International travel can be an intimidating experience for both the novice and seasoned adventurer. Japan, however, has taken steps to make internal transportation easy and stress-free, for Japanese residents and tourists alike. Learn to use IC Cards to make traveling throughout Japan metropolitan areas a breeze.
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What is an IC Card
Similar to those subway cards used in transportation systems around the world, the Japanese IC Cards are rechargeable prepaid travel cards that can be loaded with funds and used for public transportation at train stations, metro stations, bus depots, ferries, and cable cars.
They are also commonly accepted at some convenience stores, vending machines, and restaurants throughout the country. Besides, the 10 most popular IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, are compatible with each other, so it is possible to travel with them on almost all trains, subways and buses inside Japanese cities.
Where to buy an IC Card
Upon your arrival in Japan, you can purchase an IC Card from a ticket counter or an automated kiosk at any major train station. Kiosk instructions are available in English to aid international travelers.
Usually, the card will cost ¥2000. This includes a ¥500 refundable deposit and ¥1500 loaded to the card for use. The card can be loaded with up to ¥20,000. When your balance gets low, the IC card can be recharged with additional funds at any train station and at other convenient locations.
How to use IC cards in Japan
When using the train or metro lines, find a ticket gate that accepts IC Cards – be advised that some gates accept regular tickets only. At the gate, just touch the contactless card to the blue illuminated card reader for a second. Your card’s balance will be displayed near the card reader. Kiosks are available on the platform side of the station in case you need to recharge your card before leaving the station.
Cards must be used within their service area. This means that both the station of departure and arrival must be located within the card’s geographic area. If you pass through the wrong gate or scan your card in error, see a station attendant for assistance.
To use your IC Card to make purchases at vending machines, stores, or restaurants, look for the IC Card logo. Once you have located the card reader, scan the card as you would at the station. Look for participating vendors in urban areas and near train stations. For buses, the card reader will be located at the vehicle’s entrance or exit.
As you prepare to leave Japan, you can return your card and redeem your deposit. To do this, bring the card to a station attendant. You may also collect the balance of your card for a processing fee of ¥220. Balances less than ¥220 cannot be redeemed. If you plan on traveling to Japan again in the future, your card and its balance will remain valid for ten years.
There is a number of regional IC Cards to choose from. Many are compatible with one another and differ mostly by where they can be purchased. Suica, Pasmo and Icoca are the three most popular IC Cards, you can consider to supplement your Japan Rail Pass for local travel.
This credit-card-size card is available from non-Japan Rail transportation in Tokyo, such as the Tokyo railway, Tokyo Metro subway system, and city buses. The Pasmo Card can be purchased at Tokyo Metro stations.
Pasmo cards come already charged and ready to use, and can also be employed as an electronic wallet to make small purchases in convenience stores and vending machines.
Initially, the PASMO costs 1,000 yen: 500 that you will get as credit and 500 as deposit, which will be refunded 100% once you give the card at the Japan Railways offices.
This popular card is offered by JR East. It services JR trains in the areas of Tokyo, Sendai, and Niigata including transport by train, subway, monorail and bus, but no bullet trains, long-distance trains or airport transfers. The SUICA, a friendly penguin is an icon of the Tokyo subway.
In the same way as the PASMO, you can use it as an electronic wallet in food stores, restaurants, taxis, station ticket offices and automatic vending machines where the SUICA logo appears.
Each SUICA is charged with 2,000 yen, including the 500 yen deposit that you can retrieve at JR East stations in Tokyo. Also, they don’t expire in 10 years and are not unipersonal, although only for adults (there is another children’s version that you buy in Japan).
SUICA vs PASMO
Can’t decide on whether to use PASMO vs SUICA? The cards are compatible and nearly identical in their uses. Which one you choose will likely depend on which station you come to first, whether your travels take you to a JR train station (Suica) or a Tokyo Metro station (Pasmo).
The cards discussed above are compatible with one another. IC Cards are available for other areas and specific forms of transportation within the areas discussed. Talk to an attendant when visiting a station in these or other areas to discover what card options may be available to you.
The ICOCA Card is offered by JR West and services JR trains in the regions of Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, and Okayama.
This card covers a slightly larger area than the others and is also compatible with some minor local cards, such as the Paspy Card in Hiroshima.
Other IC cards
- PITAPA is the main IC card for the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka) and the Okayama, Hiroshima and Shizuoka Prefecture.
- TOICA is issued by JR Central for the area of Chugoku (greater Nagoya) and some parts of Shizuoka prefecture.
- MANACA is the prepaid IC card for private train, metro and bus operators other than Japan Railways and Kintetsu.
- KITACA is the prepaid card issued by JR Hokkaido in the greater Sapporo area
- SUGOCA is the prepaid card issued by JR Kyushu in the greater Fukuoka and Kyushu metropolitan areas.
- NIMOCA and Hayakaken are also issued for the Fukuoka area. The first covers the Nishitetsu trains and buses and the second is issued by Fukuoka city for its subway.
Supplementing your Japan Rail Pass
You can purchase an IC Card once in Japan and use it along with your Japan Rail Pass for an ease of travel like you’ve never experienced before. With them, you will be able to move quickly through busy train stations without waiting in long lines to purchase your ticket.
This speedy combination will provide you with less wait time and more time to enjoy your Japanese vacation.