London Oyster Card: What it is and how it works

The London Oyster Card is a prepaid magnetic card for use on public transport in London. It is the most recommended payment method, since with an oyster card you can save money on each trip you make.

Here we tell you what it is, how it works and where you can use the oyster card. If you are going to travel to London, you will surely need to decide if an oyster card or a travelcard is better for you, here we will help you decide.

What will you find in this article?

What is the London Oyster Card?

The London Oyster Card is a prepaid plastic magnetic card, and is the easiest and cheapest option for using public transport in London. It is a single person card, that is, it is necessary to have an oyster card per person, it is not possible to use the same oyster card for more than one person.

It is valid for use on the London Underground and public buses, as well as other methods of transport such as overground, DLR (light rail), some trains and (non-tourist) boats on the Thames.
The oyster card can be used in all transport zones in London, and when buying it there is no need to choose which transport zones to use (unlike the London travelcard).

Do I need an oyster card?

Until now, we have always recommended using an oyster card to pay for public transport in London. You could get one when you arrived in London, use it and return it, thus recovering the deposit you had paid.

But, since it is not possible to easily recover the deposit for oyster cards purchased after February 2020, we believe that the most advisable thing now is to use a contactless card that does not charge you a commission for using it abroad. In our opinion, the Revolut card is surely one of the best options. You can ask for one before traveling to London, so you don’t have to worry about buying one when you arrive in London, nor do you have to top it up, or ask for the remaining balance at the end of the trip… It is used in the same way as the oyster card, with the same prices and daily caps.

How does the oyster card work?

To get a London Oyster Card you will have to pay a £5 deposit. Once obtained, you must add balance to start using it. When you do not have an amount of money equal to or greater than the cost of a metro trip, it will not let you pass, and you will have to add more balance. This can be done at a tube ticket office or at one of the self-service machines at any London tube or train station.

How to use the oyster card on the London Underground

To use the London oyster card you simply have to tap the card on the yellow symbol at the entrance to the subway (in the same doors that open to enter) when the small light next to the reader is green. By tapping on this symbol, if you have enough balance on the card, the metro doors will open. To exit the metro, you must also tap on this symbol. As a detail, I have to mention that if the card is inside a case, it is not necessary to remove it for it to work.
The fact of tapping the London oyster card on the yellow reader when entering and exiting the tube is very important, since the price of the trip is calculated according to the tube stop you enter and the one you leave, so even if they are open doors you must play with your oyster because if you don’t knock when you leave, you will be fined and charged up to 6 pounds for your journey. This is the reason why the oyster card is personal.

How to use the oyster card on the DLR, TFL Rail and London Overground

To use the oyster card on the DLR, on TFL Rail and on the London overground you will have to follow the same steps as when using it for the London Underground.

How to use the oyster card on the public bus in London

To use the oyster card on the bus, you just have to touch the yellow reader located next to the driver or next to the rear doors of the bus when entering, it is not necessary to touch the yellow reader again when exiting the bus. bus.

Every time you enter the tube or the bus, touching the London oyster card will indicate on the screen the remaining balance on the card, and when leaving the tube it will also indicate on the screen, in addition to the remaining balance, what has been cost the journey you have made.

Where can I buy the London Oyster Card?

  • Tube station in London
  • oyster ticket shop
  • On-line
  • Heathrow Airport (tube station)
  • Gatwick Airport (train station)

You can buy the London oyster card at any tube station, either at a window or from one of the self-service machines. In practically all the stations, the self-service machines are in several languages, making the process easier. It is also possible to buy the London oyster card in shops in central London that have an ‘Oyster Ticket Shop’ sticker on the door.

You can also buy the oyster card at Heathrow Airport Tube Station and Gatwick Airport Train Station, as you can use the oyster card to go by train from Gatwick to central London.

You can buy a Visitor Oyster Card online on website and they will send it to your home, with a built-in balance, so you don’t have to buy an oyster card when you arrive in London. Further down, in this same article, I explain what a visitor oyster card is.

When you buy an oyster card you have to pay a deposit of £5 for the card. To start with, I recommend buying an oyster card and top it up with a £10 or £20 balance for example.
How to order an oyster card in English: «One oyster card with 10 pounds please».

