Exploring London with the Oyster Card

Image of author Matthias
Matthias
7. November 2019
17 ratings

The electronic London Oyster Card is the cheapest and most convenient way of using the city’s public transport. After loading any amount onto your card at the start of your trip to London, you can travel on virtually all the public transport in the city. At the end of your trip, you can reclaim your remaining credit balance. Here’s how it works:

Contents

What is an Oyster Card?

London Oyster CardThe London Oyster Card offers a cheap, convenient way of exploring the city on public transport. It’s valid for traveling on the subway (Tube), the DLR (London’s overground and underground network in the Docklands), buses and trams, the Thames ferries, the Emirates Air Line (cable car) and most National Rail trains. You’re automatically charged the cheapest fare when using the Oyster Card, as your starting point and destination are recorded when you scan your card. The Visitor Oyster Travel Card can be purchased online from the Visit Britain website (official shop of the National Tourist Board).

In principle, the London Oyster Card is an electronic prepaid card for public transport. Upon entering or exiting public transport, you scan the card, which then automatically calculates the correct fare and deducts the corresponding amount from your balance. Bus or tram rides are automatically charged at £1.50 per one-way trip.

*If you want to buy your Oyster Card in advance, check the Visitor Oyster Card here. 

What does the Oyster Card cost?

You’ll be charged a £5 deposit (refundable when you surrender the card) for the London Oyster Card. It’s then up to you to decide how much you want to load onto your card. The card can be loaded with amounts of £10, £15, £20, £25, £30, £35, £40, £50 or even £90 if you’re planning on staying in London for a long time. You can save considerable time and money with an Oyster Card! Kids under the age of 5 even travel free when accompanied by an adult. This certainly makes a difference, as the London subway is expensive. Fares for one-way trips without an Oyster Card start at £4.90.

If you’re not sure whether it’s worth buying an Oyster Card or Travelcard in your particular case, take a look at our price comparison for advice.

A girl with a London Tube Map

What means of transport can you use with an Oyster Card?

The Oyster Card is valid all over London. You can use all forms of public transport in Central London. The London subway network is divided into 9 different fare zones. Most of the sightseeing attractions are located in zones 1 to 3, making this area the most important one for tourists. The advantage of the Oyster Card is that you don’t have to decide in advance which zones you want to visit. Each journey you make is simply deducted from the credit balance on your card. This makes the card very easy to use and ensures that you always pay the right fare, no more and no less.

Subway and train fares

Peak-Tarif*

Off-Peak*

Daily Cap

Zone 1

£2.40

£2.40

£7.00

Zone 1 - 2

£2.90

£2.40

£7.00

Zone 1 - 3

£3.30

£2.80

£8.20

Zone 1 - 4

£3.90

£2.80

£10.10

Zone 1 - 5

£4.70

£3.10

£12.00

Zone 1 - 6

£5.10

£3.10

£12.80

Bus and tram fares

Peak-Tarif & Off-Peak*

Daily Cap

Alle Zonen

£1.50

£4.50

*The peak fare applies at peak travel times (Monday – Friday, from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.). The off-peak fare applies at other times of the day.

Where can you purchase an Oyster Card?

You can purchase the Visitor Oyster Card from home

Visitors Oyster CardFor those of you who like to get everything organized before setting off on your vacation, the Visitor Oyster Card London is the perfect option. The card will be delivered to your home address, so you won’t have any formalities to deal with while you’re in London. That means you’ll be able to start your vacation the moment you step off the plane, and you’ll be spared the hassle of lining up for ages to purchase an Oyster Card.

The only difference is that you’ll only be able to load the card with a maximum of £50 instead of the usual £90. That’s because this type of card is classed as a visitor card.

BUY YOUR OYSTER CARD HERE

What’s the difference between the Visitor Oyster Card and the regular Oyster Card for London?

The Visitor Oyster Card that’s delivered to your door can be used immediately without any additional activation fee. As soon as you get off the plane, you’re ready to board the next train. In other respects, the Visitor Oyster Card is just the same as the classic version:

  • You save up to 50% on every subway journey and never have to pay more than the daily price cap.
  • The price of this card includes the £3 activation fee and the amount of money you load onto it. That means, if you have £53 on your card, you can spend £50 on public transport.
  • Should you run out of money at any point, you can easily top up the Visitor Oyster Card at any ticket machine in London.
  • If there’s a credit balance left on your card at the end of your holiday, you can request a refund at any TfL tourist information center (the umbrella organization of the London transport network).

