Written by Hilary Keyes
IC Cards - Everything You Need To Make Travels In Japan Run Smoothly
Constantly having to stop and buy train or bus tickets can be tedious work - why not skip all that with a convenient IC card issued by one of Japan's many transportation companies? You can even use them to shop and dine outside the station too!
Travel expenses are an important part of any travel budget - in many cases, you can spend more on getting from Point A to Point B than you do on sightseeing itself if you have a long list of must see spots. Buses, trains and taxis are all vital means of sightseeing in Japan, so it's a good idea to be comfortable with how they work before arriving in the country.
Getting Around Without Buying Tickets - Japan's IC Cards
One of the biggest hassles that come with traveling is having to stop and buy train or bus tickets constantly - especially if you aren't familiar with the language.
In Japan, the public transportation system has taken care of this by utilizing IC cards. These prepaid cards have a chip in them that, when scanned by the appropriate machine, will deduct the necessary fee to cover your ticket fare or other costs.
There are more than ten different types of IC cards found across Japan, and these cards can only be purchased in their respective regions.
Suica and Pasmo are the IC cards most often used in the Tokyo area and eastern Japan. The only difference between them is that they are issued by different companies, which means that if you want to return the card at the end of your trip and receive a refund, you can only do it at specific places. For Suica, you can go to any JR East office or ticket counter. For Pasmo, you should go to any ticket office that is not JR.
Otherwise, you can use either Suica or Pasmo on any train, subway or bus line in the Tokyo area and eastern Japan.
Here is a list of other regional IC cards:
Icoca: purchasable at JR West trains in Kansai, plus Okayama and Hiroshima, and usable in all regions of Japan.
Pitapa: available for purchase at Kansai railway and subway operators other than JR (** postpaid card, not easy to use in other regions).
Toica: available for purchase at JR Central trains in Nagoya and surrounding area, plus part of Shizuoka prefecture, and usable in all regions of Japan.
Manaca: available for purchase at Nagoya's train, subway and bus operators other than JR and Kintetsu, and usable in all regions of Japan.
Hayakaken: purchasable at the Fukuoka Subway in Fukuoka city and usable throughout Japan.
Sugoca: purchasable at JR Kyushu for Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Oita, and Nagasaki regions, and usable in all regions of Japan.
Nimoca: issued at Nishitetsu trains and buses in Fukuoka and its surroundings, plus some cities in Kyushu and in Hakodate. Nimoca can be used in all regions of Japan.
Kitaca: available for purchase at JR Hokkaido trains, plus subways, buses and trams in the Sapporo and surrounding areas, and available for use throughout all regions of Japan.
*Most regional IC cards are usable throughout Japan, but there are train lines and areas where certain IC cards will not work.
How Do I Get One, and Put Money On It?
These IC cards can be purchased from any major train station, especially one that has a specially colored machine. There may only be one machine like this at a given station however, so you might have to wait in line for it during peak travel times.
Each IC card costs 500 yen, which is nonrefundable, so if you are going to be purchasing a card for the first time, you should put at least 2000 yen on it. That way, you will have 1500 yen in travel money already on your card when it is finished.
For extra security or to keep it as a souvenir when you head back home, you may want to consider making it a personalized card. That way, your name, age, and other information will be printed on the front of the card.
While using your IC card might seem quite simple - just touching the card to the scanner - there are also different lights and sounds that will play if there is a problem with your card. To find out more about these problems, and what to do, read How To Use A Suica Card - Going Through The Ticket Gates.
IC Card Emergencies - Stay Calm!
After traveling a bit, you may find that those alarms go off when you try to enter or exit the gate - don't panic! Simply head to your nearest ticket, or fare adjustment machine (which are indicated with yellow signs inside the gate), and follow the instructions provided on the machine.
Most of the machines in larger cities have a multilingual menu, but if not, Not Enough Money On Your Suica? How To Pay The Rest Of Your Fare has detailed instructions on how to refill your card. If you don't have any bills on you at the time, there is also a way to pay your remaining fare in ten yen increments as well.
Another emergency you may face is what to do if your card goes missing. Unfortunately, if you have a standard card, you are just going to have to get a new one, which means another 500 yen fee.
If you did get a personalized card though, you are in luck. First, you'll need to head to your nearest major train station, identify your card (bring your passport so the staff can confirm your information), then order your new card. In the case you have lost your Suica, the charge will be 1010 yen (deducted from the balance on your now cancelled old card) and will be ready the next day. For more on this process, read Don't Panic! Reissue Your Lost Suica Card! However, keep in mind that the process of retrieving a new IC card after losing it varies depending on the type of card you have.
Using the Cards - Where Do They Work And What Can They Do?
As of 2013, the majority of these cards have teamed up, enabling users to travel from one region to another via a single IC card, however, this may not be the case for all cards between all regions. Otherwise, just look for the symbol shown in the photo above, and you should be able to use your chosen IC card.
While IC cards in general can't be used to purchase shinkansen (bullet train) tickets, from September 2017, some IC cards are now accepted on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Hakata.
IC cards are an incredibly useful item to have when in Japan. You can use them to buy paper tickets for train trips, use them for coin lockers in train stations, and to purchase drinks and snacks from vending machines and kiosks inside stations.
Not only that, but cards may be used at convenience stores, some shops, and at certain restaurants outside of the stations as well to pay for purchases - actually, there are some sightseeing and tourist-related spots that will even give you a discount if you use one of these cards instead to pay for your purchases.
New from February 2018 - Central Japan Travel Card
One more card is joining those above from February 1st, 2018. The Central Japan Travel Card is a prepaid IC card that covers the Chubu region of Japan, and can also be used when traveling in buses and taxis around Japan as well.
If you will be traveling in Aichi, Fukui, Gifu, Ishikawa, Mie, Nagano, Shiga, Shizuoka or Toyama, you may want to pick one of these up as the first run of these cards are sure to make great collector's items as well. To learn more about this card, visit their official website.
Refund Your Card Before Leaving Japan
If you aren't into keeping your IC card as a souvenir, then you have the option to refund it instead. You can only refund your IC card at a major station that accepts/issues that type of card, so if you purchase a Suica in Tokyo but will be flying back home from Osaka, you won't be able to get a refund on your Suica card.
The refund that you receive is the balance on your card, plus the 500 yen fee you paid when first getting it - minus a 220 yen commission. So:
Refundable Amount = Remaining Balance - Commission Fee (220 yen) + Deposit (500 yen)
For more about the refund procedure, please see Refund Your Suica Before Going Home!
Make Your Japan Trip as Convenient as Possible With an IC Card!
An IC can be one of the most beneficial items to have on hand when traveling in Japan. You never know when you might need it to travel, buy a quick drink or snack, or even get you a nice discount in a shop! Pick one up at the station nearest your port of entry, and make your travels go that much smoother.