Suica Apple Pay: the Only Transit Card that Matters Now

Yuna Kawahara writes on Credit Card Plaza that Suica is the only pre-paid transit card that matters now and that Apple Pay changed everything. Why?

The answer is Mobile Suica. Kawahara san makes a simple but huge point, so huge that I missed it up to now: Mobile Suica is what makes Suica special. It is the only transit card to work on mobile; JR East is the only transit company so far to build a cloud infrastructure system that supports and updates mobile transit cards over the air.

No other Japanese transit card system works on mobile: not PASMO, ICOCA, nimoca or any of the others. Mobile Suica started in 2006 with Japanese feature phones, added Japanese Android support in 2011 and iPhone in 2016. But even Mobile Suica had some limitations of physical IC transit cards:

1. Auto-charge funtion is tethered to the local system of a physical transit card. Mobile Suica does not auto-charge in Nagoya, Osaka, etc.

2. Loyalty points are tethered to the local system of a physical transit card. Mobile Suica use in Nagoya or Osaka doesn’t earn points.

The Apple Pay Japan Solution
Suica Apple Pay solved both of these problems for all Japanese customers. The real innovation of Suica Apple Pay, and what separates it from Android is that it completely does away with the Mobile Suica app and account requirement of other platforms. Load your Suica card into Apple Pay and it just works. No app download, no sign up, no annual dues.

Simple and Secure Suica Charge
Auto-charge links a credit card to a physical transit card and automatically adds a user set amount to the transit card pre-paid account when it drops to a user set limit. Not all transit cards have auto-charge, those that do are limited to very specific credit cards and are difficult to set up.

Suica Apple Pay charges Suica in Wallet with any Apple Pay compatible credit card anywhere, anytime. I started using Suica all the time after loading it into Apple Pay. After 10 months of use I can say that on the fly Suica charging really changes everything, no more charge visits to the station kiosk.

Apple Pay isn’t auto-charge but you don’t need it. Suica charging in Wallet is very easy, and is more secure: auto-charge puts you at risk if your device or transit card is stolen.

The best Apple Pay card for Suica
Pick and Choose Your Own Loyalty Points
Up until Suica Apple Pay arrived, users were limited to whatever loyalty points the transit card system offered. The power and flexibility of Apple Pay is that it frees users to mix and match any Apple Pay compatible credit card to charge Suica that best fits the loyalty points they want to earn. And it works nationwide, not just the JR East region.

Japanese users love loyalty points and spend time analyzing and blogging the best point payouts. The best credit card for charging Suica in Apple Pay is the Bic Camera View card (JCB). You earn triple points and two different loyalty points: Bic points and View points. Just charging Suica Apple Pay with my Apple Pay Bic Camera View JCB card for 10 months earned me ¥20,000 worth of Bic Camera points. I haven’t checked my View points but they should be about the same amount. Points alone are good incentive to put Suica Apple Pay to work.


One Suica to Rule Them All?
The Mobile Suica cloud infrastructure has put JR East in a very unique position as the only Japanese IC transit card system to work on mobile. The arrival of Suica Apple Pay catapulted Suica nationwide with easy, secure Suica charging along with mix and match loyalty points that users can earn everywhere.

The important question is what do all the other transit cards do now. They will have to build their own cloud infrastructure, or they will have to cut a deal with JR East. They can also do nothing but with everything going mobile, they risk losing business to Suica.

The upcoming iPhone 8 announcement, and the JR Central SmartEX rollout next month may, or may not include full smartphone compatibility for the 10 major Japanese transit cards. I think there is a good chance the major transit cards are getting some kind of cloud infrastructure in place and will also sign on with Apple Pay.

If they do, and if Apple announces it as part of the iPhone 8 announcment, it will be a big deal for Apple Pay and the Japanese market.