Suica cards are the universe’s gift to travelers in Japan. Sure, these prepaid IC cards function as train cards, but they’re also so much more than that.

From transport to shopping, here’s everything you need to know about this ultra convenient travel card.

Latest news on Suica cards in Japan

So, let’s talk about this worldwide chip shortage and what it means for our beloved Suica cards. Basically, at the moment, you can’t get a new blank or registered Suica card as easily as you could before. Official statements say that all sales have been suspended. However, the Welcome Suica is still available for short-term visitors to Japan.

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But, the actual situation changes a lot. According to our on the ground research, as of May 2024:

  • The Welcome Suica is only available at Haneda Airport, some major JR East Station, and online, via Klook and Rakuten Travel Experiences
  • You can use cash or credit cards to buy Welcome Suica cards from ticket machines at Haneda Airport
  • Normal Suica cards are available for foreign tourists only at Narita Airport, and at some major JR East train stations

What is a Suica card?

IC card map. | Photo by Tokyo Cheapo

The Suica card is one of the many types of IC train card in Japan. Specifically, a Suica is a IC card issued by JR (Japan Railway) East. At the most basic level, it’s a prepaid card you can use in Tokyo and wider Japan. You can use it on trains, subways, and buses, as well for vending machines, some convenience stores, and station-area facilities like coin lockers. Suica cards are cheap, easy, and flexible — there’s nothing not to love about them.

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

¥1,000 or ¥2,000
Buy your Welcome Suica online via Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences
Expires after 28 days

In September 2019, JR East introduced the Welcome Suica, a sakura-themed card which is perfect for (some) visitors. It comes pre-loaded with either ¥1,000 or ¥2,000. Unlike a regular Suica, it doesn’t have a ¥500 deposit — so you don’t need to worry about returning the card when you’re done with it. However, this also means you can’t get a refund for any remaining balance. Also keep in mind that the Welcome Suica automatically expires after 28 days.

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, Hamamatsuchō Station, Shinagawa Station, Shibuya Station, Shinjuku Station, Ikebukuro Station, or Ueno Station. However, we recommend buying your Welcome Suica online, via Klook or Rakuten Travel Experiences, before you arrive.

When you activate the Welcome Suica, you’ll get a receipt that has useful information like the expiration date on it. You’re supposed to keep this receipt in case anyone asks to see it (annoying).

Also, Welcome Suica is not compatible with Apple Pay.

With a Suica card in hand, Tokyo really is yours. | Photo by iStock.com/prachanart

How do you use a Suica card?

Suica cards work much the same as train cards in other parts of the world. They’re prepaid cards, so once you’ve charged your Suica you simply tap it on the IC card panel at a train station ticket gate as you enter and leave. Very occasionally — usually in countryside areas — the IC card reader will be attached to a pole or wall instead of an automatic ticket gate.

Buses are a slightly different beast. If it’s a flat-aree bus, you just need to tap your Suica once — when you exit the bus. However, if the bus has a fare board displayed, you’ll need to tap on and off.

If you tap your IC card and the panel beeps or flashes red, it usually means your balance is too low. You’ll need to find a charging machine before you can get through the gates.

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Where can you use Suica cards?

Pretty much everywhere: There’s a fair bit of interoperability, meaning that your Suica card will get you around Tokyo with no bother. It can be used on all JR East train and bus lines, as well as on many lines owned by other Japanese rail companies. It’s also fully compatible with the Tokyo metro area’s Pasmo system. And it works on the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport.

You can also use Suica cards in many other parts of Japan, 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 Hokkaidō
  • 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 Kyūshū
  • nimoca, used by Nishitetsu (Nishi-Nippon), and others in the Fukuoka region
  • Hayakaken, used by the Fukuoka City Subway

Basically, if the train card name has an “a” on the end, chances are it’s part of the Suica family. Or if you see “IC” on the card reader then it will work with 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.

Pro tip: While Suica cards work in areas outside of Tokyo, you can’t use it to cross from one area to another. For example, you can’t use your Suica to travel from Tokyo to Nagoya in a single tap-on, tap-off journey — you need to tap on and off within the same area. So, you would have to tap on in Tokyo, travel to a station on the border of the area, tap off, then tap on again to re-enter the station.

Can I use my Suica card on the Shinkansen?

Sort of.

Here’s one of the tricky things about trains in Japan: There is the base fare, which is determined by how far you travel. And then, if you are riding any of Japan’s special trains, like the Shinkansen or other high-speed, limited express trains, there is a surcharge on top of the base fare. And IC cards like Suica generally only cover the base fare.

So to ride the Shinkansen (or, say, the Narita Express to the airport), you have to buy a paper ticket from the ticket machines for the surcharge. And then use BOTH the ticket and IC card when going through the ticket machines.

If you live in Japan and ride the Shinkansen a lot, you can set up your Suica so that you can use it to pay for non-reserved (only) Shinkansen rides on JR East-operated Shinkansen lines. You can do this either from the Suica app (in Japanese only) or via a Suica ticket machine. Both methods are explained in this cute video made by JR (in Japanese).

