Buying an Opal card – why so difficult?

I recently spent a long weekend in Sydney and tried to buy an Opal card – their public transport smartcard – an exercise that was much harder than I expected.

Tangara set T60 arrives into Central in afternoon peak

I arrived by train from Melbourne into Sydney Central station, where I started my hunt to buy an Opal card. On the main concourse is the Transport NSW information office, which was my first port of call.

Transport information office on the Grand Concourse at Sydney Central station

I asked a simple question:

I’d like to buy an Opal card.

And they gave me a ridiculous response.

You have to go down to the newsagency at the end of the concourse and buy one there.

Here I am, standing in the middle of a bloody railway station, and the ticket office can’t even sell me a train ticket?

I made my way down to the newsagency, waited in line behind someone else buying an Opal card, and then purchased my own – the card itself was free, but I had to load travel credit onto it in order for it to be activated for travel.

With that down, I was then ready to head through the ticket gates, and onto my onward train.

Opal card readers now active at railway station ticket barriers

So where can you buy a Opal card?

The Opal website lists the following places to buy an Opal card:

  • online
  • at an Opal retailer (only available for unregistered Adult and Child/Youth Opal cards)
  • at selected Transport Customer Service Centres and Shops
  • at selected Service NSW locations
  • by calling 13 67 25 (13 OPAL)

Note the complete absence of railway station ticket offices from the above list – ‘Transport Customer Service Centres and Shops‘ are the Sydney equivalents of the ‘PTV Hubs’ found in Melbourne.

And what about ticket machines?

Sydney’s Opal card was rolled out in a bizarre way – it was made available for travel on limited services back in December 2012, but it took two more years for the first top up machines to go live – in March 2015.

The first machines only allowed passengers to top up their Opal card using debit or credit cards.

Credit card only Opal card top up machine at the Circular Quay ferry pier

Later machines added the option to top up using cash, as well as the purchase of single trip tickets.

Opal card top up and single trip ticket machine at the Circular Quay ferry pier
Opal card top up and single trip ticket machine at the Circular Quay ferry pier

Compare the above ticket options to Melbourne – where you can buy or top up a Myki card at any railway station, but you don’t have any option to purchase a single trip ticket at all.

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27 Responses to “Buying an Opal card – why so difficult?”

  1. Somebody says:

    It seems almost as if a secret motive of the Opal rollout was to make the jobs of the many human ticket sellers employed in Sydney redundant.

    I presume that from next month that the only purpose of the many staffed ticket offices, apart from to provide information, is to sell tickets for long distance XPT/Xplorer services?

  2. Beren Scott says:

    Honestly, I don’t think its a bad idea, our stations are a bottleneck enough as they are with crowds of people topping up. At least it’s free, here we pay and pay. I own 5 myki tickets, each cost money. Problem is you rock up at a station when all the newsagents are closed. Its good for small business, buying a coffee at the same time. But if they are free why cant the office just hand you one?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Some of those issues would be addressed by better station design – or faster Myki readers so crowds of people trying to touch on / off don’t form in the first place.

      • Bez says:

        It’s just stupid, you cannot ever escape how terribly crap the entire Myki system is. To go from how damn fast Metcard was to how damn slow Myki is. I cannot understand it, it’s like nobody ever thought about the speed of movement through the barriers. There is this obsession with smart cards that I will never understand. Truly I won’t.

        So, I need for my ticket to have the balance inside it, but I also need the server to also have my balance as well. Then I need to have a handshake with the barriers for some reason. Hey, I’ve got a good idea, barcodes! It works for every sporting venue around this country. You have a ticket, it has a barcode, the barcode is unique, it activates the barriers. How difficult is that?

        Ticket inspector walking down the train, hey can I see your barcode, why yes you can, I had the thing tattoed to my arm so I would never lose it. Scan, done.

  3. Kevin says:

    Rather silly, isn’t it? No tickets from a Sydney train station window!

    Your last paragraph about Melbourne could do with a clarification: you can buy any Myki from any staffed station (check that however, becayse I could be wrong), but Myki machines (which are located at stations) only provide non-concession tickets.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Good point there – I’d forgotten the issues around the lack of concession tickets from machines.

      • Bez says:


        Concession cards from Centrelink last nearly 2 years, long after the 2 months I was unemployed for, yet we’re worried about people getting one of those nasty concession myki cards which cause them to become a target for ticket inspection at nearly every city station. “Can I see your concession?” Yes, that does get so old. And to be honest, if someone is going to fare evade, wouldn’t they just not buy a ticket in the first place?

        Also, the biggest problem with ticket inspectors is that they are targetting people who in a million years cannot afford to pay the fine anyways. At Broadmeadows bus station, they literally patrol the 901 and 902 smart buses, and they catch 5 – 10 youth and obviously low income people every time. It’s why they are there, they have found a huge spot to rake in the fines, but my guess is nobody is paying these fines off, which makes a tonne of sense to me.

        Here’s the thing, our smart buses are a government handout, they cost way more then they will ever earn, so why would we care if people weren’t paying for a myki on them? On buses the fare evasion is so rampant that bus drivers multiple years ago stopped caring, you can tell they actually prefer that people not put credit on their myki, they prefer if you don’t stand at the reader for 5 seconds waiting for it to scan.

        Half the time the bus driver will just nod you down the bus, and then you have the declined, I couldn’t tell you how many times I didn’t have to pay for a ride on the bus because I had run out of credit. Who is actually going to hop on a bus and spend 2 minutes putting credit on their myki? Nobody, the bus drivers often refuse to do this, they do not care.

