Hell to the yes: Apple Pay Octopus launch…for real

Good news for long suffering Hong Kong iPhone users: press invitations labeled ‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ have gone out to local media outlets signaling that Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) is finally launching Octopus for Apple Pay on June 2 local Hong Kong time. An Octopus system glitch on May 18 that temporarily offered a non-functioning option to add Octopus to Apple Pay indicated a service launch was near.

Didn’t we do this already?

OCL teased everyone when it first announced Apple Pay Octopus as ‘coming soon’ in July 2019, then ‘as soon as possible’ in September, finally postponing it in December for ‘later in 2020’ without explanation. This despite endless beta test leaks that indicated everything was ready to roll and endless launch rumors that never panned out. The Apple Pay Octopus Wait for Godot ends after a very bumpy journey. A timeline:

Global NFC iPhone and Apple Watch
Apple Pay Octopus can be used on iPhone 8 and later, and Apple Watch Series 3 and later. Apple devices from anywhere can add and use Octopus thanks to Apple global NFC support but practical use is limited to having a Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Visa or Union Pay bank card already in Wallet.

iPhone 11 Pro/11/XR/XS have the A12/A13 Bionic exclusive Express Transit with power reserve feature that gives users an additional 5 hours of Express Transit use when iPhone is in low battery power reserve mode. A12/A13 Bionic powered FeliCa performance is also much improved over previous iPhone models because the Bionic Secure Element directly handles transactions that eliminate iOS overhead. If Octopus on iPhone X doesn’t work well, check this support post.

Apple Watch is the first time Octopus has landed on a smartwatch. As a long time Apple Pay Suica user I can tell you that it’s the Apple Watch killer app. Octopus users will really enjoy the experience on Apple Watch especially when hooked up with auto recharge/Automatic Add Value Service (AAVS).

Similarities with Suica
Octopus is based on the same FeliCa technology that powers Suica, both cards are very similar in scope and use for fast transit and contactless payments of all kinds. According to Wikipedia over 33 million Octopus cards were in circulation as of 2018 used by 99 per cent of Hong Kong residents. The ubiquity of Octopus with Express Transit for transit and purchases will drive Apple Pay use in Hong Kong far more than regular credit/debit cards.

Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Suica both have the same fast Express Transit performance that no other Express Transit cards can match with faster gate performance than the recently added Apple Pay China T-Union mainland transit cards.

New virtual Octopus cards can be created directly in Wallet just like Apple Pay Suica cards. Plastic Octopus cards can also be transferred to Wallet but cannot be used after transfer. Some attached services are not supported, be sure to check Important Notes to Customers before transferring a plastic Octopus.

Not Inbound Friendly
OCL limits Apple Pay Octopus card creation and recharge to Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Union Pay and Visa cards already added in Wallet. It’s clearly not geared for inbound visitors. This is a shame because Apple supports global NFC on all devices which Samsung and Android devices do not, a key difference.

In practice this means any iPhone 8 and later from anywhere can use Apple Pay Octopus but only when a Hong Kong issue bank payment card is already loaded in Wallet. Suica is very different in this regard: it can be created and recharged in Wallet with any Apple Pay loaded card no matter the brand or country of issue, all without service fees. It’s a very inbound friendly deal for Japan visitors with iPhone.

To be fair, OCL may be limiting the Apple Pay Octopus service to Hong Kong users at first to avoid an Apple Pay Suica service launch meltdown situation that happed in 2016. Hopefully OCL will reveal some inbound friendly solutions when they formally announce the service on June 2, and expand inbound bank card support later on.

Octopus was the first real transit platform (contactless transit and eMoney) that had a tremendous impact on the development of other transit card fare systems around the world such as Transport for London Oyster. OCL needs to aggressively expand Octopus services on other digital wallets like Google Pay especially as MTR moves to add QR Code payment Open Loop support.

Apple Maps Transit Integration?
Hong Kong Apple Maps Transit is rumored to launch in tandem with Apple Pay Octopus. It makes sense for Apple to offer both services as an integrated package as they did for the Apple Pay Suica. The low transit fare balance warning integration for Suica looks impressive on paper but in real commuter life I have never found it useful. In Japan, Google Maps transit directions offer more detail and a better UI than Apple Maps Transit even though they use the same data suppliers. Your milage may vary but Google Maps transit directions for Hong Kong has been in place for some time.

