There is a funny story from the 2005 President Bush visit to Japan. The Bush staff freaked out when they rode the Tokyo trains and saw that most of the Japanese had eyes glued to their feature phones. Why? Feature phones were only for making calls, right? Japanese i-mode feature phones had internet, email, good cameras, FeliCa NFC and i-mode web content, but it wasn’t until the iPhone debut two years later that Americans finally ‘got it’.
That was the golden era of i-mode, the first major internet capable phone platform. i-mode gave the world emoji and prompted Adobe to purchase Macromedia to get their hands on the extremely lucrative Flash licensing revenue from the Docomo i-mode/Flash licensing deal.
Docomo recently announced the end of i-mode feature phones. If there is one thing to remember about i-mode it is that i-mode made a lot of money for a lot of Japanese companies, not just Docomo. i-mode gave birth to huge and very profitable mobile service content empires and infrastructure long before the Apple’s App Store appeared in late 2008. Mobile Suica is one of them.
What does the soon to be extinct i-mode have with the iPhone Suica App? Everything, let’s take a look. Mobile Suica is the JR East Suica service that launched in 2006 for mobile devices, first with feature phones, then Android, and now iPhone 7/Apple Watch Series 2.
To access all the services of Mobile Suica you must first create a free Mobile Suica account with JR East. Mobile Suica is one part of a whole family of Suica services:
- Suica Point Club for Suica loyalty points
- View’s Net for Suica View credit card
- Suica Internet for online shopping
- Eki Net for Shinkansen/JR Express train reservations and tickets purchases
- JRE Point Club for JRE loyalty points
Each service has its separate ID and password but you can link them all together with one master JR East ID called My JR East. And you thought juggling more than one Apple ID was a challenge.
Before we get into it please remember that the Wallet app lets you use Suica cards seamlessly in Apple Pay without having to deal with Suica app or a Mobile Suica account at all. With Wallet you can add physical Suica cards, charge Suica and renew a Suica commuter pass. Suica Apple Pay without the Suica App is a slick, easy to use product and works just fine. For a majority of Suica Apple Pay users Wallet is more than enough.
Suica App Basics
Suica App is the iPhone version of Mobile Suica long available on Japanese feature phones via i-mode and the Mobile Suica app on Android. Suica App gives you extra functions:
- Create a new Suica card (on your iPhone or Apple Watch)
- Create or change your commute plan
- Purchase Shinkansen tickets for JR East trains: Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joestsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines
- Purchase Green Car seating on local trains
- Set up auto-charge (JR East View Card only)
- Set or change the notifications that you get from JR East
If you already have a Suica loaded in Apple Pay and log in with a Mobile Suica ID, or set up a new account which is free (Android and feature phone members have to pay an annual membership fee), you’ll see a default home screen. If you do not have a Mobile Suica ID, or do not want to set one up, you can still use the app to create a Suica card on iPhone if you do not have a physical card, see this page for details.
On the upper left corner is Mobile Suica Account Settings, on the upper right is Add Suica Card. On the bottom are Charge and Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica. Suica App charge offers you two different methods: Apple Pay or the View credit card that you register in the Suica App section below. The later methods bypasses Apple Pay and the Apple Pay Visa restriction for Suica charging.
Suica App Credit Cards
The Suica app accepts a large number of credit cards and pre-paid card such as Line Card and even accepts credit cards issued outside of Japan. Suica Charge in the Suica app bypasses the Apple Pay Wallet system and the current Japanese Visa limitation. It gives you a lot more payment flexibility but you have to navigate the Japanese language credit card setup screen. If you want the Suica auto-charging option you are limited to JR East View branded credit cards.
So far Suica App looks like a iOS app but select any item shown in the screenshots above and you leave iOS for an i-mode style editing window.
Main Suica Menu
Ticket Purchase•Manage Suica is where most of the Suica App functionality resides.
Shinkansen Ticket Purchases and Direct Shinkansen Boarding
The purchase section includes Shinkansen ticket purchase, Green Car seat purchases on local trains, and commuter transit pass purchase/renewal. Ticket purchases can be made up to 30 days in advance, but are limited to JR East rail network trains. You cannot purchase JR Central Tokkaido Shinkansen or any other JR group company train tickets.
Suica app Shinkansen ticket purchase has the added benefit of giving your Suica Apple Pay direct Shinkansen boarding. To do so you have to purchase a Shinkansen ticket first in the Suica app, then download the ticket (受け取り) to Suica Apple Pay before going through the ticket gate. Below is a group of screenshots showing the steps involved in a Suica app Shinkansen ticket purchase. See the screenshot captions for details.
As you can see from the screenshots, purchase options are well covered despite the limitation to JR East trains, The i-mode style UI may not be pretty but gets the job done. The commuter transit pass purchases/renewal section has all bases covered too from simple renewals to route changes and as well as Green Car commuter pass upgrades.
Suica Purchase History and Suica Pocket
Below the Shinkansen ticket purchase section is Suica Purchase History and Suica Pocket. The first item is straight forward but Suica Pocket is convoluted. When you cancel a Suica purchase, tickets or store merchandise, the refund transaction can take time. Suica Pocket is a temporary transaction holding area before you send a processed refund amount to a designated Japanese bank account.
Suica Auto Charge
The last block of menu items of Mobile Suica main menu include changing Suica card names and setting up a credit card for automatic Suica charging. You are limited to the JR East View Card for automatic charging but because automatic charging bypasses the Apple Pay system, you can use the VISA version of View Card in addition to JCB, AMEX, Master Card, Diners Club and JR Central Express Card.
The very last two menu items cover setting SF (stored fare) to cover commuter transit fare in case your pass expires and forget to renew it. The last item is a spoken guidance option which I have not tested.
Suica Apple Pay works perfectly well without the Suica App but if you want the extra functionality, more credit card payment flexibility and are willing to invest time to set up a Mobile Suica account, give it a try. The UI is built on top of JR East’s i-mode system: it’s not pretty and accessing options can be a long drill down through multiple screens, but it is rich with options and gets the job done.
The biggest drawback is that Shinkansen tickets are limited to JR East Shinkansen trains. JR East says they are working with the other JR companies to provide full smartphone interoperability by late September 2017, just in time for the next iPhone announcement. I expect the other major IC transit cards will sign on with Apple Pay by then.
Until then Suica App is very useful for travel on the JR East rail network, creating a virtual Suica card, and managing Suica Apple Pay card on iPhone 7.
6/9: major re-edit for clarity, added video links for Shinkansen ticket purchase and direct boarding.
6/5: added Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticket purchase screenshots.
3/12: added Suica App credit card charge information.
11/15: added Suica App credit card charge information.