MythBusters: plastic Suica isn’t safer than Mobile Suica


On June 24 from 0:37 to 13:00 JST, JR East online services went offline due to a mishap during server center related power supply construction. The most affected services were the most used: Mobile Suica and the online Eki-Net ticketing service. While embarrassing and inconvenient, the damage was minimal due to the fact that the outage was like a very long nightly maintenance when all services are taken offline. There were no transactions taking place, all JR East had to do was refund Eki-Net ticket holders who couldn’t change their reservations.

A shorter, far more problematic and partial Mobile Suica outage happened on June 24 from 16:24 to 18:00. Despite media reports screaming ‘Mobile Suica is down again’ even though the system itself was running just fine on non-Apple devices. This one was not on JR East or the Mobile Suica system: Apple Pay servers crashed from overload on Apple Pay ICOCA launch day taking down Suica, PASMO, WAON, nanaco, Hong Kong Octopus and other Apple device Wallet services worldwide. JR East had to refund iOS Suica App iPhone users who could not use purchased Suica Green Car Tickets.

Media reports were sensationalistic and misleading, claiming the outage left “Suica App Users Stranded at Ticket Gates“, when Suica App has nothing to do with using Suica at transit gates. Naturally, social media sites and online media report comment sections were full of ‘I’m going back to plastic Suica’ comments. Yahoo News Japan even ran a brain dead hack piece from GIZMODO entitled, “Be prepared: carry an unregistered plastic Suica in case of Mobile Suica problems,” recommending unregistered Suica because, ‘anybody can share it.’ Both writer and editors failed to notice that unregistered plastic Suica and PASMO cards are currently unavailable due to chip shortages.

Here’s the thing, plastic Suica isn’t ‘safer’ than Mobile Suica. It’s a myth:

  • Myth: I can’t use Mobile Suica if the service is offline.
  • Reality: Offline Mobile Suica doesn’t affect card use, the situation is no different than nightly offline maintenance.

You can always use Mobile Suica for transit and payments, it is no different from plastic, a Mobile Suica outage doesn’t affect that. The only real impact is the mobile exclusive credit/debit card recharge function and this is no different than the nightly maintenance when Mobile Suica goes offline. It’s the same situation for Mobile PASMO and Mobile ICOCA. Cash recharge is always available 24/7 at any convenience store, Seven Bank ATMs which are everywhere, and mobile friendly station recharge kiosks which are also everywhere these days.

The only real outage inconvenience was for people who wanted to buy Mobile Suica extras: Suica Green Car Tickets, Suica Day Passes, or those who might need to renew their Mobile Suica commuter pass…on a Saturday.

Which brings us to the GIZMODO Japan hack piece that was full of outrageous misinformation, implying not only that Mobile Suica on smartphones automatically stops working in an outage, you can simply go out and buy a plastic unregistered Suica card and use it anytime you need to. This is exactly the same stupid shit that bloggers posted back when Apple Pay Suica launched in 2016: carry a plastic Suica in case your iPhone battery dies.

Even in the days before Power Reserve Express Mode iPhone, this was, and is, completely wrong ‘advice’ that will get you in trouble at the transit gate. Never forget the golden Suica rule: the same Suica card used to tap in must be used to tap out to complete the transit. If the Suica you started out with cannot be used at the exit gate, for whatever reason (lost card, dead device, etc.), the gate alarm will sound and you must pay full fare in cash.

I’m sure there will always be people who believe that plastic Suica is somehow ‘safer’, and that’s fine, but the reality is that with JR East reducing station staff wherever they can, finding real people to deal with plastic card problems will be more of a hassle than it already is. In the future JR East will tell plastic card users to use online assistants at station kiosks. In the end it will be faster to do it all on mobile.