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Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

By Reserve Bank of New Zealand    |   Wednesday, 10 July 2002

We all use currency - bank notes and coins - but what is it really?

This section describes what money is, what cash or currency is, how New Zealand's bank notes are designed and made, and the life cycle of a typical bank note. It also looks at the design and security features of our bank notes and coins, and the history of currency in New Zealand.

What is money?

In ancient times, people had to barter things to trade - for instance, a cow for six pigs. This, however, was clumsy. What if you wanted six pigs but the pig seller didn't want your cow, as he or she wanted some sheep instead, which you didn't have?

That's where money came in. Money is a token or measure that stores wealth. With it, in our example above, the trade could take place. Also with money you can earn now and spend later. Early examples of money were shells and iron nails, as they could easily be counted. In due course, these were replaced by coins made of gold, silver, bronze and copper and much later paper money was developed.

These days you can buy things using coins, bank notes, cheques, or credit cards, or by making an electronic transaction (EFT-POS etc); all are modern ways of moving money around. There's a lot more money around than just cash. In the New Zealand economy now if you add up all the cash and all the other money, such as in bank deposits, it comes to about $130 billion. The value of the bank notes and coins in circulation is much less at around $3 billion.

What is legal tender?

The virtue of cash - that you can buy or sell something instantly and conveniently - comes from the concept of legal tender. Technically, legal tender means that if I owe you money and I present you with cash, then the debt is cleared then and there. The only exception to this is if we both agree to a different form of payment beforehand.

So, for example, a shop doesn't have to accept a cheque, and it doesn't even have to accept cash, but the shop has to clearly indicate to you before you do business with them that they do not accept these forms of payment.

There is a minor qualification to this, in that the law specifies limits on using annoying amounts of coins as legal tender for buying larger items. In the case of $1 and $2 coins payment can be made for any amount not exceeding $100. For lower value coins payment can be made for an amount not exceeding $5.

Reserve Bank notes and coins are defined in the Reserve Bank Act as legal tender. The Reserve Bank is the only organisation in New Zealand that can issue bank notes and coins and determine the denominations and design of the nation's currency.

A brief history of New Zealand's currency

Early days

Before the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Maori did not use currency. Items of value were traded by barter. When Europeans first settled here, Maori and Pakeha traded in this way as well, until coins started to appear around the 1830s.

From this time, traders from all nations and European colonists brought to New Zealand a variety of coins, mostly British. There weren't many bank notes around at that time, generally because the notes were of higher value than were needed for transactions. Early bank notes were issued by individual banks and payable (usually in gold or coin) only by those banks. At first, there were few printing facilities in New Zealand, so the durability of coins was a real advantage.

In early 1840, William Hobson, New Zealand's first Governor, proclaimed that British laws should apply to New Zealand. British coins became subject to the Imperial Coinage Act, 1816 (UK) after the introduction of the English Laws Act in 1858. Because of this Act, British coins in use since 1840 retrospectively became legal tender.

In the 1840s and 1850s there was an extreme shortage of coins, especially copper coins. Traders tried the issue of low value paper notes to remedy this situation but this was soon abandoned. Instead, as this shortage intensified throughout the 1850s, businesses in Auckland and Dunedin decided to issue the first copper tokens in 1857. In all 48 traders throughout New Zealand (mostly retailers such as merchants, grocers, drapers and milliners) decided to issue their own penny and halfpenny tokens. Tokens were profitable for the traders because the cost of producing them was well below their nominal face value and many were never cashed in or were lost. They were also a good source of advertising as each token carried the business's name and service. Tokens were last issued from Christchurch in 1881 and their use gradually declined during the 1880s.

In 1897, New Zealand's currency became subject to certain provisions stated in the Imperial Coinage Act, 1870 (UK). This meant that only British coin became the official legal tender coin of the colony. At that time, it was already one of the two common currencies, along with Australian minted gold sovereign and half sovereign coins.

