Contactless vs Cash | How to pay for things in the UK

Living in the UK comes with all sorts of differences from your home country – and payment is one for them! Here’s how I buy things in the UK as an expat and whether you should focus on cash or contactless.

Paying for Bills

Monthly bills include things like council tax, electricity, rent, water and internet. For me, all of these are direct debits or scheduled payments so I never need to think about it – or forget them by accident.

It can be overwhelming to get these set up when you first move into a place, but once it’s done, it’s done. When it comes to bills and utilities, 99% of the time they will be paid for electronically.

Buying Groceries

I buy groceries from a bunch of different British supermarkets but I always pay with contactless payment. Originally I was using my debit card by “tapping” for payment, but now I just use my iPhone to tap.

Typically, both self-checkouts and regular checkouts will accept cash if needed, although some checkouts are card only (so check before you use them).

If you’re buying groceries from a very small local shop, perhaps even a small family business, it may be cash-only but there should be signs indicating that. Typically though, most places will now take card or contactless payment.

How to pay for things in the UK

Travel & Transportation

Public transport can be fabulous in the UK (although it’s not perfect) but each type requires it’s own payment for tickets.


  • You can buy tickets online electronically or you can buy tickets at the station (either with a kiosk or from a clerk) and they should both accept cash or contactless
  • Definitely make sure to also buy a UK railcard if you’re going to be using the trains


  • Most buses now offer contactless, either when you get on the bus and buy a ticket or you can buy a ticket via their particular app and have it saved on your phone
  • The UK has LOADS of great apps that can make life easier (you can find my suggestions for the best apps for expats here)


  • Contactless is the easier way when it comes to travelling on the London Underground, so you can tap in through the barrier and tap out when you leave
  • You can also get an Oyster card which is a smartcard that you can load up with money or you can still buy tickets within Underground stations that should take cash and contactless (this isnt ideal for expats though, just for visitors)


  • Ubers will use electronic payment through their app
  • Taxis can go either way – but make sure you ask before you start your journey in case they won’t accept card or vice versa


  • Most of my car-related payments like insurance, car tax, maintenance, etc, was done online electronically
  • Gas stations (or petrol stations) sometimes have card machines at the pump, otherwise you need to go inside and pay either with cash or card

Paying for everyday stuff

Restaurants, cafes, pub, hair salon, takeaway – all of these types of businesses should take both cash and contactless. On a rare occasion, a takeaway place may want cash only so check before you order (although if they are in a town centre, there should be a cash machine nearby).

How can I get cash out?

In Canada or the US we usually would ask for an “ATM” but in the UK, British people usually say Cash Point. These machines should be around and are often near a post office, grocery store or bank. Before you use one, make sure there are no fees to withdraw money (there should be a sign if there are fees or not).

The last time I took out cash was because I was going to a small town festival and I was worried stalls or food vendors would only take cash. In the end, I used contactless the entire time.

How to buy stuff in the UK

In the last few years, the UK has really shifted towards contactless payment, whether with tapping your debit card or credit card or using a mobile phone for payment. In my opinion, this makes life so much easier rather than worrying about cash and coins.