Table of Contents:
- What is a JR Pass?
- Conditions of JR Pass
- Who are eligible to purchase a JR Pass?
- Is the JR Pass worth buying?
- How to buy a JR Pass in three steps
- How to use the JR Pass (and some practical tips on using it)
For those of you who are planning on taking that long desired trip (not to mention very expensive) to Japan, trying to keep commuting expenses at a minimum by just obtaining a JR Pass can be a real money saver and at the same time such a pain in the a**.
There is a wealth of information found on the internet and it’s kinda hard at first to make sense of all the data slammed right at your face when doing research, not to mention Japanese terms and all the complex train maps.
It’s also hard to plan at first and you’ll be asking if you’ll really be saving lots money by getting a JR Pass, or if you’d be better off just commuting at a regular price (since some routes are not covered by JR Pass).
Trust me, I’ve been there. This is the reason why I wrote this article, to help you easily make sense of all these information (get only the relevant information, basically, and avoid information overload) and be confident that you will not get lost on your next trip to Japan, and save valuable time and money in the process.
IMPORTANT! If you only plan to stay within Tokyo and you wish to be able to go around the city using an unlimited pass, consider getting the Tokyo Subway Ticket instead as it’s way cheaper than the JR Pass (but only limited to Tokyo). Check out my Tokyo Subway Ticket guide for more info. 😉
First Things First: What is a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)?
The Japan Rail Pass (ジャパンレールパス japan rēru pasu), also called the JR Pass, is your golden ticket to Japan for when you want to explore much of the country in a little time, but at the same time save on transportation costs on the bullet train or shinkansen (which are dang expensive) and some local lines.
It’s basically a prepaid ticket that allows unlimited travel on all major (with a few exceptions) Japan Railways (JR) trains for a certain period of time. With a JR Pass, you can take any JR train including the shinkansen without having to purchase individual tickets for each journey (did you know that one-way regular sinkansen fare can cost the same as or even more than a JR Pass?).
With a JR Pass you can simply show your pass at the JR train station and hop on board – simple and convenient, eh?
Because the JR Pass is designed to stimulate tourism and attract foreign travelers (as if they need to) throughout Japan, it is only available for purchase by foreign tourists. This means that
you can only buy JR Pass from outside Japan.
The Rail Pass is designed for tourist use since the really expensive train travel in Japan can put off budget conscious travellers, and therefore has conditions for its purchase and exchange.
There are two types of JR Pass that you can get:
- Nationwide JR Pass – The most popular option for travelers, especially for those who want to explore Japan without regional limits. The Nationwide JR pass covers the whole country and will let you use almost all JR trains, including the famous shinkansen (bullet trains). This is a wise choice and will be cheaper in the long run if you plan to travel throughout Japan.
The nationwide JR pass comes in three validity options: 7 days, 14 days, or 21 days. The prices vary depending on the exchange rate, but as of May 2023, they are around $300, $500, and $650 each respectively.
- Regional JR Pass – The regional JR pass only covers specific regions of Japan (hence the term regional), such as Tokyo-wide, Kyushu (covers Fukuoka area), Hokkaido (covers Sapporo area), or Kansai (Kansai pass covers Osaka and Kyoto area). Depending on where you want to go and stay at, a regional JR pass might be cheaper and more convenient than a nationwide one – the Regional JR Pass is a more practical option if you want to focus on one region of Japan at a time and save on transportation costs.
The regional JR pass has different options depending on the region, but they usually come in ranges of 3 days to 14 days. The prices also vary depending on the area and the exchange rate, but they are generally priced lesser than the nationwide JR pass.
You can choose your JR Pass based on which car of the Shinkansen train you want to ride on, one for each class of service:
- The Standard / Ordinary Car (普通車 Futsūsha) – it’s the usual train car, still spacious and so clean and gets you to where you want to go. Of course this is the one I use since it’s the least expensive option, and I’ve no qualms about it. It’s so quiet and comfortable inside, with its own snack service (buy as you wish) and of course, clean toilets.
