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Transport for London are trying to close all Tube ticket offices and move staff into ticket halls—whether or not that is a good idea is another question. Ticket offices, however, are obviously staffed—and thus a tourist with only a non-chipped credit card can still buy a ticket, as a receipt for signature can be printed and signature verified.

But what this does mean is that it seems then that if you're at a station, you'll only be able to buy tickets at a ticket machine—which accept coins, cash, and chip-and-pin cards. Notably, however, the US doesn't issue chip-and-pin cards; at best, they tend to be chip-and-signature.

Thus, if a tourist from the US (or another country that doesn't issue chip-and-pin) arrives without any pounds, does this mean they won't be able to buy a Tube ticket? Or will staff be able to help in some way? Or has TfL not announced their solution (if any)?

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    When do you plan to travel? This isn't going to happen overnight (if ever). – Gayot Fow Mar 30 '15 at 22:42
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    As a general rule, you don't want to be buying any sort of paper ticket for the tube if you can possibly avoid it. In almost all cases, it's much much cheaper to use either an Oyster card, or a contactless card. Simplest for you would be to get your bank/credit card company to give you a contactless-enabled card and use that – Gagravarr Mar 30 '15 at 23:04
  • In the US, card transactions under $25 don't even require the signature at most locations. So there hasn't been a big push toward contactless payment for that reason. And, anecdotally, I once had a contactless card briefly; I had only used it for a contactless payment once and its number was stolen within a week. I told the bank to replace it with a non-contactless card. – Michael Hampton Mar 31 '15 at 20:40
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    It's not generally a good idea to travel around a city with no (local currency) cash in your pocket at all. I'd suggest getting a minimum of £20 in cash at the airport. Then you can just put cash into the ticket machine. – A E Apr 4 '15 at 20:27
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    Maybe I should point out that it now HAS happened. – Laurence Payne Mar 2 '16 at 11:35
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Tourists planning to visit the UK can actually buy a Visitor Oyster card in their home countries, if they live in one of 24 countries where local travel agents sell the cards. For instance, people in the US can visit Rail Europe or VisitBritain Shop to purchase a Visitor Oyster card before leaving. If you aren't in one of those countries, the TfL Visitor Shop will sell you one and post it to you, but it may take several weeks to arrive.

The down side to Visitor Oyster cards is that, unlike regular Oyster cards purchased in the UK, they cannot be topped up online. On the other hand, the Visitor Oyster card offers various discounts at restaurants, shops and entertainment which are not on offer to regular Oyster card holders.

Once in Great Britain, you may need to top up the Oyster card. If you're an American this is where things get tricky. Most credit/debit cards in the US don't currently support either Chip and PIN or contactless payments. The ones you'll receive to replace the ones you're currently holding will have a chip, though most banks seem to be issuing Chip and Signature cards, which are expected to have the same sorts of problems with ticket machines as magnetic stripe only cards do now.

So, your options for using a ticket machine are:

  • Contactless payments with your American Express card. These are available to US cardholders; check your card for the contactless payments symbol. If your card doesn't have it, American Express will happily send you a replacement card. They also offer Chip and Signature cards, but not Chip and PIN, to US cardholders.
    Contactless payment symbol on the back of an American Express card

    A few Visa and MasterCard cards in the US also support contactless payments, as well. But TfL note that some MasterCard contactless payment cards from the US don't yet work in the UK, and older Visa contactless cards may not work either.

    Most contactless cards issued outside the UK can now be used directly in lieu of an Oyster card to touch in and out, but even if yours does not work, it can still be used to top up your Oyster card. If you have contactless cards, beware of card clash and make sure to remove the card you wish to use to touch in and out from your purse or wallet.

  • Chip and PIN cards. Ask your bank or credit card issuer whether they will be replacing your card with a Chip and PIN card or a Chip and Signature card, as all US cards will get chips starting in 2015, (when your existing card expires it will be replaced by one with a chip) but only a few will be actual Chip and PIN. If your bank gives you an option, get a Chip and PIN card.

  • Cash. Even if you can't get your credit card to work at the ticket machine, it will work at ATMs even if it only has a magnetic stripe. Withdraw some cash and then go top up your Oyster card.

