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The banknotes in your purse or wallet will be changing over the next few years, starting with the new 'plastic' £5 note introduced this week.

The new plastic polymer banknotes are designed to be much more durable than the current ones, which are printed on a linen-based paper. They are expected to last around five years in general circulation, compared to the two year lifespan of the current notes.

Though not quite indestructible, the new notes are almost impossible to tear, will keep much cleaner and are much more waterproof, easily capable of surviving a cycle in the washing machine. Perhaps most importantly, they have a number of new features which will make them much more difficult to counterfeit, including a transparent window.

The first of the new polymer banknotes for England and Wales is the £5 note, which has been introduced this week and is 15% smaller than its predecessor. On the front it features a portrait of HM The Queen while the image chosen for the rear of the new note is Sir Winston Churchill, with one of his famous wartime quotes: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

Another of the new security features is an image of Elizabeth Tower – commonly known as 'Big Ben' – picked out in gold relief on the front of the note and overlaying the see-through window. On the rear of the note the image of the tower appear silver while the border of the window changes colour from purple to green when the note is tilted.

The new note also has an image of the maze at Blenheim Palace (Churchill's birthplace) printed in green foil, but you might have to wait a while to get your hands on one of the new fivers and inspect it close up.

The Bank of England has printed 440 million of the new fivers, with a value of £2.2 billion, but they will only be phased in gradually, initially in some of the UK's biggest cities which serve as key cash dispersal points. Many older cash machines will have to be updated to handle the new polymer notes, but in any case only about 7% of cash machines now dispense fivers.

While there will be a significant cost to upgrading cash machines, they are one of the key drivers for the new notes, which will retain their shape and 'stiffness' much better. Once existing notes have been 'scrunched' a few times they become unsuitable for dispensing via cash machines.

Most people will probably have to wait a week or two before coming across one of the new £5 notes, maybe longer if they seldom handle cash. The old version will continue to be valid until May 5th next year, by which time most will have already been removed for circulation. Those who hoard cash at home will still be able to take the old notes into their bank and exchange them for new ones.

A new polymer £10 note, featuring author Jane Austen, is due to be introduced in the summer of 2017, with a £20 note featuring artist JMW Turner due by 2020. There are currently no plans to replace the current £50 note. Both the new £10 and £20 polymer notes will feature a series of raised dots, similar to Braille, making them easier for blind and partially-sighted people to use. The £5 note will be distinguishable by having no dots, while the different denomination notes will also continue to be different sizes, as is currently the case.

There's nothing really new in the polymer notes, which were developed in Australia and have been in use there for the past 20 years. Several other countries also use them, including New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and Romania, while special commemorative polymer banknotes have previously been issued in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some analysts suggest that banknotes and coins are heading for extinction and more and more transactions are carried out electronically using debit and credit cards or online using various new payment methods. However, banknotes are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, and the new ones should last much longer.

One word of warning though – when the new polymer banknotes are brand new they can sometimes stick together, so be careful how you spend them!

• For more about the new polymer banknotes, click here.

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