Touchless walkthrough transit gates coming in 2020, Mobile Suica eTickets more popular than ever

Mobile Suica has been under a lot of stress this week. The cloud service almost went down under a heavy load on November 26, at the same time the Suica App has shot up in the App Store Japan rankings, briefly touching the top 3 which is unusual. At first I scratched my head then remembered that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets become available 30 days in advance, and that means the New Year vacation period. But the unexpected Mobile Suica load and Suica App downloads signal something else: more first time Suica App users than ever before.

Even though Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchases are not eligible for CASHLESS rebates, it looks like more Japanese are taking the opportunity to go cashless this year with many first time users signing up for a Mobile Suica account and going all in with Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica. Discounts on some advance Shinkansen eTickets are also pretty good.

In other news Kyodo reports that JR East is developing a new ‘touchless’ walkthrough gate with an overhead antenna design that lets users keep Suica in a bag or pocket. No more waving cards and devices over a reader. It’s also big help for left handed people, Apple Watch Suica users and wheelchair users. Field tests are expected to start in 2020 with a rollout in 2~3 years. It sounds like a perfect match for the new eTicket system that JR East will launch in April 2020 and Super Suica coming in April 2021. It will be Super Suica all the way, we are entering the final years of magnetic strip paper ticketing.

It would be great fun if a few JR stations near Tokyo Olympic venues could have a few walkthrough Touchless gates installed for inbound Apple Pay Suica users to try out. Great for travelers with both hands full. Look ma, no hands! Take that QR Code fans.

UPDATE
It looks like Kyodo News is playing somewhat loose with their reporting. Ever reliable IT journalist Junya Suzuki contacted JR East for confirmation. JR East confirmed the basic story that they are developing a Touchless gate but have not committed to a rollout schedule. The picture that ran with the Kyodo piece is an older photo of an exhibition demo unit and not necessarily the Touchless gate, or the Touchless gate technology in development.

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What’s the difference between iOS 13 Wallet created Suica and SuicaEng?

iOS 13 Wallet gained the ability to directly create a Suica card without an app. Judging from Twitter posts however, it seems inbound visitors prefer SuicaEng for adding Suica to Apple Pay. This is understandable: SuicaEng is a onetime use app that completely removes the ‘set Region to Japan’ to add Suica requirement that confuses people. The region change is only for adding Suica but many people seem to think that the iPhone Region must be set to Japan to use Suica, which is not true: Suica works regardless of the device Region setting. Apple clearly needs to improve the Wallet UI so that users can easily add different country cards without a confusing side trip to Settings and Region.

It doesn’t matter how a user adds Suica to Apple Pay but there are some interesting differences. There are 3 basic variety of Suica cards when buying a plastic one from a station kiosk or creating a virtual one in Suica App: non-registered Suica, registered My Suica, commuter Suica.

Non-registered plastic Suica cannot be re-issued if lost and the balance is gone too, but the arrival of Apple Pay Suica blurred the lines between non-registered and registered My Suica. Technically the distinction is still there and JR East is not obligated to refund or re-issue a non-registered Suica if it stops working on Apple Pay.

Regardless of the variety, when any plastic or virtual Suica is added to Apple Pay the user Apple ID becomes part of the Suica card ID, permanently attaching it to the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica systems like a petrified barnacle. This is the reason why Apple Pay users must refund/delete all Apple Pay Suica cards and their Mobile Suica account if they migrate to Google Pay Suica (and vice versa).

The differences between SuicaEng and iOS 13 Wallet created Suica boil down to:

  1. SuicaEng creates a single non-registered Suica card in Wallet, it cannot create more than one.
  2. iOS 13 Wallet creates a registered My Suica and can create multiple Suica. It’s a very tight integration between Apple Pay and Mobile Suica.

Not that users will notice any difference because all Suica look and work exactly the same way. The differences are hidden away from the users on the backend, exactly as they should be.

