Currency

The currency of the United Kingdom is the Pound Sterling (£).  In colloquial speech, the pound is also called "quid".  There are 100 Pence (p) in the pound.  The word "pence" is usually just abbreviated to "p" in speech and writing.  All British coins except for the relatively new £2 had a new design released in 2008 and are starting to appear on the street in increasing numbers in early 2009. The older designs will not cease to be legal tender, though, unless of course the UK should decide to adopt the Euro.

All coins have a portrait of the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, on one side (colloquially, the 'heads') . The £1 coins have emblems representing the nations of England, Scotland and Wales on the obverse side (colloquially, the 'tails') and the legends "NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT", "DECUS ET TUTAMEN" and "PLEIDIOL WYF I'M GWLAD", respectively around the milled edge.  50p and £2 coins have been issued with many different commemorative and other designs eg the 2012 Olympics, but the alternative designs are just as well accepted by shops and are worth no more or less.

When handling coins, be careful not to dismiss the small ones as unimportant—some small coins are worth much more than larger ones.  For example, the one and two-pence coins are significantly larger than the five-pence coin, and the two-pence is even larger than the ten-pence. The pound coin is about the same size of a 1p coin, though it is at least a good deal chunkier - not for nothing are they occasionally referred to as "nuggets". A large number of £1 coins in circulation are counterfeit. 

Banknotes

Banknotes are issued in England and Wales by the Bank of England. In Scotland, promissory banknotes are issued by the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank and in Northern Ireland, by the Bank of Ireland, First Trust Bank, Danske Bank (formerly Northern Bank) and Ulster Bank. Banknotes are issued to £5, £10, £20 and £50 by the Bank of England, with some Scottish banks also issuing £1 and £100 notes.

The only legal tender currency in the UK is that issued from the Bank of England, but businesses generally accept the Scottish & Northern Irish notes. Technically, Scotland has had no legal tender since 1707 and all notes are promissory, but this is a mere aside.

High-value Scottish notes (£50 & £100) are mostly refused by English businesses (for security and forgery reasons). Northern Irish money is rarely seen in the mainland UK, but is still generally accepted. £1 Scottish notes, although becoming quite rare, are not accepted outside Scotland.

English notes are more universally accepted, though the £50 note is rarely seen, as it is primarily a banking note, and is commonly refused by retailers and service providers, due to security and forgery risks, as well as a reluctance to part with change.

It is also common in northern Scotland to find signs stating that English banknotes larger than £10 will be refused due to the number of forged English £20 notes in circulation. This can be problematic if you are in the Highlands, miles from an ATM, with only a stash of £20 English notes in your wallet.

The easiest way to avoid problems is to take money from the ATM (cash machine) in the country you want to use it in.

The Channel Islands, Gibraltar, British Overseas Territories and the Isle of Man also issue their own banknotes, but these are NOT accepted on the UK mainland or for foreign exchange purposes. It is imperative you exchange these before your return to the UK mainland or back home. They can be exchanged at banks in the UK. Some places in the Channel Islands have ATMs side by side, one for English notes and the other for Island notes.

Rule of thumb: low denomination (£20 and below, though not £1 in England) and the note printed with 'pounds sterling' will be accepted 99 times from 100. Spend or change all Scottish and Northern Irish notes to English before departure from the UK as bureaux de change back at home will not accept these for exchange purposes, due to legal tender issues previously mentioned. 

Bank of England notes (images from Bank of England website) - NB: the higher the denomination, the larger the note will physically be

Current £5 note (smallest physical note):

£5 Bank of England Front £5 Bank of England reverse 

 

The current £10 note design:

£10 note front £10 Bank of England

 

This is the new design £20 note, the old design is still in circulation, but is becoming less common.

£20 note front £20 Note

 

The £50 is not widely accepted, but is in circulation. Retailers have the right to not accept this note, so it is advised that you use this for currency exchange and banking purposes only. The current note is shown below (largest physical note):

£50 note front  £50 note back

 

The "old" style note is shown below. This style of £50 note will not be legal tender after 30th April 2014 and will probably not be accepted by shops. These will be exchanged by banks, for free, after this date however. More information can be found on the Bank of England website here

Old £50 front £50 Bank of England

 

As a technicality there are also £1 million (known as "Giants") and £100 million (known as "Titans") notes but these are used exclusively within the Bank of England to back the value of Scottish notes (see below) and are not available to the public or organizations. If you are thinking about bidding for a cancelled giant or titan exercise extreme caution and seek professional advice as these are almost guaranteed to be fake given that they rarely leave the Bank of England's vault.

 

Bank of Scotland sample design (images of Scottish notes from the Scottish Clearing Banks webpage)

£5 Bank of Scotland

Royal Bank of Scotland sample design

£5 Royal Bank of Scotland

Clydesdale Bank sample design

£5 Clydesdale Bank

 

If you are planning a trip to Ireland or the UK's closest mainland neighbours, note that the currency is the Euro, €.  Euros can be obtained from any bureaux de change, all High Street branches charge no commission on exchange, but airport branches levy a 2% service charge and generally have a lower rate of exchange.

