The SUICA/ICOCA cards are prepaid e-money cards that can be used for transportation and shopping. (SUICA is sold by JR East and ICOCA is sold by JR West.) Both cards work the same way, and can often be used interchangeably. Rather than having to purchase a train or subway ticket from a vending machine, just touch your SUICA/ICOCA card at the ticket gates as you enter and exit, and the fare is automatically deducted from your card. These cards can be used on JR trains, subways, buses and at convenience stores, vending machines, restaurants and many other retail outlets. These cards are very convenient, and it is easy to see why so many Japanese people are using them.
To purchase one of these cards, you will have to go to a JR train station. They are sold from the ticket vending machines. If you select the English menu, and follow the instructions on the screen, it is easy. The minimum amount that can be added to the card initially is 2,000 Yen. But 500 Yen is charged for a service fee, but this fee can be refunded if you turn the card in to JR. After initially purchasing the cards, you can add more money (as much as 10,000 Yen) to the card at a time, up to a maximum of 20,000 Yen. There is no limit to the number of times money can be added to the card.
Once you have your card, they are easy to use on the trains and subways. Simply touch the SUICA/ICOCA card to the reader at the ticket gate when you enter the station. And then when you exit the station at your destination, you should touch the reader with the card again as you exit the ticket gate. The correct fare will be calculated and deducted from the card. In those cases when you may not have enough money on the card to pay for the fare, you can use the fare adjustment machines near the exits to add more money to the card.
The card can be used to board a limited express train. However, the conductor will ask to see your tickets and you will be required to pay (in cash) any extra limited express fees and reserved seat fees that may apply. The cards will not allow you to enter Shinkansen stations.
You can turn in the card and get a refund, including a refund of the initial 500 Yen deposit and any remaining amount on the card. But a 220 Yen service fee will be subtracted from the refund. Refunds for the SUICA/ICOCA cards can only be done at JR stations.