A London Oyster Card is made out of blue plastic and looks like a credit card. Oyster cards come in four different versions:
Oyster pay-as-you-go: The idea behind a pay-as-you-go Oyster card is that you load it up with however much credit you need, and the correct fare will be deducted every time you touch it on a reader. Think of it as a prepaid smartcard. If you start running low on credit then you simply top it up again at a ticket machine (we will explain how to top up later). PAYG Oyster cards do not have expiry dates on, and your credit remains valid forever.
Visitor Oyster cards: A Visitor Oyster Card is exactly the same as a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card, except that it’s aimed primarily at tourists. It basically just comes with some credit pre-loaded on to it when you buy it, to save you the hassle of loading it on yourself. We’ve made a comparison between Visitor Oyster cards vs regular Oyster cards on our Visitor Oyster Card page.
Oyster travelcards: Oyster travelcards work differently to pay-as-you-go cards because you don’t have to keep topping them up with credit. They simply cost you a one-off fee, and then they remain valid for a set period of time: either one day, one week, one month, or one year. Visit our travelcard page for more details.
Oyster travelcards + pay-as-you-go: It is also possible to load a travelcard straight onto a pay-as-you-go card – but only weekly and monthly ones. (You cannot load a 1-day travelcard onto an Oyster card.) This is actually quite handy, because it means that you can buy a weekly travelcard for zones 1-2, for example, and then include some extra PAYG credit for a one-off trip to zone 3, and have it all contained on the same card. We have explained how this works on our travelcard page.
You can use Oyster cards on the London Underground, London Overground, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London’s bus network, and some National Rail trains within the Oyster zones (1-9). (The exceptions are East Midlands, Grand Central, Hull Trains and Virgin Trains.)
You can also use them out to Watford Junction, on trains to Gatwick airport (Thameslink, Southern Trains and the Gatwick Express), and on the Thames Clippers riverboat services. You can even use them on the Emirates Air Line cable car.
Transport for London has a coverage map of which stations are within the Oyster zones on their website.
Oyster card prices for London’s buses and trains can be found here:
Here are the prices for child Oyster cards:
If you’re wondering whether Oyster cards or travelcards are cheaper then here’s the answer: it depends. Oyster cards and contactless cards are usually the cheapest way to travel in London, unless you are staying for a week or more, in which case a weekly travelcard will probably be cheaper – but it all depends on how many journeys you’re going to make.
If you are planning on making two or more journeys on each of the seven days, or three or more journeys on just five or six days, then a weekly travelcard is probably cheaper. Unfortunately there is no easy way to work it out. You just need to sit down and work out how many journeys you’ll be making and get your calculator out (sorry!).
The big advantage in using a pay-as-you-go Oyster card over a one day travelcard is the Oyster daily cap. Think of this as the maximum amount that will be taken from your Oyster card in any one day (it actually runs from 4.30 AM to 4.29 AM the next day). It doesn’t matter how many buses or trains you ride during that 24 hour period, the total amount taken from your card will never rise above the daily cap – and the daily cap is always lower than the cost of 1-day travelcard.
The daily cap changes depending on how you travel. If you want to pay the bus cap (which is the cheapest one) then you have to stick with the buses all day. If you use a mixture of buses and trains (or just the trains on their own) then you’ll have to pay the train cap instead.
The price for the train cap varies depending on which zones you travel through. But buses don’t have zones, so the price stays the same whichever ones you catch. We have listed all the price caps on our London bus fares and London train fares pages. If you need to double-check which zone each station is in then here’s a list of London underground stations.
Note: Journeys to Gatwick airport do not count towards the daily cap. Journeys on the Thames Clippers and Emirates Air Line cable car don’t count towards the cap either – they are always charged separately to your card.
Another note: even after you think you’ve reached the daily cap you still need to tap your Oyster card down every time you board a bus or train. But don’t worry: the computer will recognise that you have reached the cap and won’t charge you.
Important note: you have to pay a refundable deposit of £5 the first time you buy an Oyster card. And you can’t use that money for fares, either. So if you decide that you want £20 credit then you will have pay a total of £20 + £5.
