Later this month marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Oyster card on London’s transport network, and Transport for London (TfL) has released a limited edition Oyster card to mark the occasion. The cards are now available from ticket machines in all London Underground stations in Zone 1, as well as at all Visitor Centres and selected Oyster Ticket Stops in central London.

It was on the 30th June 2003, that TfL introduced the notion of tapping in and tapping out – the Oyster Card had arrived.

Originally people would use paper tickets which were handed to an inspector as you leave a station, but the District line in the 1960s introduced the first magnetic-stripe tickets, and these were rolled out to the rest of the network in the 1970s, and ever since, travellers have become used to sliding a card ticket into a slot, hearing the whir of motors, and with a bit of luck, out popped the ticket and the barriers opened.

Now, we tap.

Although it was launched to the public in June 2003, TfL staff had been using it since the autumn 2002 to familiarise themselves with the card before the public started to use them. The Oyster card — at the time called Oystercard, all one word — was introduced for buses, tube and DLR on 30th June 2003, for monthly or annual travelcard users only who also had to go to to register their card.

Pay as you go fares were added in 2004.

It nearly wasn’t called the Oyster card though, as the original shortlist was Gem, Pulse or Oyster. We got Oyster.

There was a sense that people were being pushed to ditch the paper tickets though, with fares frozen for people using Oyster cards in the 2004 fares rise, but with fares rising for people buying paper tickets. That’s a pattern that remains today, with contactless and oyster fares being considerably cheaper than cash fares.

In 2005, daily fare capping was introduced, enabling customers to make as many journeys as they like without being charged more that the equivalent Day Travelcard. 2008 saw the Zip oyster card brand for concessionary travel for under 18s launched, and in 2010, pay as you go with Oyster was expanded to include all commuter rail services within Greater London. In 2021, weekly capping on Oyster for adult pay as you go customers was introduced, meaning that anyone travelling on Tube and rail services across London benefit from never needing to buy a weekly Travelcard again.

Shashi Verma, Chief Technology Officer at TfL, said: “We’re excited to be celebrating 20 years of the Oyster card as a world leading innovative way to travel. Customers have loved the convenience of pay as you go travel, and we are immensely proud to celebrate two decades of the Oyster card making travelling in London easier. It has cemented TfL’s reputation for being at the forefront of innovation and paved the way for the use of contactless payments on public transport – not only in London, but across the world.”

However, the Oyster card’s days are numbered. The technology is old and not going to be rolled out elsewhere, while contactless payments (developed largely by TfL) are now a viable replacement for most people.

So happy 20th birthday to the Oyster card — will you still be around for your 25th birthday?

The Oyster card timeline

30 June 2003 Oyster pay as you go introduced onto TfL services (buses, London Underground and DLR)
27 February 2005 Daily capping on Oyster introduced
11 November 2007 London Overground launched, bringing Oyster pay as you go to TfL rail services
7 January 2008 Zip card brand launched for under 18s concessionary travel on TfL services
2 January 2010 Oyster Pay as you go extended to cover National Rail services in London and to certain stations outside London (i.e. Chafford Hundred, Grays, Ockendon, Purfleet )
18 May 2012 Oyster online accounts introduced
28 June 2012 London’s Cable Car opens, offering pay as you go with Oyster
13 December 2012 Contactless payments introduced onto London buses
2 January 2013 Pay as you go introduced on Greater Anglia services to Broxbourne and Shenfield
6 July 2014 Cash payments removed from London buses
16 September 2014 Contactless payments extended to cover Tube, London Overground and National Rail services. (Monday to Sunday) Weekly capping also introduced on Contactless
31 July 2015 Pay as you go with contactless and Oyster introduced onto high speed services between St Pancras and Stratford International
22 September 2015 Oyster Pay as you go extended to cover Thames Clipper River services
19 Oct 2015 Pay as you go and introduced on services to Hertford East
11 January 2016 Pay as you go introduced onto rail services to Gatwick Airport
12 September 2016 Hopper fare introduced onto buses and trams in London allowing two journeys for the price of one within an hour using contactless and Oyster
31 January 2018 Hopper fare extended to allow unlimited bus and tram journeys within an hour
20 May 2018 Pay as you go with contactless and Oyster extended to Heathrow airport on TfL Rail services (now the Elizabeth line)
10 December 2018 Weekly capping for bus and tram customers only launched on Oyster card
02 September 2021 Weekly capping on Tube and rail services extended from contactless only to include Oyster cards

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  1. Keith says:

    I think the future of Oyster and paper tickets depends a lot upon how much work TFL (and maybe also national rail companies) put into improving support for railcards.

    At the moment my Two Together railcard cannot be added to contactless, which means for some journeys where I go into multiple zones it can still work out cheaper to use a paper ticket which includes a Day Travelcard with the railcard discount. I believe the same applies to several other railcards where discounts don’t apply to oyster or contactless.

    The other issue is where a rail journey relies on you going through the underground/overground network a paper ticket is issued, as I believe most barriers don’t support QR code/e-tickets.

    I suspect Oyster will be gradually phased out, maybe being retained for only zones 1-3 for the benefit of tourists. For the most part contactless payments have overtaken Oyster, particularly since mobile support via Google/Apple/Samsung Pay was added.

    Hopefully when the ticket barriers are next upgraded they’ll introduce scanners that can read QR codes, even if initially it’s only added to the wide barriers. This will reduce the need for paper tickets, though I suspect they’ll survive for quite a while to come.

  2. Simon says:

    The talk of ditching Oyster, which has been going around for sometime now, has never been able to reconcile how people with railcards could attach them to their contactless payment, as they currently do with Oyster.

  3. Dstock7080 says:

    Unfortunately not all Zone 1 stations, just 10 selected:
    Bond Street
    King’s Cross
    Liverpool Street
    London Bridge
    Tottenham Court Road
    and Travel Information Centres

  4. D Pangilinan says:

    Happy anniversary, who could ever known!
    I was thinking why can’t be used my above 60 freedom pass, they have been using busses/ trains for a long time,
    If we are giving a bit boost.

    Kr: D Pangilinan

  5. Ann says:

    Contactless viable for most people, think again! Many do not want to do this, and it’s really not suitable for older folk. Again only the 80% matter and the rest get brushed away. There will people denied access and it’s always those most vulnerable.

    • ianVisits says:

      If contactless is viable for 80% of users, then it most certainly is viable for “most people”.

      No one is saying that contactless will replace Oyster before the final upgrades are rolled out, so please drop the baseless scaremongering.

  6. Charles Gbeho says:

    How do you get one if you have over 60+ Oyster?

  7. Lorraine says:

    Can I have one delivered

  8. Heloísa Oliveira says:

    I would like to have one, that’s possible? What shall I do? Thanks.

  9. Adrien says:

    Until Travelcards and Railcards can be associated with Contactless, I’m sticking with my Oyster, thanks! Also, Oyster cards open the gates quicker than Contactless 🙂

    If TfL could upgrade the Oyster system to use more than a 4-bit number for zones, so that we can eliminate the “Contactless-only” zones, that would be great!

    • JP says:

      My thoughts on the slower speed of coontactless and especially mobile payment apps differs.

      Too, too many’s the time that I’ve been getting on a bus and the person in front is on the phone, has to stop, break off the conversation with an apology and only then blats the phone against the reader only for it not to be ready to be read or set-up, even.

      Roughly similar at above ground UndergrounD barriers.

      Therefore I’m firmly of the belief that it’s not the contactless bit that’s the problem, it’s the brainless bit holding said card or phone who’s too wrapped up in themselves to be ready for action ~ the rest of the travelling world be damned.

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