What Is a Currency Symbol?

A man and woman checking currency exchange rates
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DEFINITION
A currency symbol is a graphical representation used as shorthand for a currency’s name. Each country has two standard currency symbols. A local currency symbol is used when it is clear which country’s currency is being referenced; an international currency symbol may add letters when necessary to clarify which country’s currency is being referenced.

A currency symbol is a graphical representation used as shorthand for a currency’s name. Each country has two standard currency symbols. A local currency symbol is used when it is clear which country’s currency is being referenced; an international currency symbol may add letters when necessary to clarify which country’s currency is being referenced.

Learn about the origins of popular currency symbols and how they work.

Definition and Examples of Currency Symbols

A currency symbol is often used with a number to express a monetary amount. For example, $100 represents 100 dollars (it could be U.S., Canada, or any other country that uses “dollar” as its currency’s name), or £100 to express 100 British pounds.

Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore are among the countries that join the U.S. and Canada in using the “$” symbol to represent their currency. Other currency symbols include “€” for the euro, the currency used in 19 out of 27 European Union member countries; the symbol for the Japanese yen is “¥”; the Norwegian krone is typically expressed with “kr” followed by the amount.

Because many countries use the dollar symbol, it may be necessary to specify which country’s dollar is referenced. You may see references to US$ for U.S. dollars or CA$ for Canadian dollars.

How Currency Symbols Work

Currency symbols are as old as currency itself. However, countries continue to establish new currency symbols. For example, the Indian rupee graphic (₹) was adopted by the government of India on July 15, 2010. Prior to its adoption, the symbol most commonly used for the rupee was “Rs” or “Re.”

The Indian rupee symbol is an allegory of Indian ethos. It is a combination of Devanagari "Ra" and the Roman capital "R," with two parallel horizontal stripes running at the top representing the national flag, and the "equal to" sign. The symbol was chosen from thousands of designs received by the Ministry of Finance through an open competition among resident Indian nationals. The winning design was created by a post-graduate design student named Udaya Kumar.

The euro (€) was named in 1995 but was introduced to global financial markets on Jan. 1, 1999. It is the official currency of 19 of 27 EU countries. The symbol is based on the Greek letter epsilon (Є) and also represents the first letter of “Europe,” with two parallel lines signifying stability.

An example of a more recently created currency symbol is for the widely recognized cryptocurrency Bitcoin (₿). Other cryptocurrencies also have symbols associated with them.

The Origination of the Dollar Symbol

One of the most widely recognized currency symbols is the dollar sign, used by more than 20 countries. The most commonly accepted explanation of the origin of the dollar symbol ($) is that it evolved from the Mexican or Spanish “P” used to represent pesos or piastres. A study of old manuscripts has led to the theory that the “S” eventually was written over the “P,” which ultimately morphed into the “$” symbol used today.

One reason so many countries use this symbol is that the U.S. dollar was widely adopted throughout the 20th century as the leading currency in international trade and debt contracts. Primary commodities are generally priced in dollars on world exchanges, and central banks and governments hold the bulk of their foreign exchange reserves in U.S. dollars.

The British pound served as the primary international currency through the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The pivot to the U.S. dollar coincided with the decline of British economic power in the 20th century and the rise of U.S. economic influence.

The introduction of the euro marked the first time in over a century that the U.S. dollar might have a rival for the primary international currency.

Currency Symbols vs. Currency Codes

In addition to currency symbols, each currency has a currency code recommended for use by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While many currencies use the same character, each currency has a unique currency code, which may be represented numerically and alphabetically using three digits or three letters.

ISO 4217 is the standard that lists alpha codes for each country. It's based on another ISO standard, ISO 3166, which lists the codes for country names. The three-digit numeric code is useful in countries that do not use Latin scripts and computerized systems. For example, the U.S. dollar is represented by “USD” and the numeric code 840.

One everyday use of currency codes lists the exchange rate between two currencies. The currencies are listed in pairs alongside a numeric value. If, for example, you see USD/CAD 1.28378, that means $1.28 in Canadian dollars equals $1 U.S. dollar.

What It Means to Individual Investors

Currency symbols help identify and differentiate between currencies. If you're dealing with currencies other than the country you live in, say when you're on a vacation abroad or if you decide to invest in the currency markets, knowing and understanding currency symbols can be extremely useful.

Key Takeaways

  • A currency symbol is a quick way to express a country’s form of currency. When paired with a number, it represents a specific monetary value.
  • Because some countries use the same currency symbol—such as the “$” symbol to represent dollars—letters may be added to indicate which currency is being referenced.
  • Each currency also has a unique alpha and numeric code attached to it by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The codes are used internationally by banks and businesses, including listing exchange rates.

Article Sources

  1. European Union. "Countries Using the Euro."

  2. Know India. "Currency Symbol."

  3. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "FAQs."

  4. Six-Group. "Driving Global Data Standardization," download "Current and Historical Lists: List One (XLS)."