- Green Car(グリーン車 Gurīnsha) – it’s the first class car, where there is less crowd and more space for you. They will also serve you refreshments only on selected routes. For me, it is not advisable to get a Green Car pass since it is more expensive and I’m not sure if the train routes I’ll be using will serve refreshments. Plus, less space is not an issue for me as you still get your own generous space in the standard car.
Conditions of JR Pass
There are some conditions and limitations for using the JR pass. You have to buy the JR pass before you arrive in Japan, either online or through an authorized agent (aka your trusted travel agency).
Once purchased you will receive a voucher that you have to exchange for the actual pass at a JR station in Japan. Once activated, you can use your pass for the duration you chose. You can reserve seats on most trains for free with your pass, but some trains require an additional fee or reservation.
Who is eligible to take advantage of the JR Pass?
- Foreign tourists visiting Japan who has a passport bearing the “Temporary Visitor” entry status stamped at immigration, and who can present the actual passport at the time of exchange. A photocopy of the passport is not acceptable. If you are a foreigner in Japan but do not have a “Temporary Visitor” status (since you might have a Working Visa or a Permanent Resident status), sorry but you cannot obtain a JR Pass.
- A Japanese national living in a foreign country,
- who is qualified to live permanently in that foreign country, or
- who is married to a non-Japanese residing in a country other than Japan.
Should you buy a JR Pass, and is it worth it?
JR Pass offers unlimited access to the fastest, most convenient, yet very expensive train routes in Japan so if you ever plan on going to different parts of Japan, then the JR Pass is definitely worth considering.
If you just get to use the JR Pass twice on a bullet train (shinkansen), the price already paid for itself because one regular round-trip shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Osaka (without a pass) already costs $234 if you were to buy it at a regular price.
Possibly the only time a JR Pass is not worth it is if you only plan to stay in the Metropolitan Tokyo area, just within the comforts of the city. In this case, no need to get a JR Pass because 1. you won’t need to use the shinkansen bullet train anyway and 2. the Tokyo Metro subway system offers unlimited ticket options too.
Read more: Are you just staying in Tokyo and need an efficient train service to and from Narita Airport? Check out my blog post on the Narita Express, a train service from Japan Rail (JR) that gets you to the airport to downtown Tokyo and back.
How and Where to Get a JR Pass
To simplify things and save you the headache, there are three main steps to get a JR Pass:
STEP #1. Buy a JR Pass
You can buy JR Pass from a trusted travel agency or online:
- Buy JR Pass from a local travel agency – Better as you will get a personalized service, and you can easily contact them if you have concerns with your pass. You will also get your Exchange Order instantly from a local travel agency instead of having to wait for your package to arrive if you choose to buy online.
- Buy JR Pass online – If you choose to buy online, most of the time the prices are listed in US Dollars and each site may differ by a dollar in pricing. Once purchased online, they will ship you your Exchange Order via a reputable third party courier service (usually via FedEx / UPS or Royal Mail for UK based customers). Some online providers charge a shipping fee (usually USD $11-15) that will be added to the total once you checkout, though some offer free shipping.
Here are the best online sites you can get your JR Pass from (refer to below table for the updated price list):
Price List of Nationwide JR Pass (in USD) as of May 2023
|# of Days
|Ordinary Car (Adult 12 & above)
|Ordinary Car (Child 6-11)
|Green Car (Adult 12 & above)
|Green Car (Child 6-11)
|JR Pass by Japan Experience
|JR Pass by Japan Experience
|JR Pass by Japan Experience
After paying for your JR Pass, what you will receive is an Exchange Order which we’ll talk about in Step # 2 below.
STEP #2. Receive your Exchange Order
What’s the difference between a JR Pass and an “Exchange Order”, you ask? Well, the Exchange Order is what you’ll receive when you buy a JR Pass in Step # 1 above, while the JR Pass is the actual physical ticket or pass that you use at the train stations.
It may be a bit confusing, like why not just give you the JR Pass directly, right? This is because you will have to use your Exchange Order (which you will get outside of Japan) as proof of payment in order to get your actual JR Pass at the JR Ticket Office once you’re in Japan.
Note: Always make sure that your name is correctly spelled out in the Exchange Order and is same as the name on your passport.
Remember, you cannot buy a JR Pass in Japan (you can only buy it outside of the country), so your Exchange Order is proof that you paid for it already while you were still outside Japan.
