Suica, Pasmo, Icoca and seven more of Japan's most popular IC cards were made compatible with each other in 2013. As a result, it is possible to travel on almost all trains, subways and buses in most of Japan's largest cities with just a single of these cards.
What is an IC card?
IC cards are rechargeable cards that can be used to conveniently pay fares on public transportation and to make payments at a rapidly increasing number of vending machines, shops and restaurants by simply touching the card on a reader for about one second. More than two dozen train and bus operators across Japan have started issuing their own IC cards since 2001.
What are the ten major IC cards?
The following ten major IC cards are compatible with each other:
What is covered and what is not?
- Travel outside or between IC card areas
It is not possible to travel outside IC card areas. Both, the origin and destination stations have to be located inside the IC card's coverage area. Furthermore, it is not possible to use an IC card to travel between disjoined IC card areas (except when using shinkansen trains; see details below). For example, you cannot use it to travel between Tokyo and Sendai.
Until recently, shinkansen trains could not be used with regular IC cards; however, the situation has started to change:
- On the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen
It is now possible to use IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. In order to do so, an IC card and a credit card have to be registered on an English app or a Japanese website. Afterwards, it is possible to purchase shinkansen tickets online and use the registered IC card to pass through the shinkansen ticket gates. Fares are discounted by 200 yen when using this service and are charged to the registered credit card rather than subtracted from the IC card's balance. Unfortunately, the English app is currently available only in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. Note also that Japan Rail Pass users will not be able to use this system to make seat reservations.
- On the Tohoku/Joetsu/Hokuriku Shinkansen near Tokyo
In April 2018, it became possible to use regular IC cards, including Suica, Pasmo and Icoca, on non-reserved seats of shinkansen trains between Tokyo and as far as Nasu-Shiobara on the Tohoku Shinkansen, Jomo Kogen on the Joetsu Shinkansen and Annaka Haruna on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Before you can use an IC card on these shinkansen trains, the card has to be registered at a ticket machine for this service, which is known as the "Touch de Go" service. Fares will be subtracted from the IC card's balance.
- On other shinkansen trains
Regular IC cards can generally not be used on shinkansen trains other than the ones mentioned above. The "Mobile Suica" app can be used on mobile phones to ride the shinkansen in eastern and northern Japan; however, the app is only available in Japanese and on phones that support the Osaifu Keitai functionality.
- On the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen
- Other trains requiring a supplement fee
When riding other trains that require a supplement fee, such as limited express trains, travelers can use the IC card to pay the base fare when passing through the ticket gates, but they need to purchase the supplement ticket separately at a ticket machine, ticket office or online.
- Highway Buses
Most highway buses cannot be paid by IC card.
The table below shows in more detail the coverage of the IC cards:
= can be used
= cannot be used
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How to use IC cards?
When passing automatic ticket gates, touch the card onto the card reader for about one second (rather than inserting it into the ticket slot). The applicable fare will be automatically deducted when you exit through the ticket gate at your destination station. When riding buses, card readers are placed at the entrance and/or exit of the bus. A card cannot be shared by multiple travelers at the same time.
Is there a discount over regular tickets?
IC cards generally do not provide any discounts over regular tickets. But in Greater Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai, train fares can differ by a few yen depending on whether an IC card or a regular ticket is used. This is because fares are rounded to the nearest ten yen in case of regular tickets, but not rounded in case of IC cards. Around central Tokyo, payment by IC card is always cheaper than payment by regular fares (by up to nine yen), but outside of central Tokyo, either ticket type can be up to five yen cheaper than the other.
Where to get an IC card?
IC cards can be purchased at ticket machines and ticket counters at the corresponding railway stations. The initial cost consists of a refundable deposit of 500 yen plus an initial amount (typically 1500 yen) to be charged onto the card.
Which IC card shall I get?
The IC cards are virtually identical to each other in terms of coverage. The cards mainly differ on where they can be purchased and refunded. Therefore, most people will want to purchase the card available in the first city where they arrive, e.g. Suica or Pasmo in Tokyo or Icoca in Osaka.
How to recharge IC cards?
IC cards can be recharged at ticket machines and special re-charging machines found at railway stations and other strategically meaningful locations. They can also be recharged at stations of companies other than the issuing company, e.g. Suica can also be recharged in Osaka or Fukuoka. The maximum amount to be charged onto a card is 20,000 yen.
How to check the current balance?
The current credit balance is shown on a small display whenever you pass a ticket gate or make a payment at a store. Furthermore, the balance can be checked at ticket machines together with a usage history.
How to get back the 500 yen refundable deposit?
Bring your card to the ticket counter of the issuing operator in order to get back your 500 yen deposit. Unused credit can also be refunded, however, most companies will subtract a 220 yen handling fee from the remaining balance to be refunded (no handling fee is charged in case of Pasmo cards). Note that IC cards can only be returned to the issuing company, e.g. it is not possible to return a Suica card in Osaka or an Icoca card in Tokyo.
Is there an expiry date?
Cards become invalid if they are not used for ten years.
Besides regular cards, there are personalized cards which can be replaced if lost (500 yen handling fee applies), commuter cards which also serve as a commuter pass, and cards for children.
The number of vending machines, shops, restaurants and other services that accept IC cards for payment has been rapidly increasing across Japan, especially inside and around large urban railway stations. IC cards are also accepted at a growing number of chain stores, including most leading convenience store chains.
There are various credit cards that double as a transport company's IC card. Some of them come with an option to automatically recharge the card when the remaining balance gets low. These credit cards are only available to residents of Japan.
Mobile phone applications
Selected mobile phone models can be set up to serve as a Suica card, using the "Mobile Suica" app (available in Japanese only) or through registering a Suica card with Apple Pay.