Credit cards are widely accepted within United Kingdom (at hotels, shops, and restaurants, travel agencies, car-rental agencies etc.). Visa, MasterCard and Maestro are the most widely accepted. American Express is less common. Diners Club is pretty rare. Discover, JCB, UnionPay and RuPay are unknown.
Since the credit cards are so accepted there is no need to have a lot of cash with you (but bear in mind security risks coming with the use of cards). However, some small businesses offer a discount for paying in cash or might not accept cards at all. If you have a magnetic stripe card, or have a chip credit card without a PIN you can still use it in United Kingdom, although they may not work in unattended vending machines like toll booths, gas pumps and train ticket vending machines..
Pay for as much as possible with cash, using a bank that charges low rates for international transactions, and withdrawing large amounts at each ATM visit.
Magnetic stripe cards do not have a chip, just a black stripe on the back. To make a purchase, you swipe the card in the payment machine and sign a receipt.
They are outdated and currently being replaced by chip cards worldwide (both chip & PIN and chip & signature). That being said, they can still be used at the majority of ATMs and shops. The only exception are unattended vending machines like toll booths, gas pumps, train ticket vending machines etc.
Chip cards are also called EMV cards. They have a chip on the front of the card and (optionally) a magnetic stripe on the back.
While the transition from magnetic to chip cards is in progress - majority of chip cards also have a magnetic stripe on the back which means they will work on machines which don't support chip cards.
Unlike magnetic cards which you are swiping, chip cards are being dipped into the machine.
There are two main types of chip cards (visually looking the same):
Used everywhere except for the US. To make a purchase, you insert the card into a slot in the payment machine, then enter a PIN while the card stays in the slot. The chip inside the card authorizes the transaction and you do not sign a receipt.
If you have a non-US chip & PIN card it will still work in the US - although usually as plain old magnetic card with a signature, rarely it will be used as a true chip & PIN card.
Used mainly in the US. To make a purchase, you insert the card into a slot in the payment machine; the chip inside the card transfers the one-time transaction number to the machine and you sign a receipt.
If you have a US chip & signature card it will still work worldwide (as a regular magnetic card), the only exception are unattended vending machines like toll booths, gas pumps, train ticket vending machines etc.
That being said, some payment machines may still prompt you to enter your PIN, so the best thing is to contact your bank before your trip to request your card's PIN (if your bank claims the PIN is only for cash withdrawals, ask for it anyway). Be sure to allow time to receive your PIN by mail (usually about a week). This will increase your chances, but note (due to various types of PIN verifications) it still may not work on some terminals.
Sometimes also called cardholder preferred currency (CPC). Some merchants will offer you to first convert the amount to your home currency and then run your credit card - benefit being that you can see the amount in your home currency and therefore there is no need to look up or remember exchange rates. Do not do it! You will end up paying more because of lousy exchange rate on top of which your credit card issuer may still levy its standard foreign-transaction fees. You have a right to decline this service, if you're given a receipt with two totals - circle the amount in the pound before you sign. If your receipt shows the total in euro only, ask that it be rung up again in the pound.
It's a good idea to have an extra card due to unexpected emergencies like card being lost/stolen, ATM swallowing a card, demagnetized card (in case of chipless cards) etc. If you're renting a car and using your card to cover CDW insurance it's nice to have extra card as a backup.
Take only the credit and debit cards that you expect to use, plus a backup (see above), and keep them safely in your money belt. Upon returning home, verify the balance and charges on your debit and credit cards. Some travelers monitor balances as they travel, though accessing a financial account online can be risky.
Memorize your PIN - do not write it on your card or within a wallet! When typing a PIN into a keypad carefully block other people’s view of the keypad, covering it with your free hand to block potential thieves from watching you as you type your PIN.
The safest way to pay is with cash. Merchants might try to steal your card information via special machine or by phone camera. This is even more true with debit cards as they pulls funds directly out of your bank account - try to use debit card only for ATMs. To make purchases, pay with cash or a credit card if needed.
Before you leave confirm with your bank that your card will work in United Kingdom and alert them that you’ll be making withdrawals while traveling — otherwise, they might freeze your card if they detect unusual spending patterns or location.
If you lost a card or has been stolen - immediately call the hotline number to report theft/loss of the card so you can limit your liability in case of unauthorized purchases.
Usually the rule is if someone makes purchases before you report that your card is missing, you’re liable for up to £40.00 (€46.08) in unauthorized purchases if you report it within 48 hours.
Toll-free number is indicated with * and is free-of-charge when called from landline within United Kingdom. Sign ~ indicates pause/dial tone, so continue with the number after the sign after prompted.