By the late nineteenth century, bank notes were becoming more common. By then, there were six banks operating in New Zealand, each issuing its own notes. The problem with this was that none of the notes being issued by the various banks were the same size or design and there was a large variety of different notes for each of the common denominations. It wasn't until 1924 that banks finally co-ordinated the size and colour of notes. A bank was not obliged to accept another bank's notes either, although most usually did.

In 1934, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand was established as New Zealand's central bank and was given sole authority by the government to issue bank notes. This ended circulation of the trading banks' notes.

The Reserve Bank issues bank notes

The first Reserve Bank of New Zealand notes were issued at the beginning of August 1934. These first notes were supposed to be only temporary, as they had been hastily designed. A committee to prepare the designs had been formed just the year before and there had been heated debates over what the notes should look like. The designs that the committee finally agreed upon included features from the Bank of New Zealand notes that were already in circulation.

The designs included a portrait of the Maori King Tawhiao (who had attempted unsuccessfully to issue his own notes in 1885), a kiwi, and the Arms of New Zealand. The notes included the signature of the first Governor of the Reserve Bank, Leslie Lefeaux. All the notes carried the same design, but different colours distinguished denominations. Notes of 10/- (ten shillings), £1 (one pound), £5 and £50 were issued, coloured orange, mauve, blue-green and red respectively.

The Reserve Bank's second note issue was in 1940, timed to coincide with New Zealand's centennial celebrations. These notes had quite different designs for each denomination, but were the same colours as before, except for slight changes to avoid confusion between the 10/- and £50 notes. A green coloured £10 denomination note was also introduced at this time. The Reserve Bank's Chief Cashiers signed this and following note issues. These notes remained in circulation up until the change to decimal currency in 1967.

Although the Reserve Bank issued bank notes, for many years the New Zealand Treasury was responsible for designing and issuing coins. The first distinctively New Zealand coins were introduced in February 1933 as a result of a proclamation issued under the Coinage Act in that year. Minted by the Royal Mint in London, these coins were the same as the weight, size and denomination of British coins. Silver coloured coins, made of an alloy of 50% silver and 50% copper, were issued from 1933, and bronze pennies and halfpennies were introduced in 1940. In 1947 the silver coloured coins were changed to an alloy of copper and nickel when silver became too costly.

It wasn't until 1989, when government services were rationalised, that the Reserve Bank gained authority over coinage. At the same time, one and two cent coins were withdrawn from circulation and ceased to be legal tender in early 1990.

The changeover to decimal currency

The concept of decimal currency had been discussed for a long time in New Zealand. Way back in 1933, a changeover to decimal coinage had been suggested by the New Zealand Numismatic Society. The attraction of decimal currency was its simplicity when doing calculations. By contrast, the imperial system of currency was complicated and difficult to master. Under the imperial system, pounds were divided into twenty shillings, and subdivided further into 240 pence (making twelve pence per shilling). In 1933, decimal currency was rejected because it would have been too expensive to put in place at that time, especially as New Zealand was in the midst of the Great Depression.

In 1957, a special committee was set up by the Government to take another look at the pros and cons of introducing decimal currency. This paved the way for New Zealand's move to decimal currency. In August 1963, the Government announced that 10 July 1967 would be DC Day, and a massive publicity campaign was organised to smooth the shift from the imperial to decimal system.

Public discussions were held as to what the new decimal unit might be called, and suggestions such as the "kiwi" and the "zeal" were debated before the "dollar" was finally settled upon. Many New Zealanders remember "Mr Dollar", a cartoon character that symbolised the changeover. On DC Day, dollars and cents replaced pounds, shillings and pence as New Zealand's units of currency.

In 1990, the Reserve Bank decided to completely revamp the appearance and features of New Zealand's bank notes - the first overhaul since the introduction of decimal currency in 1967. The result, after the Reserve Bank had consulted widely with the New Zealand public, was an all-new series of notes with a distinctive New Zealand look. The designs were changed slightly in 1999 when the Reserve Bank introduced polymer bank notes.

