How do you use an Oyster card?

Whether you’re visiting or moving to London, it’s important to understand how to use an Oyster card. Here’s everything you need to know!

First off: what is an Oyster card?

An Oyster card is a reusable card that allows you to pay for public transportation in London, England. It’s used like a contactless debit card when you buy purchases by “tapping” your card onto the debit machine. It’s basically the same idea! You can add money to your card and top it up when the money gets low.

Oyster card

How do you use an Oyster card?

Thankfully, Oyster cards are very simple to use and vital when travelling around central London and beyond.

Simply “tap” your card onto the yellow card reader when you use public transportation. This could be for the London Underground (the Tube), buses and trams.

By tapping the machine, you’re letting the system know what type of transport you’re using and when you’re getting on. For most types of transport, you’ll need to “tap out” before you leave. This tells the system that you’re getting off at that particular stop so it knows how much to charge you.

If you forget to tap out, you’ll be charged a set-price. There’s daily capping fees so you’ll only get charged so much.

In some instances like the Tube, you won’t be able to leave the station without tapping out, which makes it next to impossible to forget! For other systems like the London buses, you won’t need to tap out.

While it can feel overwhelming at first, using an Oyster card is really simple once you get the hang of it. You’ll be a pro at London transport in no time!

Interested in visit or moving to the UK from the US? Make sure to check out my article: UK Visa From USA: What visa do I need?

Where can I buy an Oyster card?

Oyster cards are easy to come by with a variety of ways to buy them.

You can buy an Oyster card:

  • Online with a contactless and Oyster account (if you live in the UK. This option is great if you’re moving to London)
  • At Oyster Ticket Stops in many newsagents in London
  • At all Tube, London Overground and TfL Rail stations
  • Some DLR and National Rail stations
  • At Visitor Centres
  • At the Tramlink Shop in Croydon

Why use an Oyster card?

Using an Oyster card is super convenient and a necessity when you’re living in London. Almost all transport in London is cashless, meaning you cannot pay for your journey with cash. 

If you don’t want to use an Oyster card, you can use a contactless debit card in the same way. Simply tap in and out during your travel and the system will calculate what you charge you.

You can also buy paper tickets such as Day Travelcards if you don’t want to use an Oyster card or a debit card. These are good for day trips into the city. However, they are not capable of tapping in and tapping out as they’re made of paper. 

When using these on transport like the Tube, you’ll need to insert the card into the barrier machine instead of tapping the card reader. If you’re using a Travelcard on things like the bus, you’ll need to show your driver that you have a proper card to get on the bus.

You can get paper tickets from ticket machines located around the city, primarily at places like train stations. 

In some instances, it might be better to pay a set fee for a Day Travelcard. On certain ones, you can use it to take the train into London and then on the Tube during the day and back home again. This could be cheaper than paying for a train ticket and each Tube journey separately with a contactless card.

Thinking about driving in the UK instead? Make sure to read up on whether public transport is cheaper to driving in the UK.

London transportation
Inserting a Travelcard at a Tube barrier instead of using an Oyster card on the reader above.

Can I use an Oyster Card from Gatwick Airport?

Gatwick Airport is one of the many airports in and around London. If you’re flying into Gatwick airport, you can use your Oyster card to get into the city.

Before visiting London from Gatwick, make sure to check out my article: Visiting Gatwick Airport for everything you need to know!

You can use an Oyster Card (or other contactless payment) on the Gatwick Express, Thameslink trains and Southern trains between Gatwick airport and London. However, you cannot use Travelcards.

The Gatwick Express is a special train to and from the airport and the city, at a larger cost. The Gatwick Express gets you only to London’s Victoria Station in 30 minutes, every 15 minutes. It might actually be cheaper to pay for a ticket online than use your Oyster card. However, the Express does get you into London very quickly with minimal stops.