If you’re a foreigner in Japan, even if you have an international driver’s license* , you will take a train at some point while you’re here. Having a car is cool, but there are times when riding a train is faster and more convenient.
I actually don’t have an international license and the majority of the foreigners that I’ve met don’t either (I’m looking into it, though, just in case I want to rent a car and go for a drive sometime). For the most part, the people I know who have them, have have lived in Japan for quite some time, are married and have families here, or both (there are exceptions of course). The cool thing about Japan is that, by and large, you’ll be okay without ever having to get behind a steering wheel. So if you’re not using a car to get from place to place, what do you use? For many, the answer is trains.
*Did you know that if you have a valid driver’s license from Australia, the U.K. or a place that drives on the left side of the road, that you can get a Japanese license without having to take a driving test? Cool, huh? Sorry, if you you’re an American like me…you’ll have to take the test. DRAT! 🙁
I had my first Japanese train experience with the train almost as soon as I got off of my 12-hour flight from Hartsfield in Atlanta. The AEON trainers who met me at the airport escorted me around on my first day and pretty much took care of everything. I didn’t really have to worry about buying train tickets or figuring out how to ride. But eventually I ended up having to ride the dreadful Japanese train all by myself.
Riding the train by myself for the first time made me nervous…more so because of my sense of direction than anything. As I began to ride more and more, using trains went from being a “dreadful” challenge to being pretty mundane. I went for nearly a year-and-a-half using my little tickets to get from train station A to train station B; I was pretty content with that, too. However, I would always see many of the Japanese commuters using some type of wizardry to ride the trains. They would touch wave their hands over the ticket gate, maybe even say some magic words, and go right through. They weren’t always having to go and buy tickets like I was. Their method looked so much easier than mine.
It turned out that the Japanese commuters & train riders weren’t using magic at all, but these special cards created by the JR (Japan Rail) to make make train rider’s lives a lot simpler. Enter the PASMO. Enter the SUICA.
THE PASMO CARD
The Pasmo is a type of transportation charge card. There are train station machines that issue them for a small fee, 1000 yen to be exact (500 yen for the card + 500 deposit that you can use immediately)). Once you have this card you can add value to it preventing you from having to go through the hassle of purchasing train tickets over and over and over again. The card makes use of an IC chip (integrated circuit) or microchip that allows you to simply touch your card to a sensor panel on the ticket gate and go through (it does look like magic, though).
THE SUICA CARD
The Suica is Japan’s other type of IC-based, transportation charge cards. In similar fashion, you can purchase one of these cards from a train station machine for 2000 yen (500 yen for the card + a1500 yen deposit that you can use immediately). You can add value to these cards using JR machines.
Additional Pasmo/Suica Features
The Suica and Pasmo cards can be used to as monthly commuter passes (teikiken) as well, which can save you a LOT of money if you traveling to a certain station often enough. For the other function of your card(s), let’s a little multiple choice question:
What additional function does a Pasmo/Suica card have beyond allowing you to ride trains more easily (please choose the best answer)?
A. They can be used as shuriken
B. They can be used as a razor
C. They can be used to make purchases
D. They can double as ATM cards
E. They can be used as floatation devices
Let’s go over the answers. A.Can a Pasmo or Suica be used as a shuriken (i.e.-ninja star)? I’m pretty sure they could be…in the right hands. B is out, I don’t think they’ll make very effective razors unless you push REALLY REALLY hard (but I think your skin may come off, too..ewww). D? Please don’t put your Pasmo or Suica into an ATM. E? Please don’t try that either, you’ll sink faster than Iron Man at a water park. The best answer is C, Pasmo and Suica cards can be used to make purchases at shops and from select vending machines.
What are the Differences Between a PASMO and a SUICA card?
Aside from the Suica card looking a lot cooler (in my opinion anyway) there aren’t a whole lot of differences. They are both charge cards that do essentially the same thing. There are however some train rails that don’t use Suica and others that don’t use Pasmo. I do have both types of cards, but more often than not, I use my Pasmo because it’s the card I got first. My PASMO is the card that my commuter pass (teikiken (ていきけん/定期券)) on the Tsukuba Express is linked to. Although It may not look as cool as a Suica card, it’s compatible with JR East Ticket gates, so that’s good enough for me.