After receiving your Exchange Order, you have 3 months or 90 days from the voucher confirmation date to redeem your JR Pass in Japan. Now on to step # 3 below.
STEP #3. Redeem and Activate your JR Pass
Once you have arrived in Japan, you can go ahead and proceed to the nearest JR (Japan Rail) Ticket office to redeem your JR Pass.
JR Ticket Offices are usually at major train stations in airports or at the city center – these offices look like the photo below, so you’re sure not to miss it while cluelessly searching for it at the airport train station.
When redeeming your JR Pass from the JR Ticket Office, do note that you don’t have to activate it right away – you actually have the option to choose an activation date within 30 days from the date you redeem your JR Pass from the JR Ticket Office. (Because remember, your JR Pass comes in 7, 14 or 21 days validity (if nationwide pass; validity may differ if you choose the regional pass) so the clock starts ticking once you activate it.)
Once activated, you can go ahead and use your ticket normally at the train station (insert your pass at the ticket counter or show it to the staff) so you can get inside the train station to go to your desired destination.
One other important thing to note: If you activate your JR Pass at, say 11:30 PM on January 1st, then the remaining 30 minutes will already count as the entire one day used against JR pass.
How to Use the JR Pass (and some practical tips)
This is the most frustrating part due to the wealth of information on the internet causing info overload, so let me enlighten you a bit.
- First thing you need to do when you arrive in Japan is to get your actual JR Pass by presenting your Exchange Order and Passport with the “Temporary Visitor” stamp at one of the nearest JR ticket office (usually in the main station of the airport you will be arriving at).The Exchange Order itself cannot be used for travel, and must be exchanged at a JR ticket office.
- For those who are traveling on lengthy distances (e.g. Tokyo-Osaka v.v.), use the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Take note (if not memorise) that The JR Pass is valid on the Kodama (Normal, stops at all stations), Hikari & Sakura (Express, stops at main stations only) types of Shinkansen, but is not valid on the Nozomi & Mizuho classes (Super Express, stops at very large cities only).
- In practice, the Hikari and Sakura bullets reach the same top speed as the Nozomi and Mizuho trains and use the same type of actual train, but stop at more stops on each route. For example, for the trip down from Tokyo to Kyoto, the Hikari service runs 15mins slower than the equivalent Nozomi service, and so for holiday travel it is more than acceptable.
- If you need to view and print Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and many more city maps, you may download here
- Last but the most important thing you should know: for both bullet train and non-bullet train travels across the JR scope, Hyperdia is all you need in looking for the best and appropriate route. Just select your desired departure time, destination, and it will show you all the available routes (including foot travel from one station to the other), including the duration if travel and time of arrival, and it’ll show you how much you’ll need to pay (for the locals who are not using the JR Pass). You can also select only JR routes so you’ll be sure that you do not need to pay extra for non-JR routes. If there are no available JR routes, just tick ‘Private Railways’ and it’ll show you alternative non-JR routes how much you’ll need to pay for using a non-JR route. Hyperdia is available for download on iOS only and is not available on Android (UPDATE: Hyperdia for Android now available [for a fee] on the Play Store for those in US and Japan only). It is important to know that using Hyperdia requires an internet connection so you may need to rent at the airport a WiFi pocket device for the duration of your stay. You may also opt to just use the internet at your hotel and just plan your routes for the whole day.
My tips to ensure the smoothest travel as possible across Japan
- Using your smartphone with a Google Maps app, download the map of a specific city onto your smartphone so you can just go offline and use the GPS system to locate yourself in the map.
- Don’t be afraid to ask locals and foreigners alike. Japan is a relatively safe country. Most officers in the train stations know how to speak some English just enough to give you directions. If you are out of the train stations, it is best to ask the students as most of them study English.
- Plan ahead. Especially in a non-English speaking country, you must plan the routes you’ll be taking weeks beforehand to save you time and money. Doesn’t it feel good when you feel like you’ve already lived in that city because you did your research? Also, researching weeks before travel adds up to the excitement and to me is an experience in its own.
Do you have any questions, or have any tips to share on getting a JR Pass? Feel free to comment down below! 🙂