Greater Bay Area Apple Pay Transit Compatibility
Apple Pay Octopus is the last piece of the transit puzzle that delivers Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who, up until iOS 13.4.1, were limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit and plastic Octopus cards.

The recently released Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, some 257 cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO. China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds, they are limited to Union Pay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and cannot be used for purchases. Octopus uses the faster FeliCa protocol and offers an open Apple Pay recharge backend for Hong Kong issue cards.

The advantage for wide area travelers is that they can now add both Apple Pay Octopus and China T-Union cards in Wallet. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet may not be exactly the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like using both services.

A long wait
There has been endless speculation regarding the reasons for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. Technically it could have launched on iOS 12 but was held back for an unbelievably long test period over 2 major iOS versions, running from December 2018 and iOS 12 all the way to May 2020 and iOS 13.5, the last major release before iOS 14.

Why? Personally I always felt the unexplained November 2019 Smart Octopus service outage was an ominous sign that OCL plans were under political pressure, though many will disagree. Other possible delay reasons include Apple Pay recharge card support and fee negotiations, and lining up Apple Map transit data. There’s no question that the go-slow OCL approach and constant tweaking of mobile and O! ePay services was not helped by the ever-deteriorating political situation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch story was a long winding road with many ups and letdowns in the very difficult year of 2019. 2020 is also a very difficult year in a different way, though I hope it can still turn out to be a time of recovery.

I’d like to thank all the readers who shared Octopus tips and comments that let me report a complex, ever changing situation. I learned many things, the most important of which is that Hong Kong people are very kind and very smart. Wish you all a safe, healthy and happy transit wherever you go.

‘Redefining Mobile Payments’ June 2 press event invitation image sent by reader (likely from the LIHKG site)

Rakuten Pay Suica

One year after the tie-up was announced, the Rakuten Pay Android app was updated yesterday and now supports adding a Rakuten branded Suica card and recharging that earns Rakuten Points, all done within Rakuten Pay. Each ¥200 of a recharge earns 1 Rakuten Point. The red Rakuten Suica will never be seen in Google Wallet or Osaifu Keitai app but works just like a regular Mobile Suica card. Details are outlined in the Rakuten Suica English press release.

Plugging Suica into the Rakuten Point empire is the whole point of the JR East/Rakuten tie-up but the current implementation is still missing an important point: free Suica recharges with Rakuten Points. This is promised in a future update. Up until now JR East has kept free Suica recharge exclusively for their own JRE POINT system where registered users earn JRE POINT with Suica then use points for free Suica recharge and Green Seat upgrades. The advantage for JR East is that Rakuten Point users outside of JR East’s transit region now have an incentive to use Suica for purchases and local transit as part of the Rakuten Payment experience.

There is no reason why Rakuten Suica could work on Apple Pay but Rakuten probably wants to keep their branded Suica in their own app which is not allowed by Apple. It would have to reside in Wallet just like the Mizuho Suica that recharges via its own app or Apple Pay. If Rakuten can live with that, Rakuten Suica has an Apple Pay future. iOS users can still earn Rakuten Points when recharging Suica with a Rakuten credit card but the sign-up process is convoluted and only good for 30 days before you have to sign up again.

Garmin Pay Suica aka Google Pay on iOS

Garmin Pay Suica went live May 21, effectively breaking the 4 year Apple Watch/Apple Pay Suica monopoly. As any Apple Watch user in Tokyo will tell you, Apple Pay Suica is the killer Apple Watch app. The real secret of course is Express Transit payments. Even now I get the occasional oh and ah from store staff when I hold Apple Watch up to the reader. They really appreciate the speed and social distance. So do I.

Since Garmin only does smartwatches, there are inherent limitations and big differences from Apple Pay Suica: (1) there is no way to transfer a plastic Suica to Gamin Pay, users have to create an account and a new virtual Garmin Pay Suica card, (2) Garmin Pay Suica does not support Suica Commuter Passes, (3) Garmin Pay Suica can only be recharged with Google Pay, (4) Garmin Pay Suica is limited to Japanese Garmin models, it is not global NFC like iPhone and Apple Watch.

