Travelling to Japan and not sure if you need a railway pass? Well, I’m here to help you figure out the answer to that question. And to tell you absolutely everything there is to know about the (national) Japan Railway Pass!
If you are not sure whether you even need a JR pass, I’m here to help - the first couple of sections are dedicated to helping you figure out whether or not a Japan Railway Pass is suitable for you.
I will tell you where you can buy it, how you can buy it and when you can buy. And I will tell you where and how you can activate the pass once you’ve actually arrived in the country. You can find all the information you need on the Japan Railway Pass (and some more) in this detailed guide!
The Japan Railway Pass is a unique, discounted rail-ticket. It offers unlimited rides to the owner, for a certain period of time. This railway pass can only be purchased by tourists (those who have a Temporary Visitor Visa. That is the only type of Visa that will allow you to purchase this pass.
This rule exists so that Japanese nationals and foreigners who are temporarily living in the country (students, interns etc.) could not buy the pass themselves, and thus abuse the unique discount.
The JRail Pass is the cheapest way to explore as much of the country as you can. In addition to free rides on all Japan Rail National trains, you will also ride for free on their busses, ferries and airport transfer. This includes everything from the awesome Shinkansen (bullet trains), to the local JR commuter trains.
There are certain exclusions to the JRail pass - you will not have access to private rail lines, or the super express bullet trains Nozomi and Mizuho. But, you will have excess to other bullet trains that serve the same lines (Tokaido and Sanyo), and which are only about 20 minutes slower.
You also won’t be able to ride trams and subways in bigger cities with the pass, but you can always find a JR train or a bus as an alternative.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the JR pass will allow you to take a night train, but you will need to pay an additional fee to gain access to a private wagon or a sleeper compartment.
If you’re planning on exploring as much of the country as possible, then yes, you really do need a Japan Railway Pass. It is much cheaper to get it than to pay for individual tickets, and you will save a lot of money in the long run.
Even if you’re not intending to try and visit half of the country, but want to go to some of the bigger cities, you could still benefit from the pass. It’s actually cheaper than a return ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo, plus it will give you access to free ferry rides and airport transfers.
If you will be staying in one place your entire visit, then you probably don’t need to get the JRail pass.
Those are the sensible reasons to buy a JR pass. Now, you don’t always have to be sensible about travel - maybe you’re not that interested in visiting several cities, but you’re dying to ride on one of their amazing bullet trains? Well, the JR pass covers most of them (except the fastest ones), so it’s a good idea to get a pass if that’s an experience you want to have.
There are two main types of a JR pass -
The latter is a first class type of pass, and it is more expensive than the Standard pass.
Within each of these types, you can choose the duration of your JR pass. The options are 7 days, 14 days and 21 days. You should buy the pass that is the most appropriate for the length of your trip.
You can see the prices of individual JR passes below (expressed in Yens):
ADULT (GREEN PASS)
CHILD (GREEN PASS)
These prices are only for JR passes purchased online. Passes purchased in Japan are more expensive.
It is important to note that the JR pass is valid only for consecutive days. So, if you buy the 14-day pass, you will be able to use it for two consecutive weeks after its first activation. I will explain how and where to activate the pass in a later section, so be sure to check that out as well.
If you don’t care too much about comfort and luxury, you will be fine with a standard pass. On the other hand, if you want to enjoy benefits like smoking compartments (on some trains), wider and softer seats, more legroom, magazines and no waiting in lines, you should consider splurging on the First Class Pass. Especially if you plan to really explore the country, and you know you will get your money’s worth.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, only tourists can attain a Japan Railway Pass. In fact, a couple years ago it was not possible to purchase the pass in Japan at all - only foreigners were allowed to purchase it online.
So, if you have a Temporary Visitor Visa, you will be able to buy the JR pass without any issues. Bear in mind that there are other types of Visas that allow you short-term entry into the country, but they are not eligible for a JR pass.
