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What should you do with old paper £20 and £50 notes?

Millions of paper notes will no longer be legal tender after 30 September 2022
Money notes 484176

There’s only three months left to use paper £20 and £50 notes, the Bank of England has warned. 

There are approximately £6bn worth of £20 notes, and more than £8bn worth of paper £50 notes, still in circulation. 

That’s more than 300m individual £20 banknotes, and 160m paper £50 banknotes that will no longer be legal tender after 30 September, so you won’t be able to spend them in shops, or use them to pay businesses.

Paper £20 and £50 notes issued by Clydesdale Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland will also be withdrawn on the same date. The same goes for the paper £20 notes issued by Bank of Ireland, AIB Group, Danske Bank and Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland.

Here, Which? outlines four key things you need to know about the change.

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1. Don't panic if you have old notes

If you have old paper notes in your wallet, the Bank of England says you should either use them, or deposit them at your bank or at a Post Office before the end of September. 

From 1 October, only the new polymer notes will be accepted in shops, restaurants or anywhere else that takes cash. 

If you miss the 30 September deadline, you may still be able to deposit old notes at your bank. 

If not, don’t panic: the Bank of England honours every banknote that's ever been printed, so you'll always be able to take, or post, your note to London to swap it for a new one.

2. These are the last paper notes in circulation

If you’re not sure what they look like, the paper £20 note - which first came into circulation in 2007 - features a picture of economist Adam Smith. The paper £50 note features portraits of 18th century entrepreneur Matthew Boulton and engineer James Watt. That’s been around since 2011.

These are the last paper notes currently available to spend in the UK. Both paper £5 and £10 bills have already made the transition to polymer.

The paper £20 note started being taken out of circulation in 2020, with paper £50 notes slowly being withdrawn in 2021. 

The new polymer £20 note features painter JMW Turner, celebrating the contribution of the arts to British culture. The new £50 note features code-breaking computer scientist Alan Turing - and here are eight things you need to know about it.

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3. Polymer notes have lots of advantages

The Bank of England says not only are polymer notes stronger, more water resistant and cleaner than their paper counterparts, the material they are made from allows for enhanced security features, such as see-through windows and holograms. This makes them more difficult to counterfeit than paper notes. 

The polymer bank notes also have tactile features that make them easier for the blind and partially-sighted to use. 

Once all paper £20 and £50 notes have been replaced, it will make the UK the world’s largest economy that uses only plastic-like banknotes.

4. Some notes could be more valuable

Unfortunately, the majority of banknotes - even those that no longer have legal tender status - are only worth their face value. 

That doesn't mean some notes aren’t more valuable than others. 

The key feature to look out for is the serial number, which indicates when it was printed. Each time a new design enters circulation, the serial number changes to AA01 000001. Notes numbered close to that have been known to fetch large sums at auction.

But before you start hunting down the back of the sofa for one of these prized collectors items, be warned: the Bank of England tends to hold back some of the first printed notes with especially low or symbolic serial numbers. 

Instead of releasing them into circulation, it donates these to people and institutions that were involved in the development of the note, or who traditionally receive a note when a new series is issued - like the Queen, for example. 

Notes with low serial numbers are also often up for grabs at charity auctions.

Because it’s been a while since both the paper and polymer notes first entered circulation, it’s unlikely you’ll find these rare bills now. Although you might have more luck finding the last £20 or £50 paper note ever printed. In this case, you’ll need to look out for the highest serial number instead of the lowest.

Other features that push up the value are errors and serial numbers with unusual combinations. For example, memorable dates, repeated number patterns or lucky numbers.