How to use transit cards on your phone when you travel.

When traveling one of the things to consider is how will you get to all of the museums and parks and areas you want to visit? If you drive the answer is usually pretty easy just drive everywhere you need to go. But if you arrive by plane or train it becomes more tricky, do you rent a car, use public transit, or walk? The answer usually is dictated by where you are going. Phoenix for example would be better by car, London, Rome, Tokyo better by public transit, New York probably better by public transit, whereas LA would be better to do a mix of public and private transit.

When I travel I look at a few factors in determining whether to rent a car or use public transit.

  • What do the locals typically use?
  • Can I get everywhere I want to go with a car easily or can I get everywhere with public transit in a reasonable time.
  • Do I need an international drivers license to operate a car
  • Will parking be easy to find where I’ll be staying and where I’ll be visiting?
  • Will I need to pay parking, tolls, or congestion fees if I rent a car?
  • How is driving in the local area, I.e. is it like Rome or like the English countryside?

I typically use public transit when I can as the hassle of renting a car internationally can be a pain. I do however rent when I know public transit will not let me see something or will take to long to get there. For instance when I’m in England I don’t rent a car when I’m in London or Glasgow, but I will for visiting oxford or Stonehenge.

Public Transit Cards

When using public transit you have many options. Most cities, regions, or countries, have a card that you can swipe to use for transit and it will deduct the amount of the fare from the card. Others have passes you can use that allow you to use transit for a period of time from a day to a month for one price. In all systems you can buy a single ticket for a ride.

If you will be using public transit seldom or for a known fixed amount, buying single tickets or a pass with a set amount may be the way to go. If you will be traveling a lot on public transit buying a pass is probably the better option. Check out our guide on the JR Rail pass for more information on that pass. In Europe if you are going to be traveling between cities you can get a Euro-Rail pass. Cities like Tokyo, LA and Washington D.C. also have day passes and month passes you can buy and allow usage for a set period of time for one price.

What is a transit card?

A transit card is a plastic or metal card about the size of a credit card where you can put money on it and use it as a pass on public transit. Some well known cards as the Passmo/Suica cards in Japan, Smartrip cards in Washington D.C. and Tap cards in LA. To reload the cards you can either setup a payment from a bank or credit card or use a vending machine in the terminal to top up your card. One thing to note Suica/Passmo cards can only be refilled with a credit card if you are a foreigner and link it to your iPhone, physical cards require topping up at a kiosk.

What can I do with a transit card?

At it’s base level a transit card allows you to use public transit without buying a ticket. You just swipe and go, in some systems you need to swipe to enter and swipe to leave. Using the card will automatically deduct the fare from the card and is an added continence.

The Passmo/Suica card allows you to do this all over Japan, and also allows you to buy things from many stores in Japan using the card.

How can I make using transit cards easier?

One thing with transit cards is that you need to pull them out and swipe them, and that you can lose them. But what if you could add them to your phone? Well you might be able to. On the iPhone you can load a lot of transit cards into your wallet and use them either by simply swiping your phone over the reader as you walk by even if your phone is locked, or open up your wallet and swipe it like a credit card. This link from Apple explains how: Apple Transit card instructions, and here are instructions on doing it for a Suica card in Japan, which has separate requirements. You can add a plastic card or create a new one. I recommend adding a new card if you don’t have it and saving the 500 Yen fee for a card that you plan to add to your phone anyway. Once you add the card to your phone you can’t get a refund for it.

I’m on an Android what about me?

While I have an iPhone I know certain transit cards allow you to add them within google pay. As I get instructions I will add them here. I do know it is not as easy as adding them on an iPhone.


When traveling and using public transit, it can be easier and cheaper to use the local transit payment cards in most situations but you need to do your own research on whether it makes sense for you and your trip. I tend to buy transit cards when traveling and adding them to my phone for the convenience factor when using it will be more then the minimum balance I need to put on it. I also then have a souvenir that will remind me of my trip in the form of the card, and if I’m going back I already have a card I can use.


The Bald Traveler

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