The CharlieCard is the payment method for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and several regional public transport systems in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. It is a MIFARE-based contactless smart card on which the passenger loads fares, and was introduced on December 4, 2006.[1] It replaces the metal token, that last of which was sold at Government Center station on December 6, 2006.[2] The CharlieCard is named after a fictional character in the folk song "M.T.A.", often called "Charlie on the MTA", which concerns a man forever trapped on the Boston subway system – then known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) – because he cannot pay the 5-cent surcharge required to leave the train. One day the traditional CharlieCard system will be replaced with AFC 2.0, a system similar to the London Oyster Card. The new system will allow payments with contactless cards and smartphones, as well as new CharlieCards.[3]

Charlie main-table-card.png
LocationBoston, Massachusetts, U.S.
LaunchedDecember 4, 2006 (2006-12-04)
ManagerMassachusetts Bay Transportation Authority
  • CharlieTicket
  • Bike CharlieCard


The CharlieCard is named after the lead character in the 1948 protest folk music song, "M.T.A.". The song was written to protest a fare increase in the form of an extra five cent exit fare for longer rides and was later made popular by the Kingston Trio in 1959.[citation needed] One of the rejected names for the farecard system was "The Fare Cod", a pun on both the way locals might pronounce "Card" and the fish that was once integral to the Massachusetts economy, and also a reference to other transit cards named for ocean animals, such as London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus. Another rejected name was T Go card with the T being the symbol for the MBTA.[4]

CharlieCards work on the MBTA's subway and bus services, most of which were converted in 2006. Token sales ended on December 6, 2006.[5] The final fare-controlled station to be converted was Fields Corner station on December 22, 2006.[6] They were originally expected to be usable on MBTA commuter rail and ferry boat services by December 2008,[7] with testing on the Commuter Rail originally planned for summer 2008.[8] However, testing had been pushed back to 2009, and full implementation had not been expected until 2011.[9] By 2012, the MBTA had abandoned plans to accept CharlieCards on the commuter rail system.[10] CharlieCards are not accepted on THE RIDE.[11]

CharlieCards are gradually being expanded to the other transit authorities in Massachusetts.[12] CharlieCard acceptance has expanded to the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (October 2010),[13] Brockton Area Transit Authority (March 2011),[14] Lowell Regional Transit Authority (November 2011),[15] Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (branded "Tap and Ride Card"; February 2012),[16] Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (March 2012),[17] Worcester Regional Transit Authority (April 2012),[18] Cape Ann Transportation Authority,[19] Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (November 2012), Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (January 2013),[20] and Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (January 2014).[21]

In November 2017, the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a $723 million contract that would replace by 2021 the original CharlieCard and CharlieTicket with a new system ("AFC 2.0", for Automated Fare Collection) that would allow fare gates to be compatible with contactless payment systems that have since been built into many credit cards and smartphones. To speed boarding, payment readers would be installed at all doors of Green Line trolleys and buses (to allow a proof-of-payment system) and cash-on-board payments would no longer be allowed, requiring customers to load cash onto cards at vending machines or retailers. It would also be extended to the Commuter Rail, where passengers would tap on and off.[22] Public meetings on the new system were held in 2017 and 2018,[23] but then stopped in 2019[24] until a revised plan was announced in December 2019.[25] The new plan, costing over $900 million, would roll out more gradually from 2020 to 2024. It would lower CharlieTicket fares to match CharlieCard fares when the paper CharlieTickets start using contactless payments instead of magnetic stripe readers. CharlieCards would no longer be free, but would allow for one trip on a negative balance, and there would be 1,000 additional points of sale for fare media.


The CharlieCard can store value (keep a cash balance) and hold a combination of time-based passes which allow unlimited rides during a set period of time. Passengers use the plastic CharlieCard by tapping it against a target on a gate or a vehicle farebox. If left in a wallet, the card can usually be read when the wallet is placed on the reader. The gate or farebox then either automatically debits the cost of the passenger's ride, or verifies that the card has a valid transfer or that the card has a pass that is valid for travel at the given time and location. Transit riders can add value or a monthly pass to their cards at machines located at MBTA stations and vehicles, MBTA ticket offices, retail sales terminals at select outlets and online.[citation needed] Since the system operates offline, any purchases made online must be loaded to the card at a fare vending machine.

