State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.


Apple removes region requirement for Suica, swaps recharge with top up and other updates

Sometimes it takes Apple support pages a while to acknowledge the current reality of iOS. iOS 15 Wallet brought ‘region free’ transit cards with an improved UI so that allowed Apple Pay users from anywhere to add transit cards directly in Wallet. Apple support document HT207155 “Add a Suica or PASMO card to Apple Wallet removed the ‘device region set to Japan’ requirement in an April 29, 2022 update, some 6 months after the iOS 15 release.

‘Region free’ transit cards are not all equally region free however: some transit cards only accept locally issued Apple Pay cards for adding money. This is the case for Hong Kong Apple Pay Octopus and all Chinese T-Union brand transit cards (too many to list). Octopus does offer a surprisingly user unfriendly iOS Octopus for Tourist app for tourists add Octopus to Wallet, that unfortunately locks in usurious currency exchange rates.

Suica remains the first, and best, truly region free transit card because you can “pay for transit rides and make purchases with just a tap,” and all Wallet payment cards that support in-app payments are good for adding money to Suica (and PASMO).

There are also some interesting tweak updates in the companion support doc: Use Suica or PASMO cards on iPhone or Apple Watch in Japan. The first is Apple going all in with the UK English ‘top up’ as the default English word for adding money to prepaid cards. Why not stick with regional differences? Does Apple want America to become a cultural extension of Great Britain or something? Recharge was used previously in the US doc version though I suspect most Americans would use reload here. ‘Top up’ is too UK for my tastes and should only be used when drinking. I’ll stick with recharge.

The other change is an expanded Check the balance section that now includes If your Suica or PASMO card balance doesn’t update, with a link to a fairly new support doc, “If your transit card balance doesn’t update in Apple Wallet.” If there is one common complaint from Suica and PASMO users it is that the sometimes sluggish Apple Pay recharge process, usually due to a poor internet connection, occasionally results in the balance not updating. As the Apple doc states: the truth is always in the recent transactions list.

The last new tweak is a new section: Get a refund for purchases made with your Suica or PASMO. It has good advice that should have been there from Apple Pay Suica launch day, “return the item to the same terminal where you made the purchase before you use Suica or PASMO to make another purchase using Apple Pay.”

Unfortunately Apple failed to update has the Use the Suica or PASMO app section, leaving some very outdated and incorrect information. Shinkansen eTicket service in Suica App ended back in March 2020, and Green Car tickets were never available in PASMO app.

I guess they were too busy swapping American English with British English to notice the errors.

Add a Suica or PASMO card to Apple Wallet: no more region settings

VISA Japan and Apple still at odds over VISA Touch debit cards

Mastercard but no VISA

The April 19 launch of SBI Neobank Mastercard debit card support for Apple Pay was a bit unique: the first time that a plastic issue Japanese debit card came to Apple Pay and the first Apple Pay Japan debit card supporting the FeliCa iD payment network. Another interesting aspect is that only the Mastercard version supports Apple Pay, the VISA version is plastic only with VISA Touch (EMV contactless) support.

There are plenty of bank app issue digital only debit cards from JCB, Mizuho, MUFG and others on Apple Pay. These all work on JCB’s QUICPay (FeliCa) and J/Speedy(EMV) payment networks. Apple Pay Japan supports many different mobile payment network cards thanks to Mobile FeliCa support, by far the largest selection of Apple Pay payment networks in the world: EMV (VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, JCB), iD, QUICPay, Suica, PASMO, nanaco, WAON. But VISA issue debit cards are not supported even though there are many, not a single one on Apple Pay.

Wasn’t this taken care of by the May 2021 Apple and VISA JP agreement? For credit cards yes, one year later they are still at odds over FeliCa support in debit cards. VISA Japan brand debit cards are VISA Touch EMV contactless exclusive, single mode cards. VISA JP credit cards are dual mode EMV/FeliCa for plastic and smartphones, but not debit cards. We don’t know the reason but debit cards deifintely fit the budget customer category while credit cards come with credit checks, perks and card membership fees for upscale cards.

As an easily available budget card, VISA cuts costs by dumping the dual mode EMV/FeliCa IC chip and transaction fees for the convenience of using FeliCa iD/QUICPay payment networks. In other words VISA keeps all transaction fees for themselves while marketing the shit out of VISA Touch as the greatest thing since…whenever.

All of the other card brands in Japan have dual mode NFC as standard. Not VISA, they’re playing the long game of eliminating FeliCa payment network competition. This stupid polarizing single flavor NFC position only served to give QR Code payment networks (PayPay, Line Pay, etc.) a huge opportunity that they smartly played. End result: more payment network competition than ever before.

