IC Cards in Japan: Essential Tips For Traveling With Suica, Pasmo, and More (2024 Edition)

While flying to Japan is often the easy part, getting around takes a bit of knowledge, especially with the myriad of transportation options at your fingertips. For first-time visitors, questions may abound: Should I buy a train pass, or purchase individual tickets as I need them? Part of the answer lies in the IC card, which is the most convenient way to access Japan’s renowned public transport network while streamlining your shopping and dining. Read our Japanese IC card guide to get moving about Japan like a pro!

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

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What Is a Japanese IC Card?

IC cards in Japan are smart cards that let you pay for rides on trains, buses, and taxis as well as shop with just a simple tap. Japanese IC cards are renowned for their powerful and reliable technology, and purchasing, using, and recharging them is very easy.

IC cards in Japan can be used by both locals and tourists, and there are a plethora of brands available that are largely compatible with each other. Most common are Tokyo’s iconic Suica and Pasmo, along with regional variations such as Icoca around Osaka and Kyoto and Kitaca in Hokkaido.

Caution: Sales of Suica and Pasmo Are Suspended as of May 2024!

Unfortunately, sales of regular Suica and Pasmo IC cards are currently suspended due to a worldwide semiconductor shortage. Thankfully, various IC card options remain available to travelers. These include Welcome Suica for tourists, standard IC cards like Icoca from other parts of Japan, and IC card smartphone apps.

Our Top Tips

Welcome Suica with JR Lines 1-Day Pass

Buy your Welcome Suica IC card online in advance and pick it up when you arrive at Haneda Airport.

Do I Need an IC Card in Japan?

IC cards make getting around Japan on public transport much more convenient. All you need to do is tap your card on the ticket gate reader when entering and exiting the station or bus. While you can purchase paper tickets with each ride, this can be time-consuming and troublesome, particularly during peak hours at major stations. Plus, IC cards often make the fare a few yen cheaper than paper tickets, which can add up over time into a bit of pocket money for heavy users.

Many travelers come to Japan with a Japan Rail Pass, which grants unlimited rides on Japan Rail trains and more. However, even if you have a JR Pass, we still recommend getting an IC card, as you’ll more than likely need to use a private railway, bus, or other service not covered by the JR Pass during your travels (like the Tokyo Metro). With both an IC card and JR Pass in hand, the ease and convenience of traveling Japan increases exponentially.

Our Top Tips

JR Pass for Whole Japan

Explore Japan in the most convenient and economical way with a Japan Rail Pass! It is valid for the majority of railways and local buses operated by JR. 

Moreover, being able to use an IC card in shops and restaurants eases concerns about having on-hand cash, as Japan’s ATMs often shut outside business hours. Auto-charge options also ensure you never run out of credit, although these are generally not available for tourists in Japan.

Which IC Card Should I Get?

Most IC cards in Japan have similar functions and there isn’t much difference. The major IC card brands are all compatible throughout Japan, so you can pick up whichever is easiest for you to get. Many opt for Suica or Pasmo, as they’re sold in Tokyo, but if you’re arriving in Osaka, Fukuoka, Hokkaido, or another Japanese city, don’t hesitate to pick up the local IC card brand instead.

Here are the 10 major IC cards that can be used Japan-wide:
- Kitaca (JR Hokkaido)
- Suica (JR East)
- TOICA (JR Central)
- ICOCA (JR West)
- SUGOCA (JR Kyushu)
- PASMO (PASMO Co., Ltd.)
- Manaca (Nagoya City Transportation Bureau and Meitetsu)
- PiTaPa (Surutto KANSAI)
- Hayakaken (Fukuoka City Transportation Bureau)
- Nimoca (Nishitetsu)

While the above IC cards are largely the same, some have certain quirks, like Toica’s cash-only charging, or Kitaca’s lack of its own point rewards system. Plus, there are also small-scale regional IC cards that only work in designated areas, like the Ryuto card for buses in Niigata, the Kumamon IC Card in Kumamoto, the Aopass for buses in Aomori City, and many more. Most of these services will still accept the 10 major IC cards, so there’s no reason to buy one of these regional varieties unless you’re on an extended stay in the area.