Buying the Oyster Card in London

The Oyster Card can be purchased locally at any London subway station, ticket machine or TfL center. If you’re buying an Oyster Card for the first time (as opposed to topping up an existing one), you’ll be asked to pay a £5 deposit, which will be refunded as soon as you return or deactivate the card.

How can you buy the Oyster Card in London?

Below is a step-by-step guide to purchasing a London Oyster Card.

  • Look for a ticket machine with the Oyster symbol and select “Buy and Top Up”.
  • Press on “Get New Cards” and select the number of cards you wish to buy.
  • Then specify the prepaid amount you wish to load onto your card (between £5 and £90).
  • As soon as you’ve specified the amount, you’ll be directed to the payment screen. The price displayed here corresponds to the amount of credit you’ve selected plus the mandatory £5 deposit. You can now pay in cash or by credit or debit card.
  • Once payment has been made, the following message appears: “Collect your Oyster Card”. You can then retrieve your Oyster Card from the lower compartment, just like a normal subway ticket.
  • At the end of the transaction, a yellow button appears on the screen of the ticket machine, allowing you to view the current balance on your card.

How do you return the Oyster Card at a ticket machine?

Returning a card to a ticket machine is just as easy as purchasing one, provided you know how it works. However, please bear in mind that ticket machines only accept Oyster Cards on certain conditions:

  • You can only return your card at a ticket machine if you purchased it more than 48 hours previously.
  • Oyster Cards are not accepted at ticket machines if the remaining credit balance exceeds £10.
  • If the card was bought less than 48 hours previously or the remaining credit balance exceeds £10, you can return it to a TfL Visitor Center.
  • However, assuming you fulfill the criteria, returning the card at a ticket machine is a fast, convenient option. Here’s what to do:
  • Look for the Oyster Card symbol and select “Oyster Refunds”.
  • Select “Pay as you go refund” on the yellow button.
  • Your card details and the refundable amount – deposit + remaining credit balance – will then be displayed automatically.
  • Important note: Irrespective of the original payment method, the remaining credit is always paid out in cash.

FAQs

  • What is the daily limit or “daily cap”?
    If you use multiple means of transport or travel on several different routes in one day, you’ll soon reach the maximum daily amount. From then on, you will no longer be charged the fare for each individual journey. Instead, a day pass will be charged to your card retrospectively. You then pay the amount of the so-called “daily cap”, which ranges between £6.80 and £12.50. The price of this ticket depends on the zones you have traveled through up until that point, and is always 50 pence cheaper with the Oyster Card than a day ticket purchased at a ticket machine.
  • What happens if I overdraw the credit balance on my Oyster Card?
    Overdrawing the credit balance on your Oyster Card doesn’t mean you can travel around for free on the last day of your vacation. In this case, the amount owed will be deducted from the £5 deposit. You can settle this negative amount the next time you top up your card, or simply retain the card instead of returning it and forfeit your left-over credit. Unreturned cards are valid for up to 2 years since the date of last use. On expiry, they can be reactivated at a TfL center at no extra charge. Further information about the Oyster Card
  • How much money should I load onto my card?
    That depends on how long you’re planning to stay in London and what zones you’ll be traveling in. As a general guide, you can expect to pay £10 on public transport for every day you’re in London. If you’ve budgeted a higher amount and there’s some left-over credit on your card, you can easily have it refunded.
  • What happens if you forget to swipe your card through the electronic reader when leaving the station?
    That’s something you can’t forget. Whenever you enter or leave a station, you’ll need to use your card. The only exceptions to this rule are stations outside Central London. Even if there isn’t a ticket barrier or turnstile, you’ll still need to check out the journey on arrival at your destination. Failure to do so will result in the longest route automatically being charged to your Oyster Card, which means you’ll end up paying more than necessary.

London Tube Pass

Our budget-tip: London Pass + Oyster Card

If you’re traveling to London and want to see the city’s major tourist attractions, you should consider purchasing a London Pass. This is a kind of tourist card that offers free admission to over 60 places of interest, monuments and attractions. Another option is to buy the London Pass and the Oyster Card together. With this all-inclusive package, you can visit places of interest at reduced prices without worrying about the cost of public transport.

See more about the London Pass

About the author
Matthias Lehming
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