The original CharlieCards show no expiration date, but they did expire without warning five years after they were first activated. The first cards began expiring around November 2011. Newer CharlieCards have expiration dates printed on them and are valid for ten years, with the exception of Student CharlieCards which expire at the end of the school year they are issued. Users may tap their cards at a kiosk to find information on the expiration date; this information is not available online. Expiration of time-based passes that might be loaded onto a CharlieCard should not be confused with expiration of the CharlieCard itself; once a CharlieCard expires, it cannot be renewed and must be replaced. The purpose of expiration is to force users to replace CharlieCards on a periodic basis before they wear out and are no longer readable. To replace an expired CharlieCard, users must go to the Downtown Crossing pass sales office during weekday business hours, or mail the card to the MBTA. Time passes and stored value left on the expired card can be moved to the replacement card.[26]

Effect on transit employeesEdit

Ticket machines and fare gates at the World Trade Center station on the Silver Line.

Token collectors have been retrained as Customer Service Agents (CSAs) and assigned to guide MBTA customers in the stations. However, new insulated booths were constructed which allow the CSAs to monitor fare machine use and assist when necessary. Many riders had complaints about the customer service agents for being rude and unhelpful.[27] The MBTA also plans "Hub Stations" within six existing subway stations. These glass-walled control rooms will house personnel monitoring various signal and alarm systems, including closed-circuit television. Personnel in the Hub Stations will be able to direct customer service agents to customers, and will interact with customers via call boxes located throughout the system. To support the added technology, the MBTA is connecting all subway stations in a fiber optic loop digital network, largely using its own right of way.[citation needed]

This planned change to "Hub Stations" never actually occurred and in March 2017 the MBTA announced they were planning on privatizing their customer service positions to increase efficiency. [28]



The automated fare collection equipment is also compatible with the MBTA's CharlieTicket, a paper card with a magnetic stripe that operates as a stored-value card or time-period (monthly, weekly, or daily) pass. The MBTA first implemented the stored-value CharlieTicket on the Silver Line in February 2005. The ticket is inserted into a slot in the gate or farebox, the fare is deducted, and the remaining balance is displayed on a small screen. The ticket is then returned to the rider even if there is no remaining value.[citation needed]

Bike CharlieCardEdit

On September 18, 2008, two 150-bike parking cages were made available at the Alewife station, next to the MBTA parking garage. Since then, a number of MBTA stations have been provided with secure, monitored bicycle parking cages. See Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority#Bicycles for details. Previously, access to these cages required a free special Bike CharlieCard. But as of the spring of 2013, any CharlieCard can be registered for bike cage access.[29]

Purchase optionsEdit

CharlieCards can be reloaded, and CharlieTickets can be purchased and exchanged for new ones at Fare Vending Machines (FVMs) in transit stations, and elsewhere in the system including buses. All FVMs accept credit and debit cards; most also accept cash and coins. The AFC fareboxes on buses and light rail trains accept CharlieCards, Change Tickets, CharlieTickets, cash (up to $20 bills), and coins. When customers pay with cash on the bus, they may receive their change on a "ChangeTicket".[citation needed]

The MBTA gives a discount for CharlieCard users that began with the fare increase that took effect on January 1, 2007, and continuing with later increases. For example, a subway or trolley ride costs $2.10 with a CharlieCard but $2.65 with a CharlieTicket or cash. Local bus riders get a $0.50 discount with a CharlieCard ($1.60 vs $2.10),express bus riders pay an extra $1 or $1.50 depending on the route, and similar surcharges had been planned for commuter rail, and harbor ferries, but not THE RIDE.[30][31] The MBTA also plans to continue providing the cards themselves free of charge, at pass offices, at stations throughout the system, at local retailers, and online.[32][33]

There is also a senior citizen/disabled citizen Charlie pass, with reduced fares for qualifying individuals, called a "Senior/TAP" (Transportation Access Pass) CharlieCard. Middle school and high school students also can obtain a discounted CharlieCard.[34]

The bulk of the MBTA's vehicles and stations were transitioned to the CharlieCard-compatible system throughout 2006, with Fields Corner the last to be converted on December 22, 2006.[citation needed]

Fare Vending Machines are available at all underground stations, as well as on the baggage-claim level of Logan International Airport terminals, inside Fenway Park, and at all stations on the Green Line "D" Branch.[1] Proof-of-Payment Validation machines are installed at select stops on the other Green Line branches.[35]

There are no plans to install Fare Vending Machines at Silver Line surface stops at the present time. Instead, the MBTA plans to install fare card sales terminals inside retail stores at other heavily trafficked locations in the system, including along busy bus routes and near selected Green Line and Silver Line stops, and in non-traditional locations such as Fenway Park.[33] Fare vending machines were later installed at all airport stops before the Silver Line became free to board at the airport, removing the need for the Fare Vending Machines.


