You Might Already Be Ready to Use Ventra

Different ways to pay on CTA and Pace
Check your wallet. Do you have the "wave" logo on your credit or debit card? If so, you're ready to use Ventra, and all you have to do to add multi-day passes or receive transit tax benefits is register your card with Ventra.

Ventra, you may have heard, is the new fare payment system for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace. (Metra will not be joining the Ventra system, and is currently testing other fare payment methods.) CTA is switching to Ventra to save $5 million per year on maintaining outdated fare collection technology, according to spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis.

“We also print 35 million transit cards and passes each year,” she said. That’s a lot of waste! Lambrini also mentioned that the credit card industry is moving in the same direction and will be phasing out magnetic stripe cards in the next few years, saying, “We’re ahead of the curve on this, but our main motivation is to make paying more efficient and to mirror the retail experience.”

As with any transition, there will probably be an adjustment period, but the CTA doesn’t deserve the scolding about its communications that Jon Hilkevitch dished out in his Tribune column today. The transition is not as complicated as Hilkevitch makes it out to be. Here’s what you need to know.

The basics

The most important aspect of Ventra is that users will be able to pay fares with their own bank-issued credit or debit card. So you might be able to use the system without acquiring any new cards. This should make paying fares faster and convenient without adding any cost.

If you won’t be using your own bank card, you can get a Ventra Card at 145 train stations or more than 2,000 retail locations, over the phone, or via the Ventra website.

You can buy transit fares with cash or credit at the Ventra vending machines, but if you choose to receive a disposable paper ticket instead of buying a new Ventra Card or reloading an existing one (with cash or credit/debit), you will have to pay an extra 75 cents (for a single transfer and the cost of the paper ticket). CTA and Pace buses will still accept cash, and the fare will not change from $2 and $1.75, respectively.

The vending machines

The Ventra machines replacing the larger, older vending machines in CTA’s train stations have two functions: to add value to an existing card or account with cash or credit/debit, and to issue new tickets and cards. The Ventra machines can sell the following fare media:

  • A new plastic, reloadable card. At the Ventra machines, you will pay a $5 fee for this card (with cash or credit/debit). Do not discard it! The fee will be returned to you in the form of a cash balance when you register the card (this is a one-time fee). Registration also protects your investment in case the Ventra Card is lost or stolen. You can apply a 1-day or multi-day pass to the card after registration at train stations and retail outlets with cash or credit/debit.
  • Paper, single ride ticket that costs $3.00. This includes the base $2.25 fare, a 25 cents transfer fare, and a 50 cents “limited use media” fee to cover the cost of printing the electronic paper ticket (it has an RFID chip inside). Purchase with cash or credit/debit. You can’t use this card again. Chicago is not the first city to try this type of incentive. The MTA in New York City is now charging $1 when riders buy new magnetic stripe MetroCards.
  • Paper, 1-day pass. This costs the same as the 1-day pass now, $10. Again, purchase it with cash or credit/debit. You can’t use it again.

That covers the basics. Now on to the finer details…

Special cases


Students at participating universities and colleges will be issued a single U-Pass Ventra Card for their entire study there. Each semester, instead of lining up to receive a new, flexible U-Pass, which are prone to cracking, eligible students will receive a more durable card that still features the student’s photo; outside of school sessions, students can load a cash balance or passes so they can use the Card to pay for rides. The Ventra system knows when their term is up and when school starts again, applying the U-Pass at the right times. There is no fee to use it.

Chicago Card/Plus

Riders who use Chicago Card Plus to get the pre-tax transit benefit will need to associate that benefit with a Ventra account. Their fare medium can either be a Ventra reloadable card or a bank card.

People who use Chicago Card Plus to have the auto-reload or 30-day pass feature must create a new Ventra account as their cards will be disabled some time after Ventra begins. Accounts will be transferred; CTA will send a note to all registered users in the near future to have them validate mailing address after which a Ventra Card will be mailed.  They can pay with either a Ventra Card or a personal bank-issued card.

Having Ventra gives current Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus pay-as-you-go users a new feature: they will be able to add a 1-day or multi-day pass to their account, in addition to the cash balance. This would be most useful for occasional transit riders who are going to need to use transit very frequently in a short period. This is the category I fit into.

