IC-Cards. Once in Japan (日本), you will be doing loads of transferring, especially by train or subway. To avoid the hassle of buying an individual ticket each and every time, these neat little rechargeable IC-Cards were invented. Behold their magnificence…
With an IC-Card like Suica or Pasmo, the days of figuring out the fare for every train ride are no more.
Here is how it works:
- Charge the prepaid card with desired amount at any ticket machine
- As you walk through the ticket gate, touch the scan panel with the card (it gets recognized through your wallet for example, you don’t have to take it out each time)
- After you arrive at your destiny, do the same thing when leaving the station
- The train fare will automatically be calculated and deduced from you card balance
The first time I heard of these cards, I was totally astounded. I wish there was such a neat system here in Germany (even though I very rarely take the train here).
So far, I have never purchased a normal train ticket for a local train (Shinkansen (新幹線) tickets though) on my trips to Japan. I got the Suica card as soon as I landed in Haneda (羽田) in July 2017. I wanted it that badly.
So, how do you get the card and where can you use it? Hold on friends, I’ll tell you right now.
First thing to mention, there are at least 10 different IC-Cards from different Railway companies. Before you worry about which one to get: Since 2013, these 10 major cards are all compatible with each other.
Types of IC-Cards
Let me still give you a list of the 10 most prominent ones:
Issued by JR East of the Japan Railways Group, this is one that I personally use and have had no issues with.
Its main area is the Greater Tokyo Region and the Sendai (名古屋) region.
The non-JR version of the Tokyo area. Its usability remains the same as Suica.
This one is issued by JR West and covers the Kansai Region (e.g Osaka and Kyoto) and the Chugoku Region.
Non-JR version for Kansai. This is a little different though as it is a postpaid and not a prepaid card. It can be difficult to get for a foreign tourist, so I don’t recommend it.
Kitaca is the IC-Card from JR Hokkaido mainly issued and used in Sapporo (札幌).
Covers the Greater Nagoya area and parts of Shizuoka prefecture. Issued by JR Central.
The non-JR version for Nagoya.
Issued by JR Kyushu for train travel in the Fukuoka (福岡), Nagasaki (長崎) and Kumamoto (熊本県) area.
A non-JR alternative from the company Nishitetsu. Can only be used on Nishitetsu trains in the Fukuoaka area and selected other cities.
This one is limited to Fukuoka’s subway.
Seeing that there are that many available it really doesn’t matter too much which one you get. I recommend getting one as early as possible and determine the type depending on where you start your trip.
Most people will probably start in either Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka), in that case you should go with either Suica/Pasmo for Tokyo or Icoca for Osaka.
Where to get your IC-Cards
There are quite a few possible locations where you can get yourself an IC-Card. As it differs slightly depending on the card, I will use the Suica Card (probably the most prominent one) as an example.
Suica is, just like the Japan Rail Pass, issued by the Japan Railways Group. Even though the IC-Cards are now compatible with one another, you still have to be in their designated region to get a specific type.
Therefore, you can only get the Suica in the Tokyo or Sendai area. You can get it at every JR ticket office (midori no madoguchi), ticket vending machines or at JR Travel Centers.
If you don’t feel like waiting until you arrive in Japan, there is also the possibility to order it online.
The card is valid for 10 years after its last usage. So, if you’re a regular like me with at least one trip planned a year, you could possibly hold onto it indefinitely (unless it breaks or something).
For online purchase, I recommend getting it from Simcardgeek.com. They offer free worldwide delivery and precharge the card with 2,000 Yen (15,50€/$18), making it ready to use for the first few days in Tokyo. This option is perfect if you want to skip the lines and the hassle of getting the card at the airport or at a train station. In addition, Simcardgeek also offers very affordable Sim cards to hook you up with mobile internet.
Buying your Suica card
The process is not hard at all.
If you have a voucher for the JR Pass or plan on getting one (before the trial period ends in March 2019), you can do it in one swoop, it worked perfectly for me.
As stated earlier, get it as soon as possible to make use of its convenience. Many of you will arrive at either Narita (成田) or Haneda airport in Tokyo. Search for the JR office there.
All you really need to do is tell the receptionist that you want to buy a Suica card. They will prepare it for you and ask you one question about its starting balance.
Cost of IC-Cards
You see, the price of the card starts at 1,000 Yen (7,70€/$9.10) and can be as high as 5,000 Yen (38€/$45). Regardless of the total price, there is always a 500 Yen (3,85€/$4.55) deposit included as a base fare. If you return the card after your trip (only do this if you don’t plan on coming back to Japan within the next 10 years) you will get this deposit back.
