Using the ORCA card on WSF in the San Juans

Update: There is no ORCA card reader at the Anacortes terminal, which exposes something of a fatal flaw with using ORCA on WSF in the San Juan Islands. I discovered this problem when I tried to refill my e-purse using the ORCA website. You can refill your e-purse via the website, but you must then tap your card at an ORCA reader within 60 days to actually add the credit to the card. As there is no ORCA reader at Anacortes (even the ticket sellers don’t have ORCA readers), I couldn’t add the funds to my ORCA card.

To be fair, ORCA is really only designed to be used in the four-county metro of King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Snohomish counties (but this limitation isn’t very clear when it comes to using ORCA on the ferries). If you live or work in one of those four counties you can activate your refill at any ORCA reader. If you live in the San Juans you’ll need to plan ahead: before your next trip to the mainland, refill your e-purse online at least 48 hours ahead, then visit an ORCA Customer Service Office and have them update your card.

Or, in theory, you can add value online, then “tap” your card on Link, the Seattle Streetcar, or any ORCA fare reader. This “tap” will immediately add value to your card and subtract the fare. I have yet to test this latter process: I’ll update this post when I have done so.

Update #2: I used the method described above to add value to my card. While in Seattle, we used Link light rail: I tapped my card and the value was added and my fare deducted from the e-purse.

The ORCA card hasn’t gotten much exposure in the San Juans. I suspect  there are three reasons for this: one, there is no “public transportation” (in the traditional sense) in the San Juan Islands; two, the WA Dept. of Transportation [WSDOT] does not seem to consider WSF to be public transportation; and three, WSF heavily promotes its own (incompatible)  Wave2Go system.

If you haven’t yet heard of it, ORCA is a smart card that can be used for many types of public transportation in the Puget Sound region. Participating agencies include:

  • Community Transit
  • Everett Transit
  • King County Ferry District (West Seattle and Vashon Island lines)
  • King County Metro
  • Kitsap Transit (Buses and Foot Ferries)
  • Pierce Transit
  • Seattle Streetcar
  • Sound Transit (ST Express buses, Link Light Rail, and Sounder Commuter Rail)
  • Washington State Ferries (single passenger fares only)

Why should residents of the San Juans have an ORCA card? Although they can only be used for single passenger trips on WSF, the ORCA card can be really fun and handy to use of you travel to Seattle regularly. When my husband and I travel to Seattle, we prefer not to drive in the city. We’ve been using Link Light Rail in Seattle for a while and it’s a great way to get around. The new South Lake Union Streetcar is fun too. With the ORCA card, Link and the Streetcar are a breeze to use – just “tap” your ORCA card and you’re on your way!

Another good use for the ORCA card is for buying ferry passenger tickets. We never buy the passenger Wave2Go books because we don’t ever use them up within 90 days. But the ORCA card can be used for passenger fares without worrying about an expiration date. True, there’s no discount if you use your ORCA card, but it’s very convenient: use your Wave2Go for the car & driver fare & your ORCA card for the passenger fare; or if you’re walking on in Anacortes, simply “tap” your card at the terminal reader. There is no ORCA card reader at the Anacortes terminal. Note: I haven’t tried using my ORCA card for inter-island passenger fares yet, but I assume it works there too. As no fares are collected for inter-island passengers, this is a moot point.

How do you get an ORCA card? The process is somewhat confusing, and the ORCA website is currently pretty horrible – although it is scheduled for an upgrade soon. What I elected to do was to get an ORCA card with an e-purse, which allows me to add value to the card for paying fares. I also created a registered account, which allows you to manage the card balance and transactions online; set up autoload so the card will never run out of money; and replace the value on the card if it is ever lost, stolen, or damaged. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Go to the ORCA website
  2. From the main menu, select the Get a Card link.
  3. Select the Create an account option.
  4. Select the option No. I don’t have a card or my card is unregistered.
  5. Create your ORCA account.
  6. Once you’ve created an account, go back to the Get a Card page and select the Order a registered card link.
  7. Log in and fill out the registration details for your card. New cards cost $5 (a one-time fee).
    • You can only purchase full-fare ORCA cards online. You need to go in person to a ORCA service center if you wish to buy a youth, senior, or disabled card. Note: WSF does not provide a way to purchase reduced-fare ORCA cards. If you need a reduced-fare ORCA card you’ll need to buy one from Pierce, Snohomish, or King County transit.
  8. You can also set up your e-purse when you order your registered card. An e-purse can contain any amount between $5 and $300. We initially set up our cards with $30 each.
  9. You can also set up autoload at this time. (You can autoload up to five times per month, so if you plan on using your card frequently you might want a greater amount in your e-purse.)

Your card will arrive in the mail in a few days. Once you get your card, you can log into your ORCA account and make sure that it’s properly registered to you; check your balance; and set up autolaod if you haven’t already done so. Our cards arrived with a printed brochure (which is much more helpful and informative than the ORCA website!), and a nice little wallet brochure with essential info on how to use the card.

While the ORCA card isn’t perfect, it’s a good attempt at making regional multi-modal public transportation more convenient. If you’ve been thinking about using more public transit (or just want to look like a local when you use Link ;-)) consider getting your very own ORCA card!

Have you used the ORCA card for travel to the San Juan Islands? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Using the ORCA card on WSF in the San Juans

  1. Steve

    Points 2 and 3 of your initial reasons why the ORCA card might not be employed very widely by the WSF system were brought home to me about a week ago when, returning from a trip during which I used the shuttle from Sea-Tac, I attempted to buy a walk-on ferry ticket to Lopez using my ORCA card from the WSF employee in the kiosk inside the Anacortes ferry terminal.

    At first, she told me I couldn’t use the ORCA card on the WSF. When I told her that I had done so before, she had to call someone to make sure she could take it. She was told it was an acceptable means of payment for my purposes and did allow me to use it.

    I want to stress that the entire exchange was one of great courtesy and that she (the WSF employee) genuinely wanted to do the right thing. Therefore, it seems to me that the failure is one of training employees in what has become an increasingly byzantine system of payments, as well as the ludicrously complex methods of ways in which people may (and may not) pay for transportation on what should be an integrated system.

    Reply
  2. Adrienne Adams Post author

    I’ve updated this post to reflect the limitations of using ORCA outside of the four-country Metro area: there is no ORCA reader at the Anacortes terminal, so be sure that your card has enough value for your entire journey before you come to the San Juans!

    Reply

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