Green Line efficiency concernsEdit

The Green Line is the most heavily traveled light rail line in the United States, with an average of 230,000 riders each weekday. Because of this heavy ridership, at selected stops on the Green Line the MBTA implemented a system known as Show-N-Go, which allows riders to flash their monthly passes and enter through the rear doors of a train, reducing congestion at the front door.[36] This worked well when monthly passes were on paper tickets, as each month's pass differed visually from the previous month, but became an issue when the MBTA encouraged riders to store their monthly passes on their CharlieCards, as passes held this way cannot be verified visually.[citation needed]

The MBTA's solution was to turn the surface portion of the Green Line into a proof-of-payment system to increase the efficiency of boarding at peak times on surface Green Line stops. All doors on all trolleys open at some or all stations, depending on the branch. Passengers can pay their fare in several ways, depending on their payment method. Passengers paying with cash must enter through the front door and pay at the farebox, where they may receive a proof-of-payment receipt. Stored-value CharlieCard or CharlieTicket holders may also need to pay at the farebox.[citation needed]

However, selected stops on all four of the Green Line branches contained ticket validators which allowed passengers to have money deducted from their CharlieCards or CharlieTickets before boarding, and provided them with a proof-of-payment. With this receipt in hand, passengers could enter through the rear doors of trolleys. In addition, MBTA inspectors with handheld validators were stationed at the busiest stops to deduct money from and verify monthly passes on CharlieCards, also allowing these riders to enter through any door. (Thirty of the handheld readers had been deployed, with an additional 20 coming by the end of January 2007, according to the MBTA.) Persons holding monthly passes could also just enter through any doors.[35] All passengers, even those who entered through the rear doors, were still be required to go to the front of the train and make payment (or show their receipt) to trolley drivers. MBTA Transit Police conducted random checks to make sure riders had paid their fares.[37]

In July 2012, the MBTA reverted to a "front door only" boarding policy on surface stations outside of peak hours to combat fare evasion. This policy also requires passengers getting off the streetcar to walk all the way to the front of the car to exit.[38]

This later changed to an all door boarding during busy hours and a front door only during off-peak hours. [39]

Security concernsEdit

Security flaws in the CharlieCard technology were studied and reported in a presentation by Henryk Plötz and Karsten Nohl at the Chaos Communication Congress in December 2007, which described a partial reverse-engineering of the algorithm used in the MIFARE Classic chip.[40] The MIFARE Classic smartcard[41] from NXP Semiconductors, owned by Philips, was reported as compromised in March 2008 by a group of researchers led by Karsten Nohl, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science, University of Virginia.[42][43][44]

In addition, the security used on the mag-stripe CharlieTickets was broken by a team of MIT students. They were scheduled to give a talk about their findings at DEFCON 16 in August 2008,[45] but were stopped after a federal lawsuit was filed against them by the MBTA, which resulted in a restraining order being issued.[46][47] However, their presentation had already been published by DEFCON before the complaint was filed.[48] On August 19, the court ruled the students could give their presentation.[49]

