All local trains in Japan run on IC (Integrated Circuit) Cards. There are different IC Card brands and any of them will work across Japan, but when buying an IC Card in Tokyo, usually the choice is either Suica or Pasmo IC card.
These days everyone in Japan has an IC card, so much so that they have been accepted as a payment method at most stores in Japan. You can use your IC card balance to buy things from convenience stores, vending machines, and even when buying clothes at Uniqlo.
Whenever your IC card balance is running low, you can easily refill the card using cash or a credit card at any train station. So we can all agree that IC cards have made life much easier in Japan.
However, as you may have already heard, there is currently a worldwide semiconductor shortage. This in turn affects the production of IC cards, and there is now a shortage of physical IC cards. A few train companies in Japan, namely JR East (the maker of Suica) and Pasmo have just announced that as of Wednesday, August 2, it will suspend the issuing of ALL physical IC cards until further notice.
What does this mean for tourists? Read on to find out!
What is the difference between Suica and PASMO?
Aside from the obvious difference in branding, there is actually no difference between Suica and Pasmo, or any other IC cards for that matter. All of these IC cards work exactly the same – they rely on chip technology to allow you to tap in and out of each train station in Japan without having to buy a ticket for every trip.
Can I still use IC cards from my previous trip to Japan?
If you had kept your IC Card from your past trips to Japan, then good news for you! Yes, you can still use all existing IC cards. Just make sure they have not expired yet. IC cards have a 10-year validity from the last date of use.
How can I get around Japan without a physical IC card?
Are you visiting Japan soon and don’t have an existing IC card? Here are a few ways to mitigate the issue:
1. Use your iPhone as your IC card (Virtual IC card)
Good news for iPhone users – the IC cards have gone virtual and you can use your phone as an IC card through Apple Pay! You do not need an existing IC card to do this – just the Wallet app that is already on your iPhone will do. This makes everything even more convenient, as you can refill the balance via your phone without even going to the station.
I will elaborate more on how to use a virtual IC Card on an iPhone below 🙂
2. Try to get the foreign tourist “Welcome” IC Cards at the airport in Tokyo
There might still be some foreign tourist IC cards available by both SUICA and Pasmo for 1,500 yen. You can get these cards at the Narita or Haneda airport. Certain stations in Tokyo might also be selling the cards, but they might be out of stock.
You can find more information about each of them here:
The only catch is, unlike the regular IC card which has a long expiry, the tourist-only IC cards will expire within 28 days. There will also be a restriction on how many cards can be bought per person.
3. Get a Toica Card at Tokyo Station
Another lesser-known IC card that is sold in Tokyo is Toica, and there might still be some inventory left in Tokyo! What is the difference between Suica, Pasmo, and Toica? Virtually nothing. Toica will work exactly the same as Pasmo and Suica.
Here is where you can get them in Tokyo:
- Tokyo Station – Go to Counter 2 of the JR Tokai ticket office on the ground floor of Tokyo Station, near the Yaesu North exit
- Shinagawa Station – Go to JR Tokai ticket office near Shinkansen Norh Exit
Click here for more information on where to buy a Toica card. The page is in Japanese, but you can run it through Google Translate.
4. Purchase IC Cards from other regions outside of Tokyo
The good news is that the IC Card shortage seems to only affect Suica and Pasmo for the time being. If you’re visiting other regions in Japan outside of Tokyo, you could still use their IC Cards! All IC Cards can be used across Japan regardless of where it is from.
For example, if you’re visiting Osaka or Kyoto, you could get the ICOCA Card there and use it in other parts of Japan. Similarly, if you’re visiting Hokkaido, you can get the Kitaca IC Card and use it throughout Japan.
The only difference is you may not be able to get the deposit back if you’re using an IC Card from one region and you’re flying out of a different region, but you can always keep the card for your next visit.
5. Use the 72-hour Tokyo subway ticket
You can buy the Tokyo Subway Ticket pass which is available for 24, 48, or 72 hours. They are valid for Tokyo Metro and Toei lines only, not for JR lines. The subway ticket can also be bought as an add-on to Tokyo Pass, making it cheaper than paying for a single train fare each time.