How to recharge the oyster card

In any metro station there are cash machines similar to bank ATMs, with the yellow oyster card symbol. Most machines today offer the option of being able to choose different languages, including Spanish, so it is not difficult to recharge.

In any case, to recharge the oyster card there are three simple steps that you have to follow:

    1. Tap your oyster on the yellow symbol. It will tell you how much balance you have left and give you several options.
    2. To recharge you must choose the “Top up” option. You choose the amount you want to top up, and you can use a credit or debit card, or use bills or coins to top up.
    3. To confirm the recharge, once you have inserted the money or made the purchase with your card, you will be asked to present the oyster card again at the yellow reader. When you do this, it will put on the screen that the recharge has been confirmed.

Don’t forget that you must tap your oyster card on the yellow reader twice : at the beginning and at the end.

When recharging the oyster card you will also have the option of adding a travelcard to your oyster card, which is basically adding an amount of money that will allow you to make unlimited trips for a certain number of days in the number of zones you choose. This is something I would only recommend if you are going to be in London for a week and if you are going to use public transport a lot. If not, in my opinion, it is easier to use the oyster card and add balance when you need it.

Return London oyster card

Until now, it was possible to return the oyster card if you weren’t going to use it anymore. This way you could recover the £5 deposit and the balance that you had left. But, since February 23, 2020 this has changed.

Return an oyster card purchased before February

If you already had an oyster card you can use it without problems if you are going to travel to London again, since it does not expire. You can also leave it with someone if you know someone who is traveling to London.

Oyster cards purchased before February 23, 2020 can be canceled, and by doing so it is possible to recover the deposit and the remaining balance without problems. If your remaining balance is less than £10, you can get your money back using a machine at any tube station. Tap the oyster card on the yellow reader and choose refund or return oyster card. If it exceeds £10 you will have to go to a window. Normally, the return will be in cash. If you paid for the oyster card with a debit or credit card and recharged the balance with the same card, some stations can refund the associated card, but this is not always the case. You can also do it online on the official TFL website and ask them to cancel it, returning the deposit and the remaining balance.

So for example, if you have an oyster card with £ 2.80 on it that you haven’t used, you can still get back the £ 5 deposit + the £ 2.80 you have left unused.

Oyster cards purchased after February

The new oyster card, which differs from the old oyster card by featuring a “D” on the back of the card, can no longer be returned.

The 5 pound deposit will be automatically returned as the balance for the card one year after purchasing the card. This is good news for those people who use the oyster card for a long time, since by never returning the card you do not recover the deposit, and in this way they give you those 5 pounds a year as a balance.

But, for those people who are only going to be in London for a short time, it means that they will not be able to recover the deposit at the end of the trip. If you travel to London again, you can use it again, or leave it to someone traveling to London. But you can also register the oyster card online on the tfl website, where it is possible to request that the remaining balance be transferred to your bank account, and a year after purchasing it, this will also include the deposit you have paid.

How much does it cost each way using an oyster card?

The price of each journey will depend on two things:

  • The transport zones in London that you have passed through: depending on whether you are going from zone 1 to zone 1, or from zone 1 to zone 3, etc.
  • The time of day you travel: The journey will be a little more expensive if you travel during rush hour (peak time), that is, a business day between 6:30 and 9:30 in the morning and between 4:00 and 7:00 in the afternoon. If you travel outside rush hour (off peak) it will be a little cheaper.

Price Table of different routes with Oyster Card and without Oyster Card

Zones Oyster (off-peak) Oyster (rush hour) no oyster
one £2.40 £2.40 £5.50
two £2.50 £3.00 £5.50
1 -2 £2.50 £3.00 £5.50
1- 3 £2.80 £3.40 £5.50
1 -4 £2.90 £4.00 £6.00
fifteen £3.20 £4.80 £6.00
1- 6 £3.30 £5.30 £6.00
2 – 6 £2.80 £1.50 £5.90
Bus £1.50 £1.50
Gatwick Express £19.90 £19.90 according to train
Heathrow Express £25.00 £22.00 according to train

Oyster Card Daily Maximum Cap

It is also very important to bear in mind that there is a MAXIMUM DAILY CAP (daily cap) from which trips using the oyster card are free. This daily maximum (calendar day) depends on the areas in which you have traveled, and basically once you have reached that maximum the following trips you make (on any method of public transport in London) will be free. It is necessary to keep touching the oyster card on the reader when entering the bus or entering and exiting the tube, but you will see on the screen when you pass it that you are charged 0 pounds.

