Money matters: UK currency explained for first-time visitors


So, before you hop on a plane and fly to the UK to enjoy a terrific trip to the UK capital (perhaps staying at awesome centrally-located accommodation like the Park Grand Paddington Court hotel), are you familiar with British currency? No? Time to educate yourself then…

Currency Exchange

Pounds sterling – in notes and coins

The British ‘pound sterling’ (‘£’) breaks down into pence (p) and, as with the US dollar and cents, there are 100 pence in one pound. In terms of coins, you’ll find that pound sterling’s available via separate coins worth £2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p and 1p. Yes, that’s quite a lot of coinage. Notes-wise, pound sterling is available in £50, £20, £10 and £5 denominations, with a £5 note and a £10 note often referred to colloquially as a ‘fiver’ and a ‘tenner’, respectively, and a £1 coin as a ‘quid’ (the latter perhaps derived from the Latin phrase ‘quid pro quo’/ ‘something for something else’). Less common is the term a ‘pony’ for a £20 note; especially as it’s essentially used in London Cockney slang and nowhere else. All British coins and notes feature the head of the current monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) on one side and other symbology on the other; on notes usually another historical figure (e.g. Winston Churchill or Jane Austen).

What is actually accepted as currency in the UK?

Good question. Why? Because, although Britain is a sovereign country it’s also, of course, one made up of individual sovereign countries, which means that both Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own banknotes in circulation; different from those outlined above that are by far and an away most commonly in circulation in England and Wales. Confusingly, all these banknotes, however, are in pounds sterling and so are all legal currency throughout the UK.

One currency that definitely isn’t universally accepted, though, is the European currency, the Euro. The UK is, of course, set to leave the European Union (EU) – i.e. Brexit – but has never given up its own currency for the ‘Euro’, unlike the Republic of Ireland. That said, owing to how cosmopolitan London is – just how major a ‘world city’ it is – you may well find that airports, department stores and major train stations in the UK capital will accept the Euro as a form of payment (useful then if you’ve a bunch of Euros to use and you’re staying at one of the hotels near Paddington Station London). A word to the wise, however; don’t try paying for something via the Euro out in the provinces!

Point-of-sale, ‘cash machines’ and contactless payment

Alternatively, as is the case in so many countries throughout the world today, it’s possible to simply pay for things in the UK – and especially in London – via your regular bank/ credit/ debit card at point-of-sale (POS). Any internationally-accepted card with a chip and PIN is bound to be accepted at retail and payment-for-service venues (that is, cards that feature a Visa, Mastercard, Maestro, Cirrus or Plus symbol). You may well find that you’ll be charged for the convenience of paying this way but such charges in the UK tend to be pretty minimal.

Needless to say, you can also use such cards to withdraw money in pounds sterling from ATMs – which are invariably referred to as ‘cash machines’ or ‘cashpoints’ in Britain. It should be noted too that contactless payment’s becoming increasingly popular everywhere in the UK.