Apple Pay Express Transit Comes to America with HOP and Ventra

The October 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica in Japan was an important one with several ‘firsts’: FeliCa (the Ferrari of NFC) was the first non-EMV contactless payment NFC technology on Apple Pay, it was the debut of Apple Pay Express Transit: cards on a digital wallet platform from outside of Japan (non-Osaifu Keitai) that worked without Touch ID/Face ID and supported the full feature set (commuter passes, etc.) of regular plastic Suica smartcards.

The success of Suica on Apple Pay remains the fullest expression and gold standard of what a virtual transit smartcard on mobile can be, with nationwide transit and e-money, lightning fast performance and Apple Map integration rolled into one.

Express Transit arrived in Beijing and Shanghai in 2017 with the iOS 11.3 addition of PBOC payment technology to Apple Pay, but the cards remained in beta up until iOS 12.3 (more China transit cards were on tap for iOS 11.4 but pulled before release), are not yet interoperable in other transit areas, require a China UnionPay debit card for recharge instead of any Apple Pay card, and have limited e-money options.

iOS 12 added MIFARE support which is the technology used for contactless Student ID cards that launched in September 2018. Student ID cards are basically Express Transit cards called ‘Express Mode’, without transit, that open door locks and come with e-money services. The arrival of MIFARE in iOS 12 laid the ground work for transit cards to launch on Apple Pay in America.

The addition of Portland TriMet Apple Pay HOP (launched May 21), and Chicago Ventra (coming later this year) marks the first time that iPhone users in America have the opportunity to use Apple Pay Express Transit en masse. Even snotty TfL users don’t have that and will probably never have Oyster cards on digital. iPhone users have already used EMV contactless Apple Pay credit/debit cards for transit in Portland and Chicago for some time, so why did Tim Cook go out of his way to mention them at the Apple Special Event on March 25? It’s the Express Transit card thing, best captured by Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch in these tweets:

Apple Pay Suica Express Transit on Apple Watch
More Apple Pay Suica Express Transit on Apple Watch

Native Express Transit vs EMV Contactless

Using Apple Pay Suica in Japan for instant transit and store purchases nationwide without using Face ID/Touch ID spoils a person for using anything else in Wallet. I use Apple Pay credit cards to add money to Suica and little else.

I spent the summer of 2018 in Salt Lake City learning just how slow and bumpy the average Apple Pay EMV American checkout experience is. Checkout terminal infrastructure is creaky with poorly marked tiny NFC hit areas and little or no user feedback. Invariably I heard, “try it again” or the ultimate punchline, “You’re holding it wrong.” No wonder in-app payments are bigger than standard Apple Pay in America. Things are rough on the system backend too: UTA unceremoniously dropped Apple Pay EMV contactless support while I was there.

Native Express Transit cards like Suica and HOP on Apple Pay fully reproduce the slick user experience of plastic transit cards adding much more functionality and convenience: anytime, anywhere reload/recharge with Apple Pay, changing transit options via an app, while doing away with small but important Apple Pay EMV stress points such as using Face ID/Touch ID and dealing with multiple Wallet cards. Chicago Ventra support offers some insight on the current state of EMV transit without Express Transit:

  • Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
  • “Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
  • Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on Ventra readers

Another downside of EMV contactless is that it’s a very dumb read only smartcard that cannot support various point to point fare structures (student, senior, commuter passes, etc.). EMV is also the slowest payment technology out there. It was created by a credit card consortium for leisurely check out at a department store, not for daily crush of commuters zipping through transit gates at rush hour. EMV transactions are always slower than a transit card at the gate with none of the functionality or benefits. The differences between native transit virtual cards and EMV are nicely captured on the HOP page.

HOP card on Apple Pay and Google Pay

iOS 12.3 added a EMV Express Transit option for payment cards (credit and debit cards) to be used like a transit card on open loop transit systems that support it. At present TriMet is the only system that supports Apple Pay EMV Express Transit. As the iOS 12.3 Wallet Express Transit option setting makes clear, there are transit cards and there are payment cards. Express Transit payment cards are sort of like transit cards, except they’re not.

Payment cards are owned by the bank, not the transit company or the customer. That means conditions for both transit company and customer to use it: international travelers are subject to foreign exchange fees at the gate and service can be turned off without notice, such as Singapore transit users stranded mid-trip with canceled cards. Transit cards however are owned by the customer, the prepaid balance you put in them is yours. Anybody, even without a credit card or credit rating to their name, can get a transit card.

I’ve always questioned the purported wisdom and convenience of letting banks directly on transit fare gates. It’s a devil’s bargain as Chicago Ventra found out with their own Mastercard branded debit card experience. Predatory banks and fees will never go away.

My position is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to limit bank cards and QR codes to the backend for adding money to transit cards on digital wallets, where they really shine, and use closed loop transit gate value capture to focus instead on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka a transit platform business model.