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

Suica vs Pasmo: Tokyo’s IC Card Kings

Let’s take a closer look at Tokyo’s two main IC cards: Suica and Pasmo. Suica is an IC card issued by railway giant JR East, which covers Japan’s Kanto region, composed of Tokyo and 7 other prefectures, along with surrounding areas such as Sendai, Niigata, and Aomori.

Alongside public transport, many restaurants, shops, and stalls throughout Japan allow Suica payments, and users can also earn redeemable points by signing up to JRE POINT (not for tourists). Suica also has a smartphone app called Mobile Suica, Apple Pay and Google Pay compatibility, and auto-charging functions (requires the View Card, not for tourists). Suica also offers several IC card discount passes, such as the NONBIRI Holiday Suica Pass, which grants unlimited rides on designated local JR trains in and around Tokyo for a day.

Fast on Suica’s heels is Pasmo, an equally convenient IC card dominant in the Tokyo area. Pasmo IC cards are issued by a group of private railway and bus companies based in and around Tokyo like Tokyo Metro, Tokyu, Keio, and Keikyu. Pasmo can be used at all stores that take IC card payments, and it also has its own smartphone app, Apple Pay and Google Pay compatibility, and auto-charging (only works with certain credit cards issued in Japan).

Pasmo also boasts a variety of advantageous tickets such as the Tokyo Metro 24-hour Pass and the Tokyu Line One-Day Pass, linked to several private railways throughout Tokyo. Pasmo users living in Japan can also earn a variety of redeemable points, such as Metro Points on the Tokyo Metro.

So, should you get a Suica or a Pasmo? It’s totally up to you, as there isn’t much difference aside from where they’re sold and the point system (which is not available to tourists). So, if your first or easiest stop in Japan is a JR East station, then pick up a Suica, and if it’s a private railway station, then go for Pasmo. Of course, if you’re flying into Osaka or another part of Japan, choose whichever of the 10 major IC cards listed above is available to you.


Welcome Suica: Japanese IC Cards For Tourists

While tourists to Japan can buy a regular IC card, there is also the Welcome Suica card intended for short-term use, which is still available despite the freeze on other Suica sales. The Welcome Suica card is valid for 28 days from the date of purchase, and can be recharged at designated charging machines just like a regular Suica (cash only). There is also the Pasmo Passport, but as it will be discontinued from August 2024, it will not be introduced in this article.

Welcome Suica is available with a precharged balance of either 1,000 yen or 2,000 yen, and it comes with a reference paper that must be kept on you while in Japan. Unfortunately, no refunds are issued on remaining funds after the 28-day expiry date, so be careful not to overload it and lose your money. On the bright side, this means that you’re free to take home your Welcome Suica card as a souvenir (the snazzy red cherry blossom design is sure to become a delightful reminder of your trip!).

You can find more information about Welcome Suica on the official website.


Suica also has the Welcome Suica Card + IC Special Pass, which comes with a bonus of one day of unlimited rides on JR local and rapid trains (non-reserved seats) within the 23 districts of Tokyo and the Tokyo Monorail Line.

IC Cards in Japan For Children

IC card companies also issue special discount cards for children. In Japan, the fare for children aged 6-11 is half the price of adults, so if you’re traveling with an elementary school-aged kid, it’s worth getting them their own concession IC card to save money. Children 12 and above will be charged the full adult fare, unless they’re still in elementary school.

To get an IC card for your child, visit a train station ticket counter, such as a JR Ticket Office (Midori-no-Madoguchi) for Suica, and register your child. You’ll need an ID for them, so don’t forget to bring it along with you.

Families visiting Japan from overseas can also get the Welcome Suica (Child) card, which grants half-price fares for children.

Children aged 0-6 can ride trains in Japan for free, so you don’t need to worry about buying an IC card or ticket for them. The exception to this is if you have three or more children per adult, in which case you’ll be required to pay the child fare for the third child and so on.

How to Get an IC Card in Japan

Regular IC Cards

Regular IC cards can be purchased in Japan at train station ticket counters and ticket machines by cash (credit cards cannot usually be used). For Suica, enter a JR East train station, like Tokyo Station, Shibuya Station, or Shinjuku Station, and locate a Multifunction Ticket Vending Machine. These machines have English settings, making it easy to purchase a Suica without Japanese language abilities. If you’re unsure about using a machine, you can buy a Suica from staff members at a JR Ticket Office (Midori-no-Madoguchi) at most major JR stations, including Tokyo Station.

