I have visited Washington once before. It was a wonderful 3 days in the capital only spoilt by our utter and total confusion for the metro ticket machines. This confusion was so much that we had to abandon our trip to Arlington Cemetery.

I am fortunate enough to be visiting again soon. Can someone please explain or provide a step by step guide on how to purchase tickets from this machine?

Metro Machine

Specifically it was the purchase options and add/deduct value options that confused us the most. As an outsider the whole system baffled me :(

  • 1
    Can you be a little more specific?
    – Karlson
    Apr 27, 2015 at 13:51
  • 6
    I concur, it is very confusing.
    – edocetirwi
    Apr 27, 2015 at 14:19
  • 3
    @edocetirwi It's DC. Everything there is confusing... That's the way they like it.
    – Karlson
    Apr 27, 2015 at 15:31
  • 2
    Are you confused by the actual operation of the machines, or by how you select how many trips to buy? If the latter, would telling you that Metro farecards are loaded with a certain amount of money rather than a certain number of trips (since Metro fares differ based on distance) help?
    – cpast
    Apr 27, 2015 at 15:43
  • 1
    If your just visiting a few days, don't try to figure out the fare system. The truth of the matter is, if your traveling more then a few stops, the difference between a day pass and buying 'exact fare' is only a couple bucks anyways, so you may as well just buy a day pass and use the metro as much as you want. Its especially helpful for getting around to all the tourist spots downtown, as there are metro stops walking distance from most major attractions.
    – n00b
    Apr 28, 2015 at 2:43

4 Answers 4


You're not alone. Aside from the addition of a swipe card reader and of the SmarTrip pad over the years, the user interface of WMATA's farecard vending machines is definitely atrocious, especially for a city and system that sees such a large number of tourists. The situation has been made even worse because of the addition of the $1 surcharge for paper farecards (and the deeply unpopular experiment with "peak of the peak" surcharges). The software is more than 20 years old and has had security problems as well.

DC Metrorail fares vary by distance and time of day; there is no such thing as a "single trip" or "multiple trip" farecard. Whether using the WMATA SmarTrip card, Baltimore Charm Card, or a paper farecard, you're simply adding cash value to the card, which gets deducted electronically when you exit the platform at your destination. Don't think of the farecard as holding a certain number of trips, as it would for instance in the New York City Subway.

At the stationmaster kiosk you'll find a table that gives you the regular (rush hour) vs. off-peak fares for every possible destination from the station. (The list at the top of the machine is for paper farecards, and includes a $1 surcharge). Let us suppose, for simplicity, that you are traveling on a weekday morning from Virginia Square to McPherson Square for a breakfast meeting, departing at 7:00am and returning at 9:00am. The fare during those hours is $2.50 each way. You have a SmarTrip card with $0 stored value.

When you tap your card onto the pad in front, it will ask you how much value you want to add, with a default of $20. This is what the "add value" and "deduct value" labels refer to. If you only want to add $5 to the card, press the down buttons until the value on the display reads $5. If, on the other hand, you want to add $50, press the up buttons until the display reads $50.

Then, when ready to pay, insert the required funds, whether by credit/debit card or by adding cash bills or coins.

The 1996 Washington Post guide offers a screen-by-screen guide, but it predates SmarTrip, the elimination of paper farecards, and almost two decades' of changes to the fare and pass structure. I could not find anything better.

  • 2
    The Post guide is still correct for paper farecards. Also, the machines really work pretty well for the main target, which is people living in the region (Metro was built largely for commuters); things like defaulting to $20 and manually inputting the amount to add make a lot more sense if your card is intended for long-term use. But it's not designed well for tourists.
    – cpast
    Apr 27, 2015 at 15:49
  • 1
    Also, +1 for addressing what seems to be the real source of confusion: farecards having value in USD instead of value in "trips" (and shaking fist because I was writing an answer along those lines when you posted this).
    – cpast
    Apr 27, 2015 at 16:32
  • 1
    Be warned - WMATA is planning to eliminate paper farecards sometime in 2015 greatergreaterwashington.org/post/23169/…
    – David K
    Apr 27, 2015 at 16:38
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    @cpast We've become accustomed to the system, but then a large proportion of commuters use SmartBenefits, and wouldn't need to add cash value all that often. In contrast, New York City's Metrocard vending machines, a few generations newer than WMATA's, have a workflow that is friendlier not only to tourists but also to the elderly and locals whose first language is not English, without seriously inconveniencing the average commuter.
    – choster
    Apr 27, 2015 at 17:09

How do I purchase a ticket for either a single trip or multiple trips?

Follow the steps highlighted with the big orange numbers.

Step 1: Select Purchase

The simplest option is to choose the farecard option here: that gives you a ticket with X dollars on it (which you specify in the next step). You use that ticket when entering and exiting a station, and the cost of that trip is deducted from your farecard.

You can use the listed fares to figure out how much your trip will cost, or you can use the online trip planner ahead of time. I usually just put 10 bucks on it (you can trade in old farecards the next time you buy a new one).

Once you've decided how much you want to put on your farecard, use the up and down arrows to choose the dollar and cent amount you want. When the screen shows the correct amount, press the "done" button (I think it's the C button), and proceed to step two.

Or if you know you'll be using the metro a lot while you're here, you can purchase a pass, either the one day pass for $14.50 or the 7-day pass for $59.25. Passes give you unlimited trips, so if you'll spend more than $14.50 on farecards, you should probably choose a pass instead.

Step 2: Insert Payment

Once you've chosen what you want to purchase, you have to pay for it- either trade in old cards, or insert cash, or swipe your credit card.

Step 3: Take Pass/Farecard

Your pass or farecard will print out, just grab it from the machine.

Alternatively, you might consider just taking a taxi or an Uber.


There is a helpful site from Washington DC Metropolitan Transit Authority dealing specifically with the subject at hand.

Included on that page is the FAQ and a Video.

  • 1
    Someone flagged this for deletion, I just want to add that all 3 of the links are not working now.
    – Newton
    Aug 2, 2018 at 20:49
  • Buy a SmartTrip card.

  • When you arrive at the kiosk, wave your SmartTrip card across the white circular reader on the kiosk. The kiosk will show you your balance.

  • Add additional funds. (You can check your station destination to get an exact amount.) The kiosk will remind you wave your card across the reader to complete the transaction.

  • Use the card to open the gates to enter the system. Remember to keep your card to exit. It will display your balance as you enter and leave the system.

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