Welcome Suica

JR East announced a special plastic Suica card for inbound tourists called “Welcome Suica” that will be available from September 1, 2019 at major Tokyo area stations and JR East Travel Service Centers. The main attraction according to the press release is that the Welcome Suica card does away with the ¥500 deposit, and the hassle of getting it back when leaving the country, but the card is only valid for 28 days from the issue date and JR East also says that unused Welcome Suica balances are not refundable… but the unique card design makes a nice souvenir. Welcome Suica cannot be added to Apple Pay or Google Pay and is plastic issue only.

The whole thing sounds like it would have been a nice idea before Apple Pay Suica and Google Pay Suica, both of which let users to add virtual Suica cards without a deposit, and can be safely removed from Wallet and left on the cloud until needed again.

PASMO PASSPORT is a similar but slightly less attractive deal than Welcome Suica: a limited 28 day validity PASMO, a 500 JP¥ deposit fee with no deposit fee or balance refunds. It does have a cute Hello Kitty design however. A user asked if I had any opinions about Welcome Suica and PASMO PASSPORT. I thought about it and can only assume Welcome Suica/PASMO PASSPORT plastic cards are aimed at inbound visitors…

  • Who don’t plan on visiting Japan again
  • Who don’t have iPhone 8/Apple Watch Series 3 and later for Apple Pay Suica, or a Osaifu Keitai Android device for Google Pay Suica
  • Who don’t have an Apple Pay compatible bank card or come from a country where Apple Pay isn’t available yet (Indonesia, Malaysia, most of Latin America, Africa etc.)

The Welcome Suica and PASMO PASSPORT 28 day validity is also a great deal for transit operator hotlist management. From FeliCa Dude’s epic Apple Pay Octopus on iPhone 7 Reddit post:

Hotlist management is also a reason to reject a card that hasn’t been used for a while. Most lost cards are found by people who know they are lost, and honest people are unlikely to tap cards that don’t belong to them on card readers. If these lost cards are hotlisted but never disabled by a reader that encounters them, then the hotlist can grow to a size that can’t fit in the memory of a reader.

One way to manage this problem is to have the reader reject cards that have no recent transaction record (say, six months), and refer the cardholder to an operator. The operator then ‘unlocks’ the card using a terminal that has access over the network to the master hotlist. The latency of the unlock operation isn’t critical, so this kind of online referral is fine, and it allows for the hotlists in each reader to be pruned after a certain amount of time has elapsed since the card was hotlisted. This is likely to be the reason that Suica cards that aren’t used for six months need to be processed by a gate attendant (it could also be because of key rollover).

Plastic card management costs money and the growing number of inbound visitors asking for deposit refunds and balance refunds at airport train stations is a cost headache for transit companies to babysit all those tiny cash refund transactions. Hence we have Welcome Suica and PASMO PASSPORT with 28 day validity limits and no refunds.

To be sure, there are lots of inbound visitors who will probably be perfectly happy using a Welcome Suica or PASMO PASSPORT. But for iPhone and Apple Watch inbound visitors the new direct Suica card creation in iOS 13 Wallet (no more apps) is a better way to go.