Plastic banknotes

13 things you need to know about the plastic banknotes

By Liam Coleman

- Last updated on GMT

13 things you need to know about the plastic banknotes

Related tags Winston churchill

The year was 1995 and Radiohead were preoccupied with fake plastic trees. Well, 21 years later, we now need to turn our eyes to fake plastic notes.

From 13 September of this year plastic banknotes made of polymer, as seen in Australia for the past 20 years, will start being introduced in Britain.

The first time you might see one of these notes is when a strange small plastic £5 note is handed to you behind the bar and you accept the note out of confusion.

The Bank of England recommends that everybody handling cash has familiarised themselves with more than one of the security features on the new notes before they come into circulation in September, so here we have a guide to what you need to know to separate the plastics from the fakes come September.

When they come into effect

You will start to regularly see polymer £5 notes with Sir Winston Churchill on the back from 13 September onwards.

Meanwhile summer 2017 is the tentative issue date for the new £10 note, featuring Jane Austen; and the polymer £20 note with JMW Turner on the back is expected to be issued at some point before 2020. For now there is no date or plan to introduce a polymer £50 note.

Paper £5 notes will be withdrawn in May 2017

The current paper £5 notes, which have Elizabeth Fry on them, will not be withdrawn from circulation until May 2017. That means that you can accept the paper £5 notes as you normally would until that time. After May 2017, paper £5 notes can be exchanged with the Bank of England​ at any time.

Even come May 2017, paper £10, £20 and £50 notes can be accepted though, as polymer notes for these denominations will not come into effect until a later date.

The note will be smaller

Note size

The new £5 notes are around 15% smaller than the current paper notes. The new £10 and £20 notes will also be smaller than their current form when they come into circulation.

To give you some comparison with the above chart, the £10 note will be 132mm x 69mm and the £20 note will be 139mm x 73mm.

They will be more robust than paper notes

They can stick together

The Bank of England has stressed that polymer notes are no more likely to stick together than paper notes. However, that doesn’t change the fact that they can​ still stick together, especially when new. When giving out a polymer £5 note as change it is undoubtedly worth taking that extra second – no matter how busy the bar is – to check that it is just the single note.

If you don’t want the notes to stick together when counting, you can fan them or tap them on a desktop surface.

Don’t use scissors to open new packs of notes

Polymer notes may be more durable to sustaining red wine damage; however that doesn’t change the fact that they can tear quickly if nicked by a sharp object. Therefore when you’ve got a new packet of notes, which you’ll be using as change behind the bar, the Bank of England is recommending using a letter opener, or a similar less sharp device, to open the packet.

Detector pens will be no good

The detector pens that can currently detect counterfeit notes by reacting with the starch on regular paper will be of no use for polymer as they will just slide across the plastic, whether the note is fake or not.

The right ultra-violet (UV) lamp should be used to check


Much like the paper notes, there will be a vivid number on the notes only visible under UV light. However, you’ll need to make sure that the UV light that you are using emits light at around 365 nanometres if you plan on using this as a security check for the polymer notes. The reason being that LED devices, including key fob devices, often emit light much higher than this and are less likely to pick up on counterfeits.

Have a magnifying glass to hand


You might not know it but there is minute lettering underneath the portrait of the queen on the paper notes. The plastic notes will be no different with this security feature. The word “FIVE” will be written in microscopic letters over and over again at the bottom left of the Queen’s portrait.

Parts of the print will still be raised

One of the simplest fail-safes for detecting fake paper notes will still be applicable for the polymer notes. The words “Bank of England” in the middle of the front of the note will still be raised on the new notes, as they are on the current paper notes.

There is a free app showing the security features

New note on app

A handy quick-to-refer-to guide for the new notes can be in your pocket behind the bar. The Bank of England has released an app for Android and iPhone that details all the security features of not only the new plastic £5 notes, but also all of the paper notes. Just search for “Bank of England Banknotes” on the app store or Google Play store.

There is a free half hour training course and quiz online

All of the information on the security features of the new polymer notes is given in a half hour long course available for free on the bank of England’s website. At the end of the course, there is also a short quiz where staff can test their knowledge on spotting fake polymer notes.

Training materials and POS posters galore are available for free

The Bank of England is offering a selection of physical materials for free to help you prepare for the changes and train staff. At this website, a variety of leaflets, fold out booklets and posters can be ordered. The posters give every security feature of not only the new polymer £5 notes, but also the paper notes still in circulation, and can be kept behind the bar as a constant reference point for staff. 

Related topics Legislation Training

Related news

Show more