Pounds and pennies

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Buying and paying for things in Britain, cash withdrawals, and other tips


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Pounds and pence Paying for things Getting your pounds

See also :  Britain on a limited budget - make your pounds go further

Pounds and pence - the British currency 


Throughout the United Kingdom - though not in the Republic of Ireland - the currency used is the Pound, or Pound Sterling. The bank reference for this currency is GBP.
   One pound is divided into 100 pennies, or pence. To specify sums of money,  pence is the normal plural form of the word penny.
   In 2016,  one pound is worth more than one Euro and more than one US dollar.
Following the Brexit referendum result, the pound has fallen at least 20%  against world currencies, meaning that Britain has suddenly got quite a bit cheaper for foreign visitors
Here are the conversion rates as of 12th October 2016 (almost 4 months after the Brexit referendum) for major world currencies. The pound is expected to continue to fall until or unless Brexit is called off.

Post-Brexit conversion rates (12 October 2016) : One British pound =
1.11 Euros 1.21 US dollars 1.62 Canadian dollars
1.62 Australian dollars 127 Japanese yen 8.24 Chinese yuan

   In other words, for example, an item costing £100 in England costs the equivalent of 129 €uros, 143 US dollars, 190 Canadian dollars, 930 Chinese yuan, etc.
   Coins are used for units up to the value of £2. Banknotes start at £5.
   Sums are expressed in different ways by different speakers. For example, the sum of £24.99 may be expressed as "Twenty-four ninety-nine", or "Twenty-four pounds ninety-nine", or even "Twenty-four pounds and ninety-nine pence".
    Sums below one pound may be expressed, for example, as "Forty-five pence" or "Forty-five pee", but never as "forty-five pennies".  The word "pennies" is not used in sums or transactions; only in generic expressions such as "pounds and pennies".
    The word "quid" is slang for "pound(s)", as in "That'll be fifty quid please".
    The word "a grand" is slang for a thousand pounds.

Buying online

Many UK shops offer online sales, with (often free) delivery to Europe or even worldwide. Some have prices in Euros or dollars, others in sterling. For a selection of the best shops, see Online British shops


Paying for things

By far the easiest way to pay for thigs in Britain - in shops, restaurants and hotels, is by "plastic". International credit or debit cards, notably  Visa and Mastercard can be used all over Britain. Many outlets and ATMs also accept American Express and other international cards.   

Paying in cash

   However, there are always places that do not accept plastic cards - for instance small shops, small restaurants, market stalls, parking meters, and so on, so visitors to Britain will need to have some pounds and pennies available.
   It is not usually possible to pay for things in cash in Britain using dollars or euros. It is normally essential to have pounds and pennies. However in London, some of the big department stores, such as Marks and Spencer or Selfridges, accept payment in Euros and/or dollars. But the exchange rate is liable to be unfavourable.  It would be far better to withdraw pounds from an ATM (cash machine, cash distributor, cashpoint) and pay in sterling, rather than to try and pay with a different currency.

Exchange: getting your pounds

Credit or debit cards and ATMs

The easiest way to get your British pounds, and often the cheapest way, is to use your Visa or Mastercard in a British ATM, just as you would at home.  But before you come to the UK, make sure that you tell your bank at home that you are going to the UK, and ask them to set your maximum withdrawal level as you will need it. Many banks have security systems that will stop a card being used, abnormally, in an unusual location; so if your card is suddenly used for withdrawing money in the UK, your bank's computer system may imagine that this is a fraud, and block your card.  This can be extremely problematic for visitors in a foreign country.

 Exchange fees and commissions

Your bank will normally charge you a small fee for using your card abroad, and a small foreign exchange fee. So it does not make a lot of sense to use your card for a lot of small purchases or withdrawals, on which you will pay a lot of exchange fees; far better normally to withdraw a useful amount of cash (1 withdrawal = 1 fee), and pay for small purchases in cash.

   Warning: bank-operated ATMs in the UK will not normally charge you for using their ATM; however, there are a lot of ATMs in non-bank locations (garages, train stations, motorway service areas, etc.) which are not bank ATMs, but are run by private finance companies. These can, and usually do, charge an extra fee for using their machine, in addition to those that your own bank will charge.

Other means of obtaining your Pounds

If you do not want to, or cannot, use a credit card or debit card while visiting Britain, you must make other arrangements. The best method is to get Sterling (GBP) from your bank before leaving home. You can either get cash or sterling-denominated travellers cheques.  Your own bank may well offer you a better exchange rate than other places.
   You can also buy British pounds in exchange for  foreign banknotes in almost any bank in the UK; however, even if the UK is a relatively safe country, it is not advisable for tourists to go round with hundreds of pounds worth of cash in banknotes, on their person.
    Do not find yourself having to exchange money at a "bureau de change" or foreign exchange kiosk in at an airport, ferry terminal, or other location. Privately operated currency-exchange kiosks often take considerable commissions, even when, as often, they announce "We take no commission".  
   Don't fall for that one. They may take no "commission" in the sense that they don't take any further fee off the sum in Sterling once they have converted it for you. On the other hand, they may use  a hugely unfavourable exchange rate, well below that offered by reputable banks. So even with "no commission", they don't give you a good rate for your exchange transaction.

Travellers cheques

These can be cashed at most banks and used in some hotels, but they will not be accepted for payment in many other places.
  If Britain is just one leg on a tour of Europe, then there is no particular recommendation as to what currency you get your travellers cheques in. But if your trip only takes in the UK, then get your travellers' cheques in Sterling; a £100 travellers cheque will get you £100 - there should be no other commission to pay..

Wire services.

It is often possible to have money wired to you while in the UK, using the services of companies such as Western Union or Moneygram - even Paypal.
 Western Union has agents in most UK towns and cities, in a variety of types of establishment including travel agencies, newsagents, grocery stores, financial services agents, and other outlets, but not usually banks.
 Moneygram tends to use more institutional agents, notably Post offices and Thomas Cook travel agencies.
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