The rest of the price really isn’t a price itself, it’s just the card balance. You have to start with a minimum of 500 Yen as a starting balance but can charge up to 4,500 Yen (35€/$41) (this is when you buy it, when you recharge it at a ticket machine you can go as high as 10,000 Yen (77€/$91)) if you wish.
If you’re travelling with kids, be told that there is a children version of the card. It costs the same to start up but will be programmed to calculate the children ticket fare when riding a train.
That’s the whole magic. You will receive a sheet and a flyer with tips on its usage and off you go. The card is usable immediately.
Where can I use IC-Cards?
As of 2013, the IC-Cards are compatible with each other.
Now, remember the list of the major cards I gave you above? I mentioned which region(s) every card is responsible for. Put all of these regions together and you have a general idea where an IC-Card is usable.
Most major cities are of course part of this area. More rural areas will most likely not have this option available.
Keep in mind that there are always exceptions, even in bigger cities. There may be private railway or bus companies that won’t accept IC-Cards or only a specific type.
In that case, asking the staff is the only option to make sure.
That being said, for your local travel within Tokyo, Kyoto and the likes, you really don’t need to worry about it.
IC-Cards on long-distance travel
Recently, there have also been some changes in the long-distance travel section, making some Shinkansen rides available to IC-Cards:
- There is now a possibility to use major IC-Cards like Suica, Pasmo or Icoca for the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka.
With this you can purchase Shinkansen tickets online and use your IC-Card to get through the ticket gates. The registered credit card will be charged with the ticket fare.
Using this method will grant you a 200 Yen (1,54€/$1.82) discount on every ticket.
- Some selected trains from Tokyo to stations like Nasu-Shiobara can also be paid via IC-Card. For this to work, the card has to be registered for this option at a ticket machine beforehand.
- Other than these two services, no Shinkansen ride can currently (as of August 2018) be paid with an IC-Card.
There are some limited Express trains, particularly those that lead out of a bigger city, where only the base fare can be paid with an IC-Card. The supplement fare needs to be paid via a separate ticket.
How do I recharge IC-Cards?
This is fairly simple. You can recharge an IC-Card at any ticket vending machine at any train station. Bigger stations mostly have an English version available.
Important note: While the different kinds of cards are compatible in use, there are some vending machines that only allow a specific type of IC-Card to be charged.
I stumbled upon one in Nara (奈良), but there were machines with all types available not far from the first one.
Simply slide the card into the designated slit and await the machines action. You will see a screen where it tells you to either “Charge (チャージ)” or “see balance (バランス)” (the balance is displayed already most of the time). Tab “Charge” and it will ask you which amount.
Usually, it starts with 1,000 Yen (7,70€/$9.10) and goes up in intervals of 1,000 Yen. Some machines also accept 500 Yen, and if you’re lucky you may even find one where you can enter a custom amount, where sometimes even coins are accepted (coin hoarding can be a real pain on your trip!)
Tab the desired amount, enter the money and take your card back once it’s finished. All done.
Every time you pass through a ticket gate and tab your card on the scanner, your remaining card balance is displayed. This makes it easy for you to see when it’s time to recharge.
If the balance drops below 1,000 Yen, the amount is specially highlighted on the display.
Discount over regular tickets
In general, there is no discount in comparison to regular tickets.
However, ticket prices are usually rounded to the next higher number, meaning if a fare would normally cost 388 Yen, the ticket costs 390 Yen (3€/$3.55).
IC-Cards do not round up, thus calculate the unrounded fare. As a result, you can sometimes save up to 9 Yen (0,07€/$0.08) per ticket depending on its rounding.
Other types of usage
Until now, you have learnt about the system’s unrivaled convenience in public transport travel.
But what if I told you there are even more options to use it?
Many vending machines, convenience stores (コンビニ) and coin lockers can be paid with an IC-Card. There are even some restaurants and other stores that accept this kind of payment.
This is huge. Even though I haven’t made much use of this feature yet (mostly because I always want to get rid of my abundance of pocket change), it’s very useful.
Imagine running around in a train station because you want to make a train that leaves in about 2 minutes, but you’re also in desperate need for some water.
Look for the first vending machine, tab your IC-Card and choose your drink. Amazing.
I hope you could gather how awesome such an IC-Card is from my passionate description.
As I already mentioned at least 3 times, get it as soon as possible!
There is literally no downside to it and it will make your life so much easier!
Definitely make this a top priority of things to get once in Japan.
The peace of mind it provides for not having to bust it out with every ticket vending machine at each and every train station is very satisfying.
That should do it for this article. With this information, you are good to go!
Thank you very much for reading! Don’t hesitate to share it with your friends if you found it useful!