Know Before You Go: A Traveler's Guide to UK Currency

UK Currency
UK Currency. Tim Liedtke / TripSavvy 

Before you arrive in the United Kingdom, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the local currency. The official currency of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is the pound sterling (£), often abbreviated to GBP. Currency in the UK remains unchanged by the European referendum of 2017. However, if you're also planning to visit the Republic of Ireland, you'll also need euros (€) as pounds are not accepted.

Pounds and Pence

One British pound is made up of 100 pence. There are coins with 1, 2, 5, 1, 20, and 50 pence denominations as well as 1 pound and 2 pound coins. Notes are available in 5, 10, 20, and 50 pound denominations, and each one has its own distinct color. All British currency features an image of the Queen's head on one side. The other side typically shows a notable historic figure, landmark, or national symbol. 

British slang has many different names for various elements of the currency. You will almost always hear pence referred to as "pee", while 5 and 10 pound notes are often called fivers and tenners. In many areas of the UK, a 1-pound coin is called a "quid." It's thought that this term originally stemmed from the Latin phrase "quid pro quo," used to refer to the exchange of one thing for another. 

Legal Currencies in the U.K.

While Scotland and Northern Ireland both use pound sterling, their bank notes are different from those issued in England and Wales. Confusingly, Scottish and Irish bank notes are not afforded official legal tender status in England and Wales, but can legally be used in any British country. Most shopkeepers will accept them without complaint, but they are not legally obligated to do so and can refuse your Scottish or Irish notes.

If you have any problems, most banks will exchange Scottish or Irish notes for English ones free of charge. Standard English bank notes are almost always accepted throughout the U.K. 

Many visitors make the mistake of thinking that the euro is widely accepted as an alternative currency in the U.K. While shops at some major train stations or airports do accept euros, most other places do not. The exception is iconic department stores like Harrods, Selfridges, and Marks & Spencer, which have historically accepted euros but give change in pound sterling. Lastly, some bigger stores in Northern Ireland may accept the euro as a concession to visitors from the south, but they are not legally required to do so. 

Exchanging Currency in the U.K.

You have several different options when it comes to exchanging currency in the U.K. Private bureaux de change belonging to companies like Travelex can be found on the high streets of most towns and cities, and in major train stations, ferry terminals, and airports. Popular department store Marks & Spencer also has a bureau de change desk in many of its nationwide outlets. Alternatively, you can exchange money at most bank branches and post offices. 

It's a good idea to shop around, as exchange rates and commission fees can vary widely from one place to the next. The easiest way to find out which option is best is to ask how many pounds you will receive for your money after all of the charges have been deducted. If you're headed to a rural area, it's also a good idea to exchange money at your first point of entry. The bigger the city, the more options you'll have and you're more likely to get a better rate.

Using Your Card at ATMs & Point of Sale

Alternatively, it's also possible to use your regular bank card to withdraw local currency from an ATM (often called a cashpoint in the U.K.). Any international card with a chip and PIN should be accepted at most ATMs—although Visa, Mastercard, Maestro, Cirrus, or Plus cards are your safest bet. Charges are almost always incurred for non-U.K. accounts, although these are usually minimal and often cheaper than the commission charged by bureaux de change. 

Portable cashpoints located inside convenience stores, gas stations and small supermarkets typically charge more than ATMs located within a bank branch. Your bank is also likely to charge a fee for overseas withdrawals and point-of-sale (POS) payments. It's a good idea to check what these fees are before you go, so that you can plan your withdrawal strategy accordingly.  However, if you have a travel credit card, you won't need to worry about transaction or conversion fees.

While Visa and Mastercard cards are widely accepted everywhere, it's worth remembering that American Express, Discover, and Diners Club cards are not so readily accepted for POS payments (especially outside London). If you have either of these cards, you should carry an alternative form of payment as well. Contactless card payments are becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. You can use contactless Visa, Mastercard and American Express cards to pay for public transport in London, and for POS payments under 30 pounds in many shops and restaurants. 

Article Sources
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  1. Bank of England. "What is legal tender?" Jan. 30, 2020.