The Oyster Card is the most recommended option for use to travel on London´s public transport. It is what Londoners tend to use on a daily basis for commuting, and it is normally the cheapest way for tourists to get around London.
In this article we will explain what the Oyster card actually is, how it works and how to decide if it is the right option for you if you are planning a trip to London. Paying for your travel in London with an oyster card is much cheaper than paying for single tickets, but we will tell you how this works in detail in this article.
What is a London Oyster Card?
Visitor Oyster Card: The London oyster card for tourists
Visitor Oyster Card Discounts
- Bon Vivant Restaurant in Bloomsbury: Free Prosecco or fizzy drink per person.
- Brasserie Blanc Restaurant: 20% discount.
- Paul: Free croissant when ordering a hot drink before 11 am.
- Skylon: 10% discount on food and drink.
- London Transport Museum: 15% discount on food and drink from the museum cafeteria.
- Kew Gardens: 10% discount in-store and hot drinks in the cafeteria.
- London Bridge Experience: 2-for-1 tickets are available when visitor oyster cards are presented at the ticket office.
- Foyles Bookstores: 15% discount.
- Beatles Store: Free souvenir bag from the Beatles store when you spend over £5.
- M&M’s store: 15% discount on all products in the store.
Some of these offers are subject to change – please check with TFL!
Do I need an Oyster Card if I visit London?
The simple answer to this question is yes, unless you have a debit or credit contactless card that you can use.
The Oyster card guarantees you the absolute minimum fare for each journey, and the daily cap makes it a no-brainer. Even if you are in London just for one day, if you are going to use public transport a few times during the day, it works out cheaper to buy an Oyster Card and use this to get around, rather than paying for single fares every time. What is more, you can’t pay cash on a London bus any more, so if you are planning on using the bus, you will need a valid oyster card, travel card or contactless card.
A few years ago, we used to recommend the oyster card to everyone – or a travel card if you were staying in London for more than five days. We now recommend using contactless payment on London Transport – as the fares applied when using contactless are exactly the same as if using an Oyster Card.
How does the oyster card work?
Using the oyster card on London Underground, Overground and DLR
To use the oyster card for travelling on the London Underground, Overground, DLR or trains, you simply have to touch the yellow card reader that is located to your right at the barriers with your oyster card. The barriers will open as soon as you touch the yellow reader if there is enough balance on the oyster card. Once you have completed your journey, you will need to touch the yellow reader again with your oyster card for the barriers to open when you exit the station.
The fare that you pay using an oyster card will be calculated at the time you touch the yellow reader at the exit barriers. The fare will depend on the travel zones that you have travelled to and from and the time of the day that you have travelled, as there are peak and off-peak fares.
This is why one oyster card is needed for each person. If you fail to touch the reader with your oyster card when you enter or exit, you will pay the maximum fare possible as a fine, so if you get to the station and you find that the barriers are open, make sure you use your oyster card to touch the reader anyway to make sure you pay the right fare.
Using the oyster card on the bus
To use the oyster card for getting around London on the bus, you only have to touch the yellow reader with your oyster card when you enter the bus. There is a reader next to the driver and another one by the back door on the new double-decker buses. You don´t need to touch the reader again when you leave the bus.
Where to buy a London Oyster Card or a Visitor Oyster Card
Buying an Oyster Card at Underground Stations
You can buy a London oyster card at any underground, overground, DLR or TFL rail station in London. At these stations you will be able to buy an oyster card at the ticket office or at one of the self-service machines. You can also buy the oyster card at the Heathrow airport underground station and you can also buy a Visitor Oyster Card at Gatwick airport train station.
Buying an Oyster Card at Oyster Ticket Shops
It is also possible to buy the London oyster card in some shops in central London, these shops will have a sticker displayed on their door or window with the words “Oyster Ticket Shop”.
Buying an Oyster Card Online
You can also buy a Visitor Oyster Card online at Visit Britain shop.
How to top up a London oyster card
You will find self-service machines at each underground, overground, TFL rail and DLR stations where you can top up your oyster card. To do so, you just need to tap your oyster card on the yellow card reader and follow the instructions on the screen.
You can top up your oyster card with cash, or you can choose to add a travel card to your oyster card. Travelcards entitle you to unlimited travel for the zones and number of days chosen. Normally, if you are going to be spending more than five days in London, then a 7-day travel card is probably advisable. However, if you are going to be in London for less than five days, then we recommend that you just use your oyster card with pay-as-you-go and top it up when necessary.