Buy an Oyster card online: There are four ways to purchase a pay-as-you-go Oyster card. The easiest way is to buy an Oyster card online from the TFL (Transport for London) website and have it delivered to you. But this website is only suitable for people who live in the UK, though. If you want it delivered abroad then you will have to buy a Visitor Oyster card instead (which is explained in greater detail on our Visitor Oyster card page).
UK delivery typically takes between 2-4 days. And you also have to pay for the postage.
From a train station: The second way to get an Oyster smartcard is from a manned ticket window or a self-service machine at a train station. The manned ticket windows are currently being phased out of all the underground tube stations, though – so if you want to speak to a human then you’ll have to visit a big National Rail station instead. (National Rail stations are the big overground hubs like Euston, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, King’s Cross, Marylebone, Paddington and Waterloo.)
From a Travel Information Centre: The third way to buy an Oyster is from a Visitor Centre. There are seven of them in London: Euston station, King’s Cross station, Liverpool Street station, Paddington station, Piccadilly Circus station, Victoria station and Heathrow airport (there are actually two at Heathrow: one inside Terminals 2-3, and another one inside the Underground station).
From an Oyster Ticket Stop: The fourth and final way to buy Oyster passes is to look for an Oyster Ticket Stop. These are basically just high-street shops (usually newsagents), which have the blue Oyster card symbol showing in the window.
Buy a London Pass online:
Buy a London Pass + Oyster card
Before you spend money on an Oyster smart card, you might want to look at a London Pass.
The London Pass gives you free or discounted entry into lots of popular attractions, and you can also buy them with an Oyster card included, saving you the hassle of having to buy an Oyster card separately.
If your child is aged between 11 and 15 and you don’t want to get an Oyster photocard for them (because, let’s be honest, it’s a lot of extra hassle), then you can take advantage of the Young Visitor Discount scheme. This allows children to get 50% off the adult Oyster price for fourteen consecutive days. The discount does not apply to travelcards.
All you have to do is buy your child a normal adult pay-as-you-go Oyster card (not a travelcard), and then ask a member of the TFL staff to apply the Young Visitor Discount to it. You can do this at a London Underground station, a National Rail station (within London), or a London Visitor Centre (except the one at Gatwick airport).
Note: Your child must be with you when you do it (up to a maximum of four children per adult), and the member of staff may ask for proof of age.
Once the fourteen consecutive days are over the Oyster pass will revert back to charging adult fares again.
The first thing to remember is this: you always have to pay a £5 deposit the first time you buy a London Oyster card. And you can’t use that £5 towards fares. So if you decide that you need £20 credit then you will actually have to pay a total of £25.
The amount of credit you need will obviously depend on how long you’re staying in London for, and where you’re planning to go, but here are some tips for visitors…
Unless you fly in from Heathrow (zone 6), you will probably spend your entire holiday inside Oyster zone 1 (the touristy bit). Zone 2 is for places like Camden, Canary Wharf and Greenwich. Our train journey planner will tell you exactly which zones you pass through for each station. For example, if you look at the journey from Heathrow airport to Paddington, then you will see that it passes through zones 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Once you know which zones you will be travelling through, you then need to look at our train fares page. You will notice that each zone has something called a daily price-cap, which limits the amount of money that is taken from your Oyster card each day. You can use the buses and trains as many times as you like each day in that zone, and the maximum amount that will be taken from your card will only ever equal the daily cap.
So all you have to do is multiply the relevant daily cap by the number of days you are staying, and that’s how much credit you will need to load onto your Oyster card. Easy!
If your journey involves a change of trains then you only pay once – provided that you don’t exit any of the stations in-between. For example, if you are travelling between Waterloo and Liverpool Street, then you will need to change trains at Bank. But there is no need to exit the station at Bank – you should be able to walk between the platforms without passing through any barriers. As long as you remember to tap your bank card down at Waterloo and Liverpool Street then the computer will recognise that you only made one journey, and will charge you accordingly.
It works differently on the bus. You always have to pay a separate fare for each bus journey.
The maximum amount of money that your pay-as-you-go Oyster card can hold at any one time is £90 – it is not possible to load on more than that.
Topping up at a train station: The simplest way to top up an Oyster card is to use a self-service machine at a train station. Just touch the card on the big round yellow reader and then select ‘top up’ on the screen.
