SEPTA Key 101: How the city’s fancy new transit cards will (eventually) work

Septa Key

You’ve probably heard the name “SEPTA Key.” You’ve probably seen the turnstiles being installed, and the lines to hand in those timeless SEPTA tokens on the BSL or the MFL. But are you really ready for the SEPTA Key? Billy Penn tried to translate the transit system’s “FAQ” into questions you might actually ask, and then answer those. Here’s what you need to know so far:

When is this happening?

Sometime next year if everything goes according to schedule. SEPTA has already installed most of the system, and will make a decision about when to launch it depending on a pilot program.

Will every station and every mode of transportation have SEPTA Key?

At first, Septa Key will work for subways, trolleys and buses; the program won’t start until every station and bus is equipped. The regional rail lines will not get the SEPTA Key technology until 2016.

So is it really a … key?

No. The name comes from SEPTA’s belief that its new digital payment system will be a “key” development in the city’s future.

What is it then?

It’s a card — not like SEPTA’s current TransPass, or the MetroCard for the NYC subway. The SEPTA Key will be similar to a credit or debit card in look and feel. It’s supposed to last for about three years. (Chicago’s elevated trains use this.)

Are there multiple types of cards?

Sort of. You can get a personalized or a non-personalized card. The personalized card means you register it with your name. You don’t register your name with the non-personalized card.

What’s the difference?

If you register, the card doesn’t cost you anything. If you don’t register, it costs $4.95. Whether or not you register, rides will be $1.80 each, the same price as a token ride.

How will I register?

Online or over the phone. You can buy a non-personalized card at a SEPTA kiosk.

So… you swipe the card?

Nope. The cards will have a contactless chip that allows for it to be scanned by being held over a pad. Also, you won’t necessarily need to have a SEPTA Key card to use the system. Certain credit or debit cards and phones have contactless chip technology, as does the iPhone 6. Users could register one of those items and use it for their SEPTA account.

How do I get money into my SEPTA Key account?

Online, over the phone or in person. They’re calling this the “travel wallet” program, but it’s really just paying for individual rides, like you did with tokens.

Will the SEPTA Key system be more expensive?

Nope. You’ll be charged $1.80 for a ride, the same price as it is now.

What if I want a monthly pass?  

You’ll still put that on your SEPTA Key card. Same with a weekly pass or a daily pass. It will cost the same amount as it does now.

What if I lose my SEPTA Key card?

You won’t lose all the money or the weekly or monthly pass you have on it, as long as you’ve registered your card. If you haven’t registered your card, you’ll be able to apply for balance protection at the SEPTA customer service center or on the SEPTA website.

What’s up with the new turnstiles I’ve seen at 13th Street station?

That’s one of the locations where they’re testing the program.

Will I still be able to use my tokens?

Yes, at least for a while. As the Key project unfolds, SEPTA will continue allowing for use of tokens — you’ll just have to line up at the customer booth, since the token option is being eliminated from turnstiles. Once SEPTA feels like everyone has adjusted to the key system, they won’t take tokens anymore. That means if you have a bunch of tokens stocked away, you’ll probably be OK. It also means this woman who allegedly stole $18,000 worth of SEPTA tokens would have probably been S.O.L. even if she hadn’t been charged with a crime.

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