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IC Cards for Transportation (IC card series #2)

Welcome to post #2 in my five post series on the IC card! As I mentioned in the beginning of the last post, I’ll be writing about Suica/PASMO (and IC cards in general) in hopes of helping out international travelers (and residents too, perhaps).

The last post was loosely focused on acquiring a Suica card for the first time. It’s not too difficult to do, provided you have legs, fingers, and yen. Of course, once you have a Suica (or another IC card), you’ve got to know what you want to do with it.

Roughly 98% of my Suica use is for transportation purposes. Anecdotally, I would also venture to guess that the majority of the population uses their Suica cards similarly. Suica can also be used for shopping, but that’s a topic for another post. This post is really meant as a sort of troubleshooting/how-to guide for newcomers. If you’re a resident, I’m guessing you won’t find much here that doesn’t bore you to tears. With that in mind, onward!

IC cards can be used on trains, subways, buses, and some taxis. Depending on your location, you may also find it can be used on tramways, monorails, etc. Let’s break down how to use the card in some of these situations:

Subways and trains:

Step 1: When you approach the ticket gates for any train or subway line, you’ll see a panel on top of each turnstile. Here’s the entrance to one of the subway platforms. Very exciting.


When the turnstile is ready to admit someone, the panel will glow blue. If someone is currently using the turnstile, there will be no light on the panel. If an error has occurred, the panel will be red. Touch your IC card to the blue light (when it’s ready) and walk through the gate as it opens for you. It’s very hard to take a non-blurry picture of yourself touching a PASMO to a turnstile in Tokyo station as you walk through. If you stop, you will irritate the person behind you. Oh well.


You get the idea. On the end of the turnstile is a small screen where you can see how much money you currently have on your card, for reference.

Step 2: Take the train/subway somewhere.

Step 3: When you arrive at your destination, touch your card to the turnstile on your way out of the station. The required fare will be automatically deducted from the balance on your card and the gates will open to let you out.


1. The balance on your card is running low and you cannot enter the train platform area.

How you know this is the problem: When you touch your card to the blue light at the ticket gates, the turnstile will turn red and the gates will close (if they are not closed already). A short error message will sound. An error message will be displayed (in English and in Japanese) on the screen directly above where you just touched your card.

Solution: Charge your card at one of the nearby ticket vending machines.

2. You do not have enough money on your card to cover the fare required at your destination.

How you know this is the problem: After you’ve taken the train/subway to your desired station, you try to exit the ticket gate. The gate turns red and an error message is displayed on the screen above where you’ve just touched your card. It’ll say something about your fare.

Solution: Head to the “Fare Adjustment Machine”. It looks like a vending machine, but you use it to ensure you pay the correct fare at the station where you arrive. They are typically near the ticket gate exits at each station. Put your card inside (press the English button if necessary), and follow the instructions. You can opt to charge your card or to pay the remaining balance required to get off at this stop. If you charge your card, your IC card will be returned to you and you can proceed through the turnstile as usual. If you choose to pay the remaining balance, the machine will return your card to you and you will receive a regular paper ticket. Use the paper ticket (at a turnstile with a paper ticket slot). You will need to charge your card to continue using it.

3. You didn’t touch your card to the turnstile.

How you know this is the problem: The gates close on you suddenly and the turnstile turns red. An error message sounds. The screen near where you touch your card might display the message “please touch your card again”. This sometimes happens if you’re following the person in front of you too closely and touch your card to the panel when the machine isn’t ready. It happens.

Solution: Touch your card to the turnstile again.

4. Forces beyond your control have caused a problem.

How you know this is the problem: When you touch your card to the turnstile, it turns red. The screen near where you touch your card reads something like “please speak to staff for assistance”.

Solution: Go to the station staff at the nearest desk.

Problem #4 doesn’t happen too often. When it does, it’s usually because of an unusual circumstance. For example, one time I hopped on the subway from Shibuya station, received a message from a friend inviting me to dinner in Shibuya, and decided to come back (via the same subway line). When I got to the ticket gate and attempted to exit, I got an error message. I simply handed my card to the station staff (I may have offered a brief “I came back” explanation) and it was fixed in a few seconds.