Outside of that Garmin Pay Suica is a regular Suica with ‘Rapid Pass’ instead of Express Transit, different name, same thing. It can be registered for SmartEX and Ekinet Shinkansen eTicket travel. iOS users setup and recharge via the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

Garmin Pay Suica limitations limit its appeal for iPhone users who already have the full range of Mobile Suica service on Apple Watch. It’s a boon for Android users who have lusted after a Suica smartwatch. It very weird that it has taken 4 years for Android based device makers to even attempt matching the killer combo of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. I hope Garmin works to improve the service and remove the limitations. Android users would really appreciate having the full Mobile Suica experience on a smartwatch.

UPDATE: there’s some gray area whether all Asian models support Suica or just the devices sold in Japan. I’ll update any discoveries here. Other limitations like Suica Commuter passes are also interesting and suspect they shed some light on the Google Pay~Osaifu Keitai relationship. In many ways Google Pay Suica is a UI skin on top of the Osaifu Keitai stack. In the case of Garmin Pay, no Osaifu Keitai stack means no Commuter Pass support even though it depends on Google Pay for recharge.

Out of Time (Updated)

Is this the last time? Just a few thoughts as iOS 13.5 closes in on what hopefully will be a late May delivery, also rumored to be the launch iOS for Apple Pay Octopus. Recent beta test feedback says the minimal system for using Apple Pay Octopus was raised from iOS 13.2 to iOS 13.4.5 (rebranded by Apple to iOS 13.5). Also a new Schedule of Fees and Guidelines is due May 20. The Hong Kong Economic Times eZone site has taken this to mean that both iOS 13.5 and Apple Pay Octopus will launch on the May 20 Octopus Fees and Guideline update day.

The enthusiasm is understandable, but a similar situation happened in December with no launch. You might remember that Apple Pay Octopus was announced in July 2019, promised to launch “as soon as possible within the year,” in September, then delayed to “later in 2020” on December 19.

In short, hope for the best but don’t get your hopes up. We’ve been down this road before, but time is running out. If Apple Pay Octopus doesn’t launch in the iOS 13.5 timeframe, it’s not launching at all.

There aren’t any technical reasons for the delay; after all the Smart Octopus mobile service on Samsung Pay has been operating since December 2017 with Mobile SIM service before that. I believe it’s a result of the pressure politics facing Hong Kong, pressures both economic and governmental.

Octopus was the world’s first transit platform business that extended the transit smartcard to include payments and many other services but Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) has been slow extending the service to include mobile. Instead of putting early effort into digital wallet support for Apple Pay/Google Pay/Samsung Pay, OCL wasted time and resources developing the niche Mobile SIM product which really didn’t pan out.

This lag coupled with the rise of AliPay and WeChat Pay QR Code payment empires put enormous pressure on OCL to do something comprehensively mobile which it did with the O! ePay service in early 2019. But it’s not the only pressure: with so much traffic and business from the mainland, OCL owner MTR is looking to add QR Code Open Loop transit support (paywalled link) at some point. There is also the pressure of creating a Greater Bay Area transit card, and pressure from credit cards and banks. Every player wants a piece of the action.

Perhaps MTR gates will eventually look like the ones in Guangzhou with PBOC/FeliCa/QR Code readers supporting Octopus, China T-Union, AliPay/WeChat Pay, perhaps even EMV contactless bank cards:

At which point I say OCL doesn’t have a viable transit platform business anymore. Mainland China dumped the MIFARE based Beijing and Shanghai card architecture for their own slower PBOC 2.3/3.0 China T-Union standard, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the same thing happening to Hong Kong Octopus at some point.

Supporters will undoubtably point out the technical merits of China using a single transit standard but that’s just a red herring. Smart devices and digital wallets handle all protocols and will continue to incorporate new technologies. The deciding factors will be good old money and politics: is it more profitable to keep Octopus in place or junk it in favor of QR and China T-Union, and who benefits from it all?

Octopus is living on borrowed time. If it doesn’t aggressively expand services on digital wallet platforms, it doesn’t have a future. Apple Pay Suica turned things around for Suica, let’s hope the Apple Pay Octopus launch can do the same for Octopus.


Apple Pay Suica had a huge impact on Mobile Suica use
Modern digital wallets like Apple Pay seamlessly support multiple payment technology protocols

UPDATE: on May 18 at 4:30 PM, an Octopus system glitch temporarily showed an option to add Apple Pay Octopus cards to Wallet to some iOS Octopus app users, but the feature not functional on the Apple Pay Wallet end. The glitch was quickly fixed but could be a sign that a service launch is imminent (edit: post glitch rumors say June 2).

