How to use Contactless Payments for the London Underground

by joeheg

London is one of our favorite (or favourite) cities in the world to visit. It’s charming yet bustling. Grand and imperial, but still warm and comforting. We’ve visited London more than any other city outside of the U.S, and look for any reason we can find to go back.


The two of us in London, 2009

Our trips to London usually consist of us traveling around on the London Underground system. In 2013, we finally admitted to ourselves that we would be visiting London over and over again so we went and purchased Oyster cards. Here’s a description of the Oyster card from Wikipedia.

The Oyster card is a form of electronic ticket used on public transport in Greater London in the United Kingdom. It is promoted by Transport for London and is valid on travel modes across London including London Underground, London Buses, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground, Tramlink, some river boat services, and most National Rail services within the London fare zones.


Oyster card

We were so proud with our new found status as well seasoned travelers and felt a bit smug that we no longer had to go and purchase a ticket before each one of our rides on the Underground. We just had to keep our cards “topped up” and we could just tap the card to go in and out of the turnstiles each time. However, this pride in being up-to-date was to be short-lived. I found out from one of our friends and readers, Katie (an American living in the U.K.), who had read our post about the need of having a Chip+PIN card when traveling, that Chip + PIN was being replaced in the United Kingdom in favour of contactless cards. It turns out that over 63% of cards issued in the UK in 2016 featured the contactless technology and it’s becoming more common for people traveling on the Underground or on London buses to simply tap their contactless card for payment instead of using an Oyster card. To encourage this behaviour, you receive the same discounted rate for contactless payments that you do when using an Oyster Card. There’s even talk of eventually phasing out the Oyster system altogether in favour of contactless payments.

Well then, what is a contactless card?  The term “contactless” is a bit misleading as the cards are more accurately a “tap-and-go” system where you place your card against a reader to complete a transaction. The amount of money you can spend for this type of purchase varies but it’s usually for smaller transactions (less than $25 USD). In the U.S. we’re more familiar with this type of payment using a smartphone or smartwatch with Apple Pay or Android Pay. Imagine doing the same by just putting your card against the reader. Seems like magic to most people in the U.S. but many countries are already quickly moving toward these payments, again leaving us behind.


Logo indicating that you have a contactless card.

So if you’re here in the U.S., how can you get one of these contactless cards? It turns out that some banks have been sending them to people but not telling them about the feature. When Citi took over the Costco Anywhere Visa credit card, they issued all of the new Visa cards with contactless technology. However, I looked all over their webpage and there’s not even a mention of this being a feature of the card. In January 2018 the Costco Visa card no longer charges foreign transaction fees, so this would make a great choice to make payments if you already have the card.

American Express also offers contactless chip cards. In fact, my SPG AMEX is a contactless card and I never even asked for it. Since this card doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees, it will now be my preferred way to pay for rides on the Underground. It  seems that if you now want a card with this technology from AMEX, you do need to ask for it. From the AMEX website:

Contactless chip is currently available on the majority of Consumer products and the following Small Business Cards: Blue for Business® Credit Card and Starwood Guest® Business Credit Card.

You can watch the video on to see contactless technology in action. If you have further questions or would like to request a contactless chip Card, please call the number on the back of your Card to speak to a Customer Care Professional.

The only other contactless cards I could find from U.S. banks are Visa cards issued by Wells Fargo. Look on the back of your card for the “Wave” logo to see if you have a contactless card.

So in the end, I managed to be up to date with technology without even knowing it. Still, I’m already missing the idea of using my Oyster card again. It seems like I just got it and it’s already a relic.

Did you know about contactless payments? Do you have a card with this feature and didn’t know it? Will you use this to pay for your next ride on London’s public transport system? Anything else I forgot to mention? Let me know in the comments.

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stacey June 27, 2017 - 4:01 pm

contactless payment is common in many places … e.g., if you ever go to singapore you can use it at the supermarket, department store, subway, bus, pretty much anywhere …

sharonheg June 28, 2017 - 1:56 am

Yeah…it’s just the U.S. that’s technically behind…

Getting Around Chicago Without A Rental Car – Your Mileage May Vary July 11, 2017 - 8:01 am

[…] the line and use your contactless bank card at the entrance.”  I just wrote about this type of payment system for the London Underground and now the same system was in place in Chicago…and I didn’t bring my contactless card […]

Tushar Patel May 4, 2018 - 4:50 pm

Costco citi visa now has no foreign transaction fees! Woohoo.

joeheg May 4, 2018 - 8:18 pm

Thanks for the reminder. Now that the Costco card has no transaction fees, it’d be a great choice to pay for rides on the Underground. I’ve updated the article with the current information.


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