Defacing bank notes

The Reserve Bank Act 1989 says that No person shall, without the prior consent of the Bank, wilfully deface, disfigure, or mutilate any bank note. A person can be fined up to $1,000 if caught defacing a bank note.

Are damaged notes worth anything?

If you come across a badly damaged bank note, don't throw it away, as it will normally have some value. The Reserve Bank is liable to pay on currency it issues, provided that the note is not so badly damaged that it is unrecognisable. In extreme cases, individual assessments of notes may need to be made. As a rule of thumb, if you have more than half a note, the Reserve Bank will pay its full value. To receive payment on a damaged note, you need to present it to a bank or to the Reserve Bank in Wellington.

Reproducing or imitating currency

It is an offence to reproduce or imitate currency without the prior consent of the Reserve Bank. The Reserve Bank Act says that you cannot make, design, engrave, print, or reproduce; or use, issue, or publish any article or thing resembling a bank note or coin or so nearly resembling or having such a likeness to a bank note or coin as to be likely to be confused with or mistaken for it.

Today's bank notes

All New Zealand's bank notes have been printed on polypropylene polymer since May 1999. Previously they were printed on paper made from cotton.

There were two main reasons why the Reserve Bank decided to change to polymer. First was wear and tear - polymer bank notes are stronger and non-porous. Polymer notes last at least four times as long as paper notes. They don't get as dirty and tatty as paper and they are much harder to tear. Secondly, polymer bank notes allow for more sophisticated security features to deter forgeries. These security features are explained in more detail below.

Polymer is also more environmentally friendly. Whereas paper notes were shredded and discarded at the end of their lives, old polymer bank notes can be recycled economically into useful products such as polymer wheelbarrows, compost bins and plumbing fittings.

The life-cycle of a bank note


Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

The planning, printing and production of a new bank note design is complex and takes a large team of people up to two years before the note is issued.

First of all, the design elements of the note have to be decided. Rough drawings are prepared of the images to be used (people, birds, plants, flowers, etc.), watermark, text, and colours.

Once these preliminary details are worked out, a group of artists produces an exact image or sketch of both sides of the note in the correct size and colours with the aid of a computer-based design system. The designers have to think not only about the Reserve Bank's requirements, but also about security features and printing capabilities. Bank notes are printed in a range of sizes to enable partially sighted and blind people to distinguish between notes. The largest in the series is the $100 note and the smallest is the $5.


New Zealand's bank notes are printed by Note Printing Australia in Melbourne. To create a bank note, printing plates, polymer substrate and ink are brought together in a huge printing hall. The polymer substrate, on which the bank notes are printed, starts out as a large roll of clear plastic film.

To start with, two layers of ink (usually white) are applied to each side of the clear film, except for areas which are deliberately left clear, or areas where the ink is printed on one side of the note only. This stage of the process is called opacifying.

The next stage is sheeting. This is where the opacified substrate is cut into large sheets ready for feeding into the note printing presses.

Simultan printing machines print the background colours and patterns onto the polymer. As the name suggests, both sides of the notes are printed at the same time, at up to 8000 sheets per hour. Major design elements are printed using intaglio printing machines during which ink is applied to the polymer under great pressure. This gives the notes their raised printing, which is one of the security features of polymer notes. Separate print runs are required for each side of the note.

Serial numbers are then added to the notes using a letterpress printing process. In the current note series, each serial number consists of a prefix of two letters followed by eight numbers. The first two of these numbers indicate the year the note was manufactured.

During the final print run, the notes are given two coats of a protective overcoating varnish using an offset printing press. This overcoat makes the notes more durable, as it protects the printing, and helps to keep the notes clean.

The completed sheets of notes are examined for faults. Imperfect sheets are marked with a machine-readable ink for removal later in the process. Printed sheets are guillotined into individual notes, which are then placed into containers in alpha-numerical order and transported to computer-controlled machines for final counting and banding. The finished notes are then shrink-wrapped, placed on pallets and stored in a strongroom.

