The United Kingdom is one of the most popular vacation destinations in all of Europe. Made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK is known for its diversity and fascinating history, with many remnants of its past still visible today in the form of castles, ruins, and unique monuments like Stonehenge, as well as through the works of great poets and writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen.
The UK is also famed for its big cities, with the likes of London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Cardiff, and Birmingham standing out as some of the biggest and most commonly-visited locations, as well as its scenic countryside and charming little villages in areas like the Cotswolds, Devon, and Cornwall. It’s a country with a lot to offer, and you can plan all kinds of trips when going to the UK.
Whether you’re seeing the sights of a big city like London, walking around a little village in Wales, visiting a historic university town like Oxford or Cambridge, or heading out to Scotland or Northern Ireland for other unique experiences, you can make a lot of magical memories in the United Kingdom. However, there are lots of things to plan and prepare for when organizing a trip to the UK, including your currency.
Official Currency in the UK
The official currency of the United Kingdom is the pound sterling. The symbol for the pound is £ and its ISO code is GBP. Despite the fact that the UK's currency is known as the pound sterling, most people simply refer to it as the pound and the term 'sterling' is rarely heard outside of financial markets. A single pound is made up of 100 pence.
The British pound is also used in the English Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, as well as on the Isle of Man and in some other British territories. It's one of the most traded currencies in the world. Like many other currencies, the value of the pound is always shifting based on numerous factors. In general, a pound is worth more than a US dollar, but for more up-to-date and detailed information on the value of a pound, live currency conversion charts should be consulted.
Coins and Notes in the UK
In the past, a single pound was divided up into 20 shillings, with each shilling being made up of 12 pence. This system was replaced by a much simpler system in 1971, however, and now a single pound is divided up into 100 pence. The UK has used coins and notes for centuries, and the system is quite simple for visitors to understand. You can use the following coins in the UK:
- 1 pence (also known as a penny)
- 2 pence
- 5 pence
- 10 pence
- 20 pence
- 50 pence
- 1 pound
- 2 pound
The coins used in the United Kingdom are made from different metals and have different sizes and shapes to help users determine their value with ease, by both view and touch. The lowest denominations of coins (1p and 2p) are made from copper plated steel, with the 2p coin being larger. The 5p, 10p, 20p, and 50p coins are made from cupronickel, with the 5p and 10p coins being circular and the 20p and 50p coins being of a heptagon shape. Finally, the £1 and £2 coins are made from a mixture of nickel and brass and are circular in shape.
As for notes, you can find the following denominations used in the UK:
The £50 is the largest note used in the United Kingdom, while the £5 note is the smallest, both in terms of value and physical size. The notes used in the UK get progressively larger as they increase in value, and each one is decorated with a famous figure from British history, with examples including Jane Austen and Sir Winston Churchill. Pound sterling notes can also be distinguished by color, with the £5 note having a blue-hue, the £10 note being orange, the £20 note being purple, and the £50 note being red.
Using Credit Cards in the UK
As a highly developed country and a leading global power, the UK has been quick to adopt many new financial innovations and systems as they become available. Both credit and debit cards are very commonly used in the UK and you can usually pay with a card in most shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, attractions, and other locations.
Visitors to the United Kingdom will also find many ATMs around the country, even in small villages and rural locations. There are, however, still some shops and areas where cards are less commonly accepted, so it’s wise to have some cash on your person as you travel around in the United Kingdom.
Using US Dollars or Other Currencies in the UK
The only official currency of the United Kingdom is the pound sterling, so anywhere in the UK is legally within its rights to refuse any other currency. In general, you won't be able to use US dollars in the UK. Some people head to the UK thinking that euros might be accepted, but generally, they won't be.
However, there are some large department stores like Harrods in London that will accept other currencies. So you won’t be able to get by in the UK without pounds or cards, but you may be able to use dollars or euros in certain locations.
Tips for Currency in the UK
When you next travel in the United Kingdom, bear the following tips and tricks in mind in order to have the best time and not encounter any money problems:
- Keep some change on you whenever possible. You never know when you might need it. Even in big cities, you’ll find lots of places where cash is essential like on market stalls or when paying for parking.
- Cards are very widely accepted in the United Kingdom, but you still never know when you might go into a shop that doesn’t accept them. Even in the heart of London, there are some shops that seem like they should accept cards, but actually don’t. This is another good reason to have some cash on you at all times.
- When entering a shop, have a look near the cash register. Many shops that don’t accept cards or have special rules for cards will put a little sign there to indicate their policy. Some will simply say ‘Cash Only’, but others may let you use cards when spending a minimum amount like £5 or £10.
- Be careful about using your card too often. When paying for goods internationally, many banks will charge you a small fee for each transaction, and these little fees can quickly add up over time.
- Tipping isn’t really a big part of British culture, but you can still do it if you want to in pubs and restaurants.
- Remember that if you’re visiting Northern Ireland but decide to hop over the border into Ireland, you’ll need to use euros, rather than pounds.
- US visitors to the UK may encounter an issue when using their cards. The UK, like many other countries, uses the ‘chip and pin’ system for cards, in which the cardholder enters a pin code when making payments for security purposes. More and more American cards are being made with this technology, but some cards don’t have it. If you have one of these cards, you may have to sign a receipt when buying things or your card might be rejected.