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HomeNEWSBack in time: New Zealand’s old and new bank notes

Back in time: New Zealand’s old and new bank notes

It’s been 81 years since the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s series one notes first began circulating in New Zealand. We look back on the history of the banknote and what you need to know about the new, brighter notes to be released in October.

The currency upgrade will be the seventh issue of banknotes within New Zealand.

Where it all begun

Paper money first arrived with European settlers in the form of pounds and shillings.


With six trading banks operating in the 1900s, things got a bit confusing, as all of them were using differently-designed notes.

In 1924, the banks agreed to create one overarching banknote design.

The Reserve Bank opened in 1934 to act as a central bank to control the currency. The new notes followed six months later on 1 August.

The notes were designed quickly amid a flurry of debate about what the notes should look like, and were intended to be temporary.

Some of the designs featured on the notes included a kiwi, New Zealand’s coat of arms and a portrait of King Tawhaio, the second Maori king.

The second series of notes was released on 6 February 1940.

The design and colours of some of the notes were changed, and a portrait of Captain James Cook replaced that of King Tawhiao.

Then in 1967, the third series was introduced after a change in decimal currency.

There were discussions about what to name New Zealand’s unique currency.

Words like ‘kiwi’ and ‘zeal’ were suggested so there wouldn’t be any confusion with the American ‘dollar’. In the end, the dollar was chosen.

Notes in $1, $5, $10, $20 and $100 denominations were released, all of which had Queen Elizabeth on the front.

The fourth series was introduced in 1981, largely due in a change in print contract that took the printing of the notes from England to New Zealand.

It was decided that a note was missing between $20 and $100, so the $50 note was introduced at the end of 1983.

In the 90s, the Reserve Bank decided to completely change the appearance of the bank notes.

Sir Edmund Hillary, Kate Sheppard, Sir Apirana Ngata, and Lord Rutherford of Nelson were introduced to the notes.

The sixth and last issue before this year’s notes was in 1999.

Brighter money

Head of currency, property and security Brian Hayr says the Reserve Bank has upgraded the banknotes this year to keep up with advances made in banknote security since then.

“Some new security features of the banknotes will be obvious, such as the holographic window on the right of the note and the colour-changing bird on the left,” Hayr says.

“We don’t have a counterfeiting problem in New Zealand, but we need to stay ahead of the game and ensure our banknotes incorporate the latest security features.”

The new notes have the same portraits and subjects as previous notes, but are in brighter, bolder colours.

They also feature additional Māori words on them, including Aotearoa and the names of native birds, such as Kōkako. 


 The target release date for the $5 and $10 notes is October, with the $20, $50 and $100 notes likely to be released in April 2016.

Both the new notes and the previous sixth issue will be legal tender and the two will coexist.

The Reserve Bank estimates it will take around 12 to 18 months for the majority of notes in circulation to be new notes.

The bank says if you’re a retailer with banknote equipment, contact your supplier to make sure they’re a part of the calibration programme and have scheduled in your machines to be calibrated.

It is also providing a range of online guides to help retailers get ready for the new notes.

An overview of the main security features:


The Reserve Bank recommends these steps when dealing with a suspicious note:

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  • If you suspect a note may be counterfeit, compare it with a genuine one. Use the Reserve Bank’s guide for checking your banknotes if you need help. Make sure you are familiar with the security features of the previous polymer banknotes.
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  • If you haven’t accepted the banknote yet, politely refuse to accept it. Under no circumstances should you take actions that may jeopardise your safety or that of others. 
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  • If you are in possession of a suspect note, store the note safely and handle it as little as possible. Note all relevant details such as date, time and place of receipt, car registration number and whether you have CCTV.
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  • Hand suspect notes or report them to the Police as soon as possible.

See the full banknote handling guide for retailers and banks here.

This article was originally published in issue 739 of Retail NZ Magazine.

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