Here in the United States, we're used to handling seven denominations of bills featuring likenesses of presidents as well as two patriots who never held that office. When you visit any of the United Kingdom's four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), you will find a whole new set of odd-looking currency as well as heavy pound coins.
The British pound sterling is the oldest currency still in use, dating back to the Anglo-Saxon era that existed from 550 to 1066. Unlike most of the European Union, the United Kingdom does not participate in the Euro.
Who's on my banknote?
The Bank of England, which has issued banknotes for the last 300 years or so, regularly withdraws banknote designs and replaces them with new ones. This renders the old style worthless after a certain predetermined date.
The £1 notes were so ragged from overuse that they were withdrawn and replaced by a pound coin in 1988, followed by the introduction of the £2 coin in 1998. All coins, including those and the 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 pence (penny) coins, are made by the British Royal Mint. The mint also crafts many commemorative coins for collectors; 2012 London Olympic coins were big items this summer.
All coins and banknotes carry the likeness of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and a variety of people and other elements pictured on the other.
Notes currently in circulation feature Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer (1780-1845) on the £5, Charles Darwin, naturalist, on the £10 and Adam Smith, economist, on the £20. There are two different £50 notes in circulation at the moment, one featuring Sir John Houblon (1632-1712), first governor of the Bank of England, and another with Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the business partner and engineer team who developed the steam engine for minting currency. By July 2012, the Bank of England had not yet announced the withdrawal date for the Houblon design.
Avoid traveler's confusion
Denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50 are the only ones in circulation. Scotland has its own bills printed by three different banks, as do Jersey, Guernsey, and the Channel Islands, all of which are usually interchangeable with English notes in those countries (but not generally outside them).
Northern Ireland's four banks retain the right to print their own notes, so you may see several designs circulating there. Pay heed if traveling from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland — Belfast to Dublin, for example — because the latter is in the Eurozone and uses the Euro as currency, not the pound.
How to check for fakes
When paying in cash, you may notice the shop assistant holding the bill up in the air and having a quick look and running her fingers along the paper, especially with the £20 and £50 notes. Relatively valuable (currently about $31), the £20 note was widely counterfeited prior to its 2007 reissue, so it now contains a hologram.
The cashier is checking whether the words "Bank of England" appear raised. She is observing the silvery metallic thread embedded in every note and whether it appears as a continuous dark line when held up to the light. She is looking for the queen's image to appear as a watermark. She may be looking for a distinctive rose and medallion that are reflected, under light, in a foil patch. She hopes to see a pound sterling symbol in the see-through register when the note is held to the light.
Further security measures become evident when viewed under a good ultraviolet light. The Bank of England has a detailed guide to spotting counterfeit notes.