Suica and Pasmo are sold with a precharged balance of either 1,000 yen, 2,000 yen, 3,000 yen, 4,000 yen, 5,000 yen, or 10,000 yen. A 500 yen deposit is subtracted from this amount, which can be refunded if you return the card before leaving Japan (read about refunds here).

Welcome Suica IC Card

Despite the lack of regular Suica IC cards in Japan, Welcome Suica are still available for international tourists. Welcome Suica can be obtained at either a JR East Travel Service Center branch, or from one of the Welcome Suica vending machines at the train stations of Narita Airport Terminal 1, 2, and 3 or the Haneda Airport Terminal 3 (Tokyo Monorail) station. You can also reserve your Welcome Suica online, and pick it up at Haneda Airport to ensure you don’t miss out if stocks are low.

However, as of May 2024, the majority of the aforementioned JR Centers and vending machines have also temporarily suspended Welcome Suica sales, and the only current sales location is at Haneda Airport Terminal 3. We recommend checking the Welcome Suica official website for the latest updates before planning your trip to Japan, as the situation is likely to change again soon.

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

How to Use an IC Card

Finally it’s time to take advantage of your IC cardーand it couldn’t be easier!

IC Cards For Trains

For trains, simply tap your IC card on the ticket gate’s digital reader when entering and exiting the train station and the fare will be automatically calculated and deducted. Your balance will also be displayed, helping you to plan your next commute. Train station ticket gates also have a slot for paper tickets, which you’ll use for your JR Pass, so be careful not to accidentally stick your IC card in.

IC Cards For Local Buses

For local buses, the IC card readers are usually sat by the doors inside the bus. Most local buses have passengers enter through the middle door and exit via the front door. You’ll need to tap on and off as you enter and exit the bus.


IC Cards For Taxis

IC cards can often be used when taking taxis in Japan. However, not all taxis have IC card readers, so be sure to inquire before hopping in (the bigger the company, the more likely they are to have it). Those that do should have a sticker with the IC card logo on the rear window or back passenger windows. As taxi rides will often cost much more than local trains or buses, keep your IC card topped up with a sizable balance if you plan to use it. You cannot charge an IC card in a taxi.

How to Charge Up an IC Card

Charging an IC Card at a Train Station

To avoid trouble, it’s best to make sure you have enough funds on your IC card before setting off. To check the balance and top it up, insert or place your card on a train station ticketing machine before going through the gates. The major IC cards in Japan can be charged at any train station, regardless of whether it's JR or a private railway company.

Japanese IC cards cannot go into the red, so if you try to enter a station without enough fare, the ticket gates won't open. If unsure of your balance, a quick check on a ticketing machine before tapping on will avoid the embarrassment of being blocked by the gates. On the other hand, if the fare exceeds your balance while traveling on the train, there are fare adjustment machines located inside the ticketed area to let you charge up before tapping off and leaving the station.

Charging an IC Card on a Local Bus

Charging IC cards on local buses is often possible, but you may have to speak to the driver. To skip the hassle, charge it up with enough money to cover your trip before boarding, and bring cash for a ticket just in case. If you do need to charge up on a bus, the driver will understand the English word “charge,” so there shouldn’t be any communication issues. Just don’t speak to them while the bus is moving.

Charging an IC Card at a Convenience Store

IC cards can be charged at Japanese convenience stores like 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson. This is a sure-fire way to avoid the lines at train stations, and to secure enough funds for bus and taxi rides. Mention to the store clerk that you would like to charge your IC card, and they will guide you through the process.

Charging a Welcome Suica Card

For the Welcome Suica card, you can charge at any of JR East’s Automatic Ticket Vending Machines and Fare Adjustment Machines, along with at convenience stores or Seven Bank ATMs at 7-Eleven. Please note that Welcome Suica can only be charged up using cash, so plan to always have some yen on-hand while in Japan.

How to Use a Digital IC Card

For those wishing to bypass cash entirely, there is the digital IC card option. Residents of Japan can download an IC card’s app, like Mobile Suica, Mobile Pasmo, or Mobile Icoca, charge up in an instant using a credit card or digital payment service, and then simply tap your smartphone on the ticket gates or card reader to use it.

