Unified Rail Cards in Japan

Japan residents who are frequent domestic travellers will be happy to hear this news about railpass IC card interoperability.

Photo of JR Suica card in pass case.Users of the ubiquitous rechargeable smart e-ticket rail cards in Japan, such as JR East’s SUICA and Tokyo Metro Subway’s PASMO, will be glad to hear that eleven major transport companies have finally come together to allow their 10 different rail cards to be used in any of the cooperating companies’ service areas (Kyodo News), meaning the cards will be valid at 4000+ stations nationwide in Japan. This is a long time coming, with JR East announcing the intention to allow interoperability in 2004, and SUICA launching in 2001.

These rail cards use contactless radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, and are available in various forms, such as a simple chargeable card that is debited when you touch it to the sensor, ones that are integrated with mobile phones, or ones that include a credit card function that automatically recharges when the balance falls below a certain amount. Further, you can make purchases with them at Kiosks at stations, or use them to pay taxi fares, when the shop or cab has a reader.

The cooperating regions and cards are -

Screenshot of Japan rail and subway e-money card logosI’ve got three of these, and there are some common characteristics first-time users might want to be aware of -

  • There’s a small refundable deposit around 500 yen to get the card, and you buy it with a small amount of money already credited to it.
  • You’re required to show identification for age verification, because a child’s card will be debited at the lower child fare. (Apparently some cards allow you to get them anonymously, but I am not sure which).
  • Your name and age is entered into the card’s data.
  • If you return it, you do get the deposit back, but, a fee may be charged (210 yen in the case of SUICA).
  • To use it, just touch it briefly on the sensor in the wicket until you hear the beep (do not put it in the slot for paper tickets!).
  • When you use it, the balance will be flashed up on the screen in the wicket, or, you can check the balance at the ticket machine outside the wicket.
  • You can recharge up to a certain amount, such as JPY 20,000 on the JR East SUICA, either using the ticket machine outside the wicket, or the fare adjustment machine inside the wicket. The latter can be used if the balance is too low to exit the wicket at your destination. Recharging is cash only.
  • The card becomes invalid if not used for a certain period (10 years for SUICA), and lost cards are not re-issued.

It took a long time (like most everything involving bureaucracies in Japan), but I am glad these companies finally came together to allow this.


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—by Rick Cogley