The Japan Rail Pass Is Getting Even Better in 2020: Everything You Need to Know About the New Upgrades

The Japan Rail Pass, also known as the JR Pass, allows visitors to Japan to take advantage of Japan’s excellent rail system at a steep discount. This convenient pass allows for unlimited travel on Japan’s bullet train network, as well as a range of other train, bus, and ferry routes, but there are still some pain points for visitors when it comes to buying and using the pass. In the spring of 2020, the Japan Rail Pass system will see some significant upgrades set to make the process much more convenient for international visitors. Read on to learn more about the coming changes and how they can improve your next trip to Japan!

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How Does the Japan Rail Pass Work?

Currently, visitors who want to buy a Japan Rail Pass need to buy an exchange order from a seller in their home country before arriving in Japan. This exchange order is valid for 90 days, during which it must be redeemed for a rail pass at a JR ticket office (Midori no Madoguchi) in Japan. Since March 2019, passes have also been available for sale on a trial basis from some major train stations in Japan, but they cost around 10% more.

Visitors can choose from 7 day, 14 day, or 21 day validity periods, during which pass holders can enjoy unlimited travel on bullet trains, JR trains, and a number of other lines. Japan's bullet train is arguably the best way to move around in Japan, but it's not cheap. So, if you plan to cover a fair amount of ground during your trip, the Japan Rail Pass can quickly add up to some amazing savings.

The Japan Rail Pass is available only for international visitors to Japan; unfortunately, Japanese residents can’t take advantage. If you live in Japan, check out our article about Flex Rail Tickets, a new bullet train discount that foreign residents can use, too! We also have an article that goes more into depth on the Japan Rail Pass, which you can read here (note: It has not been updated to reflect the spring 2020 updates). If you just want to purchase the pass online, we recommend buying through Voyagin, an official partner of JR Rail. (Note: You will be purchasing the pass using the old (i.e. before the spring 2020 updates) method, so we cannot guarantee that the spring 2020 changes will apply to the pass, even if you receive the physical copy of the pass after the updates.)

What’s Changing with the Japan Rail Pass In 2020?

The upgrades to the Japan Rail Pass system will start in the spring of 2020, just in time for the influx of visitors expected for the Tokyo Olympics. These changes are designed to make the process simpler for visitors through the use of a multilingual website that supports English, Chinese (traditional and simplified), and Korean, as well as some upgrades to the pass system itself.

The new website is scheduled to open around April, so we're expecting more information about the buying process to be released by Japan Rail in the coming months.

No More Exchange Orders

The exchange order system that has been in place up until now added a sometimes inconvenient step for people who wanted to buy a pass. From spring 2020, Japan Rail Pass users will be able to buy their pass directly on the new website without needing to visit a travel agent or have an exchange order posted to their home address. After buying online, they can then pick the pass up at a JR ticket office once arriving in Japan.

Simplified Reserved Seat Bookings

On Japanese bullet trains, there are two types of seating options: non-reserved or reserved. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can simply jump on non-reserved carriages without needing to book a seat. This is not a problem most of the time - in fact, the ability to catch any train gives you a lot of flexibility. However, if you're traveling during a busy period, knowing that you have your seats secured can also be worth the surcharge.

Under the current system, Japan Rail Pass customers need to go to a JR ticket window to book a reserved seat on bullet trains. From the spring of 2020, Japan Rail Pass customers will be able to book these reserved seats online or get one from a ticket machine at bullet train stations. Some travelers to Japan don't realize that if the bullet trains are full, you may have to stand for your entire ride, split your group up into different carriages, or even wait in line at the station until a spot opens up. This easier way to reserve a seat will hopefully help people make their bookings well in advance and travel with peace of mind.

Quicker Travel with Automatic Ticket Gates

Another welcome change coming this year is the fact that Japan Rail Passes will now be able to be used at regular automatic ticket gates. Currently, users need to show their pass to a staff member at the manned station gates each time they travel. Since the Japan Rail Pass can be used on local JR trains as well as bullet trains, potentially being caught in a line at the manned gate multiple times a day can quickly get old. This new improvement will allow you to zip through the gates like a local.

Even Easier Train Travel in Japan!

Unlimited travel on Japan's amazing bullet train network at a huge discount is a hard deal to pass up! Even so, the Japan Rail Pass system can present a bit of information overload when you first start learning about all the details. Japan Rail's new website and general improvements to the system will make the system just a little more frictionless for visitors, and just in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Now, the Japan Rail Pass can work out to be an excellent deal, but depending on your travel plans, it actually doesn't always work out to be cheaper! If you want to know more about the bullet train network and get an idea of what is the best option for you, please check out our Perfect Guide to Shinkansen!

Header image credit: antb / Shutterstock.com

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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