The United States is the only country that prints all denominations of currency in the same size. The US and Switzerland are the only two countries that use the same colors for all of their various bills. Needless to say, this sameness of size and color make it impossible for a blind person to locate the correct bills to make a purchase without some sort of assistance, or confirm that he or she has been given the correct change by the sales clerk. Even people with partial sight may have trouble distinguishing a $1 bill from a $10, especially if the bill is old and worn.

Thanks to a lawsuit brought by the American Council of the Blind (ACB), the Treasury Department must make US currency accessible to blind and visually impaired Americans under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unfortunately, the wheels of government grind slowly. According to a press release from the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP):

The U.S. government will continue to research a raised tactile feature for use on the next redesigned Federal Reserve note and will continue to add large, high-contrast numerals and different colors to each redesigned note denomination that it is permitted by law to alter. The process for redesigning Federal Reserve notes is complex and time intensive. Notes with any new features are not expected to be in circulation before 2020.

An Interim Solution to Currency Identification for People with Visual Impairments: The iBill Talking Bank Note Identifier

a woman's hands feeding a one dollar bill into the iBill Money IdentifierFor many years, private companies have been producing currency readers that identify and announce the denomination of a bill inserted into a sensor on the device. One of these devices, the iBill Talking Bank Note Identifier, is now available free of charge from the Treasury Department to any US citizen who is blind or visually impaired.

The iBill is compact enough to slip into a side pocket. It can identify all US currency, assuming the bills are not too crumpled or otherwise damaged. It announces the denomination in your choice of three ways: It can speak the dollar amount; it can produce a different pattern of tones for each denomination; or it can vibrate silently, which may be helpful in keeping your financial information private when you use the iBill at a cash register or count your change.

If you would like to hear the iBill Talking Bank Note Identifier in action, listen to this audio demonstration from an iBill user.

To apply for a free iBill, you will need to complete an application on the BEP website. The application is available in an accessible PDF that can be filled out online. Once the form is complete, you will need to print the document, obtain the signature of a doctor or other qualified professional who can verify your visual impairment, then mail the completed application to the address on the form. Talking Books subscribers can get the iBill without filling out the application or getting a doctor’s verification by calling their state library and putting in a request.  

A Mobile Solution

Along with the free iBill currency identifier, the Treasury Department has also developed a pair of mobile apps that use your Android or iOS device’s camera to identify US currency. The Android version, called IDEAL Currency Identifier, is available from the Google Play Store. The iOS version, called EyeNote, is available from the iTunes App Store.

After starting either of these apps, all you need to do is to point your phone’s camera at the bill. After a few seconds the app will report both the currency amount and whether you are showing the front or rear face of the bill.

Other Solutions

The LookTel Money Reader for Apple iPhones, iPads, and newer models of the iPod touch, is available from the iTunes Store for $9.99. You can also use your Mac desktop or laptop computer to identify currency with the OS X version, which can be purchased from the Mac App Store.

These apps operate similarly to the free versions offered from the Treasury Department, but the LookTel Money Reader will identify currencies from 21 different countries, which makes this a must have for international travelers.

There are also several other apps that can distinguish a $5 bill from a $20, as well as a can of corned beef hash from that can of spinach you still don’t want to eat. We’ll have a lot more to say about such apps later on in this guide.

One last option we will mention here is the i.d. mate Quest from En-Vision America. This multifunction accessibility device recognizes currency, and, as you will read in the next section, a whole lot more.