Finally, the finished bank notes are transported to the Reserve Bank of New Zealand for distribution to banks. From there, the notes are made available to customers from tellers and through cash machines, and the notes start their life in general circulation. Bank notes usually find their way back into a bank and are then sorted in machines that count and check for counterfeits and damaged notes. The good notes are recirculated, while damaged notes are discarded for granulating and recycling.

Security features to look for

  1. Each polymer note has two transparent windows. One of the transparent windows is oval-shaped and sloping and has the denomination numerals embossed in it. The other clear window is in the shape of a curved fern leaf.
  2. There is a fern immediately above the clear fern-shaped window. When you hold the note to the light, the fern should match perfectly with another fern on the other side.
  3. You should easily be able to see a shadow image of the Queen when you hold the note to the light.
  4. Each note has an individual serial number printed horizontally and vertically.
  5. Polymer notes have raised printing, which stands up on the surface and can be felt when you run your fingers over it.
  6. Tiny micro-printed letters "RBNZ" should be visible with a magnifying glass.
  7. Under an ultraviolet light, the polymer note appears dull. Most commercial papers used in forgeries will glow under an ultraviolet light. However, polymer notes contain special inks, which make particular features glow under an ultraviolet light. For example, the front of each genuine note has a fluorescent patch showing the denomination numerals, which can only be seen under an ultraviolet light.

Remember, all images on your bank notes should appear sharp and well defined - not fuzzy and washed out.

The special edition millennium $10 note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

In 1999, the Reserve Bank issued a special $10 bank note to commemorate the new millennium. This limited edition note depicts New Zealand's development into the digital age and some of the recreational pursuits that make New Zealand special. The design features on the note represent New Zealand's past and its future. The front shows a Maori war canoe, symbolising New Zealand's journey. It also shows New Zealand's future in the digital age. On the back, some of the recreational pursuits enjoyed in New Zealand are portrayed.

The $10 millennium bank note has special security features which are world firsts. The most obvious is the two silver ferns within the clear window, which reflect rainbow colours when the note is tilted to the light. As well, when you fold the note over and look at the map of New Zealand on the back of the note through the clear window, the letters "Y2K" become visible on the North and South Islands. The letters can only be seen with the use of the filter incorporated in the note's clear window.

Bank notes: a closer look

Five dollar note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

  • Sir Edmund Hillary (1919 - ): Sir Edmund Hillary is New Zealand's most accomplished explorer, gaining world renown in 1953 as the first person to climb Mt Everest. In 1958 Sir Edmund became the first person to drive overland to the South Pole.
  • Mount Cook / Aoraki: Mount Cook / Aoraki, in New Zealand's South Island, is New Zealand's highest mountain. It was the scene of Sir Edmund Hillary's earliest climbing successes, and is still regarded by Hillary as one of his favourite mountains.
  • Massey Ferguson tractor: It was on tractors such as this that Sir Edmund Hillary drove to the South Pole. A stalwart of New Zealand farming life, these tractors proved adaptable to the harsh Antarctic conditions, requiring only minor modifications.
  • Campbell Island scene: Campbell Island is the southernmost of New Zealand's outlying islands - about 600 kilometres southeast of Stewart Island. Campbell Island has an area of 114 square kilometres. The Department of Conservation has recently eradicated all rats from the island as part of the largest island restoration project in the world.
  • Yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes): The distinctive thing about the yellow-eyed penguin is its yellow iris and yellow band of feathers across the back of its head. The hoiho is unique to New Zealand and is one of the world's rarest penguins. It can be found on sea-facing scrub and forested slopes along the southeastern coastline of the South Island. As well as Campbell Island, the hoiho can be found on Stewart and Auckland Islands.
  • Subantarctic lily (Bulbinella rossii): The subantarctic lily produces spectacular yellow flower heads in early summer and grows to a height of about one metre. It is unique to the subantarctic.
  • Daisy (Pleurophyllum speciosum): A giant member of the daisy family, this plant has colourful white and violet flowers. On Campbell Island, the plants grow close to the ground to help avoid wind chill and have corrugated leaves to trap the limited solar energy available there.
  • Bull kelp (Durvillaea antarctica): Bull kelp can grow up to several metres long and is found on New Zealand coasts as well as subantarctic islands. It has very tough skin and the strands are honeycombed inside for buoyancy.