Other MIT students leveraged the technology behind Charlie Cards in 2013, with the development of Sesame Ring, a wearable ring embedded with an RFID tag that would save riders time in passing through MBTA station faregates.[50] The students formed a company called Ring Theory and funded development of the product using a Kickstarter campaign. The Sesame Ring can be ordered online, or purchased in the MBTA Gift Store in Cambridge.[51] The product was developed with full cooperation from the MBTA.[52]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Daniel, Mac (2006-11-12). "Starts and Stops—Sign of winter: plow drivers sought". Boston Globe. p. B2. Retrieved 2006-11-12.
  2. ^ MBTA bids farewell to an era the last brass tokens are sold Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Authority, Massachusetts Bay Transportation. "Automated Fare Collection 2.0 (AFC 2.0) | Transforming the T | MBTA". Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  4. ^ Dig Staff. "Forever, 'Neath the Streets of Boston". The Weekly Dig. Retrieved 2006-08-09.[dead link]
  5. ^ Ross, Casey (December 6, 2006). "CharlieCard Takes Over MBTA As Last Token Sold". Boston Herald. Archived from the original on December 13, 2006 – via Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
  6. ^ Ryan, Andrew (December 23, 2006). "Last T Station Converted To New Fare Equipment". Boston Globe – via Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
  7. ^ Ryan, Andrew (2007-12-04). "CharlieCard celebrates its first birthday". The Boston Globe.
  8. ^ Goodison, Donna (2007-12-05). "CharlieCard setup coming to commuter rail". The Boston Herald.
  9. ^ St. Martin, Greg (2009-07-27). "Riders going for 'Charlie'". Metro Boston.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Eric Moskowitz (April 21, 2012). "The app that Charlie really could have used". The Boston Globe.
  11. ^ "> Riding the T > Accessible Services". MBTA. 2012-07-01. Retrieved 2012-07-22.
  12. ^ Weir, Richard (2010-10-28). "MBTA's CharlieCard expanding statewide". Boston Herald.
  13. ^ "Commonwealth Conversations: Transportation: MBTA Charlie Card Expands to MetroWest RTA". 2010-10-27. Retrieved 2012-07-22.
  14. ^ "Charlie-Card reach expands". The Boston Globe. 2011-03-20.
  15. ^ Lips, Evan (24 November 2011). "Charlie on the LRTA". The Lowell Sun. Archived from the original on 24 November 2011. Retrieved 24 November 2011.
  16. ^ "Final-Blue.aspx". 30 January 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-02-14.
  17. ^ "Charlie Card: Frequently Asked Questions | MART". Archived from the original on 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-07-22.
  18. ^ Worcester Regional Transit Authority. "WRTA New Passes and Fare Box" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-06-04.[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ Cape Ann Transportation Authority. "CATA Fares and Passes". Archived from the original on 2012-03-20. Retrieved 2012-06-05.
  20. ^ "SRTA is Implementing a New Fare Collection System" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-01-07.[permanent dead link]
  21. ^ "Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus fares". Retrieved 2014-07-15.
  22. ^ MBTA Awards $723M Contract For Overhaul Of Fare Collection
  23. ^ Fare Transformation
  24. ^ MBTA's Automatic Fare Collection 2.0 — Where Did It Go?
  25. ^ MBTA Hitting Reset On Automated Fare System Rollout
  26. ^ Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "CharlieCard Expiration FAQ". Retrieved 2012-06-04.
  27. ^ "MBTA employees: friendly, receptive, or straight up rude?". Metro US. 14 August 2012. Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  28. ^ "MBTA moves to privatize customer service jobs - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  29. ^ Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "Bikes on the T". Retrieved 2013-02-05.
  30. ^ Shartin, Emily (2006-07-06). "Winners, losers in new T fares". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2006-08-09.
  31. ^ Daniel, Mac (2006-10-07). "T will proceed with fare increases". Boston Globe. p. A1. Retrieved 2006-10-07.
  32. ^ Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "Get the CharlieCard Today". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
  33. ^ a b Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (2006-11-30). "CharlieCard Distribution Plan (Press Briefing)". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2006-12-04.
  34. ^ MBTA, Fares and Passes: Reduced Fare Programs" Archived November 10, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ a b Daniel, Mac (2006-12-10). "Working out kinks on the Green Line". Boston Globe. p. B2. Retrieved 2006-12-10.
  36. ^ "Show-N-Go Continues Along the Green Line" (Press release). Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2006-09-01. Archived from the original on December 17, 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
  37. ^ Daniel, Mac (2006-12-29). "Free rides will halt on MBTA". Boston Globe. p. B1. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
  38. ^ Moskovitz, Eric (2012-05-30). "Free rides on Green Line end, T hopes". Boston Globe. Archived from the original on 2013-01-18. Retrieved 2012-07-21.
  39. ^ Authority, Massachusetts Bay Transportation. "MBTA Studies, Addresses Green Line Fare Collection Issues < News < MBTA - Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority". Retrieved 3 November 2017.
  40. ^ Cf. Wikipedia MIFARE Security article
  41. ^ NXP Product information on the Mifare card Archived September 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  42. ^ Ragan, Steve, "U.VA. researchers crack smartcard chips – Mifare Classic security proven weak" Archived September 22, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, The Tech Herald, March 12, 2008
  43. ^ Bray, Hiawatha (March 6, 2008). "T card has security flaw, says researcher". The Boston Globe. Retrieved June 18, 2009.
  44. ^ Szaniszlo, Marie (March 6, 2008). "Research: CharlieCard is far from hack-proof". Boston Herald. Archived from the original on February 21, 2009. Retrieved June 18, 2009.
  45. ^ DEFCON 16 Speaker and Talk Abstract list Archived November 5, 2015, at the Wayback Machine - August 8, 2008
  46. ^ McGraw-Herdeg, Michael and Vogt, Marissa, "Students’ subway security talk canceled by court order" Archived March 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, MIT Tech newspaper, August 8, 2008
  47. ^ Defcon Speakers Sued Archived March 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  48. ^ "EFF to Fight Order Forcing Students to Cancel Subway Hacking Presentation". Efluxmedia. August 12, 2008. Archived from the original on August 21, 2008.
  49. ^ Judge backs hackers in Boston subway dispute[permanent dead link]
  50. ^ "Wear Your MBTA Pass as a Ring". Slice of MIT. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-12-15. Retrieved 2013-09-05.
  51. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-10-25. Retrieved 2013-11-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  52. ^ Annear, Steve (July 17, 2014). "'Sesame Rings' Now For Sale on the MBTA's Website". Boston. Retrieved 2014-07-24.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit