Public transportation in Japan is fast, efficient, and safe, so you will highly likely be using the trains, metros, and buses often during your trip in Japan. Buying single tickets for every ride can be a hassle and even a bit complicated, so we recommend everyone who will use public transportation in Japan at least 3 times to get an IC card.
How to Get an IC Card in Japan
If your trip starts in Tokyo, you can get a Suica or Pasmo card. There is no difference between the two when it comes to usage, so you can get either one. If your trip would start in Osaka or elsewhere the card will be called different, but just like with the Suica and Pasmo, there is no difference in how you use it. You will put cash on the card using the ticket machine, and each time you check-in and then check out the correct fare will be deducted from your balance. When your balance is running low, you can recharge the card at almost any ticket machine.
It is easiest to just buy the card at the first train or metro station you use while in Japan. This is probably going to be the station at the airport or the station nearest to your hotel. Find the ticket machines, find the one that mentions Pasmo or Suica, or just try pressing the ‘English’ button on the machine to find out if it dispenses IC cards. Once you find a machine that dispenses them, you press the button that says ‘get a new IC card’ or something similar, and you can just follow the instructions. You can choose how much money you want to put on the card yourself, so we recommend you to choose the amount that you expect to use without your first few days. One ride within the city usually costs between 200-300 yen. You can get the blank card, as getting the personalized card is only possible with a Japanese phone number.
You will pay a one-time 500 yen deposit when you buy the card to be deducted from the amount you choose to put on your card, from which you can get 250 yen back if you return the card to one of the station offices before you leave Japan. That can, however, be a bit of a hassle so, in that case, it is good to know that the card is valid for 10 years, and you can give it to someone else who travels to Japan as it is not tied to a person.
Please be aware that you have to buy the card and top it off with cash, credit cards can only be used for purchasing commuter passes that are valid for one month or longer and not worth it for tourists.
How to Use an IC Card in Japan
Using your IC card is very easy, you just have to lightly touch the indicated space on the entrance gate to check in, and do the same upon check out. If you switch to a different line on the way, you sometimes need to check in one extra time. In the bus, you will usually only need to check in if there is a flat fare, and check in and check out if there is a diverse fare.
If the light goes red and the alarm sounds when you check out, you either don’t have enough money on your card or something went wrong when you checked in. In this case, don’t panic but just go to the window with the station employee and show them your card. They will ask you which station you came from and charge the right amount of money from your card. If there is not enough money you can sometimes pay them at the window, or they will send you to the machine near the ticket gates to have you top up your card. There is no fine associated with this.
You can see how much is still on the card when checking in and when checking out. If the balance goes low, it is a good idea to top up the card when you get the chance to avoid having the alarm go off when you try to check out.
IC cards can not just be used for riding public transportation in Japan, but can also be used for paying in many restaurants, convenience stores, shops, and even vending machines. So if you are near the end of your holiday and you still have some balance on your card, it is easy to empty it by buying some food and drinks at a convenience store before you leave.