Now that plastic Suica cards are mostly unavailable unless you tearfully plead with a kind hearted JR East station staffer that you lost it and need a replacement Suica, inbound tourists are stuck with lining up at Narita or Haneda station kiosks for the not so welcome Welcome Suica. Unless of course you have iPhone. In that case any inbound visitor can add Suica and use in Wallet without any app, as long as they don’t try it with a VISA credit card.
JR East has a multilingual Train Reservation site for visitors, they even have a multilingual Suica page, but there is no mention of Mobile Suica. There is a multilingual Mobile Suica support FAQ but it is buried away and has not been updated since 2018. The only Mobile Suica English language effort to date was the temporary and long dead SuicaEng app that was a one trick pony for adding a single Suica card to Apple Pay Wallet. When Wallet added native add card Suica support in iOS 13 JR East killed the app and focused on rolling out the multilingual Train Reservation site which they did in June 2021.
But now more than ever, it’s time for JR East to get serious about English language Mobile Suica support and marketing campaign. The problem facing JR East though is where to invest precious resources that grow the Mobile Suica user base while keeping costs down. Spending multilingual money on us ungrateful, ever complaining ‘I want it now’ gaijins isn’t always cost effective ROI. Take the current version of Suica App for instance, localizing now it is a waste because Suica App will be completely replaced with a new Suica 2.0 compliant app and feature set in the near future.
There is also the problem of Mobile Suica Stored Fare (SF) balance refunds. Mobile Suica refunds can only be done via the app and sent to a Japanese bank account for a ¥220 processing fee. This is because Suica is JPY currency and originally created for domestic use only. Smartphones didn’t exist when Mobile Suica launched on Docomo in 2006, international visitor use was not possible back then.
Mobile Suica could conceivably do what Hong Kong Octopus does with forced Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) in their Octopus for Tourists app, but that is a high price, and a credit card compliance violation to boot, for the convenience of refunding a mobile transit card balance chump change in foreign currency. Better to do what JR East already recommends in English: forget the refund nonsense and run the Mobile Suica balance to zero.
Let’s keep things simple. Here are some cheap, easy things JR East can do to promote Mobile Suica for inbound use:
- An English Mobile Suica marketing campaign that educates iPhone users how easy it is to add and use Suica without any apps.
- An updated and easily accessible multilingual FAQ/Support page.
- A slightly tweaked Suica App that allows users to delete a zero balance Suica card from Apple Pay without the hassle of registering a Mobile Suica account.
- Last but not least, do whatever you can to convince the VISA payment network in Japan to remove their credit card block of Mobile Suica (and PASMO, and ICOCA). Not an easy task with all the moving VISA network pieces to be sure.
A little bit here, a little bit there can pay big dividends in the short term without reinventing anything for inbound visitors. Just make what’s already there and already great, easily accessible.