In other cases, more mysterious forces seem to be at work: perhaps you did not touch your card to the turnstile at the station where you got on the train, but were able to gain access to the platform. This can sometimes happen in cases where you’re following the person ahead of you very, very closely – the turnstile doesn’t register your card (or that two separate people are in the turnstile at once) and lets two people pass through at the same time. When you get to your destination, then, the ticket gate has no idea where you’ve come from (because you do not appear to have entered the transportation system) and has no idea how much to charge you. In these cases, you’ll need to take your card to the station staff. If this happens to you, just say the name of the station you came from. In the few times this has happened to me, I usually just say the name of the station plus から (kah-rah), meaning “From [station]”. They’ll push a few buttons, deduct the correct fare, and hand me back my card.

Yes, some of you will note that situations like these create opportunities for people who are looking for a free ride (literally). I would not be surprised, however, to find that after a few “strange problems” on the same person’s Suica, however, one might lose privileges for unquestioning station staff help. Your choices are your own.

Let’s talk about the bus system next.

If you’re interested in playing the Tokyo public transportation game on intermediate-advanced mode, try taking the bus. Using the bus is pretty simple with a Suica. I have encountered two types of buses:

1. Touch your Suica card to a card reader when you board the bus. Everyone is charged one fare. You can get off the bus at any point and your fare will be the same. These buses are typically city buses that circulate in the vicinities of large-ish stations.

2. Touch your Suica card to a card reader when you board the bus AND when you depart. You’ll be charged a fare in accordance with how far you have traveled. These buses are more common in suburbs or rural locations where buses travel much greater distances.


1. You cannot get/off on the bus because you do not have enough money on your Suica card.

How you know this is the problem: You’ll hear a little error sound when you try to get on/off the bus (i.e. it’s not the short little beep sound). The card reader will turn red.

Solution: Go charge your card (and then wait for the next bus), or pay the regular fare using change (there’s a cash deposit next to the card reader).

That’s pretty much it. As long as you know where you’re going, you’re set.

The last system is one I have not personally used, but the internet tells me it is possible: taxis.

Taxis in Tokyo are notoriously expensive. It is 770 yen (around $7.70) for the first 2 kilometers (yes, that’s right, just getting in a taxi costs you). After those first two kilometers, you’re then charged an additional fee for a set number of meters traveled (I wanna say 200 meters. I cannot remember and am too lazy to look it up. Let’s go with 200). Yikes. For reference, a taxi ride from Shibuya to Shinjuku, two popular hubs in Tokyo (about 10 minutes and 160-190 yen on the train/subway or $1.50-$2.00), will set you back around 2000-2500 yen ($20-$25), depending on exactly where you’re coming from and where you’re going to.

It seems some (NOT ALL) taxi companies now include card readers in their vehicles to accept payment. When you arrive at your destination, let your driver know you’d like to pay with an IC card (I imagine just saying “Suica” or “Pasmo” or whatever is fine. Maybe indicate your card if things still aren’t clear for whatever reason), and touch your card to the reader. The amount will be deducted from your card balance.

I do not carry a very large balance on my card. I once lost a Suica charged with around 2000 yen in the middle of Ikebukuro station. I bought a new one (of course) and have since tried to maintain a low balance on my card in case the same thing happens again. It’s important to have an idea of how much money you have on your card if you think you want to pay for a taxi ride with it. Of course, if you don’t have enough money on your card to pay for a taxi ride, you can always use cash (or a credit card, provided the company accepts them).

Whew! That’s a lot of information, now that I think about it. If it’s your first time encountering all of this, it might seem a little overwhelming, but once you do it a few times (and run into a few problems) you’ll get the hang of it. I do all my best learning through my blunders. I imagine many other people are similar.

One thing I will note that I was not aware of until speaking with the representatives in charge of this project: as of October 2013, these IC cards can now be used in any region of the country, regardless of where you originally purchased it. There may be a hiccup when you first try to use the card to enter a different region, but this can be quickly fixed by simply handing your card over to the station staff (again, the phrase [station/city] から (kah-rah) might be of use here), who will get you all sorted out. That means if you’re visiting the country and purchase an IC card at Narita, when you travel to another region of the country (like Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka, etc.) you can use the same card for transportation, for shopping here and there, whatever. You do NOT need to get a card from each region (unless you want to start a collection, I suppose). Nifty.

In the next post I’ll write a bit about how to use an IC card for everyday shopping. I went a bit nuts in Tokyo station with the PASMO card I was supplied for the purposes of this promotion. I was told to do things “in my style,” so I DID!

Check that out in the next post!

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