For tourists with iPhone 8s or later, IC card apps like Suica, Pasmo, and Icoca are available through an Apple Wallet account. For more information, see the official guide by Apple.

Unfortunately, tourists with Android phones are out of luck, as IC card apps require the Osaifu-Keitai function, which is available only on Android phones sold in Japan. In addition, these IC card apps are not currently available in English or any other language except Japanese.

Welcome Suica Mobile, an English-language IC card app aimed at tourists, is also due to be released in spring 2025. Along with all the benefits of an app, Welcome Suica Mobile will let you pay for non-reserved seats in bullet trains and more. Unfortunately, Welcome Suica Mobile is currently only planned for the App Store, so Android users will still have a hard time in Japan.

Using Your IC Card at Convenience Stores, Vending Machines, and More!

You can also use an IC card instead of cash or credit at one of Japan’s many convenience stores and at a myriad of other shops. This will save you the trouble of digging through coins, and let you keep your cash for emergencies. IC cards can be used at any 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, or Lawson branch, along with a bunch of supermarkets, restaurants, vending machines, and moreーsimply look for an IC card logo or reader, or just hold out your IC card and ask.

To use an IC card at a store, let the cashier know, and they will prompt you to place your card or smartphone on an electronic reader at the terminal, after which you’ll hear a “beep” affirming your transaction. You can use IC cards at unmanned registers, too, which is often faster. Some products cannot be purchased with IC cards, like gift cards, postcards, or stamps.


Other Things to Know When Using an IC Card in Japan

Bullet Trains, Limited Express Trains, and Highway Buses

For special methods of transport like bullet trains, limited express trains, and highway buses, tapping on with an IC card alone is not enough, so be careful not to be caught unaware.

For example, most limited express trains also require a separate limited express ticket on top of the basic fare, which are sold at station ticketing machines or online. And while local buses accept IC cards, highway buses and other special bus services may not, and many need to be booked in advance.

For tourists without JR Passes, bullet trains are best used with paper tickets bought at the station. Bullet train tickets can be booked online and linked to an IC card, but you'll need to first make an account on a reservation website like Ekinet, which is not possible for tourists.

What If You Can’t Enter or Exit a Station?

If the ticket gates block you from entering or exiting, first, check the screen on the gate to see if you have enough funds, and recharge if you don’t. If you do, place your card again slowly and firmly against the reader. If it still won’t work, immediately move away from the ticket gates, as there will likely be a line behind you. Next, find a station attendant, who are often in small offices or booths next to the ticket gates. They will diagnose the issue, so just wait and follow their instructions.

If you pass through a station's ticket gates but decide you want to leave without boarding a train, then you’ll also need to talk to a station attendant to let you out.

IC Card Refunds

For Welcome Suica IC cards, there is no deposit, and therefore no refund. You also won’t get back any money you’ve put onto it, so use it wisely on your last few days.

If you purchased a regular IC card with a deposit, you can get a refund by returning it to a train station ticket office managed by the card company. You’ll only get a refund from the same company, so if you’ve brought your Suica from Tokyo up to Hokkaido, you’ll just have to eat the loss.

Refunds include the deposit (500 yen for Suica) and the remainder of funds minus a handling fee, which is 220 yen for Suica (waived if you don’t have any funds, and not taken from the deposit). If you registered the card to your name, you’ll also be asked for ID.

Make Your Travels in Japan Even Smoother With IC Cards!

If you’re still on the fence about IC cards, we’ll leave you with this parting shot. A journey to Japan should be stress-free and seamless, regardless of whether it’s your first time or fiftieth. Constantly having to purchase, print, and keep up with paper tickets, especially in the bewilderingly busy Tokyo Station, is a definite hassle for locals and visitors alike. Hence, Japan’s IC cards are designed with convenience—and, more recently, tourists—in mind, so why not go local and take advantage of this innovative and cashless option? Safe journeys!

Top image: PIXTA

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

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About the author

Joshua Furr
Joshua hails from North Carolina, USA (home of bluegrass, flight, and Pepsi), but he prefers a life abroad. He loves digging into Japan’s rich folklore, soaking in an onsen and hiking, but his real passion is discovering the hidden gems that lie in the castle town of Joetsu, Niigata. When he’s not writing, you can find him happily enjoying a steaming bowl of gyudon.
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