I have a Chicago Card Plus, and I pay per ride instead of having the 30-day pass option. If my bike breaks down and it’s going to take a bike shop five days to fix it, I’ll log in to my Ventra account and apply a 5-day pass. The next time I use my Ventra account – via a Ventra Card or my bank card – the CTA will see that I have a pass and use that to pay my fare instead of my cash balance.

I wouldn’t have to go online to buy this pass: I could apply the pass to my Ventra account at all CTA train stations and the 2,000 retail locations (where I could pay with cash or credit/debit). I could also use a mobile-friendly website or call Ventra customer service.

For those who never had a Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus, but want those features, you can get a Ventra Card or bring your own bank-issued personal credit or debit card. You can reload this card with a cash balance or apply a 1-day or multi-day pass at the train stations, retail outlets, online, or over the phone.

Other groups

Other discounted rider groups, like seniors, passengers with disabilities, and military members, will also be switching to Ventra. They will also be asked to confirm mailing address to receive a Ventra Card.

Turning your Ventra card into a cash card

If you choose, you can “activate” the cash/debit functions of the Ventra Card and purchase things and services wherever MasterCard is accepted. There will be two different “purses” on the same Ventra account: transit and retail. If your transit purse is low when you want to board, Ventra will look at your retail purse and use those funds. You’ll be able to reload the retail purse at the 2,000+ retail locations (not at the train stations).

That just about covers it. What questions do you have about Ventra?

  • You will be asked to confirm your mailing address after which you will receive a Ventra Card in the mail. You can add a cash balance and 1-day or multi-day passes to the Ventra Card at any train station or participating retail outlet (with cash or credit/debit).

  • That’s a good question to which I don’t know the answer right now. I’m awaiting an answer for another question so I’ll ask later.

  • That sounds like a great thing to sell. A third-party company operates the CTA Gifts store.

    Here’s a RFID protector sleeve I found on Amazon.

  • Caltrain staff check everyone’s tickets or Clipper cards. Caltrain has a tap on/tap off system and Metra, for sure, doesn’t want to install that.

  • Nothing’s boondoggle about it.

  • There is no increased fare.

  • I am not a journalist.

    You will be able to reload your Ventra card, upping the cash balance, or adding a 1-day or multi-day pass, at 145 train stations and over 2,000 retail locations – with cash or credit/debit. This can also be done online and on a smartphone-friendly website.

  • It’s hard to get good information on how the BBB rated First Data as there are many entries for First Data in their database, many of which are likely the same company but with different office locations.

    In one instance, the company got an F because it didn’t respond to 1 complaint. In another instance, the company got an A+.

  • Ventra is not a replacement for the Chicago Card/Plus. It’s a replacement for administering 10 different cards.

  • Ventra is not a replacement for Chicago Card/Plus.

    Ventra Cards can be reloaded with cash or credit/debit at 145 train stations, at over 2,000 retail locations, and online. That wasn’t possible with Chicago Card/Plus.

  • Anonymous

    FINE. With the surcharge for a single ride, a card costs less than 2 fares.

  • Chicago South

    Repeat that mantra all you like, but as you see throughout these comments (and in City Council, the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times…), people are concerned about the unequal ramifications of this new program. Denying them doesn’t make them go away, it just makes streetsblog look uninformed.

    I’m an advocate for sustainable transportation too, but I understand that being open and honest is the most important element of being effective.

    My unsolicited advice: follow John Greenfield’s lead. His more balanced piece on creating better protected bike lanes demonstrates that being open to criticism provides opportunities for improving policies.

  • This post was intended to talk about the options people will have in the new system, not looking into unequal ramifications.

  • Joseph Musco

    I should have said Money Network. BBB rates business divisions and I should have said Money Network (a division of First Data). I was going by memory from the intitial CBS story and got a little confused.

    A quick Google search about Money Network or Metabank reveal a host of abusive practices that involve lawsuits and actions by state AGs. It’s not just one BBB rating that shows CTA’s partners to be shady. Metabank has a number of complaints against it, from consumer groups and state AGs.

    I think the RFID cards will be great as a fare system. I also think there should be some fee for services involved with extra card services. I just question the rates negotiated by CTA. The scale of the contract would suggest CTA could negotiate fees that were competitive with the lowest fees in the debit card industry. These fees appear to be slightly above average for a product that already feeds off of the financial insecurity of the poor.

    Related: The City of Oakland issued a municipal debit card and faced many of the same problems that CTA is facing now, complaints of high fees, complaints of failure to address the needs of the poor.