Price Table – Maximum Daily Cap Oyster Card 2022

Zones Daily Cap Oyster Card
1 – 2 £7.40
1 – 3 £8.70
1 – 4 £10.60
fifteen £12.70
1 – 6 £13.50
Bus (any zone) £4.65

What is the Visitor Oyster Card: London’s oyster card for tourists

The Visitor Oyster Card is the transport card designed for tourists in London, and it is possible to buy it online on this website with the balance you choose (£5 activation + balance from £20 to £50). They send it to any country, and it is possible to choose normal shipping or express shipping (I recommend ordering it a few weeks before traveling if possible!). It works exactly the same as a normal oyster card, but the only difference with the normal oyster card is that you already buy it with a certain amount of balance (the one you choose) and they send it to your home. It has a different design than the normal oyster card, which is why many people also keep it as a London souvenir.

Discounts with the Visitor Oyster Card

Although it works the same as the normal oyster card, the Visitor Oyster Card has some advantages for tourists. By presenting the visitor oyster card you can get offers and discounts in some shops and restaurants in London. Although there are many, some of these offers are:

  • Bon Vivant Restaurant in Bloomsbury: Free Glass of Prosseco or Soft Drink per person with meal.
  • Brasserie Blanc Restaurant: 20% discount on the menu.
  • Ice Bar London: 10% discount on admission and on drinks or products in the store.
  • Confectionery Paul: Free croissant when you order a hot drink before 11 am.
  • Planet Hollywood: 20% discount on food and drinks from the menu.
  • Skylon: 10% discount on food and drink at this restaurant with views of the Southbank.
  • London Transport Museum : 15% discount on food and drink from the museum cafeteria.
  • Kew Gardens : 10% discount in store and on hot drinks in the cafeteria.
  • London Bridge Experience : 2×1 offer on tickets to London’s passage of terror when you show your London visitor oyster card.
  • Foyles Bookstores – 15% off
  • Beatles Store: Free Beatles Store souvenir bag when you make a purchase over £5.
  • M&M’s Store: 15% discount on all products in the store.

Disadvantages of the Visitor Oyster Card

The only drawback that the visitor oyster card had before is that it cannot be returned, so you do not get the deposit back. But, since February 2020 it is not easy to recover the deposit of the normal oyster card either, so really all that the visitor oyster card offers are advantages.
It is possible to recover the remaining balance by going to a self-service machine in any metro station or at a window. The remaining balance must be less than £10 and more than 48 hours have passed since the first trip.

More information on using Public Transport in London

Use contactless card

It is possible to use a contactless debit or credit card to pay for public transport in London. It works exactly the same as an oyster card for London transport, and it is also necessary to use a contactless card per person.

Like the oyster card, it simply needs to be tapped on the same yellow reader used for the oyster card, when entering and exiting the London Underground, and when boarding the public bus.

The rates that apply when using a contactless card on London transport are exactly the same as when using an oyster card, with the same daily cap.

The only drawback is that if you have a card from a bank that is not from England, your bank may charge you a commission each time you use it, and in that case it will be much more expensive than using an oyster card. For this reason, I recommend that you find out well at your bank before coming if you want to use your contactless card on London transport, or ask for a contactless card to travel, such as the Revolut.

Transport in London for children

Children under the age of 11 generally do not pay when using public transport within London transport zones, but here we explain it all in detail: Transport for children in London.

The London travelcard: The other London transport card

The travelcard is another London transport card. This card is useful if you are going to be in London for several days, or if you are going to stay in a remote area of London or if you are going to use public transport a lot outside of London zones 1 and 2 on a daily basis.

For more information you can read our article about the London travelcard here: London Travelcard transport card

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