The effects of the introduction of a buffer layer between the bond and top coats on the indentation stress-strain behavior and the contact damage were investigated in air-plasma sprayed (APS) zirconia (ZrO2)–based thermal barrier coatings (TBCs). The microstructure is relatively continuous in the TBC system with the buffer layer, showing Zr, Ni, Cr, and Mg elements between the top and bond coats, whereas the Zr element suddenly disappears by passing the interface between the top and bond coats. The TBC system with the buffer layer shows less strain than that without the buffer layer in the higher stress regions above about 1.3 GPa, while both TBC systems become soft by forming the top coat in the lower stress regions compared with the substrate. The stress–strain curve in both TBC systems is dependent on the dwell time of thermal exposure condition. The TBC system with the buffer layer shows the lower stress-strain curves than that without the buffer layer in thermal cycles with the relatively short dwell time of 1 h, showing the reverse trend with the relatively long dwell time of 10 h. Subsurface damage in substrate is reduced at both indentation loads of P = 500 N and P = 2000 N by introducing the buffer layer, independent of thermal exposure. Therefore, the TBC system with the buffer layer is more efficient in protecting the substrate from contact environments than that without the buffer layer, showing cracking or delamination between the top coat and the buffer layer in the TBC system with the buffer layer.