One of the first things you want to buy when you get to Japan is probably a prepaid IC card like Suica and Pasmo to get around. You can avoid having to buy tickets for every trip on the train or bus, and the contactless smart cards are rechargeable and so convenient. Not only can you use it for transportation, you can use it to shop at certain stores and vending machines.

How does it work?

The IC cards in Japan are contactless smart cards that act as prepaid electronic money and fare card used throughout the country. Once the card is charged, you can use it anywhere it is accepted, simply by scanning it over the machine. When the transaction goes through, the card reader shows you how much you have left on your card.

For the train system, you scan the card at the ticket wicket when you enter and when you depart, and when you change lines if applicable. Be careful as sometimes there are different colored machines for transfer only. The cheapest route will be calculated once you exit.

If you don’t have enough left on your card, the small doors will close on your way out. But don’t panic! There’s always a charging machine nearby to top up. If something is wrong with your card, you can always go see the station staff at the window next to the machines. Sometimes there are issues scanning, and the station staff are used to it, they’ll know what to do right away if you show them your card.

Some stores inside and outside near the train stations, many konbini, vending machines and other stores accept payment with these prepaid IC cards in Japan. Taxis and buses also accept these cards for payment. Just check at certain stores if they have the card reader at the cashier.

Suica transportation card

Different IC cards depending on the region

All the major regions in Japan have different IC cards: Suica and Pasmo in Kanto, Icoca and PiTaPa in Kansai, Kitaca in Hokkaido, Toica and Manaka in Chubu, Hayaken, Nimoca and Sugoca in Kyushu, etc. Before, it was necessary to buy the different cards when traveling around Japan, however, since 2013, the cards are all compatible with each other, so whichever one you get, you can use everywhere in Japan.

The difference is just the issuing company. For example, in Tokyo, Suica is sold by JR, or Japan Railways, and Pasmo is sold by Tokyo Metro. JR Kyushu sells Sugoca, whereas the city of Fukuoka offers the Hayaken. Even though the cards can all be used around Japan, where you buy it will determine which card you get.

When you leave Japan, you can always keep it for use when you come back. If not, you can get your charged money back plus the ¥500 cost of the card at the airport or at any train station when you return it.

Train ticket machines in Japan

How do you buy a card?

It’s very easy to get a transport card in Japan, you can get it at any train station. The card you will get will depend on which region you are in, and which train company (JR, for example).

Near the ticket wickets, on both the inside and the outside, you can find card machines where you can buy or charge cards. The machines offer several languages, including English.

The cost of the actual card is ¥500, which is refundable when you return the card. The minimum charge is usually ¥1000 or ¥2000, and you can start using the card once you get it. You don’t need an ID and there is no complicated process in getting a card.

These prepaid IC cards in Japan are so useful and convenient in everything from getting around to buying a can of coffee at a vending machine or a sandwich at a konbini. Make sure you get one as soon as you get to Japan!

For more tips about living in Japan keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.