Apple on the other hand has a very simple rule for all Apple Pay Japanese issue cards: they must support FeliCa and all EMV cards are global NFC dual mode. Was this the price for adding FeliCa support to Apple Pay? Perhaps, I think it’s more to do with the Apple Pay vision of removing complex and confusing hardware choices, the Google Pay Japan mess, for standard ‘just works everywhere’ NFC. Has this been successful? Very...just ask Suica.

Express Transit Chronicles: tight pants and other Face ID fuckups

Express Transit is the best and most natural way of using Apple Pay. It first came to iPhone with Mobile Suica in 2016, expanding incrementally until finally going wide with iOS 15 Wallet. Suica has been around so long in Tokyo that younger generations don’t know anything else, it’s ubiquitous. Used global NFC iPhones and Osaifu Keitai are ubiquitous too so there are a lot more people using Mobile Suica, and complaining about it.

Mobile Suica complaints aren’t a bad thing. All those bad Suica App reviews on the App store and complaints on Twitter mean that people use Mobile Suica enough to download Suica App, register an account, use it, then go online and complain. It’s a gold mine of information, invaluable feedback telling us what trips users up at transit gates, a user base with 15 years of mobile transit experience. Any transit operator looking to implement good mobile transit service would greatly benefit from studying strengths and weaknesses of Mobile Suica, the worlds largest, oldest and most widely used mobile transit card service. Unfortunately nobody bothers to do so.

Tight pants + face masks = Face ID fuckups
As always, most Apple Pay Suica problems boil down to Face ID issues that disable Express Transit. Mobile Suica support even has a dedicated help post it puts out regularly. Face/Touch ID and Express Transit are joined at the hip. When Face/Touch ID is disabled, Express Transit is also disabled, a passcode is required to turn them on again. From the iOS 15 user guide: you must always enter your passcode to unlock your iPhone under the following conditions:

  1. You turn on or restart your iPhone.
  2. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone for more than 48 hours.
  3. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone with the passcode in the last 6.5 days, and you haven’t unlocked it with Face ID or Touch ID in the last 4 hours.
  4. Your iPhone receives a remote lock command.
  5. There are five unsuccessful attempts to unlock your iPhone with Face ID or Touch ID.
  6. An attempt to use Emergency SOS is initiated.
  7. An attempt to view your Medical ID is initiated.

You might think a passcode unlock is always the same, however there are surprisingly different Express Transit results at the gate show in the following video clips.

  • The first video shows Express Transit in normal action when Face ID (or Touch ID) and Express Transit mode are on. This is exactly what Suica users expect at transit gates and store readers. When it doesn’t work like this every single time, they complain.
    The second video shows a passcode request after restarting iPhone (#1), not something that would happen in real world use but I wanted to show the different kinds of passcode requests.
  • The third video is the most common one: the Apple Pay screen appears with a passcode request (#5-five failed Face ID attempts when wearing a face mask), this is exacerbated by Face ID Raise to Wake which is why I recommend that Face ID users turn it off when wearing face masks. There is a similar but separate issue when a user inadvertently pushes the side buttons (#6-emergency SOS • iPhone shut down), this happens more than you might think because side buttons are easily pressed when iPhone is in a tight pants pocket, especially when iPhone is in a case which is pretty much everybody.
  • The last video shows manual Apple Pay card selection and authentication when an Express Transit is not set, this is also how Apple Pay works on open loop transit systems without Express Transit support such as Sydney’s Opal.

An interesting side note about Japanese transit gate reader design UI. The blue light NFC reader hit area not only makes a great big visual target, it tells us the gate is ‘ready and waiting’. Notice how the blue light goes off when the reader is busy with a card transaction, then blinks on again ready and waiting for the next card. Watch the above videos carefully and you’ll notice the blue reader light stays lit with every false read attempt. Only when the correct card is brought up does it blink off and complete the transaction. When there’s a real problem the blue light changes to red.

This is simple, clever and user friendly design as your eyes are naturally focused where your hand is but you don’t see the design anywhere else except the new OMNY system readers. Copying the Japanese gate reader UI design is a smart move by Cubic Transportation Systems and MTA but their LED screen NFC hit area combo design appears to be somewhat fragile. The green ‘GO’ might seem like a nice touch but I suspect it subliminally makes a use wait for it. More feedback isn’t always better. Every millisecond wasted at the transit gate is a bad design choice.


