Oyster Cards – Everything You Need to Know


The most common search on Google about London is:

how do Oyster cards work?

Are you even a Londoner if you’ve never owned an Oyster card? Paying with a debit card might be growing, but the Oyster is yet as quintessentially London as Adele or a night out at Rowans. 2.4 million Londoners make travel using an Oyster every Day. Precisely how do these blue cards work? Here you will find out everything you need to know.


Whether you’re going to London on holiday or you’re a frequent visitor, using an Oyster travel smartcard is the easiest way to travel around the city’s public transport system.

  • Oyster cards are electronic smart-cards you use to pay for public transport in London.
  • Visitor Oyster cards, Oyster cards and contactless payment cards are the cheapest way to travel in London.
  • To use an Oyster card, touch the Oyster on the yellow reader at the gates as you start and end your journey. No need to touch out at the end of your journey on trams and busses.
  • You can buy a Visitor Oyster card online before you come to London, or Oyster cards at TfL Visitor Centres, stations and Oyster ticket shops.

Visitor Oyster cards and Oyster cards are electronic smartcards fully charged with credit. The credit is used as you travel on the Tube, buses, DLR, MBNA Thames Clippers river bus, London Overground and most National Rail services in London.

Inside every Oyster card, there’s a chip that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. When you beep on to any service entrance, the tech sends info waves through the electromagnetic reader to a ticketing system. That keeps the Oyster’s credit balance updated and controls that you’ve got a valid ticket or Travelcard loaded. It also allows TfL to track how travellers are moving around on public transport.

That all seems pretty easy in today’s tech-saturated life, but it was a revolution in July 2003 when the Oyster card launched.

However, there are drawbacks. Oyster cards are costly to make. That is why TfL has started encouraging contactless payments via phones and bank cards and monitoring wifi-connected devices to track customers movements far more accurately than Oyster.

How do I use Oyster, Visitor Oyster, contactless and travelcards?

It’s simple to use a Visitor Oyster card, Oyster card or contactless payment card. Touch the card on the yellow card reader at the gates when you begin and end your journey. Doing so will assure you pay the correct fare. If you don’t, you may get a fine. If you require assistance, ask the station staff.

On buses and trams, you only need to touch the yellow card reader at the start of your journey.

Why should I buy a Visitor Oyster card?

A Visitor Oyster card is one of the most affordable ways to pay for single rides on the bus, Tube, tram, DLR, MBNA Thames Clippers river bus service, London Overground and most National Rail services in London:

  • Your card is ready to use as soon as you get to London
  • It’s more than 50% cheaper than getting a paper Travelcard or single tickets by cash
  • There is a periodic price cap – once you have reached this limit, you won’t spend any more (excluding MBNA Thames Clippers River Bus where there is no capping)
  • Exclusive offers and promotions at top London restaurants, shops and entertainment venues, plus discounts on the Emirates Air Line.

Where do I buy a Visitor Oyster card?

Buy a Visitor Oyster card before you are visiting London and get it delivered to your home address. It costs £5 (non-refundable) plus mailing costs. You can select how much credit to put on your card.

You can also purchase a Visitor Oyster card at Gatwick Express ticket offices at Gatwick Airport Station and onboard Eurostar trains going to London.

Alternatively, you can use a regular Oyster or any contactless payment (including your phone) to travel around London.

How do I add credit to my Visitor Oyster card?

If you run out of credit on your Visitor Oyster card you can add more credit at these locations:

  • Touchscreen ticket machines that can be found in the Tube, DLR, London Overground and some National Rail stations
  • About 4,000 Oyster Ticket Stops are in newsagents and small (corner) shops across London
  • TfL Visitor Centres
  • London Overground station ticket offices
  • Emirates Air Line terminals

What is the difference between Visitor Oyster and Oyster cards?

Oyster cards operate in the same way as Visitor Oyster cards but do not include special promotions. Oyster cards cost £5 (refundable), and you can also put credit.

Non-UK residents can buy visitor Oyster cards before they travel.

How do I put credit to the Oyster card?

You top up your Oyster card in the same way as a Visitor Oyster card.

You can also download the TfL Oyster app and top up your credit and buy adult-rate 7 Day, Monthly and Annual Travelcards.

You can also use a contactless bank or credit card and mobile phone to pay for your travel in London.

What is the difference between travelcards and Oyster?

Travelcards are paper tickets which allow you to travel as much as you like, for the duration of the travelcard. You can use travelcards on the bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services within London.

Travelcards are not valid for riverboat services. However, Thames Clippers River Bus and other river tour companies offer a 30% off if you have a valid Travelcard.

You can also get a 25% off on fares for the Emirates Air Line cable car.

You can use Anytime Day Travelcards at any time of the Day of validity any day of the week for any ride until 04:30 the following Day.

Alternatively, the Anytime Day Off-Peak Travelcard allows you to travel from 9:30 Monday to Friday and all Day Saturday and Sunday.