But ticket machines aren't the only place you can top up. You can also visit:

  • One of many newsagents and retailers around London participating in the Oyster Ticket Stops scheme. One of these is likely to be able to accept your magnetic stripe card. Look for an Oyster Ticket Stop sign in the shop window.
    Oyster Ticket Stop

  • A London Visitor Centre. Located at key points around London frequented by tourists, these staffed centres can top up your Oyster card. You can also buy an Oyster card here, if you forgot to purchase a Visitor Oyster card at home, or decided not to do so. Be specific as to whether you want a regular Oyster card or the Visitor Oyster card, as these locations sell both. One of these is landside at the Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 Underground station, so you need not worry about how you'll leave the airport. Another is in Gatwick Airport in the south terminal arrivals area.


A couple of more hints for tourists using Oyster cards in London:

  • Children under 11 travel free when accompanied by an adult and do not need a separate Oyster card unless they need to travel alone (though I doubt you will want to let your smaller children roam around a foreign country alone!). If your child is over 11 and under 16, bring your child and his or her Oyster card to a central London ticket office or the Visitor Centre at Heathrow to have a Young Visitor discount added to it.
  • If you see a pink card reader when changing trains, touch your Oyster card to it to qualify for a cheaper fare. Touching the card reader indicates that your trip avoided more costly routes such as travel in Zone 1.
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    solid answer! +1 – Mark Mayo Mar 31 '15 at 2:32
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    Worth pointing out that there will be staff on the station who may be able to sell tickets to people with mag-stripe only cards, should be able to sell (regular) Oyster cards, and will be able to point people at the other facilities that Michael mentioned. – Richard Gadsden Mar 31 '15 at 14:03
  • @RichardGadsden Yes, you can also visit the ticket office at any Underground station where they are still open. But if they are all closed, as has been put forth here... – Michael Hampton Mar 31 '15 at 20:17
  • +1 for topping up at a newsagents and retailers around London. That's what I mostly did when living in London anyway. Fast, simple, no additional fee, face to face interaction with human being, what else can you ask for? – Adrien Be Jun 21 '15 at 3:06
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    In addition, If you're not comfortable carrying around a contactless card and happen to own an iPhone, you can also use Apple Pay if your bank supports it. Though bear in mind that your battery could be dead before you reach your destination to touch out. – Adam Elsodaney Jan 27 '16 at 9:18
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(Auto) Top-up Online

Another option would be to avoid ticket machines and manned booths altogether. Once you purchase an Oyster card (with cash, so that your credit card won't be a problem), you can top it up online by registering on Oyster Online, provided it is not a Visitor Oyster for which to date online top-up is not available. Even better you can set-up Auto top-Up and never have to worry about manually topping-up. Once you are done travelling in London, you can cancel this service at no cost. Quoting from TfL's FAQ on Auto top-up:

Auto top-up

Auto top-up makes sure you never run out of pay as you go credit by automatically topping up your Oyster card with money from your credit or debit card, whenever your pay as you go balance falls below £10.

Your card is automatically topped up when you touch your Oyster card on a yellow card reader at the start of a journey on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground or National Rail services in London.

  • As a tourist you may not want the auto top-up. I often leave the UK with less than £5 on my Oyster card as I never know when or even whether I will return to use the rest of the credit. Getting the left over credit at the end of the stay is possible but I do not know anybody who has done it as it does take time. – Willeke Jun 21 '15 at 8:43
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Another option would be to use contactless payments through your smart phone via Android Pay or Apple Pay or similar.

See Other methods of contactless payment for details of currently supported schemes.

Some points made on the TFL site to bear in mind however would be

If you use [either scheme] with a payment card issued outside the UK you may be charged overseas transaction fees. Some may not work - check with your card issuer.

Make sure you have enough battery

Your phone must be switched on to use it to travel. You should also check that you have enough battery on your phone to complete your journey. If you don't and:

The battery runs out during a rail journey, you won't be able to touch out at the end and could be charged a maximum fare An inspector asks you to touch your phone on their reader, it won't be able to be read and you could be liable for a penalty fare

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