How to charge a Suica card

If the balance on your IC card is getting low, you’ll need to load more money onto it using a ticket machine. There are normally several ticket machines near the ticket gates at a train station. Or, you can usually find a dedicated train Card charging machine inside the ticket gates too.

Once you’ve found a machine, you can change the language to English — there’s usually a button near the top right of the screen. Then just follow the on-screen prompts to charge your Suica card and you’re good to go. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Well almost. Some caveats: The smallest denomination coin you can use to charge your pass is a ¥500-coin. So no, you can’t just tip all your loose change into the machine.

Photo guide for charging your Suica card

how to charge a Suica card
Here’s how to charge your Suica card. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Can you charge a phyiscal Suica card with a credit card?

Unfortunately, even the newest, shiniest ticket machine won’t let you top up your Suica IC Card with a credit card. However, you could use a credit card to purchase a commuter pass and load your Suica card at the same time.

Can I charge a Suica card at a convenience store?

Yes, you can also top up your Suica at a convenience store. You can either use the ATM in the store, or load money at the cash register.

Where can I buy a Suica card?

A new Suica Card will cost ¥1,000 — this is made up of a ¥500 deposit for the card and a ¥500 charge loaded onto the card.

Under normal circumstances, you can buy Suica IC cards in a number of places. You could get one 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.

Pro tip: While you can’t buy normal Suica cards at the moment, short term visitors to Japan can buy a Welcome Suica online.

Photo guide for purchasing a blank Suica card

You can buy a Suica card from an issuing machine, and yes, the machines do have Engilsh support.

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

Registering a Suica card

If you have a blank Suica card — and not a Welcome Suica — you can register it. When you register it, the ticket machine prints your name on it — so you stand a better chance of getting it back if you lose it. And if you don’t get it back, you can request that the remaing balance is transfered to a new card. All of this is useful if you live in Tokyo, but less so if you’re just visiting.

You can register your Suica card at the time of purchase by selecting “MySuica” and inputting the information requested — your name, date of birth, gender, and phone number.

How do I return a Suica card?

At the end of your trip you can return your Suica card and get your deposit back — if you don’t want to keep it as a souvenir, that is. But, 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.

To return a Suica card, you need to take it to a train station. If you got the Suica from a JR East train station, you can return it so any JR East station. However, if you purchased it elsewhere, like from Tokyo Monorail, you need to return it there. Whichever station you return it at, you’ll need to take the Suica to a ticket office or station office — you can’t return it to a machine. If you registered the Suica, you may need to fill out a little bit of paper work when you return it.

Pro tip: Suica cards can be also be returned at Narita Airport or Haneda Airport.

Suica cards for children

If you’re traveling in Japan with youngsters, it’s definitely worth getting a children’s Suica card. This is because the fares for children aged 6 to 11 are half the price of adults’. You can get children’s Suica cards from JR Ticket Offices — not ticket machines. You’ll need to provide proof of the child’s age when you get the train card, so make sure to bring some ID along.

Pro tip: In Japan, children under 6 can generally travel on the trains for free, as long as there are only two of them per adult; the third child under 6 will be charged a child’s fare. When passing through the ticket gates, simply scan your own IC train card and walk through together. While the odds of being asked are low, it is worth carrying a proof of age document — like a passport — to avoid any awkward conversations with the train and metro staff.

Virtual Suica cards

If you like your tech, or just having one less card in your wallet, you can look into getting a virtual Suica card. It’s known as Mobile Suica, and works through tapping your phone — instead of a physical card — to pay for your travel. The device doesn’t need to be connected to a network, nor unlocked, to work. It does need to be on, though.

Who can use the Mobile Suica app?

On Apple devices, the Mobile Suica app is available for the iPhone 8 and up, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later. It also works on iPhone 7s that were purchased in Japan (and all new models after that). Anything released earlier is not compatible.

man on phone in train
Suica cards just got more convenient — sort of. | Photo by iStock.com/RyanKing999

Android users can access Mobile Suica via Google Pay. However, they must have an “osaifu-keitai” eligible phone, which essentially means a smartphone purchased in Japan.

Setting up a virtual (mobile) Suica card in Japan

Got a phone that’s compatible with Mobile Suica? Lucky you. Here’s how to get set up.

Apple users

To set up a virtual Suica on your iPhone, you need an iPhone 8 or later, and the latest iOS. To activate the card, open the Wallet app and select the Suica profile. If you previously had a physical Suica, you can add the remaining amount on that card to your virtual wallet by following the prompts and adding the last few digits of the card. Or you can create a new Suica card on your iPhone. You can choose to pay via Apple Pay or direct from your credit card; the costs are the same, so this is just a matter of preference.

It’s worth noting that if you have an iPhone and Apple Watch, you cannot have the same Suica account on both devices. It is possible to switch between devices, though. See the Apple help on Suica for more info.