What is the difference between Oyster and contactless?

Contactless payment cards are debit, credit cards or pre-paid cards which can be used to easily pay for everyday shopping of £30 or less without a PIN or signature.

If you use a contactless payment card to travel in London, touch the card on the yellow card reader in exact the same method as Visitor Oyster cards and Oyster cards at the origin and end of the journey.

The primary benefits of using contactless payment cards are:

  • You won’t run out of credit on your Oyster
  • If you use that same card for all your rides, your fares will be automatically capped daily and weekly, so that you pay the lowest fare. Pay-as-you-go capping also includes when using Oyster or Visitor Oyster card to pay.

For non-UK contactless payment cards, check for any fees or bank charges that may apply.

How do I choose which one to buy?

Deciding which ticket to purchase, a Visitor Oyster card, Oyster card or Travelcard, depends on how long you’re spending in London and how often you’ll be utilising public transport.

If you plan to take two to four trips a day for a few days, or if you want to go to the outskirts, then a Visitor Oyster card, Oyster card or contactless payment card will be the best options.

If you are visiting London for five days or more, and intend to use only the Central London area (zones 1 to 2 or zones 1 to 4) to make more than three runs every Day then the most cost-effective choice is a 7-Day Travelcard

If you are in a group of 10 or more people, you can buy a Group Day Travelcard. For more information, visit the TfL website.

Discounts and concessions

Show your Visitor Oyster card at theatres,museums,restaurants, bars and more to receive special discounts and complimentary food and drinks.

Travel discounts and concessions are available, including:

Disabled Railcards

Holders of the above National Rail railcard can have their entitlement registered on their adult Oyster card. It then gives them 1/3 off the cost of all single rail fares and caps. There are no discounts for bus or tram single fares. And, while the railcard will only reduce the purchase of zone 1-6 and 1-9 paper travelcards, on Oyster, you get reductions on the zones 1-2, 1-3, 1-4 and 1-5 caps as well. The Oyster caps are cheaper than the travelcards. An adult companion travelling with a disabled railcard holder can obtain a discounted off-peak day travelcard.

16-25/26-30/HM Forces/Senior Railcards, Annual Gold Card

Holders of the tese National Rail railcards can have their entitlement registered on their adult Oyster card. That then gives them 1/3 off the amount of all single off-peak rail tickets (NR, Tube, DLR and Overground) and the off-peak cap. Bear in mind that the off-peak cap applies in the evening peak between 1600 -1900. There are no discounts for bus or tram fares. Plus, while the railcard will only reduce the purchase of zone 1-6 and 1-9 paper travelcards, on Oyster, you get discounts on the zone 1-2, 1-3, 1-4 and 1-5 caps too. Plus the Oyster caps are cheaper than travelcards.

Only adult and student 18+ Oyster cards can benefit from the railcard discount. 16+ zip cards get 50% off on all fares.

How to get the discount

You need to take your Oyster card and the National Rail discount card to an Underground ticket office, Overground ticket office or some National Rail offices. You then ask the seller to link your discount entitlement to your Oyster card. It will be valid till the expiry of the railcard. Once your Oyster has a discount added to it you can no longer give it with others as it is only valid with the joined discount card.

At an Underground station, you should ask one of the members of staff who will use a specific menu on one of the ticket machines.

And that’s all there is to it. Logic says that if you purchase a yearly travelcard season, the Gold card discount flag should automatically be set, but it won’t be. Just ask the clerk to make sure that it’s set.

Others (inc Family & Friends/Network/Two Together Railcards)

If you have additional railcards, then it is usually cheaper to use them, with paper tickets, rather than use only Oyster cards. You can use the family & friends plus two railcards together after 09.30 Mon-Fri, and anytime weekends and bank holidays. The Network Railcard cannot be used in the Oyster zone on Mon-Fri because of the small fare.

 One thing is for sure, with child off-peak fares and caps frozen for one more year, they are always better off with Oyster as long as they have a zip card.

You also need to remember that kids aged 5-10 travel free with a zip oyster card (except between Merstham, Gatwick Airport, Epsom – Ewell East/West, Crews Hill, Hertford North and St Pancras – Stratford International).

Tube, London Overground and zones overview

London’s transport network is divided up into nine travel zones. Zone 1 is in Central London, while zones 6 to 9 are on the outskirts of the city. You can find a Tube map HERE.tube-map

Visitor Oyster cards and regular Oysters can also be used on the London Overground network, which is made up of six orbital lines mainly operating in London’s outskirts.

Travel ticket costs vary depending on the transport you use, the zone(s) you travel in, the Day you travel and the time.

Peak travel is between 6:30 am to 9.30 am and 4.30 pm to 7 pm, Monday to Friday. Travelling is more expensive during these hours than it is during off-peak travel times (all other times, including bank holidays).


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