The latest word from beta tester code leakers is that virtual Octopus creation and recharge in Apple Pay Wallet is limited to Hong Kong issue Mastercard, Union Pay and VISA. The May 20 Schedule of Fees and Guidelines update should show any changes for Smart Octopus (edit: “new restriction, 21 (cb), blocks the transfer of money from a Smart Octopus to O! ePay, probably to prevent the abuse of credit card cashbacks since service fees are waived for Apple Pay”).

PS: Barring the Apple Pay Octopus launch or official announcement, this is my last post on the subject.

What to say at checkout in Japan with Apple Pay

Japan has the longest history of mobile payments on a large scale thanks to the early cooperation of NTT Docomo and Sony to create Mobile FeliCa and the Osaifu Keitai standard, all in place long before the EMV contactless standard came together and landed in Apple Pay. The longer history means that the mobile payments landscape is richer and complicated than anywhere else and is growing even more complicated with QR Code payment app choices that have proliferated over the past 2 years.

The addition of Apple Pay and Google Pay confuses things even more. What exactly does one say to the checkout staff? Apple Pay, iD, QUICKPay, or Suica? It comes down to 2 basic factors: the POS checkout system and the skill of the store staff. Suica, iD and QUICPay are pretty much standard for contactless checkout but the ‘Apple Pay’ logo only indicates that contactless payment is available. What you say to the checkout staff or tap on the checkout touchscreen is another matter.

Don’t Say Apple Pay
Visitors to Japan, and even many Japanese expect Apple Pay should do what’s explained on Learn where to use Apple Pay and How to use Apple Pay support pages: (1) say ‘Apple Pay’, double-click the side button for Face ID authentication/rest finger on Touch ID and hold to reader to pay with your default Apple Pay card. The Apple Pay instructions for Japan are different: (2) let the cashier know if you’re paying with Suica, iD, or QUICPay. Why no “say Apple Pay?”

The reason for the difference boils down to Express Transit. Only Japan has Apple Pay Express Transit for store purchases in addition to transit use. No other Apple Pay region has it. So there are 2 ways: say Apple Pay at checkout that evokes Face/Touch ID authentication or say Suica that evokes Express Transit which bypasses Face/Touch ID.

Apple Pay makes everything work seamlessly on the iPhone side thanks to global NFC and NFC switching. However the store reader cannot choose automatically, that’s why you have to say Suica, iD, QUICPay, etc. That’s why Apple Pay uses option (2) for Japan. When Apple Pay Octopus finally launches in Hong Kong, it will be the same deal. Users will have to say Octopus at checkout for Express Transit or tap a separate Octopus only reader.

The Contactless Point Card Difference and Inbound Apple Pay
When checking out at a store with all the pieces in place: full spec POS system, trained staff, EMV, FeliCa, VAS and Apple Pay, it’s like option (1). This is how it works at Lawson convenience stores. The ‘say Apple Pay’ option here is for using PONTA or dPoint contactless reward cards with a convenient single tap operation. The Express Transit catch remains however; saying Apple Pay when Suica is your default Wallet card means you don’t get Express Transit checkout, you get Face/Touch ID authentication Apple Pay. For Express Transit checkout you have to say Suica every time.

There’s also the inbound angle to consider. More stores are adding EMV contactless support and this means visitors can use their Apple Pay cards from home directly. However Apple does not cover inbound use in their support page, only domestic JP options. The problem here is there’s no magic catch-all checkout word like Suica, iD or QUICPay. Do you say Apple Pay, NFC-Pay, credit, or something else?

If the staff hasn’t been properly trained (and be sure to check if they have a ‘trainee’ ID badge, usually a sign of trouble), they can’t understand what payment option you are asking for and match it with the right checkout button. Saying ‘credit’ seems to be the most common usage that works, sometimes ‘NFC Pay’, but Visa wants you to say ‘Visa Touch’, Mastercard wants you to say ‘mastercard contactless’, and so on.

I say blame the mess on selfish card companies that can’t get their act together and come up with a EMV checkout word for the common good. If you get in a jam, pointing at the payment acceptance mark you want to use at checkout is the best course of action. Last but not least, keep in mind that the EMV mark on the reader tap area has nothing to do with what works for POS checkout. Always check the payment acceptance marks.

NFC Pay in action on terminal, note the acceptance marks for Visa and Mastercard contactless, the NFC Pay/EMV logo on the reader tap area does not mean the store accepts NFC Pay