You can either pay by cash, debit or credit card. Some ticket machines are only set up to take credit cards and debit cards, though, so make sure you check before you press any buttons.
At an Oyster Ticket Stop: The second way of topping up your credit is at an ‘Oyster Ticket Stop’. These are basically just high-street shops (usually newsagents), which have a blue Oyster card symbol showing in the window. Just hand them your card and tell them how much credit you want to add on.
Topping up online: The third way is by registering your Oyster card on the TFL website. Once you’ve set it up you can log in and top it up online.
Automatic top-up: If you can’t be bothered to keep topping it up yourself then you can take advantage of the Oyster card’s ‘auto top-up’ feature, which will automatically draw another £20 to £40 from your bank account every time your credit drops below £10. You can set this up online at the TFL website.
To use an Oyster card on the bus all you have to do is touch it against the big round yellow reader by the front door. Some styles of bus also have a reader by the middle door and back door. If the card registered correctly then you should hear a beep and see a little green light on the reader. If it didn’t work, so try holding it flush with the reader. (You may have to take it out of your wallet.)
The correct fare will automatically be deducted from your card, and the remaining credit will be shown on a small screen close to the Oyster reader – which is a handy way to check the balance on your Oyster card.
There is no need to touch your Oyster card down again when you leave the bus – you only have to do that for trains.
Using an Oyster card on the train is easy. All you have to do is wave your Oyster card in front of the big round yellow reader at the front of the gate, and wait for the green light to appear. If it worked correctly then the correct fare will be deducted automatically and the gate will spring open.
If the gate refuses to move then try getting your card out of your wallet and touching it flush against the reader. If that doesn’t work then you are probably out of credit (there is usually a little LCD screen next to the reader which lets you check your Oyster card balance).
You will need to touch the card down again at the end of your train journey. Don’t worry about being charged twice: the computer needs to work out which zones you travelled through, so if you forget to touch down as you exit then it won’t know where you went, and you will instead be charged whatever the maximum journey was on that line (ouch!).
So the golden rule is this: for buses you only need to touch down when you get on, but for trains you need to touch down at both ends.
If you are travelling together, then definitely not – each person needs to own their own Oyster card.
If you are travelling at totally different times then yes, two people can share one Oyster card – provided that they each have it in their sole possession for the entire journey. This rule only applies to pay-as-you-go Oyster cards, though. If your Oyster card contains a travelcard then it cannot be lent to anyone else.
Lots of tourists try and tap their Oyster cards down twice, making the perfectly reasonable assumption that it will subtract two fares, but the system doesn’t work like that. The first time you tap down the computer will think that you are entering the station, and the second time you tap down it will think that you are leaving the station. If tap twice on the same gate within two minutes then the computer will charge you a maximum fare of up to £8.80. This will be refunded only if you begin a new journey within 45 minutes. If you tap twice on the same gate outside of two minutes, then you will be charged a minimum fare instead (which changes depending in which zone the station is in).
But the important point is this: if you tap twice, then only one Oyster card fare will be deducted – not two!
If you want to check your Oyster card history then you will need to register on the TFL website beforehand. You will then be able to log in and see the previous 12 months-worth of journeys and print them off as a CSV file. You can also check your Oyster card balance online.
If you don’t want to register, or you didn’t register prior to making all the journeys, then it’s still possible to get a record of your Oyster journeys – but only for the previous 7 days. Follow the link on this page for details.
Refund at a train station: At the end of your holiday you can claim back the £5 deposit, plus any credit that you haven’t yet spent (up to a maximum of £10), at a self-service ticket machine at a London Underground station. Just touch the Oyster pass against the yellow reader and select ‘Oyster Refund’, and follow the on-screen instructions.
Claiming a refund online: If you need an Oyster refund of more than £10 then you will need to visit the TFL website instead. But this only works if you set up an online account beforehand. [Note: it is not possible to set up an account for a Visitor Oyster card, only normal Oyster cards.]
If you didn’t set up an account then you will have to give the TFL Customer Service team a ring on 0343 222 1234, or download their application form from their website.
Keeping the credit: If you can’t be bothered to get a refund then don’t throw away the Oyster card, because Oyster cards don’t have an expire date on them, so the remaining credit never disappears. That means you can carry on using your Oyster pass the next time you come to London.
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