Fixing Face ID
iPhone users in America only became aware of Face ID shortcomings thanks to COVID face mask mandates. Yes Virginia, Face ID sucks with face masks and Express Transit users in New York and London came face to face with issue #5: five successful Face ID attempts disables Face ID and Express Transit. It got so bad that MTA pleaded with Apple to ‘fix Face ID’. Apple dribbled out some Face ID “fixes” that didn’t fix very much.

iOS 13.5 introduced a Face ID with face mask passcode popup tweak that didn’t make passcode entry any easier and certainly didn’t fix Face ID use with a face mask. People quickly forgot about it.

iOS 14.5 introduced Unlock iPhone with Apple Watch that was widely ballyhooed by tech bloggers but real world use was a different story:

I find it fails me too often on the daily commute and in stores, usually at the very moment I need to launch dPOINT or dPay apps at checkout. I also get the feeling that Apple Watch battery life takes a hit too… If it works for you that’s great, but the Unlock with Apple Watch end user experience will be all over the place.

Also telling was that online Face ID/Express Transit complaints continued to grow despite the iOS 14.5 feature. Unlock with Apple Watch is a one trick pony, it unlocks a Face ID iPhone when a mask is detected, nothing more, no Apple Pay, no Face ID fix.

iOS 15.4 introduced Face ID with a mask for iPhone 12 and later. This is the first true fix for using Face ID with face masks, finally doing all the work Face ID does from unlocking iPhone to authenticating Apple Pay and apps. It’s not perfect as it doesn’t fix Face ID for earlier iPhone X-XS-11 models, and there are trade offs as it reduces Face ID security for the convenience of keeping your face mask on. In my experience Face ID with a mask on iPhone 13 Pro is certainly an improvement but slower and less successful than using Face ID without a mask. Face ID with a mask is also somewhat quirky. It doesn’t like strong backlighting, some users report frequent ‘look down’ requests depending on the their type of face and glasses.

Now that Apple has a focused Face ID with face mask roadmap that restores the Face ID Apple Pay experience, we can ignore all that mushy ridiculous Touch ID + Face ID dual biometric iPhone talk. Expect Apple to focus on improving Face ID with a mask performance on legacy Face ID on iPhone 12 and 13 in future iOS updates and delivering phenomenally better Face ID technology in future iPhones.

iOS 15.4 Face ID with a mask restores the Apple Pay Suica Express Transit experience

The iOS 15.4 update is out. The biggest feature by far is Use Face ID with a Mask. It makes daily iPhone use a much better experience for those wearing face masks with iPhone 12 and later. Even though America and other countries are rolling back face mask requirements, many Japanese will probably keep them on even if Japanese authorities follow the maskless trend. Wearing a face mask has become such an ingrained second nature that people wear them even when it doesn’t make sense, like walking in an empty park at a night.

When it comes to using Suica you might think Express Transit mode removes all Face ID with face mask Apple Pay issues. Here’s the thing, Suica is easily the most used Apple Pay card in Japan and the most used transit card on the Apple Pay platform. You still need Face ID authorization to recharge a Suica in Wallet, and there’s the Face ID misread problem. 5 Face ID misreads deactivates Express Transit Mode that Suica users depend on.

The Face ID with face mask misread problem is big enough that JR East Apple Pay Suica support reissued a notice outlining the causes. 5 Face ID misreads is very easy to do when wearing a face mask and it deactivates Express Transit Mode without any UI feedback or alert, tripping up Express Transit Suica users at the transit gate or store reader with a passcode prompt. Unexpected passcode prompts at transit gates or bus exit readers with people behind you are flustering ‘I wanna go back to plastic’ experiences.

I also wonder if QR Code payment apps have brainwashed young people into thinking they have to open an app for every payment and transit gate. There are enough user comments on social media to suggest people open Suica App in the mistaken assumption they need launch Suica App to use Suica. Imagine doing that every time you want to use Express Transit Suica…head scratchingly pointless.

The good thing is that iOS 15.4 Face ID with a face mask solves this mess…finally. In Japan that’s big. Face ID with a mask restores the Express Transit Suica and the whole Apple Pay user experience to what it was before Face ID. It’s too bad that Apple didn’t have this feature in place back at the iPhone X launch because Face ID without the ‘use with a mask’ option seriously dented the whole Apple Pay and Express Transit experience. That omission was a big design failure on Apple’s part. At the very least Apple should have included distinct and clear UI notification so users could tell when Face ID misreads had disabled Express Transit mode.

iOS 15.4 Face ID with a mask is long overdue. Between the iPhone X NFC problem and the 5 Face ID misreads disable Express Transit problem, the stellar Suica experience on Face ID iPhone has been a long slow disaster. iPhone Face ID users in Asia complained about the Face ID with face mask issue for years but this fell on deaf ears. Why did it take a COVID crisis for Apple to fix it?

Hopefully Apple leadership has finally learned an important lesson, with improved, highly secure, face mask friendly Face ID and better Express Mode status feedback coming to a future iPhone near you.