Go by Bullet Train! How to Buy a JR Pass in Japan

by Christian Monson
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“We’ll buy it when we get there,” was my response to the idea of getting a week-long JR Pass in order to travel all around Japan. In general, I like to be a spontaneous traveler, but in this case, I made a mistake. Unsure if we could even still get one on a “trial basis,” we waited for hours in line at the Narita Airport trying to get a pass the same day.

The Japan Rail Pass is an incredible, frugal option for overseas tourists to take advantage of Japan’s excellent public transportation. While it’s a major convenience to have during your trip, actually getting one can seem like a maze of different websites and processes. Thanks to recent decisions by the Japan Rail Group, there are in fact many different ways to obtain the pass, including in Japan. Still, it’s best to understand all the options and figure out how to work the JR Pass into your trip beforehand.

This guide contains the information you need to make an informed decision. Make sure you understand the JR Pass fully, and you’ll be one step closer to accessing everything Japan has to offer.

Japan Rail Pass Overview

Japan Rail Passes are passes to use various means of public transportation run by the Japan Railways Group (JR). This is actually a group of seven private companies that operate in different parts of the country. For example, Tokyo is served by JR East, while JR Central serves Kyoto. (Just to confuse you a little more, although all JR companies have been privately owned since 1987, they were originally run by the state. For this reason, when you hear or read about Japanese “private lines,” this usually refers to railway companies other than JR.)

You can use the pass to access valid transportation without buying any other ticket an unlimited number of times. Unlike normal tickets, you don’t pass the JR Pass over the automatic turnstiles, but instead show it to an official to the side who will let you through.

Besides the general pass, which grants you access to all JR lines, there are passes for specific companies within the group as well. For example, you can get just a JR East Pass if you only plan to stay in the area served by that company.

Valid Transportation

The general JR Pass lets you use any transportation provided by JR. This actually includes a lot of different things.

Shinkansen

Perhaps its most cost-effective feature, the JR Pass covers the Shinkansen bullet trains, excluding only the Nozomi and Mizuho services. If you plan to see a lot of Japan in one trip, the JR Pass can save you a ton of money on Shinkansen tickets. 

It’s important to note that the JR Pass doesn’t automatically provide you with a seat reservation. You can make a free reservation at JR ticket centers before your trip or take your chances the day of. Just know that while some of the less-frequented lines usually have open seats, you may likely end up standing for several hours as I did from Nagano to Tokyo.

Other JR Transportation 

You can also use the JR Pass on other JR trains. That includes limited express and regular commuter trains, including Local and Rapid lines. In Tokyo, for example, JR operates several metro lines like the main Yamanote loop.

In addition, JR runs several bus companies that you can use with the pass and one ferry (from Miyajima to Miyajimaguchi), so keep an eye out for their logo to save some money.

Other Companies

For the most part, you cannot use the JR Pass with transportation owned by other companies. For instance, Tokyo has numerous metro companies in addition to JR, and you’ll have to buy separate tickets for them. Nevertheless, there are a few agreements that let you use non-JR lines. Some of these are important airport routes like the Tokyo Monorail. To see all the coverage, visit here.

Time Frame

You can buy JR Passes for three different lengths of time: 7, 14, and 21 days. Each travel itinerary will be different, and you’ll have to do your own calculations, but as a general rule, it’s the repeated use that makes the JR Pass worth it, so only buy for the time you need. For example, if you’re traveling to Japan for eight days, it’s probably better to buy the seven-day pass and eat the ticket costs on the eighth day. On the other hand, if you’re in Japan for 13 days, the 14-day pass is probably worth it. 

It’s better to buy ahead of time

If you’re lucky enough to be reading this article before you leave for Japan, take my advice. Arrange for your Japan Rail pass before you go. Although there are alternatives, this is the standard way to get the pass. Not only that, but it’s also cheaper and more convenient.

You can buy the JR Pass while you’re still in the US. You’ll receive an exchange voucher that you can trade-in for the actual pass once you’re in the country. Just beware that you can only have three months to trade in the voucher, though, so you can’t buy it too early, either. Complicated, I know.

Where to buy a Japan Rail Pass in the USA

These days, purchasing is made easy enough by the internet. However, sometimes this can create other problems. For one, how do you know you’re on a legitimate site? To make things simpler, Japan Rail has authorized specific dealers in the USA. These are travel agencies where, if you want, you can physically purchase the voucher and pick it up when it arrives. However, most likely, you’ll place an order online, and the agency will ship it to you. 

Who are the Japan Rail Pass authorized dealers?

In the United States, there are five agencies authorized by Japan Rail:

  • All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  • JTB Corp.
  • KNT-CT Holdings (Kintetsu International)
  • Nippon Travel
  • Tobu Top Tours 

I’d like to tell you it’s this easy, but alas… these are just the companies. Each has a long list of offices that sell the passes. If you’re doing everything online and by mail, this doesn’t really matter. However, if you want to purchase or receive the exchange voucher in person, you’ll have to find an authorized office. You can go through the full list here

Authorized agents in other countries may differ slightly, so if you reside outside the US, find an agent here.