Suica and Octopus Compared

Hong Kong’s Octopus is coming to Apple Pay soon, it shares the same FeliCa technology base with Suica but there are some interesting differences.

Branding
The mobile version of Suica is Mobile Suica across 3 different payment platforms: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay and Google Pay. The current mobile version of Octopus is called Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay but it’s not clear yet if the Smart Octopus branding will stay with Samsung Pay or be set free.

Deposits
Mobile Suica does not have deposits. Plastic Suica cards have a ¥500 deposit but is automatically returned to the stored value (SV) balance when transferred to Apple Pay or Google Pay. Octopus has a HK$50 deposit on both plastic and mobile versions. An interesting difference is that the Octopus deposit will be used temporarily if the SV balance is insufficient to pay transit fare at the exit gate.

Stored Value Balance Limits
Suica has a SV balance limit of ¥20,000. Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) just raised the Octopus SV balance limit for cards issued after October 1, 2019 from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000. In JPY this is roughly double the current Suica limit, about ¥40,000 which puts it inline with other Japanese e-money card balance limits like WAON. Suica balance limits will likely be doubled when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ card architecture arrives in April 2021.

Number of Cards
Smart Octopus is limited to a single card per Samsung Pay user account. Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica can have the multiple Suica cards up to the device Wallet limit.

Recharge Fees
One of the many innovations that Apple Pay Suica brought was elimination of the annual Mobile Suica ¥1,050 ‘membership fee’, Google Pay got the same deal and Mobile Suica membership fees are disappearing altogether next year. Mobile Suica does not charge any upfront fee for recharges, but Smart Octopus does: 2.5% a pop for the luxury of recharging in Samsung Pay with Visa and Mastercard card brands although Union Pay cards are apparently free.

The differences in this last section are interesting. JR East charges nothing for recharging Mobile Suica, while OCL does for Smart Octopus. Mobile Suica has been around far longer and JR East has many more online services, such as EkiNet, to offset cloud expenses. Smart Octopus only started in December 2017 and the footprint of Samsung Pay devices compared with everything else is probably small and doesn’t drive enough transaction volume to offset Smart Octopus cloud startup costs. Apple Pay will growth the transaction size of Smart Octopus considerably, hopefully enough for OCL to reduce or eliminate the Add Value Service Fee at some point.

I look forward to digging through service details when Octopus finally launches on Apple Pay.

JRE POINT Issues Apple Pay Suica Notice

With the JAPAN CASHLESS Rebate program in full swing, many Apple Pay Suica users are suddenly paying attention and signing up to get those post-transaction rebate points. The sleepy JRE POINT site is suddenly a hot bed, and users are advised to steer clear of registering Suica cards during the peak evening hours of 22:00~24:00.

JRE POINT issued a notice today reminding users with plastic Suica cards registered with JRE POINT, that they need to re-register the Suica as Mobile Suica if they transfer it to Apple Pay.

JRE POINT allows multiple Suica cards to be registered, but only a single Mobile Suica card (green) can be registered at any one time, and one Mizuho Suica (blue). Once a Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica card is registered however, users don’t need to worry about the Suica ID number changing when migrating to a new device or moving Suica from iPhone to Apple Watch. The number usually doesn’t change but even if it does, the Mobile Suica/JRE POINT system takes care of it.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that MIZUHO Suica does not count towards the Mobile Suica limit, you can have one Mobile Suica card (green) and one MIZUHO Suica card (blue) both in Wallet, both earning JRE POINT.

Suica App 2.5 Update

Suica App 2.5 dropped on 9/25 without a peep from JR East but this morning they released a notice urging Suica App users to update by 10/22. It’s not immediate clear what has changed, most likely it’s all backend stuff.

Gosh does this have anything to do with a Apple Pay system update or Octopus? And by the way, where are we on that one Sunny?

UPDATE: JR East has followed up with a Mobile Suica email notice labeled ‘urgent’ asking Suica App users to update to version 2.5 ASAP. This looks serious so update as soon as you can.