. Not a recommendation of any specific currency or strategy.

Narrator: Let's look at an example using the EUR/USD currency pair.

If the EUR/USD is trading at 1.20, that means one euro is equal to $1.20 USD.

Let's look at an example using the EUR/USD currency pair.

If the EUR/USD is trading at 1.20, that means one euro is equal to $1.20 USD.

Here's another example using the USD/CAD currency pair. If the USD/CAD is trading at 1.25, that means $1 USD is equal to $1.25 CAD.

Even though there are two currencies involved, the pair itself acts like a single entity, similar to a stock or commodity.

And, just like when trading stock, investors profit when they buy a currency pair, and its price increases. Investors can also profit if they sell, or short, a currency pair and the price decreases.

Let's look at an example. Suppose an investor thinks Europe's economy is going to grow faster than the United States, and as a result, she thinks the euro will strengthen against the U.S. dollar. She can buy the EUR/USD pair to speculate on her assumption. If the price of the currency pair rises, she'll make money. Conversely, if the price falls, she'll experience a loss.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at a few key aspects of the forex market.

We'll start with margin. When you trade on margin, you only need to put up a percentage of the total investment to enter into a position. This amount is known as the margin requirement.

When you trade other securities like stocks, trading on margin means you're borrowing funds from your broker; however, forex trades can only be covered using funds in the investor's forex account. Investors can't borrow funds to enter a forex trade. If they don't have funds in their forex account, they need to transfer funds before placing a trade.

Forex margin requirements vary depending on the currency pairs and the size of a trade. Currency pairs typically trade in specific quantities known as lots. The most common lot sizes are standard and mini. Standard lots represent 100,000 units and mini lots represent 10,000 units. Depending on your brokerage firm, you may also be able to trade forex in 1,000-unit increments, also known as "micro lots".

Margin requirements can be as small as 2% of a trade or as large as 20%, but the margin requirement for most currency pairs averages around 3% to 5%.

To understand how margin is calculated, let's look at an example using the EUR/USD pair. Say this pair was trading at 1.20, and an investor wanted to buy a standard lot, or 100,000 units.

The total cost of the trade would be $120,000. That's a lot of capital. However, the investor doesn't have to pay that full amount. Instead, she pays the margin requirement.

Let's say the margin requirement was 3%. Three percent of $120,000 is $3,600—that's the amount the investor needs in her forex account to place this trade.

On-screen text: Leverage carries a high level of risk and is not suitable for all investors. Greater leverage creates greater losses in the event of adverse market movements.

Narrator: This brings us to another key element of the forex market: leverage. Leverage enables investors to establish a position in a large investment with a relatively small amount of money. In this example, the investor is able to trade a position worth $120,000 with an initial deposit of $3,600.

On-screen text: Currency products may not be suitable for all investors.

Narrator: The leverage associated with currency pairs is one of the biggest benefits of the forex market, but it's also one of the biggest risks. Leverage gives investors the potential to make large profits…or large losses.

One more important element in the forex market is financing.

This is the calculation of net interest owed or earned on currency pairs, and it happens when an investor holds a position past the close of the trading day.

The U.S. dollar is associated with an overnight lending rate set by the Fed, and this rate defines the cost of borrowing money. Similarly, each foreign currency has its own overnight lending rate.

Remember, when you trade a currency pair, you're trading two currencies against each other. Even though the currency pair acts like a single entity, you're technically long one currency, and short the other. In terms of financing, you're lending the currency that you're long and borrowing the currency you're short. This lending and borrowing occurs at the overnight lending rate of each respective currency.

In general, an investor receives a credit if the currency he is long has a higher interest rate than the currency he is short.

Let's look at an example. Suppose an investor has a position in the AUD/USD currency pair. Say the overnight lending rate for AUD is 2% and the overnight lending rate for USD is 1%. The investor is long the currency pair, which means he is long the AUD and short the USD. Since the AUD has a higher interest rate than the USD, the investor will receive a credit. However, if the investor was short the AUD/USD currency pair, he'd have to pay the debit because he's short the currency that has a higher interest rate.

Financing is performed automatically by your brokerage firm; however, it's important to understand how it works and its financial impact on the trade.

We've reviewed just a few elements of the forex market. As with all investment opportunities, the forex market has a unique set of risks and benefits, and education is the first step to determine if this is the right opportunity for you.

On-screen text: [Schwab logo] Own your tomorrow®

An example of a forex trade

Let's say you believe that the Euro will increase in value in relation to the U.S. dollar; you could then buy the Euro versus the U.S. dollar, which is done by buying the EUR/USD currency pair.

  • If the Euro does go up in value in relation to the U.S. dollar and you'd like to take your profits, you could close your EUR/USD position. 
  • Conversely, if the Euro does go down in relation to the U.S. dollar, you can lose money on your position, which may be more than your initial investment.

To learn about the basics of how forex markets work, read our article, "Trading Global: Foreign Exchange (Forex) for Beginners."

Why trade forex?

Capital efficiency

Forex trading involves using margin to establish a position in a larger investment with a relatively small amount of money. This means it's highly leveraged, which creates the potential for larger returns but also puts you at risk of losing more than your initial investment. You can read more about forex margin here.


Forex is generally a very active market, with significant trading volumes, especially with major currency pairs.

Around-the-clock trading opportunities

Respond to market conditions and economic events with trading hours 23 hours per day, six days per week. 

Commission-free trading

Pay no commissions with trade costs for forex reflected in the bid-ask spread.

Currency pairs

A critical principle of forex is that it is traded in pairs, meaning you are buying one currency while simultaneously selling another.

Below is a table showing the available currency pairs.

  • Currency
  • Pairs
  • AUD (Australian Dollar) 
  • CAD (Canadian Dollar) 
  • CHF (Swiss Franc) 
  • EUR (Euro) 
  • GBP (Pound Sterling) 
  • HKD (Hong Kong Dollar) 
  • HKD/JPY 
  • NOK (Norwegian Kroner) 
  • NZD (New Zealand Dollar) 
  • SGD (Singapore Dollar) 
  • USD (U.S. Dollar) 
  • ZAR (South African Rand) 
  • ZAR/JPY 

Have questions about forex? We're here to help.