  • mikel1814

    Can I use my Google Wallet, my cell phone enabled with an RFID chip attached to a credit card account, to pay on the Ventra system?

  • mikel1814

    Sorry, I mistyped, it’s not an RFID chip, but an NFC chip. I guess they haven’t announced a timeline on that.

  • I’m really sorry that METRA is not included in this. A missed opportunity.

  • Chicago South

    Right, but you know that my biggest concerns are with your responses to the comments — not the press release type post you made. Of course as you said above, you aren’t interested in investigating facts, you are trying to promote their system. That’s clear now.

  • This is coming soon. The spokesperson I talked to was going to double check that Google Wallet and whatever products are available (maybe Apple Passbook in the future) would work with the system.

  • Alfonso

    There does not appear to be a limit to the number of Ventra cards you can own. Buy a bunch of Ventra cards. Use up the $5 on each card (you may have to add a dollar or two to get it up to three fares exactly). When the balance on a card reaches zero, stick a post-it note on it that says “spare Ventra card” and stick it in the back of your junk drawer. Repeat for every Ventra card you buy.

    When guests come to visit, pull the spare cards out of your junk drawer and load them up with 3 or 7 day passes and give them to your guests.

  • Here’s something I’m wondering about. If you rarely use transit and want to just pay-per-use, can you directly use any personal contactless credit or debit card at a turnstile or bus fare box? Or must you first link a “Ventra Transit Account” with the card?

    I was initially under the impression that you could use any contactless card without having to pre-purchase value, but the wording on CTA’s site makes me uncertain of that. I think it’d be great if someone could board a bus with their contactless credit card without having to first find a location to add transit value to the card.

  • candis

    Will there still be the $2.25 first ride .25 second ride an third ride free within 2 hours with the ventra card?

  • Anonymous

    Someone will be along to remind us that the Ventra card is not intended as a replacement for the Chicago Card, but you can just use your Ventra card as if it were a Chicago Card or a Transit Card, everything will work exactly as it does today. You pay the same fares. You can reload at vending machines in train stations, at supposedly 2000 other places, and online. Your choice.
    All fares, transfers, etc stay exactly the same when you use the Ventra card,.

    Just forget all the nonsense about debit cards. Don’t activate the debit card option. Everything will be the same. Maybe someday you might want to use the additional options like loading a multi-day pass onto your card, but you don’t have to. Just stick with using it like a Chicago Card or Transit Card until you are comfortable that really nothing has changed.

  • Ok so I’m new to public transportation and everyone I know uses the Chicago Plus, so i JUST got mine, today. now I’m reading about this Ventra thing…when will they contact people about transferring the balance to the Ventra account?

  • It will happen later this year. The Chicago Card Plus will probably keep working for a while before you will be forced to start using the Ventra card that you will receive in the mail.

  • stef

    how much is the student cost on a ventra?

  • If you’re asking “how much is a U-Pass,” that unfortunately has variable answers. Different colleges have negotiated different rates with the CTA, and then they vary the amount they pass on directly to students via the “activity fee” or whatever that school calls it. It can be as little as $80, or a friend of mine said they pay nearly $200; of course, that’s for a whole semester (of whatever length the school uses), not a month.

  • While you’re asking, what about passback? Can I pay for four people to ride a succession of CTA vehicles using just one Ventra (and have it keep track that 4 people are riding)?

  • Ventra will have passback feature, paying the fare of up to 7 other people. One advantage of Ventra over the Chicago Card/Plus’s passback is that not all riders have to start at the same place to get transfers.

  • bartm

    At last we have a definitive answer to your question. I realize that this thread is six months old and you will never see this answer. Maybe someone randomly browsing might. Or probably no one ever will.

    You can use your personal contactless bankcard without having to pre-purchase value. BUT if you don’t pre-purchase value, you will be charged something called the “pay-as-you-go” (PAYG) fare. The PAYG fare includes NO TRANSFERS. You will be charged a full fare each time you tap your card on a card reader. Currently, the PAYG fare is the same as the Ventra Card single-ride fare, but there is nothing in the Terms and Conditions that guarantees this will remain so.

