The Bank of England, established in 1694
The Bank of England, established in 1694

Prior to the 17th century most money was commodity money, typically gold or silver. However, promises to pay were widely circulated and accepted as value at least five hundred years earlier in both Europe and Asia. The Song Dynasty was the first to issue generally circulating paper currency, while the Yuan Dynasty was the first to use notes as the predominant circulating medium. In 1455, in an effort to control inflation, the succeeding Ming Dynasty ended the use of paper money and closed much of Chinese trade. The medieval European Knights Templar ran an early prototype of a central banking system, as their promises to pay were widely respected, and many regard their activities as having laid the basis for the modern banking system.

As the first public bank to "offer accounts not directly convertible to coin", the Bank of Amsterdam established in 1609 is considered to be the precursor to modern central banks. The central bank of Sweden ("Sveriges Riksbank" or simply "Riksbanken") was founded in Stockholm from the remains of the failed bank Stockholms Banco in 1664 and answered to the parliament ("Riksdag of the Estates") thus making it the oldest central bank still operating today. One role of the Swedish central bank was lending to the government, which was likewise true of the Bank of England, created in 1694 by Scottish businessman William Paterson in the City of London at the request of the English government to help pay for a war. The War of the Second Coalition led to the creation of the Banque de France in 1800.

Although central banks today are generally associated with fiat money, the 19th and early 20th centuries central banks in most of Europe and Japan developed under the international gold standard, elsewhere free banking or currency boards were more usual at this time. Problems with collapses of banks during downturns, however, were leading to wider support for central banks in those nations which did not as yet possess them, most notably in Australia.

The US Federal Reserve was created by the U.S. Congress through the passing of The Federal Reserve Act in the Senate and its signing by President Woodrow Wilson on the same day, December 23, 1913. Australia established its first central bank in 1920, Colombia in 1923, Mexico and Chile in 1925 and Canada and New Zealand in the aftermath of the Great Depression in 1934. By 1935, the only significant independent nation that did not possess a central bank was Brazil, which subsequently developed a precursor thereto in 1945 and the present central bank twenty years later. Having gained independence, African and Asian countries also established central banks or monetary unions.

The People's Bank of China evolved its role as a central bank starting in about 1979 with the introduction of market reforms, which accelerated in 1989 when the country adopted a generally capitalist approach to its export economy. Evolving further partly in response to the European Central Bank, the People's Bank of China has by 2000 become a modern central bank. The most recent bank model, was introduced together with the euro, involves coordination of the European national banks, which continue to manage their respective economies separately in all respects other than currency exchange and base interest rates.