Paying for Things in Ireland: Cash or Plastic?

Pound coins and bank notes

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Unless you are on an all-inclusive cruise you will, more than likely, need to pay for at least some goods and services in Ireland. Straightforward, you might think—just whip out the plastic. Not so fast: cash is the most immediate form of payment and accepted everywhere, in fact, cash is preferred in a number of cases, while credit cards and traveler's checks should be seen as an alternative to cash.

There are some unexpected pitfalls to relying on cash when visiting Ireland, as you may have to deal with two different currencies: The Republic is part of the Eurozone while Northern Ireland uses Pounds Sterling. The good news is that, in the border regions, both currencies tend to be accepted but this should never be taken for granted.

Overall, using cash or plastic in Ireland should cause no problems, but it's always important to brush up on your knowledge of local money and the methods of monetary transaction available when traveling overseas. A little preparation will prevent you from having to pay over the odds or encountering a difficult situation where you cannot pay at all.

Euros and Cents

Here are the most important facts you need to know about the Euro used in the Republic of Ireland.

One Euro (€) has 100 Cent (c) and coins are available in denominations of 1 c, 2 c, 5 c (all copper), 10 c, 20 c, 50 c (all golden), € 1 and € 2 (silver with gold).

While the design of the side bearing the numerals is standardized throughout the Eurozone the reverse is of local design— in Ireland, you will find a design with an Irish harp. 

Non-Irish Euro coins are legal tender, but take note that some machines will only accept non-Irish Euro coins with a bit of persuasion (try, try again) or not at all.

Spanish coins are notorious in the latter department and can be a headache on automated tollbooths on the motorways.

Banknotes are totally standardized throughout the Eurozone and most commonly available in denominations of € 5, € 10, € 20 and € 50. Higher denominations (€ 100, € 200 and even € 500) are available, but rare, and some traders may refuse them. Improvements in design and paper quality have led to two versions of the € 5, € 10, and € 20 notes, with the older ones still being accepted but they are in the process of being taken out of circulation.

Take note that the cost of production of 1 and 2 Cent coins exceeds their actual nominal worth, so they are also being taken out of circulation. In Ireland, a “rounding system” was introduced in 2015, so that the total of a transaction will generally be rounded (up or down) to the nearest 5 Cents. Thus a sum e.g. ending in 11 or 12 Cents will be rounded down to 10 Cents, 13,14, 16, and 17 Cents will be rounded to 15 Cents, 18 and 19 Cents will be rounded up to 20 Cents. In the long run, you won’t be off any better or worse than before.

Pounds and Pennies

Here are the most important facts you need to know about the Pound used in Northern Ireland:

One Pound Sterling (£) has 100 Pence (p) and coins are available in denominations of 1 p, 2 p (all copper), 5 p, 10 p, 20 p, 50 p (all silver), £ 1 (golden) and £ 2 (silver with gold). 50 c and £ 1 coins can have commemorative or local designs on the reverse.

Banknotes are commonly available in denominations of £ 5, £ 10 and £ 20. The higher denomination £ 50 notes are available, but rare, and some traders may refuse them.

You should know, however, that banknotes in the United Kingdom are issued by individual banks rather than by a central authority, and you will find that each bank uses its own design. Apart from notes issued by the Bank of England, you will encounter notes from Northern Irish banks and the Bank of Ireland, plus you may also receive Scottish notes as change. All are valid currency but the different designs can be confusing.

In addition, Northern Bank is now part of Danske Bank, which is issuing Pounds Sterling with a Danish company name. All of this will really only cause problems for you if you have a lot of leftover cash when you head home. Notes not issued by the Bank of England may be hard to exchange back in your home country, so spend them first!

Rounding as outlined above is not the practice in Northern Ireland.

Cross-Border Shopping

Many shops in the border counties are flexible with currency and you accept the foreign Irish currency at their own (sometimes quite favorable) exchange rate. You will, however, only receive change in the local currency. The only other place where you will find some flexibility in currency is at the odd parking meter that will accept Euros in Northern Ireland.

Plastic is Fantastic

Credit cards are widely accepted everywhere in Ireland, with Visa and Mastercard being the most popular. Acceptance of American Express and Diners cards is decidedly lower and JCB cards are nearly unknown. As in the US, there might also be a minimum purchase clause in many shops—no credit card transactions below € 10 or even £ 20—and beware of the trader charging you in your own currency "for convenience." Insist on being billed in Pounds Sterling or Euros when purchasing goods, not in Dollars. When charging you in your own currency, the merchant uses his own exchange rate, which will be very convenient to him and more than likely leave you paying extra.

Debit cards are also widely accepted, but you should also check with your card provider for information on fees before traveling. In Ireland, the "cashback" feature when making purchases, is possible in some stores. Most ATMs (colloquially called "Hole in the Wall" or simply cash machines) will also accept credit cards for cash withdrawal, but check the fees for cash advances and foreign transactions with your credit card company first. Credit card skimming is on the decline, but still a risk. So watch out for any contraptions at ATMs that look suspicious.

Note: In Northern Ireland, only credit cards using the "chip and PIN" system are accepted in shops. In the Republic, things are heading that way too.

Personal and Traveler's Checks

Traveler's Checks used to be a secure and convenient alternative to cash and credit cards but even historically were not actually accepted outside the major tourist centers. These days, they are definitely facing extinction. Most traders will not accept them anymore and you will even have problems exchanging them in most ​banks.

Personal checks are, generally speaking, not accepted at all. Especially not those from non-Irish banks.