Buying a reloadable IC card for train and bus travel around Tokyo (and the rest of Japan) can save you time, money and most importantly, the embarrassment of lost tickets and flashing rejection from the ticket gates. Here’s the lowdown on Pasmo and Suica cards, with video and photo instructions on how to buy and use them.
What are Suica and Pasmo cards?
Tickets are the worst: working out the place, the price and then remembering where you put the tiny piece of paper 25 minutes ago does not add to the fun of traveling. Luckily, to help with the crazy queues and busy rush hours of Tokyo trains and buses, smart cards have been created to give smooth access to all lines in Tokyo—and beyond. Pasmo and Suica are the two types of Tokyo IC cards available, but they can be used in many other places in Japan. They are basically the same thing, but offered by two different companies (more on this later).
Why you should consider Pasmo and Suica cards
If the confusing machines or the side-eye of salarymen as you search every pocket in vain for your ticket stub isn’t enough to convince you, here are some other great reasons:
- Time-saver: Changing train lines to make a connection can be stressful enough, and having to buy a new ticket in between can be all it takes for you to miss your last train home.
- Money-saver: Suica and Pasmo cards offer a marginal discount on every journey, from ¥1 to around ¥10 on a trip from Shinjuku to Asakusa, for example (depending on which route you take). It may not be much, but it adds up! You also won’t lose money by accidentally buying the wrong tickets.
- Flexibility: Because you don’t specify a location when boarding a train or bus with a Suica or Pasmo card, you have more flexibility, so if you change your mind, or see something cool out of the window, you can hop off without worrying about having the the right ticket. Also great if you don’t know the exact bus stop and rely on following Google Maps on your phone until it looks close!
- Shopping: Like their counterparts in other areas of Asia, Pasmo and Suica smart cards can also be used for vending machines, coin lockers and in plenty of shops (especially convenience stores), which can help when you don’t have enough change.
- Looking cool: Trying to impress? Shrugged off the giant backpack for a night out? Don’t be the one person in your new group of friends who has to go buy a ticket.
- Budgeting: It’s much easier to know where you are with your money when you can top up in larger increments rather than ¥140 here and ¥200 there. Just try not to lose the card.
- Long-term: If you’re staying in Tokyo for a while, you can register your Suica or Pasmo card and use it for a commuter pass, which can be reassigned to a new card if the original is lost. (Registration can be done retroactively too). Registration also means you are more likely to get it back if lost, as your name will be printed on the front (so people won’t pocket it as quickly).
- Bonus: You may have to put down a ¥500 deposit, but you get it back when you return the card, making it free!
- Tourist bonus: There is a ‘Welcome Suica’ card—valid for 28 days and deposit-free. They are available with different pre-loaded amounts, and mean you won’t have to worry about returning the card to get your cash back—more on these below. For fans of the Pasmo bouquet, there is now also a Pasmo Passport, a 28-day non-refundable card reserved for foreign tourists, which offers all the benefits of the regular Pasmo plus a selection of shop, restaurant, travel and lodging discount coupons. For more info, check out our Pasmo article.
Suica vs. Pasmo: What’s the difference?
Assuming you are convinced that Pasmo and Suica cards are the Tokyo travel god’s gift to all, which do you get? Sometimes, the smallest decisions are the hardest to make—so here’s a table to help!
|Refundable card deposit||¥500||¥500|
|Initial minimum charge amount||¥1,500||¥500|
|Where to purchase||JR stations or online||Private stations or online|
|Where to charge||All stations||All stations|
|Can it be registered?||Yes||Yes|
|Use outside Tokyo||Multiple||Multiple|
*The ¥220 is only deductible from leftover charge, not your deposit. If you return it with less than ¥220 on it, you will not pay the fee. #cheapowinning
Which card should I buy?
Essentially, Pasmo and Suica cards are identical. The only real consideration is if you need a commuter pass, as daily work journeys on a JR line require a Suica and vice versa. The only semi-real consideration is if you have plans to travel to an unusual area, and it isn’t listed by Pasmo—but then it may not be covered by Suica either; you might not find out until you get there. Also, Suica supports virtual IC cards, which is something Pasmo doesn’t do, yet.
tl;dr: It doesn’t really make much of a difference, but if you are only staying for a few weeks and know in your heart of hearts you won’t remember to return your card for the ¥500, we suggest the deposit-free Welcome Suica. The regular cards can easily be bought at machines in train stations—check the video below or the individual card posts for step-by-step instructions (although machines have English-language options and it’s pretty simple!).
The Welcome Suica Card: Specifically for short-term visitors to Japan
In September 2019, Suica introduced the Welcome Suica, a blossom-themed card which is perfect for (some) visitors. It has no deposit, which is great, but it automatically expires after 28 days, so it’s only useful for those staying for a few weeks. The card is available with a variety of pre-loaded amounts—from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000—and you won’t have to go through the hassle of returning the card or sacrificing the ¥500 return fee. You can purchase the Welcome Suica card at JR East Travel Service Centers at Narita Airport Terminal 1 Station, Narita Airport Terminal 2/3 Station, Haneda Airport International Terminal Station, Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, Ikebukuro Station, Ueno Station, and Hamamatsucho Station.
Otherwise, you can buy your Suica card or Pasmo card online and pick it up at the airport when you arrive, which is rather handy. You can also have your Suica shipped to you at home before you head to Japan.
What else you need to know about Suica
We’ve put together a dedicated guide to answer all your questions, including information on child Suica cards and virtual Suica cards. Read more about Suica cards.
Everthing else you need to know about Pasmo
Ditto Pasmo—we’ve got your information needs covered, including the lowdown on child Pasmo. Read more about Pasmo cards.
Can I use a Suica or Pasmo card in Kyoto?
Yes, you can. Suica cards can be used in most areas of Japan, including the old capital and its merchant neighbor, Osaka. Pasmo cards also have a wide range, which includes Kyoto. If you’re planning to head that way, see our Tokyo to Kyoto transport guide for a few money-saving tips.
Video on how to buy and use Suica and Pasmo cards
Bonus: Turn foreign coins into IC card cash
If you have any foreign currency you want to get rid of, or you want another option for topping up your IC card in Japan, you can always use a Pocket Change machine. These machines—which are dotted around the country—collect your foreign coins and transfer them into digital cash and vouchers in yen form. They support both Suica and Pasmo services and take 1 yen and 5 yen coins (which typical machines don’t), so they’re worthwhile if you want to make use of miscellaneous coin shrapnel you’ve collected along your travels.
While we do our best to make sure it is correct, the information in this post is subject to change. Post first published in April, 2017. Last update: January, 2020.