    If you register your personal bankcard you will have a Ventra Account associated with your card. You can pre-purchase value for your Ventra Account and you can purchase passes for your Ventra Account. When you use your registered bankcard, it will draw from your Ventra Account and will act just like a Ventra Card. Fares paid from your Ventra Account will include the usual transfer privileges. One exception: If the balance in your Ventra Account is insufficient to pay the full amount of the fare, your credit/debit card will be charged the PAYG fare (which does not include transfers). Note that you cannot make partial payments from your Ventra Account. If there is not enough value to pay the full amount due, a PAYG fare will be charged.

    I hope this is confusing enough for you.

  • bartm

    Ventra tweeted today that cell phone payments will be accepted starting 9/9. However please be aware that if you do not set up a Ventra Account for your cell phone (even if it has Google Wallet) and pre-fund it with money (“transit value”) or passes, you will be charged the pay-as-you-go (PAYG) fare which includes no transfer privileges.

  • cibuc

    Once the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus are phased out, riders will lose a feature not replicated in Ventra, the negative balance.

    It provides a last ride as long as there is some value remaining on
    the card, which carries a negative balance to be repaid the next time that the card is reloaded. The CTA didn’t publicize this feature.

  • bartm

    Even worse, if you were using a Transit Card and had valid transfers on your Transit Card but zero cash balance, you used to be able to just throw a quarter in the bus fare box. With Ventra, your transfers will be useless if you don’t have at least 25 cents in your account.

  • The highest amount per semester I paid while attending UIC from 2006-2010 was $95.

  • They are now!

  • Many users will likely set up the autoload feature to prevent low balances.

  • This probably didn’t affect Chicago Card Plus users as they have autoload or 30-day passes.

  • Ryan

    I have a Chicago Plus card that is auto-loaded with a 30-day pass every month. I received my Ventra card in the mail & set it up online. My current 30-day CCP pass shows up on the Ventra account site, but auto-reload is set to Off. If i set Ventra auto-reload to ON, do I also need to cancel the CCP reload so they don’t continue to charge my bank account twice next month (once from each service)?

  • Jeff

    Where IS my damn Ventra Card they keep promising is on it’s way? September 9th roll out is just around the corner.

  • Anonymous

    I’m nervous mine won’t arrive; I filled out my change of address information a bit late…

  • Anonymous

    Go read the CTA Tattler. The entire rollout has been one massive headache. I’m particularly impressed with the guy who had 271 Ventra cards mailed to him.

  • The Mouse

    Steve Vance is full of it. Ventra is a messed up company that somehow managed to finagle/bribe/something shady a contract with CTA and is doing its best to get as much money as it can with the least work. It has NO costumer service (you stay on the phone for 30 minutes and then get dropped, you leave messages that are ignored, or you send emails that are ignored).

    Tell me, Steve, how much is Ventra paying you to promote them?

  • Sarah

    It is still money being spent that no one had to spend before. It’s a one time use electronic chip…for 50 cents…

  • Greg

    What do you mean there’s no fee to use the Upass?? I drive to school and do not need the Upass, but it is a REQUIRED cost of attendance for me. $128 per semester for a useless card. Its not tax deductible since its “transportation” so I have exactly no use for this expense!

  • Ryan Bosman

    i will buy that card from you for more than face value….let me know….email:

  • Jose Romero

    I don’t think you can register Google Wallet with Ventra because when Google Wallet is used, your actual card details are not used. Google uses a virtual card together with a special code unique to each transaction.

    If you’re gonna pay with Google Wallet tap to pay, you’re gonna be charged the full fare every time.


Ventra Will Be Anything But a Smooth “Retail Experience”

Editor’s note: Streetsblog accepts guest posts with viewpoints different than our own. Lynn Stevens is an urban planner, blogger at Peopling Places, and long-time neighborhood booster for Logan Square where she’s been an active participant in Bike/Walk Logan Square, the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, the Logan Square Corridor Development Initiative, and the (now defunct) Zoning Advisory […]

New Ventra App Takes Small Step Towards Transit Fare Integration

The forthcoming smartphone ticket app for Metra will also make it possible for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace customers to manage their Ventra transit accounts on their phones, the CTA announced last week. Even though the three agencies will spend $2.5 million on the app (plus nearly $16,000 in monthly fees), the Ventra app won’t at […]

Metra Says It Already Welcomes Ventra (No, Not Really)

Even though Metra never plans to accept Ventra transit cards for payment aboard its trains, the commuter railroad now claims that it has accepted Ventra all along – and thus already fulfilled a state mandate to adopt Ventra by 2015. Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetsblog that “we can already accept” Ventra cards, but only in the […]