Ten dollar note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

  • Kate Sheppard (1848 - 1934): Kate Sheppard was the most prominent leader of the campaign for universal suffrage in New Zealand. She worked tirelessly to organise and promote her cause. A long campaign culminated in 1893 when New Zealand became the first country in the world to extend voting rights to women.
  • In 1893 white camellias were given to Members of Parliament who had supported the bill to give New Zealand women the vote. The flower has become a symbol of the fight for the vote by New Zealand women. The flowers on the ten dollar note are Camellia japonica alba plena.
  • Blue duck or whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos): The rare blue duck is an endangered species which is found mainly in mountainous areas of New Zealand. It usually lives in pairs or family groups and prefers fast-flowing river habitats. Now totally protected, the whio is in a serious state of decline. At the present rate of decline the species will be functionally extinct (i.e. no more females remaining to breed) in some areas in the next ten years. Habitat degradation and introduced predators (notably stoats) are recognised as the primary threats to the whio's survival.
  • Parahebe catarractae: This riverside plant, a close relative of the hebe - the largest plant group unique to New Zealand - can be found in both North and South Islands. It grows in crevices in rocks, beside streams and sometimes in the spray of waterfalls. It can grow up to 60cm high and is notable for its trailing stems and attractive purple flowers.
  • Blechnum fern or mountain kiokio: This is a very common fern throughout New Zealand, which grows best in damp and shady places. In young plants like the specimen on the note, the fronds are tinged pink.

Twenty dollar note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

  • Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (1926 - ): This note features an official portrait of the Queen taken at Government House, Wellington, on 26 February 1986 by Ronald Woolf. Her Majesty is wearing the Sovereign's Badge of the Order of New Zealand. The ribbon is based on a taniko pattern.
  • Parliament buildings, Wellington: The $20 note shows two of the three buildings of the New Zealand Parliament, situated in Wellington. The older building, an imposing structure clad in Takaka marble, houses the Legislative Chamber. The foundations for this building were laid in 1912, but the First World War delayed construction and the building was not completed until 1922. The distinctive Beehive Executive Wing, designed by Sir Basil Spence, was begun in 1969 and completed in 1977.
  • New Zealand falcon or karearea (Falco novaseelandiae): Sometimes called the bush hawk, the New Zealand falcon is the most fearless of all our nation's birds. An adaptable hunter and a determined solitary predator, the falcon hunts small birds and animals and can attack at speeds of up to 200kph. The falcon is a high-country bird, seldom found north of Rotorua that favours isolated bush-clad mountain valleys.
  • Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegia insignis): This is a small spreading shrub unique to Marlborough and North Canterbury. The plant is a distinctive feature of the dry inland valleys of Marlborough with its thick leathery leaves and large, spectacular flower heads. It grows in inaccessible places such as cliff sides and the edges of steep scree slopes, and can flourish in areas from sea level to 1200 metres.
  • Flowering red tussock (Chionchloa rubra): There are 13 species of tussock grass in New Zealand, and red tussock, which has a distinct red tinge to its leaves, is found in both the North and South Islands. Tussock grass flowers intermittently, is primarily found in alpine areas, and can live for up to 200 years.
  • Mount Tapuaenuku, Inland Kaikouras: The highest peak in the South Island's Inland Kaikoura range, Mt Tapuaenuku is 2,885 metres high and dominates the surrounding countryside. The view of the mountain on the $20 note is from the east side of the Inland Kaikouras, looking up from the Awatere Valley floor.