How to trade in your exchange voucher for a JR Pass

Once you purchase your JR Pass, whether online or in-person at the travel agency, you will receive an exchange voucher. Most travel agencies will ship this to you, but the time and cost will vary. Plan ahead of time to make sure you get the voucher before you leave.

When you arrive in Japan, you can trade in this voucher for the JR Pass. Just like before, you’ll have to go to a specific place. For the most part, you can exchange your voucher at JR Travel Service Centers, which are all over the country.

Specifically, if you fly into Narita Airport, you can go to:

  • JR East Travel Service Center (all terminals)
  • Ticket Office (all terminals)
  • Narita International Airport Terminal 1 Travel Center

If you fly into Haneda Airport, you can go to:

  • JR East Travel Service Center (Terminal 3)
  • Tourist Information Center (Terminal 2)

You can also find these service centers and other exchange offices in most major airports like Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, and major train stations. You can see the full list here.

Can you buy a JR Pass when you get to Japan?

The answer is yes. At the time of this article’s publication, it is possible to purchase a Japan Rail Pass in Japan without having to get the exchange voucher first in your country of origin. However, there are several important things to know.

First, this is a temporary trial. Japan Rail initially decided to try selling the passes in 2017. Things seem to be going well because they’ve extended the trial until March 31, 2021. That said, there’s no guarantee this will become permanent, and theoretically, after that date, you won’t be able to buy the pass in Japan. The only option will be purchasing the exchange voucher from an authorized dealer in your country of origin.

Second, the JR Pass is more expensive if you buy it in Japan. We’ll get to exact prices later since they depend on a variety of factors, but you’ll save money by buying the voucher ahead of time.

Finally, waiting to buy the JR Pass until you arrive in Japan is actually the least convenient option. For one thing, you’ll have to wait in a much longer line. There are also many fewer offices where you can buy the pass than where you can exchange the voucher. It’s much better to just have the voucher shipped to you. Then you can travel to Japan with the peace of mind that everything is already arranged.

Japan Rail Pass for foreigners living in Japan

Unfortunately, the JR Pass is only for tourists. To be eligible for the JR Rail Pass, you must be in Japan on the temporary 90-day tourist visa. If you are a foreigner living in Japan on another visa, be it resident, work, or student, you cannot get one.

This can be frustrating for some people. For example, some English teachers may only be spending a year or so in Japan, and they would like to see as much of the country as possible during that time. Furthermore, foreign residents in Japan may have visitors from their home country, and when they go to show them Japan, find that they cannot buy the same JR Pass.

Without the JR Pass, numerous Shinkhansen trips can quickly become expensive. There is not really a workaround, but you can search out low-cost bus options, and other train lines may offer discount round-trip tickets not on the Shinkansen.

JR Pass Price

The following charts display the prices for the full JR Pass. Passes only for certain regions will have different pricing. Additionally, take note that prices vary by time frame and car, standard or “Green Car” (first class). Prices are in Japanese Yen (¥). Their equivalence in US Dollars or other currencies will change based on the exchange rate.

These are the prices for purchasing the exchange voucher from an authorized dealer outside of Japan. You will have to exchange the voucher for the JR Pass once you arrive in Japan. The authorized travel agents may charge fees in addition to the below prices, especially for shipping the voucher.

Standard CarAdultChild (Age 6-11)Green CarAdultChild (Age 6-11)
7 Days¥29,650¥14,8207 Days¥39,600¥19,800
14 Days¥47,250¥23,62014 Days¥64,120¥32,060
21 Days¥60,450¥30,22021 Days¥83,390¥41,690
Price Before Arriving in Japan

As stated, if you wait and buy the JR Pass in Japan, it will be more expensive. Here are the current prices.

Standard CarAdultChild (Age 6-11)Green CarAdultChild (Age 6-11)
7 Days¥33,000¥16,5007 Days¥44,000¥22,000
14 Days¥52,000¥26,00014 Days¥71,000¥35,500
21 Days¥65,000¥32,50021 Days¥90,000¥45,000
Price in Japan

Planning ahead of time can save you money

As you’ve seen, everything involving the JR Pass is more than a little complicated. However, if you do it right, it can save you a lot of money. This mostly depends on exactly your itinerary. For those spending an entire trip in Tokyo, it might not be worth it, but for those spending each day of a week-long vacation in a different city, it will quickly pay for itself in savings.

To get the most out of your JR Pass, make your itinerary ahead of time. For example, if you’re spending 10 days in Japan, you can spend a week traveling around the country on a seven-day JR Pass and then three days relaxing in one place. Plus, you can even do things like find hotels and sights along the JR lines in Tokyo to get the most out of the pass even within the city.

When it comes to the Japan Rail Pass, foresight pays. Not only will you save money on tickets and time waiting at the JR office, but you’ll be able to take advantage of Japan’s great public transportation to maximize your time in the country.

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