Building a Future: interoperable transit cards and e-money

There is some interesting discussion regarding Express Transit vs EMV on the MacRumors site. Most people see the convenience of Express Transit without Face ID/Touch ID, some don’t. Heavy travelers in particular prefer one EMV card thing to ride transit anywhere rather than juggling different transit cards. It’s a trivial issue on digital wallets but they have a point. It is exactly a key issue explained by Egon Terplan in his article Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan: nationwide interoperable transit cards.

It took Japanese transit companies a decade to make their transit cards interoperable with each other through incremental upgrades on backend systems and IC smartcard issuance. This is much easier to achieve with digital wallets attached to cloud backends, and since most transit fare card systems in America are designed and/or operated by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems, interoperable transit cards shouldn’t be that hard to do. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the usefulness of a HOP prepaid card that works on Chicago Ventra, NYC MTA, LA TAP, and vice versa.

This usefulness can be vastly expanded with the addition of an e-money service that frees the prepaid card balance for other uses outside of transit, a transit card version of John Hopkins J-Card or DukeCard e-money that works nationwide is a powerful thing. It is hard to explain just how powerful and transformative simple things like Apple Pay Suica Express Cards can be unless you experience them first hand. The simple ‘it just works’ success of Suica is built on layers of infrastructure where each new layer adds functions that strengthen the whole.

Now that transit cards are finally arriving on digital wallets in a big way this year, with Apple Pay and Google Pay delivering some of those advantages to smartphone users, I hope that America can experience it and be inspired to build regional interoperable transit platform businesses over time.

Looking ahead, New York MTA OMNY EMV contactless service launches May 31, with Apple Pay EMV support at launch or shortly after. LA Metro has said they expect Apple Pay EMV support for the TAP fare system later this year as well. Neither system is expected to support Apple Pay Express Transit at launch.

Meanwhile Hong Kong iPhone users are fervently hoping for Octopus on Apple Pay with Express Transit now that the Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay exclusive is apparently over. iOS 13 might be a Apple Pay Transit coming out party for many. That would be great fun.

Last but not least here are some Express Transit card tips and other things I have learned from 2 years of daily Suica use.

  • HOP and Ventra cards use the same MIFARE technology as Student ID cards, Express Transit device specs are the same: iPhone 6S and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later, iOS 12.3 or watchOS 5.2.1 or later.
  • Express Transit only works while Face ID/Touch ID is active. Express Transit stops working when Face ID/Touch ID is disabled. It is easy to disable Face ID without realizing it, resulting in a rude passcode request at the transit gate. iPhone X, XS, XR users need to be extra careful if wearing a face mask during a commute, 5 misreads disable Face ID, or putting the device in a fairly tight pants pocket as pressure on the side buttons also disables Face ID. iPhone X, XS, XR users can avoid these issues by turning off Raise to Wake. If you still have problems the last resort is turning off Face ID for unlocking iPhone, be sure leave it on for Apple Pay.
  • Express Transit works great on Apple Watch, depending on which wrist you use, but in winter when wearing layers of clothes, iPhone is faster to whip out at the gate. iPhone is also free from ‘left wrist vs. right side’ gate reader issues. As one reader points out: “Apple Watch works great for Express Transit except it’s on the wrong wrist in many cities. I’m a broken record at this point but a smart band would be a terrific addition to the lineup (and would solve this problem).” Adding money/reload/recharge to HOP and Suica transit cards with Apple Pay on Apple Watch is also much less convenient than iPhone.
  • iPhone X users need to be aware of the iPhone X NFC problem which can cause endless gate errors with Express Transit. You may need Apple to replace it, never an easy thing.
  • iPhone XS/XR users can finally put the Express Cards with power reserve feature to good use, it is cool and assuring knowing that you have 5 hours of reserve power to clear the final destination gate.


Apple Pay HOP launched on TriMet May 21. Loading HOP differs from Apple Pay Suica in that direct plastic card loading to Wallet is not supported and a HOP account is required. HOP is similar to Suica in that the plastic card is deactivated when it is added to Apple Pay Wallet, only one card can exist one device at any time: the same Apple Pay HOP card cannot be on both iPhone and Apple Watch.

New iPhone users with iOS 12.3 or Apple Watch users with watchOS 5.2.1 can download the HOP Fastpass App and add a virtual HOP to Apple Pay Wallet with a $3.00 fee. Plastic HOP users can add their card to Apple Pay Wallet with the HOP Fastpass App. There are TriMet video explanations for new users and existing plastic HOP users.

TriMet supports 2 kinds of Express Transit. Apple Pay HOP Express Transit is exactly the same as a plastic HOP card. It’s just as fast and supports the full range of fares. EMV Express Transit allows a payment care (credit/debit) to be set for transit but uses slower EMV mode and only supports standard Adult fare.

Last but not least some local news coverage of “the first time in America” use of Apple Pay Transit that explains the details:

“first time in America” for Apple Pay Transit