As of June 1, 2017, Japanese nationals that have permanent residence outside of Japan and have lived there for at least 10 years are eligible for the JR pass. However, they will need to provide additional proof (obtained at the embassy or diplomatic representative office of Japan in their country of residence), that they have been legally living there for 10 years at least.
Nationals with dual citizenship will need to enter the country with their non-Japanese passport, in order to get a Tourist Visa stamp, which they will need to show when exchanging the JR voucher for the actual JR pass.
For a very long time, it was only possible to purchase the JR pass online. This was done to prevent any nationals from purchasing it and abusing it. However, you will be able to buy the pass directly in Japan, until March 31, 2020.
But, it is only available in certain stations and airports, and it is going to cost you more money than an online pass would. In addition to that, there’s a good chance you will need to know some Japanese if you want to buy the pass in Japan, so I highly recommend you purchase it online instead. Oh, and if you do buy passes online, you will receive a Japan guide free of charge, which will help you plan out your trip in advance.
When you buy the pass online, you will receive a voucher that needs to be exchanged at one of the major train stations.
The number of stations in Japan where you can buy the JR Pass is very limited. It is available for purchase on in Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata, Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Hakata stations.
You can also buy the pass at the following airports: New Chitose Airport, Narita Airport, Haneda Airport, Kansai Airport.
In addition to that, all the rail passes are about 4000 Yen more expensive in Japan than they are online. For best value and least fuss, I recommend you buy your pass online.
Well, technically you can buy the pass whenever you want, but you will not receive it immediately. Here’s the thing - technically speaking, you are not actually purchasing a JR pass when you shop online. You are buying an exchange order or a voucher, which needs to be activated (exchanged for the pass) at one of the train stations.
Exchange orders expire 90 days after they are printed, so if you want to buy one now for a trip that is six months away, it will be mailed 60 days before the date of your trip. This ensures that your pass does not expire, and gives you sufficient time to change the date of your departure in case of any unforeseen circumstances.
But, even though you can technically buy it any time, it is recommended that you do not buy it more than 90 days before your trip. Don’t worry about delivery times - the estimated delivery time is between 24 and 48 business hours, while the maximum delivery time is estimated at 72 hours. That goes up to 96 hours for the New Zealand, Brazilian and Australian regions.
If you’re buying the pass in Japan, you can buy it as soon as you arrive the country. You just need to go to one of the official JR stations that I’ve listed in the section above, and make sure that the JR office that sells passes is open at that time.
So, you’ve bought the pass, it’s been delivered and you’ve finally arrived to Japan. But the pass is worthless until you activate it, and you’re wondering how do you do that? Easy peasy.
In order to activate your JR Pass (finally), you need to exchange the voucher at one of the JR offices. You can find them at airports and major train stations, but their opening times vary. The full list of the offices where you can activate your JR Pass can be found here.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will need to present your passport and fill out a form when exchanging the voucher for the pass. This is in order to ensure that you are indeed stamped with a Tourist Visa, and not trying to abuse the pass illegally.
You also get to decide when you want your pass to be active. It does not have to be that exact same day - maybe it’s already 6PM and you just want to go to your hotel and shower. That’s fine.
You are the one who sets the beginning date, and your pass will be valid for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days after the date you have set. The only rule is that the start date of your pass has to be within the first 30 days of the exchange.
Having to exchange your JR pass once you’re arrived in the country might seem like a drag, but it is actually a really good thing. This allows you to cancel it any time, as long as the voucher has not been exchanged or used.
But there’s a catch - you can only receive a refund if you request it within the first 15 days of purchasing the pass. And even then, you will not get a full refund, but rather 85% of the price you paid. There is a set 15% penalty fee, which is money you’re never getting back after you’ve purchased the pass.
So, if you’re not completely sure whether or not you will need the pass, I urge to sit down and think about it. If you are positive that you need one and that you will not change your mind about using it, then by all means go and get one.
But if you’re not sure that you will ever use it, then you should really think about what you want to see and do in Japan. There are other types of railway passes you can get, and you don’t have to buy this particular national one if you don’t plan to explore more than one or two cities that are close by.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!