How to spot a fake paper or polymer banknote

Updated on 27 January 2017

A guide to spotting fake paper or polymer banknotes.

1. Check the paper

The £5 note featuring Winston Churchill is the only one made from polymer (we'll discuss this later, in section 9).

For now we'll focus on all other banknotes, which are printed on special paper, so make sure you check how the paper feels.

A genuine banknote has a cloth-like feel, while a fake note will feel more like paper.

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2. Raised print

Run your finger across the paper note and if it’s genuine, you should be able to feel the raised print on areas such as the words ‘Bank of England’ on the front.

If it’s a counterfeit, the note is unlikely to have a textured feel to it and will feel flat all over.

3. Check the metallic thread

A metallic thread is embedded in every banknote. This appears as silver dashes on the back of £5, £10 and £20 notes.

The thread is woven through the paper – not just printed on – so when you hold it up to the light it should appear as a continuous dark line.

This appears as bright green dashes on the front of £50 notes.

They are actually five windows which contain images of the £ symbol and the number 50. When the note is tilted from side to side, the images move up and down.

When the note is tilted up and down, the images move from side to side and the number 50 and £ symbol swap places.

4. Check the watermark

If you hold a genuine note up to the light, you should see an image of the Queen’s portrait.

However, if you can still see the watermark when the note is flat and not held up to the light, it's likely to be a dodgy note.

5. Check the print quality

The printed lines and colours on genuine notes will be detailed and sharp and free from smudges or blurred edges. So make sure you check the detail carefully.

If the quality is poor or messy, you’ve got yourself a fake!

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6. Check the hologram

The old paper £5 note and the £10 banknote both have a hologram on the foil patch. By tilting the note, the image will alternate between a brightly coloured picture of Britannia and the numerical value of the note.

However, bear in mind that on the newer £20 note, the hologram has been replaced with a holographic strip.

So there are a number of foil patches which contain alternating holographic images. One hologram reveals the image of famous economist, Adam Smith, while the others change between a pound sign and the figure 20.

7. Check under ultra-violet light

This isn’t so handy if you’ve just been given a banknote in a shop, but if you’re really determined to find out whether your note is fake or genuine, put it under ultra-violet light.

If it's the real deal, its value will appear in bright red and green numbers while the background will be dull in contrast.

The newer £20 and £50 notes also have bright red and green flecks randomly spread over the front and back of the note.

8. Use a magnifying glass

Use a magnifying glass to look closely at the lettering beneath the Queen’s portrait. On a genuine note, decorative swirls spell out the value of the note in small letters and numerals.

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9. How to spot a fake polymer bank note

Last year, the first polymer notes began hitting our streets - much to the delight of collectors

The new £5 notes are designed to be harder to counterfeit, although that hasn't stopped criminals from trying. 

Below are some of the best ways to check whether your £5 Winston Churchill banknote is genuine:

•    Check the see-through window and the portrait of the Queen
•    Look at the Elizabeth tower to check it is gold on the front of the note and silver on the back
•    Check the foil patches

To learn more, read our comprehensive guide to spotting fake polymer notes.

10. What to do if you find a fake

In an ideal world, you should check every note you’re given as soon as you receive it. If it’s a fake, don’t accept it.

Of course, this isn’t very practical when we’re rushing from shop to shop and it's likely to be difficult to find the time to examine each note in detail.

However, if, when you get home you have a look through your wallet and discover a fake note, you should take it to the police as soon as possible.

You will be given a receipt and the banknote will be sent to the Bank of England to be analysed. Only if the note is genuine, will you be reimbursed.

If you happen to have information on anyone making, selling or buying counterfeit notes, you can contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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