If you look closely at any Bank of England banknote, you will notice it contains the ‘promise to pay’ inscription – our promise to honour the stated face value of our banknotes for all time. Even for banknotes that no longer have legal tender status. The banknotes we produce will always be worth their face value.
How much is a banknote worth?
What about the serial numbers on banknotes?
Have you ever paid attention to the row of letters and numbers on the banknotes in your wallet? Ignored by many, the serial numbers on our banknotes are one of a number of features that can spark huge interest among banknote collectors.
When we release a new banknote, we hold back some of the first printed notes with especially low or symbolic serial numbers. We donate 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.
For example, when the current polymer £5 note featuring Winston Churchill was first introduced in September 2016, the Queen received the fiver with the lowest serial number – AA01 000001. The Churchill War Rooms received a new fiver with the serial number AA01 001945.
Following the introduction of the new £10 note featuring Jane Austen in September 2017, we donated the tenner with the serial number AA01 001817 to Winchester Cathedral, marking the year when Austen was buried there.
We also donate a number of banknotes with lower serial numbers – typically treasured by banknote collectors – to be auctioned to raise money for charity. For example, when we released the latest £5 note, the auction of fivers with low serial numbers raised £194,500. This was split between three charities (voted for by our staff): The Myotubular Trust, The Lily Foundation and Bliss.
While it’s true that some of our banknotes are sometimes traded by banknote collectors for more than their face value, this is not something that we have any involvement in. If you are interested in collecting banknotes, you should approach a specialist banknote collector or dealer for advice. To us, a banknote that we have issued will only ever be worth its face value. Of course, as a previous KnowledgeBank guide explains, how much you can buy with £10 depends on how much things cost – and prices change over time.
What are old Bank of England banknotes worth?
Despite notes losing their legal tender status when they are withdrawn, we will always honour the face value of genuine Bank of England banknotes, no matter how old they are. This is due to our ‘promise to pay’, which you can find written on all of our banknotes:
The term dates back to the time when our notes represented deposits of gold. At that time, a member of the public could exchange one of our banknotes for gold to the same value. For example, a £5 note could be exchanged for five gold coins, called sovereigns. We stand by the ‘promise to pay’, but exchange into gold is no longer possible: today, our notes can instead be exchanged for other Bank of England notes of the same face value. These pages on our website give more information on exchanging withdrawn banknotes.
What is the significance of serial numbers on banknotes?
The set of the first four letters and numbers on a serial number is known as the ‘cypher’ (e.g. AA01) and represents the banknote’s position on the sheet on which it is printed. The serial number is the six numbers that follow the cypher (e.g. 123456) and relates to the number of the sheet the note is printed on.
Take, for example, the polymer £5 banknote. As there are 60 banknotes on each sheet of notes printed, the first run was printed on a sheet with cyphers going from AA01 to AA60. There are just under one million serial numbers printed for each cypher – from 000001 to 999000. Therefore, there will be just under 60 million notes beginning with ‘AA’, before the cypher changes to ‘AB’.
For more on the production process of the new polymer banknotes, see this video:
Find out more:
- Learn all the security features on our banknotes with our Take a Closer Look
- Find out more about the polymer £5 note and £10 note. Further details of how the use of cash has evolved in recent decades and its potential future can be read in this article
- Details of the polymer £5 auction can be found here