If you plan on visiting Japan, an IC card will definitely be the best traveling companion to take with you! This simple yet very convenient item allows you to pay basic public transportation and make purchases at various stores without having to fumble with a single coin.

This article will cover everything you need to know to get your own card and how to use it.

What is an IC Card?

In Japan, IC cards (Integrated Circuit Cards) are rechargeable prepaid e-money cards primarily used to pay for public transport such as trains and buses. There are many types of Japanese IC cards (Suica, Pasmo, Icoca, etc.) mainly run by the Japan Rail Group and other operators throughout the country.
Being the perfect tool to move around, they are very popular among Japanese and overseas visitors alike. One of the biggest advantages of using IC cards is that you don’t need to bother with buying tickets. They also enable you to make smooth transfers from railway to railway regardless of the train company.
In addition to travel, IC cards are also used for shopping and allow easy contactless payments.

What are the major IC cards?

Each region of Japan has its own card, and each card can only be purchased in its original region. Here are the major ones:

IC CardDescription
SuicaCertainly, the most popular among Japanese IC cards, Suica cards are for JR East (Japan Railway East). They are available for purchase in Niigata, Sendai and Kanto (Greater Tokyo) areas.
PasmoPasmo cards are run by the Tokyo Metro Company. This company is mainly in charge of the Tokyo subway and buses which are not related to the JR Group. These cards are available in the Greater Tokyo area.
IcocaIcoca is issued by JR West, meaning the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto), Chugoku and Hokuriku areas.
KitacaIt is run by JR Hokkaido and covers mainly the public transportation of Sapporo city and its surroundings.
ToicaToica is the IC card for JR central, including Nagoya, as well as parts of Shizuoka.
SugokaThe regional IC card of Kyushu. It covers trains in the Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Oita and Nagasaki areas.
ManacaThe Manaca card is for users of main public transportation around Nagoya city which are not run by the JR Group.
HayakakenHayakaken is the IC card associated with the subway of Fukuoka city in Kyushu.
NimocaIt is issued by the Nishi-Nippon Railroad (or Nishitestu) for the buses and trains in Fukuoka prefecture.
PitapaThis IC card differs from others because it is not a prepaid card but a post-pay one. It covers mainly the Kansai area (Osaka/Kyoto) as well as some parts of Okayama, Shizuoka and Hiroshima prefectures.

Where can I use my IC card? 

IC Cards were originally intended to pay fares only on train systems back when they first started appearing around 2001. Nonetheless, they have now expanded their reach across most major cities and work on almost all public transportation such as trains, buses, subways and streetcars. Note that highway and night buses are not included and often require purchasing tickets in advance. 
However, it is no recommended to use an IC card when it comes to take the Japanese bullet train, also known as Shinkansen. In fact, IC cards only work for a few ones such as the Tokaido-Sanyo, and need some preparation beforehand to actually be usable.

Furthermore, some special trains such as the ¨express¨ and ¨limited express¨ will require you to buy an additional ticket on top of using an IC card. The same goes for Green Cars, the JR ¨first class¨ cars with a green logo.

Which IC card covers which area?

Since 2013, the operators of the 10 cards listed previously made it possible to use these cards almost everywhere in Japan. In other words, no matter which card you own, it will be compatible with the other 9 transportation systems.

An IC card will enable you to easily transfer between train lines without having to purchase a new ticket each time you make a connection, but only within the same area. For example, if you own a Suica and you start your trip from Tokyo, your destination needs to be inside the Suica covered area, in this case the Greater Tokyo, Niigata or Sendai region.
It goes without saying that it is not possible to use IC cards outside of the above 10 cards’ covered areas because the rest of the country is not equipped to support such system.

Where to get an IC card?

IC cards are available for purchase in most major JR and other train stations. You can choose to buy it directly at a ticket counter.
Another option would be to use a ticket vending machine. Instructions are available in English and easy to understand. A new IC card will cost you a minimum of 2000 yen: 500 yen of deposit and 1500 yen of credit to be used for your next trip. Of course, you can also choose to add more. 
Note that since transportation fares are not the same for children under 12, their IC cards also differ. You can only buy them through the ticket office at the train station (Your child’s passport will be needed for age verification). Travel is free for up to 2 children below 6 years old. Any additional child will cost you half of the regular fare.

How to use it an IC Card?

To use your IC card at a train station, simply place it on top of the card reader, wait for the clicking sound, and the gates will open. The fare for the ride will be automatically deducted from your card once you exit the gates of your final destination station.
If the gates won’t open, chances are you don’t have enough money to pay for the full fare. Just head towards the fare adjustment machines located nearby and recharge your IC card.
To use your IC card on a bus, place it flat against the card reader as you board, and once again when you get off.

How to top it up?

There are ticket machines in most train stations where you can recharge your IC card. You just have to insert your card, chose your language and follow the on-screen instructions. All types of IC cards can be recharged without a problem via ticket machines as long as they display the ¨IC¨ logo. Always remember to take some cash with you because Japanese ticket machines don’t accept credit cards.
It is also possible to recharge it in the bus; however, you need to ask the driver to do it for you, which is not always ideal.

How to check your IC Card Balance?

Tickets and fare adjustment machines are available at every station. These will allow you to make fare adjustments, add money or check your IC card balance. Ticket machines also give you the possibility to print your balance history.

How to get back my refundable deposit and unused credits?

When you leave Japan, go to a ticket office of a major station located in the area where the card was first issued, then return your IC card. They will give you back your 500¥ deposit and remaining credit, minus an additional 220¥ fee. If your unused credit is less than 500¥, you do not have to pay the 220¥ fee.

Is there an expiry date?

A regular IC card becomes invalid if it is not used at least once in 10 years. Special versions of Suica (Welcome Suica) and Pasmo (Pasmo passport) for foreign tourists are only valid for 4 weeks.

Which IC card should I pick? Suica vs Pasmo

As mentioned earlier, Japanese IC cards can only be purchased from their respective covered area and the same goes for returning them.
If you are coming to Japan and leaving via the Haneda or Narita airports, you only have two options, either a Suica card or a Pasmo. Suica cards do cover larger areas which makes them your best bet.
When it comes to the Osaka or Kansai International airports, you might want to go for an Icoca. It is the most used IC card in the region.

Using an IC card as a mean of payment

IC cards are a convenient way to shop without bothering with cash. You can use them to buy your next meal at a convenience store, rent coin lockers, or even purchase drinks from vending machines.
Most restaurants and shops inside stations also accept IC cards as a method of payment. Just scan the card on the reader in front of the cashier and voilà!

Using your IC card through your phone or your smart watch

Back in 2006, Suica was the first IC card to introduce digital payments through mobile phones. Years later, Pasmo operators managed to launch their own payment system in 2020. Icoca is also planning to do the same by 2023.
Indeed, phones and smart watches are an easy way to keep track of your card balance and make payments without having to carry around extra cards. Unfortunately, the chances of short-term visitors to be using these digital services during their trip around Japan are slim to none. In fact, the set-up of these applications requires both your phone to be equipped with “Osaifu-keitai” (a different mobile technology rarely found in foreign phones) and you to be already living in Japan.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of what IC cards are and how they work in Japan. Easy to obtain and use, these ¨magical cards¨ are a must if you want to save time and make your trip as pleasant as possible.