There are two main ways to use the Oyster card:
As a Pay as you go (PAYG) Oyster card
You 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 (by tapping in and out at the ticket barriers), 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. (Paper weekly or monthly Travelcards are still available from some London train stations.)
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.
Pay as you go (PAYG) Oyster card: an overview
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 it’s only for a few journeys, it’s much cheaper than paying the full cash fare.
How much does an Oyster card cost?
The Oyster card costs £5. You then add money to the card to pay for your travel. After one year the £5 fee will be added to your pay as you go money.
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 from a ticket machine (‘Cash single’).
|Oyster Single Fares|
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.
|Oyster Daily Cap|
For example, if you load £10 onto your Oyster card and travel by underground in central London (zone 1):
- If you make 1 journey £2.50 is deducted from your card
- If you make 2 journeys, £5 is deducted
- If you make 3 journeys, £7.50 is deducted
- For your 4th journey, £0.20 is deducted. You have reached the ‘daily cap’ and all other journeys until 4.30am the following morning are free. £2.30 of Pay as you go credit will remain on your Oyster card
Oyster Weekly Travelcard Cap
From Monday 27 September 2021, your Oyster card will automatically cap at the weekly Travelcard fare (this is already available on a contactless card). The cap starts on Monday and ends Sunday, so it mainly benefits Londoners or those working in London.
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’re not a frequent traveller. Some add the price of the daily ‘cap’ for the zones they’re visiting for that day. Others just add £15 or £25 and 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 any single journeys at the start or end of your trip if necessary. For example, to and from Heathrow airport.
If you do this then you won’t need to worry about topping up your card again. If there is money on your Oyster card at the end of your trip, you can get it back or keep it on your card for your next visit (it never expires).
Aim to have £10 or less of Pay as you go money on your card at the end of your trip and you can easily get a refund at an underground station ticket machine. Refunds are more complicated if you have more than £10 left on your card.
Oyster cards are available from the following places. At most places, You can top up your card as well.
Underground ticket machines
Unfortunately, most underground ticket offices are now closed. Oyster cards are available from ticket machines. The machines take notes (not £50 notes), coins and credit/debit cards.
Local shops and newsagents
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
Oyster cards and oyster top-ups are available from ticket machines in London train stations
TfL Visitor Centres
Most TfL visitor centres are now closed – Victoria, Kings Cross/St Pancras International & Piccadilly Circus offices are open on certain days
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 important to touch in and out when using a PAYG Oyster card. Even if there’s no physical barrier or if the barriers are open, 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 on your 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.
Via an Oyster account
If you register your card online with TfL, you can check how much money you have on your card.
Via the Oyster app
On an underground station ticket barrier
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. This doesn’t work on all barriers.
Anyone can get any unused money on your Pay as you go balance. See how to claim back unused money on a PAYG Oyster card.
The Visitor Oyster Card is aimed at tourists — you might be offered one by a tour company or airline before you arrive.
The card comes pre-loaded with money and there’s a £5 fee (plus postage).
You can’t load a weekly Travelcard or Bus Pass to a Visitor Oyster, which makes it less flexible than the ‘ordinary’ Oyster. It can only be used as a Pay as you go card, and the ‘daily cap’ is still applied.
The Visitor Oyster Card is only worth buying if:
- You’re happy to pay for postage to your country
- You want to pay for your travel in advance
- You’re arriving after the tube stations have closed and don’t have a contactless card debit/credit card 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: 1 March 2022