Currency Exchange Rate Tools For Tourists

British coins in 2018
 Getty Images

Standing around doing complex calculations on your smart phone to work out exactly what you're about to spend can be frustrating and time consuming when you are on the move. It can also mark you out as a tourist for any pick pockets or scam artists lurking around.

But if you don't know exactly what you are spending, your vacation budget can quickly spiral out of control. These guidelines, tools and apps will help.


The UK introduced a new, 12-sided £1 coin in March 2017. The two-tone coin is designed to be harder to counterfeit. An amazing one in every 30 of the old UK pound coins was fake. If you've visited the UK before March 2017, you may have some of the leftover round £1 but they are no longer legal tender. The won't work in vending machines and clerks won't accept them in shops.
Watch a video of the new £1 coin.

The Main Denominations of Currency

Before you go out to spend cash, get used to what British money looks and feels like. Never just offer a handful of coins as payment in a market, to a street trader or a taxi driver, trusting that they'll help themselves to the right amount.

British currency is based on the pound sterling, often referred to as GB pounds or just "sterling."

These are the main units to get used to:

  • Coins
    • Pound - a thick gold coloured coin with a ridged edge, one side will always have the Queen's head stamped on it though the picture on the reverse can vary.
    • Two Pounds - a two pound coin is a thick, two-toned coin, about the same size as an American silver dollar. It is composed of a silver-colored alloy in the center surrounded by a ring of a gold-colored alloy.
    • Fifty Pence Piece or 50p coin - a large, 7-sided nickel colored coin worth half of a pound.
    • Twenty Pence Piece or 20p coin - a smaller, 7-sided coin worth the same as 20 pennies. Usually more silvery looking than other silver-colored coins.
    • Ten Pence Piece or 10p coin - a dull silver-colored coin about the same size as a US quarter but usually worth a bit less.
    • Five Pence Piece or 5p coin - The smallest coin (by size but not value), it is silver colored and about the same size as a US dime.
    • Two Pence Piece or 2p coin - The larger of Britain's two copper coins. Don't let size fool you. It's usually worth about three cents.
    • Penny or 1p - The smallest unit of currency- by value - now in circulation. This copper colored coin is usually worth about 1.5 cents US.
  • Paper Money Units of British paper currency are referred to as "notes" not bills. All have a portrait of the Queen on one side. These are the ones most commonly in circulation -
    • £5 or Five Pound Note - Printed with blue green and green ink.
    • £10 or Ten Pound Note - Printed in shades of orange and brown
    • £20 or Twenty Pound Note - Printed in shades of blue, purple and grey.
  • Some advice about notes
    • The Bank of Scotland(not the same as the Royal Bank of Scotland), the Bank of England, and several banks in Northern Ireland all issue notes. Depending upon which national bank they come from, they may have different artwork printed on them. They are all still legal and usable UK currency. Unfortunately, many shop assistants, cashiers and clerks in England don't recognize Scottish or Northern Irish money and refuse to accept these notes without a fuss. It's annoying but, if you are traveling from those parts of the UK back to England, try to spend your local money in those places or you may have to exchange them in a bank.
    • Larger notes, for £50, are in general circulation and you may be given them at a bank. Ask for smaller denominations because the larger notes are hard to spend.

So What's It Worth in Your Own Currency?

The pound has hovered between $1.54 and $1.65 for about ten years. As a rule of thumb,if you have US dollars to spend, multiplying the figure shown in pounds sterling by about 1.6 will give you a rough estimate of costs.

For more accuracy, use one of several online tools and apps that convert UK prices into your own currency, automatically. These are the best:

  • The Universal Currency Converter instantly converts between two currencies - and can handle almost any currency you can imagine. It's available as an app for iPhones and most other smart phones.
  •  is also available as an app and has an additionally useful feature. It can give you an average exchange rate for whatever dates in the past that you choose. This is useful if you've returned from a trip and want to know how much you spent or if you are interested in comparing what a trip cost you in the past to prices today.
  • keep in mind that both of these tools show the commercial or "interbank" rate and don't factor in currency exchange fees and charges for buying foreign currency. If you make most of your major purchases - tickets, hotel rooms, dining out - on a credit or debit card, your cost of money will be closer to the interbank rate than if you buy currency at tourist rates.


Why aren't prices converted on these pages?

Prices are given in GB Pounds or "pounds sterling" (and shown with the symbol £) because in today's world, currencies change in value, in relation to each other, very often - usually several times a day. Prices converted to US Dollars or Euros today could be significantly different by the time you travel. When prices are shown in both pounds and dollars it is for rough guidance only and should not be considered an accurate exchange value.
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