Bye Bye Oyster Deposit

As exclusively revealed on this website two months ago, TfL are phasing out the Oyster card deposit from February 23rd.  Cards purchased before that date will still retain the £5 deposit which can be cashed in when returning or cancelling the Oyster card.  From Sunday 23rd onwards an Oyster card will cost a £5 fee.  If the card is retained then that £5 will be added to the PAYG credit balance on the first anniversary of purchase.  Unused credit will still be refundable at any time, along with the deposit on older cards.

The main reason for making the change is to discourage people from buying an Oyster card for a few days and then refunding it.  Once cancelled, an Oyster card cannot be re-issued so the card has to be disposed of.  To be recycled would involve a costly process breaking down the card into its component parts so cancelled cards simply add to the plastic waste problem.

People who need to use Oyster cards (for discounts or travelcards) generally keep them for over a year and so will benefit from getting the fee back before they no longer need the card.  Since the introduction of contactless cards and devices in 2014, their use has grown considerably, up from 25% of PAYG journeys in 2016 to 60% today.

Since their introduction in 2003 over 130 million Oyster cards have been issued.  In the last 12 months 9 million have been issued, a rate of around 21,000 a day!  Of those 9 million cards, 7 million were not used after 4 weeks and either refunded, disposed of, or kept by the customer.

When contactless was first introduced there were concerns that foreign cards might attract exorbitant transaction fees, but over time this doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem as first thought.  TfL have seen cards from over 145 different countries used on the network.  Encouraging their use saves visitors the £5 card fee, TfL significant operating costs, and reduces the environmental impact of the plastic waste.

Over the next month TfL will be updating signage and their website to publicise the changes.  They are also making it easier to donate the credit remaining on an unwanted Oyster card to the Railway Children Charity through changes to the ticket machines at London Underground stations.  I guess I’ll also be updating this site <sigh>.

15 thoughts on “Bye Bye Oyster Deposit”

  1. My questions (for your upcoming site update and article, when you have time:) ) would be:

    1 – How is the £5 credit applied? Is it associated with a touch-in from 1 year after the date of purchase, or is it performed by some other form of ad-hoc balance adjustment?

    2 – If someone were to lose their Oyster card before the 1-year threshold, is there any benefit to waiting until that time is passed before refunding? (I guess this may depend on the answer to question 1!).

    3 – I was under the impression that Oyster deposits existed as a way of protecting TfL against people unrecoverable debt as a result of fares that are greater than the entry threshold: a negative balance only implies loss to the extent that the balance is less than -£5.00. As individual fares greater than £6.50 (typical entry threshold plus Oyster deposit) are quite rare, it is not currently common that people abandon Oyster cards. Surely this will become an issue if Oyster moves to a system where an Oyster with a zero balance is of residual value to the customer, without changing the entry threshold to e.g. £6.50?

    • Hi Chris,

      I’ve asked about 1 already. 2 is an interesting scenario which I’ll check. As for 3, the fee still protects against disposal within the first year and the fact that you have to wait a year makes the effort required for the size of gain quite unattractive.

  2. Hi Mike,

    presumably cards bought before 23 February will still be able to be returned after that date and their £5 deposit returned as per now?


  3. Further to my previous question in (1), TRU #123 specified that the funds will be credited via the Faster Universal Load facility, though precise details are still being finalised including what happens if the refund isn’t credited.

  4. Thanks for your answer Mike. Helpful as always!

    I was wondering if you maybe know the answer to this as well: If I buy a new Oyster card from my Oyster online account, will it automatically be linked – “registered” to my Oyster account? Thanks.

  5. Didn’t the amount of the deposit change from £5 to £3 some years ago, or is that not correct?

    • Hi Jon,

      It was the other way round. The first deposit was £3, later changed to £5.

  6. Hi I hope you can help me my daughter is changing jobs she lives in Islington London an will be travelling to Harlow Essex what will be the cheapest way to travel she will be working days and late nights and early travel thank you

    • Hi Angela,

      Unfortunately that’s quite a vague question. Harlow is actually quite large and the railway station is to the north side of the town. In terms of getting there from London there are two options. First is a train from Liverpool Street to Harlow which will be quite expensive compared to travel within London. She may need a bus once she gets there if work is a sufficient distance away. This route is likely to be most reliable if late night travel is required.

      The other option which some people consider is getting the Central line to Epping and then taking the bus to Harlow from there. Epping is classed as zone 6 even though it is quite a way beyond the logical zone 6 boundary. Like the buses in Harlow, the bus isn’t operated by TfL so the fares will be quite a lot higher, but still potentially cheaper than using the train to Harlow. I’m not an expert on travel in that area though, and I’d be particularly concerned about evening buses.

      The other unknown at the moment of course is the current travel situation. I’d certainly recommend doing thorough research before venturing out there.

  7. Hi Mike, is there still a maximum value an Oyster card can hold in terms of cash loaded onto it, was it £90? If so, what happens at the 1 year point with a card issued under the new rules – would the £5 “fee” still be added to the balance if this took it over the maximum? Thanks

    • Hi Jon,

      Yes, it was and is £90. I don’t think the exact mechanics of how the fee will be added back to the card have been finalised yet, so I can’t say what would happen in this edge case.

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