The history of banknotes in New Zealand

Learn how New Zealand’s banknotes have evolved through history.

A brief history of banknotes

Records exist of banking facilities in Babylon four thousand years ago, and there is evidence that the Chinese, Greeks and Romans had banking facilities long before the Christian era.

The first true paper money appeared in China about 700 AD, but several centuries passed before paper was used in Europe.

The Bank of England began issuing notes in 1694. There were just a few lines of engraved text, promising to pay a specified sum at the Bank's premises. Also on the note were spaces for a handwritten date, number, signature and the name of the payee. The note showed the figure of Britannia, but there were few other decorative features.

In New Zealand, paper money arrived with the Europeans. Prior to 1934, the six trading banks had produced the banknotes that were in common circulation. However these banks were not obliged to accept each other’s notes. In 1924 the trading banks reached an agreement on a uniform design. 

The Reserve Bank issues banknotes

By the 1920s there was a general push to establish a central bank that would issue a single national currency. Talk of establishing a Reserve Bank in New Zealand went on through the 1920s. The decision was finally taken in 1930, and steps went ahead to set it up with sole authority to issue New Zealand’s currency.

Work to design new banknotes began in 1932. They were finally issued in August 1934, six months after the Reserve Bank started.

New Zealand banknote issues

There have been 7 different issues of New Zealand banknotes.

The First Issue

These first notes were intended to be temporary. They had been designed in a hurry amid heated debate over what they should look like. In the end they included features of notes already in circulation. The design included a Kiwi, the Arms of New Zealand, a sketch of Mitre Peak and a portrait of King Tawhaio, the second Maori king.

The colours of the original banknotes were similar to the previous trading banknotes. All the notes carried the same design, but different colours distinguished the denominations. Notes of 10/- (ten shillings), £1 (one pound), £5 and £50 were coloured orange, mauve, blue-green and red respectively. The banknotes were all the same size (7" x 3½").

The first bank note was introduced on 1st August 1934, and was signed by the first Governor of the Reserve Bank, Leslie Lefeaux. They were printed by Thomas De La Rue And Company Limited, London.

View images of Series 1 banknotes on Flickr.

The Second Issue

The second series was issued on 6th February 1940. The design and colours for the 10/- and £50 notes were changed. A portrait of Captain James Cook replaced that of King Tawhiao. A green coloured £10 note was also introduced at this time. These notes stayed in circulation until the change to decimal currency in 1967.

View images of Series 2 banknotes on Flickr.

Change to decimal currency

Imperial currency was relatively complex; pounds were divided into 20 shillings or 240 pence, resulting in 12 pence to the shilling. Guineas were worth slightly more than a pound but not in common use. People became accustomed to doing the fractions, but it was complex and the system of 100 cents to the dollar was simpler.

In 1963 the Government decided to decimalise — the changeover, dubbed ‘Decimal Currency’ (DC) day, was set for 10 July 1967. There were public discussions over what the new decimal money might be called. Words such as ‘kiwi’ and ‘zeal’ were proposed to avoid confusion with ‘dollar’, which most people at the time associated with American money. In the end, though, the word ‘dollar’ was selected, and “Mr Dollar” became the symbol of the transition.

The introduction of decimal currency to New Zealand
Mr Dollar
Mr Dollar
0m:33s
Decimal currency was introduced to New Zealand on 10 July 1967. A great deal of work was required to make the change from Imperial currency, including a huge publicity campaign. A series of advertisements on television introduced the concepts to viewers in New Zealand.
Now it can be told video image
Now it can be told
4m:16s
This footage tells the story of the distribution of currency for decimalisation on 10 July 1967. $120m of currency, weighing 730 tonnes was sent to nearly 600 bank branches around the country by plane, ferry, truck and train between April and June 1967 as part of “Operation Overlander”. Everything went without a hitch and not one cent was lost!

The Third Issue

The third series was issued on 10th July 1967. These notes all featured HM Queen Elizabeth II on the front.

View images of Series 3 banknotes on Flickr.

The Fourth Issue

The fourth series was issued in 1981, largely as a result of a change in printer.

Previously the Reserve Bank of New Zealand notes had been printed by Thomas De La Rue and Company of London. In 1979 the Reserve Bank put the next year's note order out to international tender. The contract went to Bradbury Wilkinson and Company (NZ) Ltd who had recently built a note printing plant in Whangarei.

The change of printer presented the opportunity for a re-design of the notes because of the necessity for new plates to be engraved. The most obvious change was an updated portrait of the Queen.

Moving into the 1980s, it became apparent that there was a need for a note between the $20 and the $100. A $50 note was introduced at the end of 1983.

View images of Series 4 banknotes on Flickr.

The Fifth Issue

In mid-1991, the Reserve Bank decided to completely revise the appearance and features of New Zealand's banknotes. This was the first complete re-design since the introduction of Decimal Currency 24 years earlier. The result, after the Bank had consulted widely with the public, was a new series of notes with distinctly New Zealand designs.

View images of Series 5 banknotes on Flickr.

The Sixth Issue

The Reserve Bank issued its sixth series of notes in 1999. These were printed for the first time on polymer. The new material was introduced for a variety of reasons, principally improved durability and because it enabled windows to be included in the notes as an enhanced security feature. The new series retained the same images and general designs as Series Five, with slight modifications to include the window security features.

View images of Series 6 banknotes on Flickr.

The Seventh Issue

The seventh series was issued in 2015. The seventh series of notes is currently in circulation.

For more information see the Banknotes in circulation page.

View images of Series 7 banknotes on Flickr.