SPICe FAQ- What’s all the bus about?

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National Entitlement Card Travel Schemes

With fare increases taking effect in January, it seemed like a good time to highlight some information on free and discounted travel schemes operating within Scotland. SPICe receives regular enquiries about the terms and conditions of the free travel scheme operated using the National Entitlement Card (NEC) across Scotland. Below are some of the regular questions we are asked about how the system operates.

What is the National Entitlement Card?

The National Entitlement Card (NEC) is a nation-wide smart card. The card is supported by the Scottish Government and is issued by local authorities. The card can be used by eligible residents for several different purposes, which can include a bus pass, library card, local authority leisure membership card or a Young Scot Card. Although this is a nationwide scheme, applicants must apply to your local authority for a NEC.

Who is eligible for free bus travel?

To be eligible for the NEC free bus travel, you must be:

  • aged 60 or older


  • disabled (see the Transport Scotland webpage for more details)


  • a resident of Scotland.


What are the conditions regarding free ferry travel for island residents?

Residents of Eilean Siar, Orkney and Shetland who qualify for free travel under the National Entitlement Card scheme are also entitled to two free return ferry journeys to the Scottish mainland each year. This is to allow island residents access to the wider free bus service on the mainland, which may not be available on the islands.

Residents of islands in the area covered by the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) are also eligible for a discount on ferry services through SPT.


Is free rail travel covered by the National Entitlement Card scheme?

No, for most card users, free rail travel is not covered by the National Entitlement scheme. The only exemption is blind NEC holders. Card holders may travel free of charge in standard class accommodation (with no ticket issued). This is available on all train services between stations within Scotland and as far as Carlisle and Berwick upon Tweed, by all operators. Free travel is valid at any time.  More information can be found on the National Rail website.


When are companions allowed to travel for free?

If a card is marked with a C+1 symbol, the cardholder is entitled to have a companion travel free with them. The companion must board the bus at the same stop as the cardholder in order to qualify for free transport.

A card with a C+1 mark would also allow a companion to travel for free on the 2 free ferry services, as well as buses.

Generally, companions are not included in the free rail travel for blind card holders.


How are bus companies paid for carrying concessionary travellers?

Bus operators are paid a proportion of the full adult fare for each concessionary traveller carried, known as the reimbursement rate (currently 56.5%). The total amount payable to operators taking part in the scheme is subject to an annual cap, with no further payments made to any bus operator if the cap is reached.

The payment cap and reimbursement rate are set following negotiations between Transport Scotland and the Confederation of Passenger Transport, representing bus operators.  When the free travel scheme was set up, the Scottish Government looked to make sure that bus operators would not be any better or worse off for taking part. This is the reason for the reimbursement rate and payment cap.


Are there any other concessionary travel schemes operating in Scotland?

Yes. Several local authorities across Scotland have concessionary travel schemes for local residents. Information on alternative concessionary travel schemes can be found on the relevant local authority website.

Two of the largest schemes are Edinburgh City Council and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), which both run local concessionary travel schemes. SPT covers a number of local authority areas. All NEC holder residents in these areas are eligible for discounted travel with SPT. This includes free tram travel for Edinburgh residents and discounts on subway tickets for SPT council area residents. Information on free or discounted travel for residents in these areas can be found on the City of Edinburgh Council and SPT websites.

Young Scot card also runs a concessionary travel scheme for young people and volunteers. If you are aged 16, 17 or 18 (or aged 19 to 25 and a full time volunteer) you can get cheaper transport on buses, trains and ferries with a Young Scot NEC Card. In order to access bus & train discounts with your Young Scot card, you must be in possession of a Young Scot card with a visible pink strip under the date of birth.

Lindsay Richardson,

Enquiries Assistant, SPICe