Suica Cards: Quick guide to what, how, where and why

Kylie Van Zyl

Forget fussing with paper tickets, small change, or mental maths: pick up a Suica card as soon as you touch down at Haneda or Narita and sail off confidently into the Tokyo public transport network.

Suica card in hand
Your new best friend in Tokyo, a Suica card. | Photo by Helen Cook used under CC

What is a Suica card?

The short answer is: the universe’s gift to travelers in Japan. This contactless IC card, issued by JR (Japan Railway) East, is a pay-as-you-go pass for a whole host of Japanese train lines, as well as subways, bus lines and streetcars, vending machines, some convenience stores, and station-area facilities like coin lockers. Suica cards are cheap, easy, flexible and available for purchase online, with options to collect it at the airport or have it shipped to you at home. You can also, obviously, get them at train stations.

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The Welcome Suica Card: Specifically for short-term visitors to Japan

In September, 2019, Suica introduced the ‘Welcome Suica’, a sakura-themed card which is perfect for (some) visitors. The card has no deposit, which is great, but it automatically expires after 28 days, so it’s only intended 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 don’t have to go to the trouble 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.

a schematic of the Tokyo subway
With a Suica card in hand, Tokyo really is yours. | Photo by JarkkoS used under CC

Where do these magical Suica cards work?

Pretty much everywhere: on all JR East train and bus lines, as well as on lines owned by other Japanese rail companies. There’s a fair bit of interoperability, meaning that your Suica card will get you around Tokyo with no bother because it’s fully compatible with the Tokyo metro area’s Pasmo system. It also works on the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport, but not necessarily with other airport shuttles.

Suica cards also work perfectly well in many other parts of Japan. They can be used on a whole bunch of mass transit systems outside Tokyo, such as Kyoto, Sendai and Niigata, as well as areas serviced by other IC travel card systems, including:

– ICOCA, run by JR West
– Kitaca, run JR Hokkaido
– TOICA, run by JR Central
– PiTaPa, used in the Kansai region, and some parts of Okayama, Hiroshima, and Shizuoka
– manaca, used in Nagoya and surrounds
– SUGOCA, run by JR Kyushu
– nimoca, used by Nishitetsu (Nishi-Nippon), and others in the Fukuoka region
– Hayakaken, used by the Fukuoka City Subway

If the card name has an “a” on the end, chances are it’s part of the Suica family.

Suica Use Map
The Suica card works pretty much all over Japan. | Photo by JR East Suica

If you do find yourself somewhere that a Suica card doesn’t get you through the automatic ticket gate, simply make your way to the staffed gate, show them your card and say where you boarded the train. They should have you sorted out in a jiffy.

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Can I use my Suica card on the Shinkansen?

While, in theory, IC cards work on some Shinkansen, it’s pretty much standard practice to buy a dedicated ticket when using the bullet train in Japan. For short-term visitors doing more than one domestic jaunt, a JR Pass is the way to go, while discount tickets are often available for single trips. A rule of thumb is: if it’s a special/fancy/super-fast train covering large distances, it needs its own ticket, while day-to-day transport in and around the city can be navigated with a Suica or similar card.

Where can I buy a Suica card?

You can buy a prepaid Suica card at Haneda or Narita, as well as from JR East ticket machines at train stations—just look for the machines displaying the Suica symbol. You can also buy them at JR East Travel Service Centers. It’ll set you back a relatively modest ¥2,000, with ¥500 of that being the deposit and ¥1,500 being the amount that’ll initially be available to you for fare. The issuing machines, which you can find pretty much everywhere, do have English support, and the instructions are easy to follow.

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Pro tip: If you are the sort (like us) who likes to have everything organized before arriving, you can also buy a Suica card online and pick it up at the airport, or even have it shipped internationally, though you’ll pay a teensy bit extra for the convenience.

Photo guide for purchasing a blank Suica card

Suica Purchase Instructions
Buying a new Suica card couldn’t be easier. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

How to register a Suica card

You can register your Suica card at the time of purchase by selecting “MySuica” and inputting the information requested—your name, DOB, gender and phone number. Why would you do this? If you’re going to be in Tokyo for a while and want to use it as a commuter pass, or if you’re worried you might lose your card and all the money on it, registering it means that you stand a better chance of getting it back (because your name will be on it), and if you don’t get it back, you can have your remaining balance transferred to your new one. However, there’s a fee for this and you’ll have to put down another deposit, so if you’re just here on holiday, consider whether you really want to bother.

How to charge a Suica card

Machines are available on both sides of the gate at every JR East station. Regular ticket machines are outside the gates, and fare adjustment machines are inside. Select “English” on the machine (usually on the top right), hit charge, select your amount, insert your money, and you’re good to go. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. One drawback is that you can only use yen to recharge—your credit card cannot be used. The maximum charge amount is ¥20,000.

Photo guide for charging your Suica card

how to charge a Suica card
It’s also really easy to load them. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

How do I return a Suica card?

If you don’t feel like taking it with you as a souvenir, you can return your Suica IC card at the end of your trip and get your deposit back. There is a fee for this: ¥220, which will be deducted from the remaining balance on your card. Your deposit of ¥500 is exempt from this, though, so you’ll always get that back. Obviously, you can’t deduct ¥220 from a card with less than ¥220 on it, so try to return your card with as little as possible left on it.

Note: If you purchased your Suica from the Tokyo Monorail, it can only be returned to them, not JR.

For more information, see our handy Suica and Pasmo comparison guide. You can also check the official JR East site.

While we do our best to make sure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was a joint effort with Lily Crossley-Baxter. Last updated: September, 2019.

Written by:
Filed under: Getting around, Transport
Tags: Bus, Commute, Commuter Pass, Convenience, IC Card, JR East, Metro, Pass, Subway, Suica, Suica Card, Tokyo, Train, Trains, Tram, Transit, Transport
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