The United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — is a popular destinations for Americans. US citizens get an automatic visa for six months to drive over London Bridge, explore Stonehenge and sip tea by the Thames. But how do you pay for your adventures? Can you use US dollars, or should you exchange your money for the British pound? We’ll help you get the most out of your US dollar without spending too much on international transaction fees using credit cards, debit cards and cash.
Our picks for traveling to UK
Our pick for travel credit card
American Express® Gold Card
Finder rating: 4.6/5
Our pick for multi-currency debit card
Finder rating: 4.5/5
Our pick for 0% transaction fee debit card
Finder rating: 4.6/5
Travel card, debit card or credit card?
Like the US, you can pay for most your your travel with a credit card. You’ll find that most major credit cards are accepted everywhere. Make the most of your money on your travels and find a card that offers travel rewards or a card that’ll waive foreign transaction fees.
It’s good to carry some cash for smaller purchases or to use for tips. You’ll easily find ATMs at banks, stores and gas stations — but try to only use your debit card. You’ll pay steep fees getting a cash advance from your credit cards.
These are your options for spending money in UK
Using a credit card
You won’t have any problems using a travel credit card in the UK. Most major credit cards are accepted, but you’ll find it hard to use your Diners Club, American Express or Discover cards at small businesses. Find yourself a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees and offers travel rewards. Carrying a credit card gives you the added benefit of travel insurance and discounts, depending on your provider. For added savings, take advantage of the interest-free period by paying your balance in full each month.
Cards that offer travel perks and waive fees often charge an annual fee, so make sure the fee is worth it before you bring it along on your travels. If you’re ever in a jam, credit cards also offer the ease of cash advances, though we don’t recommend it. You’ll pay high fees and interest rates apply the moment you get your money.
- Tip: It’s worth researching credit cards that offer travel benefit and rewards for things you’ll buy anyways like flights and hotel stays.
- Major credit cards widely accepted
- Protected by PIN & chip
- Accepted worldwide
- Interest-free days when you pay your account in full
- Some cards offer travel benefits
- Emergency card replacement
- Fees and interest for cash withdrawal
- Many cards charge 3% currency conversion fees
Using a debit card
A travel debit card could be a good travel money choice to take to the UK. You’ll have access to cash each time you come across an ATM, without carrying lots of cash on you all at once. Because you’re spending your own money, you avoid interest charges. The Citibank Plus waives the fee for international ATM withdrawals and doesn’t charge a monthly account keeping fee.
- Tip: A debit card can be used for in-store purchases, online and for ATM withdrawals in the UK.
- Use at stores and hotels, online and ATMs
- Protected by PIN & chip
- Spending your own money means avoiding interest charges
- International ATM and currency conversion fees
- No access to cash advances
Using a prepaid travel card
The biggest benefit of travel cards is that you can load up to three currencies at once and lock in a favorable exchange rate. If you need more than one currency on your travels, you can save money on the 3% currency conversion fee you’ll pay with other credit and debit cards.
Where you save in the conversion rates you may pay in fees. You’ll pay fees each time you load the card, ATM withdrawals and sometimes even an inactivity fee.
- Tip: Banks that provide travel cards make money by applying a higher margin to the exchange rate. You can get a better rate using a debit card or credit card.
- Lock in exchange rate when you convert USD to GBP
- Can hold multiple currencies.
- Protected by PIN & chip
- Emergency card replacement and backup cards
- Reloadable online
- Come with lots of fees for loading and reloading, inactivity and ATM withdrawals.
- Your name isn’t printed on the front
- Businesses won’t accept prepaid cards
Paying with cash in UK
- Greater payment flexibility
- More difficult to manage expenses
- Higher risk of theft
Using traveler’s checks
- Cash at any bank
- Fees for purchasing and cashing checks
- Not accepted by many merchants
- Currency exchange rate varies over time
Compare travel credit cards
The pound sterling is the official currency of the UK and is the fourth most traded currency in the world. One pound is subdivided into 100 pence and comes in denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50 banknotes, issued by the Bank of England for over 300 years. All banknotes feature Queen Elizabeth II on the front.
|The current £5 banknote features Elizabeth Fry, who made her name fighting for improved living conditions for women in European jails.|
Issued on May 21, 2002.
|The back of the £10 banknote is Charles Darwin, the Victorian naturalist who developed the theory of evolution.|
Issued on November 7, 2000.
|The £20 banknote features the Scottish economist, Adam Smith with an illustration of ‘The division of labour in pin manufacturing’.|
Issued on March 13, 2007.
|The new-style £50 banknote entered circulation on November 2, 2011.|
The note features two Britons on the back — Matthew Boulton and James Watt with steam engine and Boulton’s Soho factory.
The main banks in UK are:
- HSBC Holdings
- Barclay’s PLC
- Royal Bank of Scotland
- Lloyds Banking Group
- Standard Chartered PLC
- Santander UK
- Nationwide Building Society
- Close Brothers
- Coventry Building Society
How the USD compares to the GBP
Since the housing crisis of 2007, the USD lost value against the GBP. But ever since the Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union in June 2016, the sterling pound has lost purchasing power. The rates are better than ever for US travelers, so lock in your rates with a travel money card or traveler’s checks.
Refreshing in: 60s | Tue, Mar 02, 12:33PM GMT
Find ATMs in UK
Cash pickup services in UK
How much should I budget to travel in UK?
The UK is one of the most expensive places in Europe to travel. From transportation to hotels and food, you’ll find you’ll spend a lot more on the basics than in many other countries. If you’re looking to travel on a backpacker’s budget, plan for $60 or so per day, about $150 for midrange budget and $400 for you’re looking to live it up. All prices are in US dollars.
$30 per night
$80 per night
|Boutique hotel room|
$200 per night
$3.50 – $4.50
w/ glass of wine
in top restaurant w/ wine
|Top theatre ticket|
*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.
Case study: William's experience
Interview with William Eve about UK travel money options
We interviewed Will, a finder.com user, about his latest trip to the UK. He told us about his experience using credit and travel money cards.
What money tips do you have to anyone traveling to this country?
Pay attention to how much you spend on food and alcohol. Will says eating out and drinking in London and other parts of the UK is extremely expensive. He gives this advice for keeping costs low: “Hunt out good pub meal bargains and shop at Tesco and Sainsbury’s for your other meals. Try to avoid drinking coffee out.”
Will also recommends AirBnB, especially if you’re traveling as a group. Hostel dorm beds were upward of £35 a night.
Case study: Roslyn’s experience
I visited the UK with friends in October 2018. I used my Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card just about everywhere because it has no foreign transaction fees and gives a flat cashback rate on everything. I also brought a few hundred dollars for small transaction amounts and exchanged it in the London Heathrow airport at a fair rate.
The only issue I encountered was the new scanning credit card machines. I’d made sure I had the newer chip-and-PIN card when I traveled to Japan, but I didn’t know the UK had already switched over to newer scanning chips. My card was declined at several places, like at Tesco supermarkets because it was a foreign card that could only be inserted or swiped.
If you’re going abroad, it’s helpful to get a solid cashback card with free foreign transactions that uses the most up-to-date payment style.
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