How to top up your Mobile Suica through Apple Pay

To top up your Mobile Suica through Apple Pay simply tap on your registered Mobile Suica, press the Add Money button and type in your desired amount. Choose the card you will be paying with and verify your purchase by using Face or Touch ID. Keep in mind that there might be instances where cards issued in your home country — especially if they’re debit cards — might not support this feature.

How to refund your Mobile Suica balance through Apple Pay

To refund your Mobile Suica balance through Apple Pay, you will need two things — the official Suica app and a Japanese bank account.

Load the app and select the Suica balance you want to refund on the list screen, tap refund this Suica and confirm the given information. You will then need to enter your Japanese bank account details and then confirm everything again.

Note, that you may be charged a ¥220 refund fee, and that the refund can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to receive.

Android users

To use Mobile Suica on your phone, you need to add Suica to your Google Pay profile. Suica also has an app for Android users that allows you to buy commuter passes, Green Car tickets, and Shinkansen tickets. But it’s only available in Japanese at the moment, and the reviews on Google Play aren’t promising.

Note: The Mobile Suica only works when your device is on. If your battery dies while you’re on the train, inform the staff at your exit gate; they will give you a slip with fare details on it. The next time you arrive at a station, show the staff the ticket you were given to pay what you owe and to allow your Suica to get you through the ticket gate.

Adding a Suica to your Apple Wallet

Like Mobile Suica, but not. | Photo by Shyam Bhardwa

If you’ve got an iPhone 8 or later, you can add your Suica to your Apple Wallet. This isn’t quite the same as Mobile Suica, which funnels through the Suica app, but follows the same concept. If you don’t already have a physical Suica, you can set one up digitally. Simply go to your Apple Wallet, hit the + button, and select “Travel Card”, followed by “Suica”. Top up your initial amount, and you’re good to go. This can be done without changing your iPhone region, so you won’t have to change to Japan if you’re just visiting.

Alternatively, if you already have a Suica, you can transfer it and your existing balance into your Apple Wallet. To do this, after you hit Suica in the procedure above, tap “Transfer Existing Card.” You’ll be asked for your date of birth and the last four digits of your Suica card number. Fill that in, then you’ll tap your phone against the physical Suica card. Once done, your card and its existing balance will be loaded into your Apple Wallet and be ready to use. Be careful though! Once complete, the physical card will no longer work, so be certain you won’t need it going forward.

To top up a Suica in your Apple Wallet, you’ll need a linked credit or prepaid card in the Wallet app. Tap your Suica in the app, and hit “Add Money.” You’ll choose how much you want to top up, and then be given the choice of which card in your Wallet you want to use for the top up. Choose a card, confirm with Touch or Face ID, and you’re set. Keep in mind that you currently can’t refund money loaded onto a digital Suica in your Apple Wallet, so don’t load too much for a short trip!

Frequently asked questions

Do Suica cards save you money?

Yes, but only a very little at a time. Within Tokyo, the fare for Suica (or any IC card) users is a couple of yen cheaper than the full fare price. So a trip on the JR Yamanote line from Shinjuku to Shibuya costs only ¥157 instead of ¥160.

If you’re thinking, hang on that’s almost 2%! It is, but the percentage diminishes with distance until there is no discount at all. But we reckon you can save maybe a couple thousand yen a year.

Note: In a few exceptional cases, the paper ticket is a few yen cheaper than the Suica, but these are rare.

How do I check my balance?

When you tap your card at the ticket gates (or when boarding a bus), your remaining balance will appear on the card reader. You can also check your balance using the same vending machines used to by tickets and passes. If your card is linked to your mobile or watch, then you can check your balance on your device.

Can foreigners buy a suica card?

Yes, there are no restrictions on who can buy a Suica card. But, the Welcome Suica is only available for those with “temporary visitor” stamps in their passports.

What if my Suica card is lost or stolen?

If you lose your Suica card, or it’s stolen, you can get it reissued if you registered it. To get it reissued, you’ll need to head to a JR train station office and the staff will help you through the process.

What if my Suica is damaged?

If your Suica is damaged or not working properly, head to a JR train station office and the staff there will sort you out. Just keep in mind that staff may not speak much English — if this is a concern for you try out a bigger station like Tokyo Station.

How can I use my Suica card for shopping?

Using your Suica card to pay for shopping is very straightforward, you just need to tap it against the card reader. IC cards are often accepted for payments at convenience stores, drink vending machines, and various other stores. Many stores have signs near the register showing what forms of cashless payments they accept, if “IC” is on the list then you’re good to go.

Can you share a Suica train card?

If you are traveling in a group, everyone needs to have their own IC card or train ticket. The exception is children under 6, because they can travel for free.

What does Suica mean?

Suica stands for “super urban intelligent card.” There is also some word play as “sui sui” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for gliding smoothly. Clearly, people put a lot of thought into this.

Wait, is that why the mascot for Suica is a penguin?

Yes!

For more information on IC cards in Japan, 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: February 2024.

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