I don’t think Japan Rail West uses Pasmo and Suica, which is why you have to buy separate Shinkansen tickets when going to places like Kyoto and Osaka. I do believe they’ll change that eventually, though.
As far as making purchases goes, the stores that accept Suica cards also take Pasmo. Vending machines are similar, they generally accept both types of cards.
In the end these cards aren’t necessary to use the trains here in Japan, but they’re incredibly convenient. After having used Pasmo & Suica, though, it’s a wonder why I went so long without having one. Truth be told, I was a little worried about having to go through this overly complicated process to get one. Take it from me though, getting a Pasmo/Suica Card was ten times easier than I was expecting it to be. In the next post I’m going to show you exactly how to do it 🙂
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Sounds just like UK’s Oyster card, but I would imagine Japanese ones are much cheaper. Public transport in UK is very expensive (and unreliable).
Is that true about the UK driver’s licence by the way? Neat! (*^^*)
Just like an Oyster, except you can only top them up with cash! No, really! Madness, I tell you.
Living in England finally has it’s advantages! I didn’t realize they drove on the left side of the road in Japan. Thanks for another great article Dash. 🙂
It’s Ryan!! HOORAY!!! It’s good to hear from you, dude! Yep. So if you ever move to Japan and decide to start driving, it’s smooth sailing for you.
Doesn’t the PASMO have some special point system when you buy tickets/pass or use it to shop?
I’m not sure Roger, I’ll have to check on that. Good question.
If you find yourself riding on the Kintetsu lines a lot you can get an Icoca card that does the same thing. They really are so much handier then buying tickets all the time. Just remember to re-charge (add funds) them when you start getting low. Your balance will show up when you use your card at the gates. 🙂
HI Donald, thanks for all the trip. I’m heading to Tokyo in Feb. Comparing between JR Rail & Suica, which would you recommend. We would be travelling within Tokyo only. One of the places I need to go is the Tokyo Big Sight. What type of cards should i get?
These are really different systems. The JR Rail Pass is great for saving money if your planning on traveling a lot on the JR lines. The way it works is you pay a flat amount based on how many days you want to use it, and during those days you can use the lines as much as you want. If you are planning a lot of rail travel it can save a lot of money. See here ( http://www.jtbusa.com/en/jr/j-all-1.asp ).
The Suica card and others like it are just more convenient then buying paper tickets everywhere you go. There is no money savings as they are just pre-paid cards good for as much travel as the money you put on it can pay for. They are nicer then paper tickets as you don’t have to stop at the ticket machines if your in a hurry, just make sure you add more to them when you start running low. (If you do run low, don’t fret, you can add funds to them before you exit the station through the gates)
Another possibility is special “Day” and “Weekend” passes that usually work on certain train and buss lines. These work more like the JR Rail Pass in that you pay a set amount but have unlimited travel (on the specified lines) during that time period.
I hope this helps you out!
Thanks Petaris! It’s so great when people are helping each other out. I LOVE IT! Awesome breakdown of the different passes. Couldn’t have said it better myself 😀
Hi Jennifer. Petaris is right on the money with the rail passes and Suica cards. Should you have any additional questions, please post them 🙂
Hey Donald! Extra tip… sometimes the suica can give you a discount. For example on my way to my school I take a bus everyday. I’m not sure the exact number but for every _?_?_ time I ride the bus the next charge is free.
Also sometimes at conbini’s they will give you a discount if you purchase a marked item with your suica (i don’t see this very often though).
Lol you’re funny! I come to Japan all the time and I’m just now finding your site!
Thanks for the article. I’m planning to go to Tokyo and I think I will be travelling a lot around various sights and nearby cities (like Yokohama and Kamakura) so I’m planning to buy Suice&NEX card.
I was looking for a specific information on what lines exactly the card will be working for and it is still not clear even with a map on the JR East website. Could you please help me with that?
E.g. will I be able to go from Ikebukuro station to Nerimatakanodai station on Seibu Ikebukuro line? Or from Shibakoen to Hibuya? From Yarakucho to Hibashiikebukuro? Will I be able to use any Toei and Tokyo Metro lines with it?
