Updated version: 31 July 2023. The original post was from 2016.
Ok, so you’ve packed your bags, booked your tours and watered the plants, you’re on your way to Iceland! But wait. What currency do they use there? You google away and find out it’s called the Icelandic króna (ISK).
In the past few years, you might have heard some things about our humble króna. It’s true, we’ve had our ups and downs (pun intended) but the króna is still here so if you’re coming to Iceland, you’re going to have to learn a thing or two about it. We’ve gathered some common questions about the króna and done our best to answer them. If you can’t find the answer you’re looking for here, leave your question in the comment section, or better yet, contact our Reykjavik tourist information centre directly!
If you’re just looking for today’s rates, you can find them here.
Do I need cash in Iceland?
The short answer is no. You can pay almost everywhere with card or mobile payments. Tipping is not a custom in Iceland, so you don’t need cash for that. There might be small shops in the countryside or self-service vegetable stalls where cash could be handy, but this will be an exception.
Most major credit cards are usually accepted in any store, for basically any purchase, no matter how small.
Visa, MasterCard, and Maestro are commonly accepted, but sometimes you will have issues with American Express. In my experience, you probably can’t use your Diner’s Club card.
It, of course, depends on what cards you have, what the smartest thing to do is. My American wife found out she got the best rates if she used her credit card at stores, but if she used an ATM she would use her Debit card. But then, her credit card didn’t charge foreign currency fees, so check what kind of card you have.
Finally, it can be an important safety measure to carry a little bit of cash around with you, just in case of an emergency, especially if you’re headed to the countryside – there you might find some small shop which doesn’t take a card. Plus, you might just feel better about using cash than charging every little thing, like taxi fare or a candy bar.
How much cash to bring to Iceland?
Don’t bring cash, would be the general advice. You could take out krónur from the next ATM in Iceland, including at Keflavik Airport. If you foresee using cash, it would most likely be for small purchases and 10,000 ISK (76 USD/69 EUR) should be enough. The vast majority of locals never carry cash.
She comes in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 ISK coins, and 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 ISK bills.
Why do all the króna coins have fish on them?
Well, that’s not exactly true, the 50 ISK coin has a crab on it! Jokes aside, the fish are there for a reason. For the longest time in Iceland, fish = money. Iceland’s economy was founded on fishing, so much that during the last century the acrid smell of fish smelting was known as “money smell” (peningalykt). For a long time, it was basically our only export.
Also, we were lacking in the king department so we didn’t really have any human faces that we wanted adorning our currency.
Tell me more about the fish
The 1 ISK coin has a cod, which is appropriate since that is one of our main exports.
The 5 ISK coin has dolphins because dolphins are awesome!
The 10 ISK coin has capelin on it, a reference to the “capelin adventure” (síldarævintýri) during the 20th century, when the fish suddenly flooded our fishing grounds, causing a huge upswing in the economy.
The 50 ISK coin has, as I said, a crab on it, to keep things interesting.
The 100 ISK coin has a lumpfish on it. It’s funny because it’s not commonly eaten here but Icelanders still account for a huge part of the world trade in lumpfish. The main goal of catching lumpfish is the roe (fish eggs), which are used for lumpfish caviar.
Ok, but what’s that on the back?
On the back of all the Icelandic coins you will find Iceland’s coat of arms. The coat contains the four great guardians of Iceland, the Dragon, Eagle, Bull and Mountain Giant.
According to the saga of Heimskringla from 1230 AD, King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark (The Bluetooth technology is named after him. No, seriously) asked a wizard friend of his to scout Iceland’s vulnerabilities in the form of a whale. He dutifully swam over to Iceland but as he approached the island in the East, he encountered a dragon, accompanied by multitudes of venomous snakes. He kept on going to the North, where he was attacked by a great eagle whose wings touched the tips of the mountains either side of the valley. In the Westfjords he was met with an enormous bull rushing towards him and in the south, the mountain giant whose head was higher than the hilltops, with an iron staff, and many other giants with him. Needless to say Denmark abandoned its hopes of invading the country.
Why don’t the sizes make any sense?
Ok, so the 1-króna coin is the smallest, but after that, it all gets muddled up. 5-króna coins are bigger than 50-króna coins but 50 krónas are thicker than 100-króna coins and so on and so forth. I don’t know the logic behind this but honestly, this shouldn’t really be a problem. After all, if you can’t handle judging the value of a currency by the number stamped on it, maybe you shouldn’t really be in charge of money after all.
Ok, enough about the coins, tell me about the banknotes
Like I mentioned before, there are no kings, queens, or presidents on our banknotes. Instead, we have historical figures who are important to the country’s history.
The person on the 500 ISK bill is Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879). Iceland’s leading politician during the country’s fight for independence, Jón is commonly referred to as “president” Jón, even if he lived and died before we ever had a president (he was president of the Icelandic Society of Literature).