You can use a debit/credit card or cash (coins and notes) to top up or add travel cards to your oyster card. Once you have paid for your top-up, you need to confirm the transaction by tapping the yellow reader again with your oyster card. If you don’t do this, your oyster card will not be topped up.
Do not forget that you must tap the yellow reader with your oyster card twice: at the beginning and at the end of the process.
How much does each journey cost when you use an oyster card?
- London Travel Zones: the fare that you pay will depend on the travel zones that you travel to and from. See more about London Travel Zones here: London Travel Zones.
- Time of the day: The fares will depend on the time you travel, as there are peak-time fares and off-peak fares. Peak times are considered 6.30 am – 9.30 am and 4 pm – 7 pm Monday – Friday (excluding bank holidays. If you travel during off-peak times, the journey will normally be a little cheaper.
Oyster card and Visitor Oyster Card Fares from 5th March 2023
|Travel Zones||Oyster (Peak)||Oyster (Off-peak)||Cash|
|Gatwick Express||£19.90||£19.90||depends on train|
|Heathrow Express||£22.00||£25.00||depends on train|
Returning your Oyster Card
Until now, we could return our oyster card when we no longer needed it and get the deposit back (used to be £5) along with any remaining balance. This is still the case if you bought your oyster card before February 2020, but if you bought your Oyster Card after February 2020, this is no longer the case.
Oyster cards bought before the 23rd of February 2020
If you bought an oyster card before the 23rd of February 2020, you can return it and get your £5 deposit back.
If you already have an oyster card, bought before February 2020, you can use it to travel on London’s public transport as it does not expire. You can also lend it to someone if someone you know is visiting London.
Oyster cards bought before the 23rd of February 2020 can be returned and cancelled, and when you do so, you will be able to claim the deposit back and any remaining balance. If the remaining balance is less than £10, you can use any self-service machine at any underground station. Just touch on the yellow card reader with your oyster card, and choose refund or return oyster card. If the balance on your oyster card is greater than £10 you’ll need to go to the ticket office at the station. They will normally give you cash. You can also register your card on TFL’s website and cancel your card once logged it, and any remaining balance will be transferred to your bank account.
So, for example, if you have an old oyster card with £2.80 balance, you can still claim your £5 deposit plus the £2.80 balance.
Oyster cards bought from 23rd of February 2020 to 3rd of September 2022
If you bought an oyster after the 23rd of February and before the 4th of September 2022, you will get the deposit back automatically as credit on your oyster card a year after you bought it.
This is good news if you bought your oyster card and are going to continue using it, but if you never return to London, you won’t get your deposit back.
If you ever travel to London again, you can use your oyster card again, and the deposit will appear on your oyster card as credit. You can also lend your oyster card to a friend or relative if they are visiting London, as it does not expire.
You can also register your card online and, after a year, cancel it and request the credit be transferred to your bank account through their website.
Oyster cards bought after the 2nd September 2022
If you bought an oyster card after the 4th of September 2022, you will no longer receive the deposit as credit on your oyster card after a year, and you won’t be able to get a refund for the fee paid (£7) if you do cancel your oyster card. You will still be able to get any unused credit back and cancel your oyster card.
More information on using Public Transport in London
It is possible to use a contactless debit or credit card to pay for public transport in London. To do this, you simply need to touch in and out on the yellow reader when using it for travel on the underground or overground and trains or DLR, or just touching in when you get on a bus. One contactless card is needed for each person.
The rates that apply when using contactless card are exactly the same as when using oyster card, with the same daily capping.
The only drawback is that if you are not a UK citizen your bank may charge you commission, and this could actually make travelling in London much more expensive than using an oyster card.
Travelling in London with kids
Generally, children under the age of 11 travel free when using London’s public transport, but we have written an entire article to explain how and when they can travel free and what transport passes they can get if they are older than 11.
⇒ More information: Travelling in London with kids
London Travel card: The other London transport card
The travel card is the other transport pass available for use to travelling in London. You can buy 1 day, 7 day, monthly or annual travelcards for specific transport zones in London.
Generally speaking, a daily travelcard is more expensive than the daily capping applied to an oyster card, so we don’t normally recommend daily travelcards. The 7 day travelcard is useful if you are going to spend more than 5 days in London, as for anything else I would normally still recommend that you used oyster card pay as you go.