6. Use your Unlimited JR Pass (ONLY if you have it already!)
If you’re planning to visit multiple cities in Japan during your visit, you might already have plans to buy an Unlimited JR Pass. In this case, you could use your Unlimited JR Pass to board local JR trains as well.
However, do this only if you are already planning on getting the Unlimited JR Pass. I do not recommend getting a JR Pass just for traveling on local trains in Japan, because it does not justify the price of a JR Pass.
Tips & Tricks for Using Virtual IC Card with iPhone
1. Reload your Virtual IC Card from your iPhone
One of the best benefits of using a virtual IC Card is that you no longer need to refill the cards at a train station. You can just do it straight from the Wallet app on your iPhone!
There are known issues with refilling the balance from the phone using foreign credit cards that are not issued in Japan. The last time I was in Japan, I had some luck with using my MasterCard credit card, but I could not use my Visa credit card. I heard Amex cards should work as well.
2. Reload your virtual card at the train station with cash
If you face the same payment issue and none of your credit cards work, you can still refill your virtual card at any train station with cash.
To do this, use any train ticket machine, just like how you would refill a physical card. I did find this challenging to do with the phone, because your iPhone needs to be touching the machine and be actively on the Wallet app while it is refilling the balance, or else the balance refill will fail. But it was doable after a few tries with some practice.
3. Getting a balance refund on the virtual IC Card
Keep in mind that IC Cards purchased through Apple Pay on an iPhone cannot be refunded if you don’t have a bank account in Japan, so refill it only to the amount you think you’ll need for your trip.
If you have any balance left at the end of your visit, you could use the balance at a konbini (convenience store) or any other place that takes IC card as a method of payment.
4. Use the Express Travel feature for even greater convenience!
If you enable express travel on the IC card in your phone, you can just tap the phone straight to the ticket gate! No need to wake up your iPhone, or go to the wallet phone, or do anything else. This saves time and makes traveling even more convenient.
To do this, go to your Wallet app on the iPhone. Select the IC Card that you want to use as the default travel card, and click on Card Details. Scroll down and find the button for “Express Travel Settings”. You can then turn on Express Travel and enjoy a faster commute next time!
Here is Apple’s official documentation on Express Travel Mode.
What should I do if I don’t have an iPhone or IC Card?
Unfortunately for Android users, only Android phones bought in Japan can use virtual IC cards. You could try using the Pasmo mobile, but it is only available in the Japanese app store. You could also try buying tourist IC cards with shorter validity when you land at the airport in Tokyo.
Another thing to note, the IC Card shortage seems to only affect the Suica and Pasmo branded cards. There are still plenty of other IC cards that will work across Japan, such as the Toica card I mentioned above. Also, if you going outside of Tokyo, you can still get IC Cards from different regions like ICOCA (to be picked up in Osaka) or Kitaca (to be picked up in Hokkaido), depending on your travel plan. These IC Cards can be used across Japan.
If none of the above options work for you, then… back to the 90s for you. You’ll need to purchase single train tickets at the machine for every single trip you’ll be making. It’s not a bad option, just terribly inconvenient compared to using the IC Card.
As the fares in Japan are calculated based on distance traveled, you’ll need to know exactly which station you’ll get on and off from, find out how much the fare will be (there are fare tables in all stations), and then buy that ticket from the machine.
Paying using your own contactless credit card?
Soon, you may not need to worry about needing IC cards as a means of paying for train tickets in Japan anymore. Nikkei has reported that Tokyo train stations will soon be fitted with machines compatible with contactless credit cards!
This means you can just simply wave your credit card (provided it supports contactless payment), or your smartphone or smartwatch with your credit card stored in it, to go in and out of every station. Make sure foreign transaction is allowed on the cards!
Stay tuned as it is being rolled out in select lines in Tokyo and is planned to be rolled out fully by Spring 2024.
Do children need an IC Card to travel on trains in Japan?
Children aged 5 years old and below do not need to pay for public trains, therefore they do not need an IC card. However, 6 to 12-year-olds have to pay for a child fare, which is 50% of adult fare. If they are above 12, they are considered adults and must pay the adult fare.
Previously you could buy children’s IC cards at any train station, though I am not sure if this has been affected by the shortage. If they are available for purchase you’ll also be asked to provide proof of age so make sure to bring their passports.
Alright, that’s all I know for now! Hope you find this useful.
Until next time 😬