In planning your trip to Japan you may have come across something called an ICOCA, PASMO or Suica card and wondered what they are and more importantly whether you need one.
What is an IC card and should I get one?
Starting with the basics, ICOCA, PASMO and Suica are all IC cards. IC cards in short are prepaid travel cards valid on nearly all kinds of transport, in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and many mostly anywhere these days. The whole idea about them is to make life convenient. Just swipe it over the ticket gate each time you enter or exit the train platform and the corresponding amount is deducted of the card, there’s no need to buy tickets, figure out the right fare or queue up.
Which IC card should I get?
We often get the question, should I get a PASMO or SUICA card? The short answer is, both do the same thing and it does not matter. A slightly longer answer is that: In the past each area in Japan had its own IC card, sometimes multiple with each company developing there own. For instance JR East had Suica, Pasmo was developed by many non JR railway lines in the Tokyo region and ICOCA is owned by JR West. There are many more such as Manaca, Hayakaken, Nimoca, Kitaca, PiTaPa…the list goes on!
As of 2013 IC are usable interchangeably, making all cards compatible with each other. Just get one and you are good to go!
Where do I get an IC card?
IC cards can be purchased at most stations, though they are generally only sold trough manned ticket windows. The standard price is 2,000yen, which includes a 1,500yen travel credit and a 500yen refundable deposit. There are also special deals that may include a discounted train ticket, such as the Haruka and ICOCA package
What else can I use my IC card for?
Outside of transport IC cards can be used in major cities for payment in convenient stores, vending machines, coin lockers (effectively becoming IC card lockers), taxi’s and restaurants.
Are there things an IC card can’t be used for?
There are limitations on the usage of IC cards, for instance cash is still king in more rural areas and normal tickets will have to be purchased there. IC cards can’t be used on the Shinkansen or to pay for ltd. express train fares. Additionally, high way buses and airport transfers generally do not accept IC cards.
Having a JR Pass, do I still need an IC card?
Remember that your Japan Rail Pass already covers you for travel on the circular Tokyo subway JR Yamanote Line, but not the 13 subway lines which run off this. So an IC card can definitely come in handy, even with a JR Pass. Worse case, you spend the credit on a Latte at Starbucks instead of transport!
Lastly some handy tips:
-There’s no need to worry about balance, even if a trips turns out more expensive that you may have thought, simply pay the difference upon arrival. There are no penalties.
-Cards remain valid for 15 years after last use, keep it for your next Japan trip.
-Want to impress your friends by paying in a store with your IC card? Just tell the clerk: “IC Kado de onegai shimasu” and he’ll know what’s up!
photo Karl Baron