The Oyster card is not a ticket. It’s a reusable electronic card or ‘smart card’ which is used to pay for travel on all types of public transport in London: buses, underground, DLR (Docklands Light Railway), trams and local trains.
There are two main ways to use the Oyster card:
As a Pay as you go (PAYG) Oyster card
You can add money to the Oyster card and use it to pay for single journeys or for travel for the whole day (the ‘daily cap’). It’s a bit like a Pay as you go SIM card for mobile phones. When you use your card, the cost of travel is deducted from your Oyster card balance.
To store season tickets
In place of paper tickets, the weekly or monthly Travelcard or Bus Pass are ‘loaded’ onto an Oyster card.
You can also add some money to your Oyster card if you have a Weekly or Monthly Travelcard. This is useful if you need to travel outside your weekly Travelcard zone.
Are you visiting London? Read our guide to London’s transport tickets and passes.
The PAYG Oyster card is the cheapest and most flexible way to pay for travel, especially if your visit to London is between 1–5 days. Even if you only plan to take a few journeys, it’s much cheaper than paying the full cash fare.
How much does an Oyster card cost?
The Oyster card itself is free, but you pay a £5 deposit when you first get your card. You then add money to the card to pay for your travel. If you don’t want to keep the card for future visits, the deposit can be refunded along with any remaining balance.
How does it work?
Once you have an Oyster, you add money to it (‘top up‘) and the fare for your journey is taken from your Oyster card balance when you use it.
It works out the cost of the journey and how many journeys you take when you tap your card on the Oyster card reader (‘tap in and out’) at a tube or train station ticket barrier, or by tapping the reader when you get on a bus.
The Pay as you go Oyster card is the cheapest way to pay for single tickets on the underground. For journeys in central London (zone 1), ticket prices are more than 50% cheaper with an Oyster card.
Here’s a comparison between Pay as you go Oyster card single fares and the standard tube ticket fare if you pay by cash.
|Single: off-peak||Single: peak||Cash single|
Oyster single fares: peak and off-peak times
If you use your Pay as you go Oyster card only few times a day, the price you pay for each single journey depends on the time of day you travel.
Monday–Friday 6.30am–9.30am and from 4pm–7pm. If you travel into central London (zone 1) from an outer zone, there is no afternoon peak rate.
Off-peak fares are charged at all other times, including Public Holidays.
If you plan to travel by tube at least 3 times in one day, you benefit from the Oyster card ‘daily cap’. This is the maximum amount deducted from your card for travel in one day.
For example, if you load £10 onto your Oyster card and travel by underground in central London (zone 1):
- If you make 1 journey £2.40 is deducted from your card
- If you make 2 journeys, £4.80 is deducted
- If you make 3 journeys, £6.50 is deducted
- Your 4th and all other journeys until 4.30am the following morning are free and £3.50 will remain on your Oyster card
Top Tip: If you visit London for 5 to 7 days and use public transport every day, a Weekly Travelcard is cheaper than a PAYG Oyster.
It’s up to you how much money you add to the card. The beauty of the Oyster card is that it’s flexible. Some people add enough for a single journey, especially if they don’t use it regularly. Some add the price of the daily ‘cap’ for the zones they’re visiting for that day. Other people just add £15 or £25 and then keep an eye on the balance.
Best option for visitors
For visitors, the best option is to add the cost of the daily cap to your card x the number of full days in London. Add a little extra to cover single journeys at the start or end of your trip if necessary.
You won’t have to worry about topping up your card again and if you have money on your card at the end of your trip, you can get it back along with the oyster card deposit.
Oyster cards are available from the following places. You can also top up your card.
Underground ticket machines
Unfortunately, most underground ticket offices are now closed but Oyster cards are available from ticket machines. The machines take notes, coins and credit/debit cards.
Many newsagents and corner shops are licensed to sell London Transport tickets including Oyster cards. They normally have signs in the window saying ‘Oyster Ticket Stop’. You can top-up your Oyster card as well.
Find an Oyster Ticket Stop
London train stations ticket machines and ticket offices
Oyster cards are available from most train stations. Not all train station ticket offices can ‘top up’ your Oyster card – you have to do it at a ticket machine.
London Underground Visitor Centres
London Underground Visitor Centres in Piccadilly Circus tube station, Liverpool St tube station, Victoria train station, King’s Cross tube station (near St Pancras station entrance), Euston train station, Paddington train station and Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 tube station.
Place your card flat on the yellow card reader on the right-hand side of the ticket barrier and the barrier will open. Do the same at the end of your journey to open the exit barriers.
It’s very important to touch in and out when using a PAYG Oyster card. Even if there’s no physical barrier, you still need to touch the yellow card reader when you enter and exit the station. If you don’t, the full cash fare (£4–£7) is deducted for your journey.
If you have a lot of luggage or are pushing a pushchair, station attendants will quite often push open the barrier for you. Do make sure you touch the yellow reader for the reason mentioned above. The attendants don’t always remind you to do it.
Place your card flat on the yellow card reader near the driver when you get on the bus. You don’t need to touch out when you get off the bus.
If you want to check how much money you have left on you Oyster card, there are several ways to find out:
From an underground station ticket machine
Place your card on the yellow card reader on a ticket machine and your remaining balance will flash up on the screen. This is the easiest way to check your balance.
From an underground station ticket office
Any member of staff at a ticket office will be able to tell you how much money you have left on your Oyster card.
From underground station ticket barriers
When you place your card on the yellow card reader on a ticket barrier, the balance on your card flashes on the screen. When you arrive at your destination and touch out at a barrier, your remaining balance flashes on the screen along with the fare charged for that particular journey. Please note though that this does not work on all barriers.
Anyone can get their deposit refunded and any unused money on your Pay as you go balance. See our guide on how to claim back unused money on a PAYG Oyster card.
The Visitor Oyster Card is aimed tourists—you might be offered one by a tour company or airline. They’re also available online.
The card comes pre-loaded with money and there’s a £3 non-refundable ‘activation fee’.
You can’t load a weekly Travelcard or Bus Pass to a Visitor Oyster, which makes it slightly less flexible than the ‘ordinary’ Oyster. It can only be used as a Pay as you go card, but the ‘daily cap’ is still applies.
The Visitor Oyster Card is worth buying if:
- You’re happy to pay for postage and a £3 non-refundable fee
- You want to pay for your travel in advance
- You’re arriving in London very late at night, after the tube stations have closed, and want to use the night buses
Otherwise, just wait until you arrive in London and get an ordinary Oyster card from one of the places listed above.
- Guide to London’s transport tickets & passes
- Oyster single tickets
- Oyster refunds
- Contactless cards
- London Transport zones
Last updated: 2 January 2016