  4. Andrew S says:

    Not too different from Perth’s SmartRider which can be purchased at one of four Transperth Info Centres – all in the city – or at a selection of retail outlets around suburban Perth.
    The retail outlets are a random assortment of LotteryWest agencies, chemists or newsagents. For example I got mine at the lotto outlet in Carousel Shopping Centre in Cannington – one of three identical looking ones in the centre but only the one near the food court sells the SmartRider!

    Topping up SmartRider is also limited to a small number of ‘Add-Value’ machines as the normal ones at railway stations issue traditional paper tickets. Confusingly for the expat Victorian these look near identical to the Myki vending machines in Melbourne! You can also add value on buses interestingly enough, or at the same places you buy the cards in the first place, or online or via BPay which it seems they encourage you to do.

    The major upside of Perth’s system was the tag on and tag off was instant and you don’t have the ongoing problems they have slowly been ironing out in Melbourne over the past few years.

  5. Andrew says:

    Not as bad as trying to buy a Presto card at Toronto Airport to catch the then brand new train lone to the city. We couldn’t and I am sure they don’t want to sell them so you have to pay the higher, much higher, paper ticket fare. Aside from your difficulty of finding where to buy one, the Opal card system seems superior to Myki.

  6. Anthony Y says:

    Myki does have a single use ticket. It just costs $6 more than the regular fare 🙂

  7. mich says:

    Last time I checked, you could not buy an Opal nor top one up at Sydney Airport. It might have changed now, though.

    And when I asked an information person who was specifically there to give information about transport to arriving persons, he gave me information which was 100% false, which is worse than “I don’t know”.

  8. joj says:

    It’s odd that you were told you couldn’t buy an Opal card at the information desk, given it’s listed on the link you provided as one of the only places you can buy one!

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Now that I check their opening hours – 6.00am to 8.30pm – it seems a little odd. I arrived at 8pm so they should’ve still been selling tickets – maybe they had already counted their till for the night?

  9. Albert3801 says:

    Just some points:
    All Sydney ticket offices have closed or will close after 1st August 2016 when magnetic stripe tickets are no longer sold or accepted.

    NSW Trainlink Regional (ex Countrylink) tickets will only be available for purchase on line or by phone. You can pay for them at a Post Office but they must be ordered online or by phone.

    Opal is operated by Cubic Transportation as contractors to Transport for NSW. Sydney Trains staff are not expected, or able, to offer any assistance to customers regarding ticketing issues or fare questions except to provide them with Opal’s phone number to call.

    Obtaining Opal cards at retailers is relatively recent. Previously you could only top-up there and Opal Cards had to be ordered online or by phone.

    You can obtain an Opal Card at the AirportLink information counters at Sydney Airport. It will come with a Sydney Visitor’s Pack.

  10. Matthew Geier says:

    The NSW government quietly tacked on the abolishing of station staff’s rolling in ticketing to the Opal rollout.

    So now you have the situation where the railway staff can not sell you or assist with topping up your Opal card, but the news agency on the station concourse can!. (Not universal though the little shop on my station can’t afford the epay service. Not enough money it for them).

    Other than the covert war on station staff, Opal has and does work reasonably well. And the war on station staff isn’t Opal as such, it’s just the government has decided to do both at the same time and use the rollout of Opal as a cover story.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Rail unions have drawn similar connections between the introduction of driverless trains on the new North West Rail Link under ‘Sydney Metro Northwest’ and a war on train drivers and guards.

  11. Francis E says:

    I bought an Opal at the Sydney Domestic train station ticket office a few months ago. I knew I could because the website (Cityrail, I think) said so. I could also have bought it online and mailed to my Melbourne address ahead of time, had I wanted to.

  12. Norah K says:

    You couldn’t purchase MyKi’s at regional rail stations for a long time. I remember my first year of uni in Bendigo I filled out my application for a Tertiary Concession Card and took it down to the railway station to pay the $24 and have the card insert stamped and laminated. I had previously had a high school version that came with a myki pass covering all travel in a certain area, but this time I didn’t receive any MyKi card. Confused, I asked the man if I could purchase a MyKi from him. “No we don’t sell those, you’ll have to go to the Post Office in the mall”.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I recall that in the early days of Myki in Geelong it was a similar situation – V/Line was still using paper tickets and Myki only valid on the town buses, so they weren’t for sale at the railway station, just retail outlets.

  13. Jonny says:

    An old thread but he situation in Sydney hasn’t changed much. I haven’t been there for yonks but going to be for three days in due course and would like to get about by PT. Going up by the day train from Southern Cross. You can now buy an Opal, and top-up, at the “Transport Information” centre at Sydney Central, but that closes at 6.00 p.m. and the train doesn’t arrive until 7.45 p.m. Are these guys serious about customer service?

    For visitors, the obvious place to have these facilities is your hotel. Further, surely all the States could think about an outlet in all our capital cities – it’s not rocket science.

    I guess I’ll have to buy one on-line before I go. And then trust Australia Post to deliver it…

    • Marcus Wong says:

      At least one change in the years since is that you don’t necessarily need an Opal card any more – you can just use your credit card.

      I did just that on my recent trip, having brought along my old Opal card and discovering it had a negative balance.

  14. Jonny says:

    Yes, I discovered that after reading another website. That’s useful if you’re travelling solo, but we’re travelling as a couple and the missus doesn’t have her own credit card, so…
    But all of this could be solved by a bit of cooperation between the States. Just have State smartcards for sale at interstate railway stations and at airports.

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