Would really appreciate your help
Of course I can help you!
You will be able to use your Suica for every single one of those stations you’ve listed (as long as there’s money available on the card 😉 ). You’ll be fine on the Toei Oedo and all Tokyo Metro Lines as well.
If you’re in East Japan, even though the JR East site may not say it clearly, it’s safe to assume that you can use your card. The only exceptions might be the Shinkansen (it may be okay, too, but I’ve never tried riding with my Suica) or maybe the Romance car to Hakone (but again, I’ve never tried my Suica card here). Every other line has been just fine for me.
I hope you have a great visit here!
Since this article seems to be quite old, I’m going to update that the SUICA card is now compatible with the blue Kansai-based ICOCA card. You can even charge the ICOCA in JR East ticket machines. Unless you ride a countryside bus that runs once per day or something, you don’t have to worry at all.
I have a pasmo which i purchased last year during my honeymoon and will be going again in march with my family. I was wondering if pasmo is compatible with the jr lines within tokyo/kanto region? Because i am planning my trip and apparently it involves a lot of jr lines. For example jr yamanote etc.
Hey Wawa. Yes! You can definitely use your Pasmo on the JR lines within the Tokyo/Kanto region! I use mine to ride the Yamanote all the time. Not just JR lines either, the subways, too 😉
Yes it is compatible in JR lines
Hi. Love your blog! Wanted to ask, can PASMO cards be purchased late at night? My flight arrives Haneda at 10pm and with customs and getting bags, might not be able to get to a train station until 11pm?? I am assuming I take the monorail to the Hamatsucho station, which should have a PASMO card machine?
hi…we will be in Tokyo this coming Nov. Wonder you can advice which card we should have. We are planning to travel the whole city of Tokyo also tourist attraction like Kamukara and Nikko.
Look forward to hear from you soon.
hi will i be able to travel from ueno station to tsudanuma in narashino city chiba ? whcih crd i need pasmo or suica?
If I have 2 adults & 2 kids (over age 6) in Tokyo for 3 days, does each person need a card or can I buy one card and swipe it an additional time for each person? I have been stressed out looking at the metro map, and I appreciate your post!
Hi, I was wondering.. Does the Pasmo card has to be returned? When I went there they told me the process to get one, but no one mentioned I had to return it before I left Japan. I assumed I ‘bought’ the card, so I kept it when I left. But then I’ve been reading on the internet that it is returnable, so I’m confused (and a little embarrassed). So much for being a gaijin… Also, my card has a expiration date (which I hadn’t noticed) and it is personalised according to my route in Tokyo (Wakabadai to Shibuya), with my name and everything. The person in my school who helped us tramit our personalised cards filled some papers with our information, but didn’t really explained anything about the card, so I’m still confused. Should I had returned it? Can I still return it a year later when I return to Japan? Please help!
If I remember correctly, the card doesn’t really expire. As long as you keep using it. I do think it stops working if you don’t use it within 10 years though.
If you want to return it, you get your deposit back. I kept mine as a souvenir, and I can just refill it when I return again.
I don’t usually comment in articles, but yours is so funny and informative you deserve one. Good job and very helpful article!
this article is very interessting, but I am still a bit confused which card to use. my journey starts soon and I have planned to see a lot in Tokyo as well as to travel to Kyoto, Nara, Shizuoka and maybe Nagoya. I am undecided and dont know which option I should choose. If there are recommendations I would be happy… thanks in advance
Hah, I’m reading here while watching a video on youtube about the same thing, I see the portrait on the bottom meanwhile the same face shows up on youtube, turns out its your video! Great information!
I am arriving at Haneda on May 26th on ANA from Canada. I need to get to Kumagaya and am nervous about the process and getting lost! What is the best way to go? Is the bus easier or should I be brave and attempt the navigate the monorail and train system? Should I purchase a Suica card? I will only be in Japan for 10 days and will not be travelling much.
Hi, thanks for the info! I am traveling to Japan and this really helps me out! Keep doing what your doing!
P.S. It was really cool to see your from the Atlanta area as well because I live in Kennesaw/Marietta in Cobb County.