Fifty dollar note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

  • Sir Apirana Ngata (1874 - 1950): Sir Apirana Ngata played a significant role in the revival of the Maori people and culture during the early years of the twentieth century. He was the first Maori to graduate from a New Zealand university, was an accomplished leader of the Young Maori Party and was an elected Member of Parliament for 38 years. Ngata was respected by both Maori and Pakeha and provided a focus for a social movement that rejuvenated Maori culture. He was also a driving force behind the revival of his own tribe, Ngati Porou.
  • Porourangi meeting house: Designed by Sir Apirana Ngata himself, the Porourangi meeting house stands at Waiomatatini Marae, near Ruatoria on the North Island's east coast, and is a showcase for Maori art.
  • Tukutuku pattern: The tukutuku pattern was designed by Sir Apirana Ngata and is known as poutama porourangi. Poutama is the style of tukutuku pattern meaning stairway to heaven and Porourangi is the name of the Ngati Porou meeting house which features the pattern.
  • Kokako or blue wattled crow (Callaeas cinerea): The kokako is a large native bird with a distinctive steel-grey body and a black face mask. The variety pictured on the note is the South Island kokako. Kokako are much larger than a tui, and prefer to hop up trees to gain enough height to be able to glide. They seldom fly further than 100 metres. The Kokako are doing well in the sites where they are managed with pest control. However, they continue to decline in other places.
  • Pureora Forest Park: Pureora Forest Park, established in 1978, covers 72,335 hectares close to Taupo in the central North Island. The park takes its name from nearby Mount Pureora (1130 metres). It is one of the most ecologically significant and beautiful forests in New Zealand and is home to a large population of kokako. Pureora has a dense interior with a huge variety of trees, shrubs, epiphytes and vines forming an almost impenetrable mass. Emergent podocarps include rimu, miro and matai, some of which may be over 1000 years old.
  • Supplejack or kareao (Ripogonum scandens): Supplejack leaves are eaten by kokako, and the plant forms impenetrable thickets used by the birds for nesting. It can grow up to 5 cm a day in summer. Supplejack produces bright red berries once it emerges from the shade of the forest canopy.
  • Sky-blue mushroom (Entoloma hochstetteri): This mushroom, notable for its bright blue colour that fades with age, grows throughout New Zealand in decomposing plant remains.

Hundred dollar note

Explaining currency: New Zealand's bank notes and coins

  • Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson (1871 - 1937): Internationally recognised as the father of the atom, Ernest Rutherford changed the basic understanding of atomic science on three occasions: he explained the perplexing problem of naturally occurring radioactivity, determined the structure of the atom, and changed one element into another.
  • Nobel Prize medal and diagram: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which Rutherford received in 1908, is represented on the note. Overlaying the medallion is a graph plotting the results from Rutherford's investigations into naturally occurring radioactivity.
  • Yellowhead or mohua (Mohoua ochrocephala): The yellowhead, sometimes known as the bush canary, is a diminutive and colourful bird. It is found in tracts of native bush throughout the South Island, preferring the canopies and sub-canopies of beech forests. Yellowheads are in a serious state of decline due to rat and stoat predation.
  • Red beech or tawhairaunui (Nothofagus fusca): Beech forests are one of the two main types of forest in New Zealand. Red beech grow up to 30 metres high and are named for the colour of their young leaves. Favouring warmer and more fertile sites than do other varieties of beech, their red wood is considered to be the most durable. Red beech is found in both North and South Islands and is the favoured habitat of the yellowheads in the Eglinton Valley.
  • Eglinton Valley: Located within the Fiordland National Park on the Te Anau-Milford Sound highway, the Eglinton Valley is home to a particularly fine stand of red beech and a declining population of yellowheads.
  • South Island lichen moth (Declana egregia): Found in Fiordland beech forests, this distinctively patterned moth blends perfectly with the lichens that cling to the trunks of the trees. The caterpillar form is strikingly coloured but is just as skilled at disguising itself.

New Zealand's coins

How are our coins made?

Coins are made in two stages. To start with, blank circles are cut from long sheets of metal. These blanks become coins when they pass through stamping machines, which apply huge pressure to impress the distinctive "head" and "tail" features. New Zealand's coins have predominately been made at the Royal Mints of Britain, Australia and Canada, although at various times in the past the South African Mint Company and Royal Norwegian Mint have manufactured our coins.