NB: A minority of High Street shops already accept the Euro as payment, and all major UK banks provide a Euro-based current account.

Obtaining UK money

Obtaining money in the UK is quite easy. ATMs (known locally as cashpoints) tend to cluster around stations and main shopping streets. Many of the large supermarkets should have a cashpoint on site - usually near the main entrance. These will give free withdrawals of cash from any bank account. Cash machines can also be found in some pubs and newsagents. Be careful if using these machines as they are not always free to use (you will be informed of any fees though) and you may be charged. In more rural areas, cash machines are rarer and tend to be located near supermarkets or at the odd bank - if it's open. Many rural branches are facing closure and if this the case the machine may not be working.  Post Offices can give you cash over the counter against a card, but some lightly used ones may refuse, simply because they haven't got enough cash. Beware of cash machines inside shops and bars as these can charge around £1 per transaction (and in some cases as much as £3!). Note: All cash machines in the UK run on the LINK network, the LINK network accepts almost all credit card types (American Express, MasterCard, Visa, JCB, Discover, Diners Club, BC Card and China UnionPay). Most of these logos are not shown but the cards themselves are accepted.

If you are using your debit card and are accustomed to entering your PIN alphabetically, make sure that you also know its numeric equivalent.  Most UK cashpoints have only a numeric keypad. You need to know that DAZED is really 32933 or the queue of people waiting for cash behind you will grow really impatient!

BE WARNED! Before you use a cash machine, always check that it has not been tampered with. Always cover the keypad with your other hand, while you input your number (this will prevent people behind you and any devices fitted with cameras seeing your number). If you think an ATM has been tampered with, DO NOT USE IT!

Credit Cards 

Visa and Mastercard are also widely accepted, but be warned that there may be a 1% - 3% transaction fee, depending on the card issuer, on every transaction. Over the last few years, American Express has also become widely accepted but a few merchants (usually small shops) will either not accept it or add a surcharge. Rarely you may find American Express cards do not work at a merchant's automated machine (A Pay@Pump for example) but do work at the merchant's manned terminal. Diners Club and Discover are very rarely accepted. You will want to find out from your credit card company exactly what their fees are.  It is also a good idea to let your bank and credit card company know you will be using the cards overseas so they do not suspect "unusual activity" and put a hold on your account.

Businesses (outside the big chain stores and cities) accepting debit and credit cards are also on the rise. Since the advent of chip-and-PIN cards and Internet banking, almost every major retailer and food outlet accepts payment by card.  Smaller shops only take cards when you spend more than a certain amount (usually £4-£6) or will add a nominal surcharge.  Some independent service companies (e.g. lawyers, estate agents) won't accept credit cards either.

One of the growing crimes in the UK is credit theft (where people steal your credit card details through the use of scanners attached to money machines, then use your details illegally and without your knowledge).  To alleviate this problem, chip & PIN cards were widely implemented in February 2006.  These cards have "smart cards" inserted in them that remember a PIN that you have to enter when making purchases, rather than simply signing a receipt.  Visitors from countries not yet using chip and PIN will have their card swiped and sign in the usual way. For more information, visit the Chip & PIN page.

Also, be sure you never discard credit card receipts from purchases in rubbish bins. It is still not completely unheard of for these receipts to contain your complete credit card details (including your credit card number and expiry date), though normally, the receipts will only show the last four digits of your card number. Your safest bet is to securely destroy these receipts back in your hotel room, or better still, retain the receipts and take them home with you so you can match your purchases up with what you have been charged on your next credit card or bank statement.

Cash Back

Cash back is a system where by you can get cash when purchasing items using a UK/EU issued debit card. This is usually restricted to a maximum of £50. For example you spend £15 on goods and ask for £20 cash back. Your total bill will be for £35 and you will be handed your goods and £20. This system mainly operates in supermarkets where it is quite usual to be asked if you want cash back. However, other shops offer it as well. If you are unsure, ask. Do not rely on being able to get money this way, as not all shops operate this system. Due to newer rules, magnetic stripe only cards are not accepted for cashback.

Useful Info

Here is a listing of many of the major banks, building societies and credit unions controlling and providing High Street banking facilities around the UK.

  • Allied Irish Bank
  • Bank of England
  • Bank of Ireland
  • Bank of Scotland
  • Barclays
  • Citibank
  • Clydesdale Bank (Scotland)
  • Danske Bank (Northern Ireland)
  • First Trust Bank (Northern Ireland)
  • Halifax
  • HSBC 
  • Lloyds Bank (Formerly Lloyds TSB)
  • Nationwide
  • NatWest
  • Northern Bank (Northern Ireland) - now rebranded as Danske Bank
  • Northern Rock
  • Post Office
  • RBS - Royal Bank of Scotland
  • Santander
  • TSB (Formerly Lloyds TSB)
  • Ulster Bank (Northern Ireland)
  • Yorkshire Building Society