7 Things You Didn’t Know About Kenya’s Currency

Last updated on March 6th, 2024 at 10:16 pm

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Kenya is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa. It boasts a major urban center in Nairobi, diverse animal life in the countryside, and a vibrant mix of cultures. With a gross domestic product (GDP) of $110 billion, it’s the third largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Its currency is the Kenyan shilling (KES), represented with the prefix Ksh or Sh (in the same place where a dollar sign or euro sign would go). Each KES breaks into 100 cents; however, the value of the shilling is low enough that cents are rarely used anymore.

The Central Bank of Kenya issues Kenyan shillings. Kenyan coins available include 1, 5, 10, and 20 shillings; banknotes are available in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 Kenyan shillings.

Essential facts about the Kenyan shilling

These seven facts about Kenya’s currency might surprise you. They may also come in handy when you want to exchange or transfer Kenyan shillings.

1. Kenyan bills are bilingual.

Kenya currency: Kenyan shilling bank notes

Kenya is a multicultural nation, with about 70 languages spoken, including English, Swahili, Gikuyu, Oluluyia, Arabic, and Hindi.

For official purposes, however, Kenya uses only English and Swahili. People across southeastern Africa use Swahili, and English became widespread in Kenya during the British colonial period.

As a result, Kenya currency lists its denominations in both English and Swahili. For instance, the 1 shilling coin has both “one shilling” and “shilingi moja” printed on it. The other side of every coin reads “Republic of Kenya” and, in Swahili, “Jamhuri Ya Kenya.”

2. The presidents on Kenya currency were controversial.

Kenya currency: Kenyan shilling coin

When the Kenyan shilling first came out in 1966, it bore the image of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Under British colonial rule, Kenyatta’s pro-independence activities landed him in prison. Upon his release, he won an election to be prime minister, oversaw the transition to home rule, and then became president.

Kenyatta helped end colonialism in the nation and reconcile different ethnic groups. Yet he also suppressed dissent and faced criticism for being authoritarian.

In 1980, the Central Bank of Kenya replaced Kenyatta with the likeness of Daniel arap Moi on Kenya currency, who was president at the time. He remained in power from 1978 to 2002 and was Kenya’s longest-serving president. Though he was popular for a time, he was later accused of corruption, and some called for removing his image from the shilling.

3. Modern shilling banknotes don’t feature people.

After the controversy over the two presidents on the shilling notes and coins, some Kenyans advocated for removing all political figures from the nation’s money. In 2010, a new constitution forbade images of individual people on any Kenyan currency.

Instead, Kenya currency bears pictures of national landmarks, animals, and other symbols of the country.

However, the latest series of banknotes all have the image of a statue of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The Central Bank of Kenya issued the newest series to curb issues with counterfeiting and illegal activity with older Kenya currency. In order to prevent money laundering, banks in Uganda and Tanzania stopped converting KES so currency exchange could only happen in Kenya itself.

Featuring the statue of Jomo Kenyatta on the Kenya shilling has been a controversial move. Some say it’s favoritism because the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is Jomo Kenyatta’s son. Others feel it’s appropriate to honor the first president. Either way, the bills are legal tender and used widely.

4. Shillings feature Kenyan wildlife.

Kenya currency: 3 giraffes in a field

Newer Kenya shillings feature animals such as the giraffe, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, buffalo, and elephant.

Kenya is home to diverse wildlife, which live in its 22 national parks, 28 reserves, and five sanctuaries. Tourists come from all over the world to go on safari in rural Kenya.

Many East African animals are on the endangered species list due to poaching and habitat destruction. Kenya’s parks protect them, and researchers study ways people can help them thrive. Representing these animals on the shilling pays homage to their importance in Kenyan national life.

5. The new shillings celebrate Kenyan culture.

While one goal of issuing a new series of banknotes and coins was to curb fraud and counterfeiting, the Central Bank of Kenya announced that the new designs were also a celebration of the cultural values and natural resources of Kenya. The bank’s governor, Patrick Njoroge, said that the new shillings “will serve as a means of passing knowledge, conserving culture, and promoting [Kenya’s] global uniqueness.”

Each banknote features a different aspect of Kenya’s cultural values or industries.

  • Ksh50: Green energy, with images of Kenya’s wind, geothermal, and solar energy systems
  • Ksh100: Agriculture, represented by a design featuring corn and tea crops, as well as livestock
  • Ksh200: Social services, shown through illustrations of medical services, education, and athletes
  • Ksh500: Tourism, represented by views of Kenya’s beaches, parks, and game reserves
  • Ksh1000: Governance, with an image of the Parliament building in Nairobi

6. Kenya currency was once tied to the Indian rupee —and several other currencies.

Under British rule, many East African countries—including Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya—used the Indian rupee as currency. Established in 1919, the East Africa Currency Board served as a currency exchange for the varying banknotes in the region. Between 1905 and 1967, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda changed currencies five times, moving through the German East African rupie, the Indian rupee, the British East African rupee, the East African florin, and the East Africa shilling.

Finally in 1967, with British colonial rule behind them, the Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Ugandan shillings replaced the East African shilling.

7. If you go to Kenya, make sure to bring some dollars.

Person pulling out a US dollar bill from a wallet

Most places in Kenya expect payment in shillings; however, a few tourist destinations only accept U.S. dollars. This could be difficult if you have euros or British pounds, so be sure you change some EUR or GBP to USD, along with some Kenyan shillings, when traveling to the East African nation.

Keep in mind that it may be difficult to find an ATM in Kenya — the number of ATMs has actually decreased in recent years. The Central Bank of Kenya reports that ATM use has fallen as more Kenyans choose cashless methods of payment. So, travelers may not have easy access to cash withdrawals while visiting Kenya, especially in rural areas.

That means you should plan ahead and bring dollars with you on your trip. Also, make sure your bills are new: Due to counterfeiting concerns, U.S. dollars printed before 2006 aren’t always accepted.

Kenyan shilling exchange rates

Exchange rates between the Kenyan shilling and other currencies can change at any time. If you’re planning to travel or send money to Kenya, be sure to check the latest exchange rates online.

To demystify exchange rates and understand how to get the best rates, read our guide to exchanging money.

If you’re sending Kenya currency, it’s easy to check exchange rates through our Remitly app. After creating an account, you can select Kenya as your destination country to see the rates we offer.

Sending money to Kenya

Man happily using a phone

If you want to send Kenya currency to loved ones in the country, money transfer apps make it easy. The popular mobile money provider M-PESA allows you to transfer funds directly to an M-PESA account with apps like Remitly.

Remitly offers zero fees when sending money to Kenya from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or Australia. Check out our homepage and select Kenya, or download the app to learn more.