Although we usually refer to our coins as silver or gold, they are actually made from a mixture of different metals and contain neither silver nor gold. The silver coins (50, 20, 10 and 5 cent pieces) are a cupro-nickel compound of 75 per cent copper and 25 per cent nickel. The gold-coloured $1 and $2 coins are struck in an aluminium-bronze alloy of 92 per cent copper, 6 per cent aluminium and 2 per cent nickel. Coins last, on average, for about twenty years.

Forgery of coins is fairly uncommon, simply because all the work in forging a coin is hardly worth the small reward! Nevertheless, all designs on a real coin should be clearly defined, and it should have a distinct ring when dropped on a table-top, rather than a thud.

The Reserve Bank accepts for exchange any demonetised coins and notes (i.e. currency no longer in circulation) at its Wellington head office. This includes 1 and 2 cent coins, which were phased out in 1989 and demonetised in 1990.

In 1997 the Reserve Bank considered taking 5 cent coins out of circulation and changing the size of the 20 and 50 cent coins. After wide consultation with the public, it was decided to retain the status quo. Many people wanted to keep the 5 cent coin and there was some opposition to changing the size of the 20 cent and 50 cent coins, particularly from the coin-operated machine industry.

Coin designs

Designs on the back of New Zealand's coins (the "tail" side) haven't changed significantly since decimal currency was introduced in 1967. A 20 cent piece featuring a Maori "pukaki" carving was released in 1990, because the kiwi motif was moved to the $1 coin. The 20 cent piece with the kiwi is still very common so you are likely to see both coins.

The "heads" design featuring the Queen's portrait was updated in 1986 and again in 1999. When the $1 and $2 notes were taken out of circulation in 1991, they were replaced by the gold-coloured kiwi $1 coin and the $2 coin featuring the kotuku.

Alloy Diameter Weight Design
Five cents Cupro-nickel 19.43mm 2.83g The last surviving member of an otherwise extinct family of reptiles, the tuatara, native only to New Zealand, is shown sitting on a coastal rock.
Ten cents Cupro-nickel 23.62mm 5.66g A Maori carved head or koruru with Maori rafter patterns.
Twenty cents Cupro-nickel 28.58mm 11.31g There are two designs currently in usage. One features a representation of a well-known Maori "pukaki" carving. The other design in common usage features the kiwi.
Fifty cents Cupro-nickel 31.75mm 13.61g The barque Endeavour, commanded by Captain Cook, sailing south, with Mount Taranaki or Egmont in the distance.
One dollar Aluminium bronze 23mm 8g New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi, brings reality to the colloquial term, Kiwi Dollar.
Two dollar Aluminium bronze 26.5mm 10g The kotuku (white heron) is one of New Zealand's rarest birds and is held in particularly high regard in Maori mythology.


Standard gold, silver and bronze British coins, as well as other foreign coins, circulate freely in New Zealand based on their precious metal content.


Coin shortage means that some retailers issue their own tokens.


Only British coins struck by the Royal Mint become New Zealand's legal tender coinage.


Gradual withdrawal of gold coin from circulation.


Silver content in coins reduced (debased) from .925 (Sterling) to .500 fine.


New Zealand introduces its own coinage.


Reserve Bank of New Zealand issues first series of bank notes.


British coinage ceases to be legal tender in New Zealand.


Second series of bank notes introduced.

Bronze coins (penny and halfpenny) issued for the first time.


Cupro-nickel coins first appear in circulation, replacing silver coins.


Change to decimal currency. Third series of bank notes issued.


Fourth series of bank notes issued.


Stopped issuing 1 and 2 cent coins. Demonetised in April 1990.


New Maori "pukaki" carving 20 cent coin issued.


$1 and $2 coins issued. $1 and $2 notes demonetised in April 1993.


Fifth series of bank notes issued, bearing first new designs since 1967.


Sixth series of bank notes issued in polymer.

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