On the 1000 ISK bill is Brynjólfur Sveinsson (1605-1675), a bishop at Skálholt who translated the New Testament directly from Greek and had it printed. He was an influential man in Icelandic history but even so, his most enduring legacy is his part in the dramatic scandal of his daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and subsequent death. Ragnheiður, the daughter, has been the central character in books, plays, songs and poems since then – even a whole opera!
The person on the 2000 ISK bill is Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972), one of our foremost 20th century painters. On the back of the bill is one of his paintings. You can learn more about him at Kjarvalsstaðir, an art museum dedicated to his work. The 2000 ISK bill was added to the roster in 1995 but never really gained popularity. It’s still valid but is in the process of being phased out.
The woman with the comically large hat on the 5000 ISK bill is Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir (1646-1715). She was known for her crafts and patterns – the National Museum has several of her creations. She was the daughter of a high-ranking church official and married not one but TWO bishops (one of them died first, obviously). In the background is one of her husbands, along with his other two wives for some reason. (Again, not all at once, he was widowed twice).
The 10000 ISK bill is the newest addition to Icelandic wallets. It has a picture of Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845), natural scientist and one of our most beloved poets, writer, and translator. He also created many new Icelandic words which are printed in small print on the 10000 ISK bill.
Those numbers are awfully high, why don’t you have any equivalents of pennies or cents like the rest of us?
We do, in fact, they’re called aurar. It’s just that due to inflation, the króna itself is actually worth less than the cent of the Euro so you can imagine how often you would feel the need to set a price that specifies one/hundredth of less than a cent. Bottom line is that we do have them, but at this stage, they’re only theoretical.
Inflation, as you might guess, is also the reason why prices are usually in thousands, which comes as a shock to some foreigners.
So how much is a króna, really?
I could give you a ballpark number at the time of writing, but in these uncertain times, you never know what tomorrow brings (as we learned during the banking collapse of 2008) so it’s safest to just check the banks’ exchange rates, updated daily.
So is Iceland expensive then?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, it’s not cheap, not like some popular travel destinations are, but if you stayed in a hotel the US or North-West Europe, ate at a restaurant every night (as travelers tend to do), went on day-trips or rented a car, that wouldn’t be cheap either. Iceland is pretty comparable to those countries, price wise. Some things are cheaper, some things are more expensive.
I think some people claim that Iceland has gotten “expensive” because it’s more expensive now than it was some years ago. But that’s because in 2008, we had basically the worst financial crash in our history. I mean other countries felt it too, but it was particularly bad here – the Icelandic króna lost half its value overnight! Since then, the economy and currency have recovered, so it’s not quite as cheap anymore.
So why is it called a króna?
Króna/Krona/Krone is Scandinavian for “Crown.” This is because these countries had kings, and the currency had his crown on them – therefore the money was called “crown” or króna.
Iceland, which was under the rule of the Danish crown until 1944, adopted the Danish currency naturally. The Danish krone was first minted in 1619, and Sweden and Norway created theirs in connection with the Scandinavian Monetary Union in the 1870’s.
Iceland became independent in 1944 and kept the name króna, but got rid of the crown for which it was named, replacing it on the currency with a coat of arms (see above).
Interesting. Does that mean that the Nordic currencies are interchangeable?
No. Each country’s currency is completely independent of the others. Just like there is the US dollar, the Australian dollar, Bahamian dollar and Hong Kong dollar, to name a few. Aside from the name, they are completely different. Though you will not have any trouble exchanging Scandinavian money in Iceland, at the proper locations.
Ok, I think I’ve learned enough about the króna, how do I get my hands on them?
In my experience, it’s best wait until you’re already in Iceland. Because the economy collapsed in 2008 and the currency lost half its value overnight, I think foreign bureaus of exchange can be shy about keeping much of it on hand, and charge quite a price for exchanging it. Therefore: don’t change your money overseas, do it in Iceland.
All right, just landed in Iceland, on my way to the city centre, where do I go now?
There are no bureaus of exchange in Iceland, we change our money at the bank. The easiest way to do it is just to go to the bank at the airport, which is open 24/7.
In the general vicinity of the Reykjavík centre, you will find the Landsbankinn at Austurstræti 11, currently open from 9am-4pm on weekdays only.
If you want to exchange money after the banks are closed or on the weekends, there are plenty of ATMs to be found and it’s pretty safe to use those in Iceland.
How about if I’m going out of the city?
It can be tough if not impossible to change money on the weekends, so if you’re landing Friday or Saturday, make sure your card will work (see below) or bring some cash just in case. many shops will accept foreign currency, but only bank notes, no coins, they’ll have to give you krónas back and their exchange rate might be unfavourable.