The ¥10 barrier-free station tax

The railway station barrier-free fee system is “a Japanese railway fare system established with the aim of promoting barrier-free railway stations in urban areas” by leveraging a fee on urban railway users. A barrier-free station tax, if you will.

From 2023-03-18 most railway companies in Japan, both JR Group and non-JR, will be raising transit fares in urban areas to pay this barrier-free station tax. Here is the breakdown for the Greater Tokyo area focusing on JR East.

Suica
In the JR East designated barrier-free tax zone there is a ¥10 fare increase for paper tickets and regular Suica/Transit IC cards. Suica Commute Plan increases within the same tax zone are listed below. The overall average fare increase is 1.4%.

While barrier-free stations are good thing and not a big tax to pay for all that new infrastucture, the timing is bad. With living costs rising across the board, these little increases add up. To help ease the pain, JR East is offering Off-Peak Suica Commuter Passes (plastic)/Commute Plans (Mobile Suica), that offer a 10% discount with the following condition: Off-Peak passes can only be used outside the designated peak time of the commute plan entry station, otherwise your Suica will be charged at the regular IC fare rate. Suica Off-Peak Commuter Passes basically replace the convoluted Suica Off-Peak JRE POINT Campaign that ends March 31.

Apple Pay Suica users will be able to buy Off-Peak commute plans in an upcoming version of Suica App (v5.2.1), but you must purchase a new pass. Regular commute plans can only be renewed as regular commute plans, they cannot be migrated to off-peak plans. School commute plans and passes will not be charged the barrier-free tax which is good news. Another bonus: high school and jr. high school students can add and use Mobile Suica school commute plans staring March 18.

PASMO
The situation for PASMO private rail and other non-JR East rail operators is varied. Keio and Toei Subway have not announced fare increases while Seibu, Tokyu, Tobu, Sotetsu, Odakyu, Tokyo Metro are all raising fares and commuter passes similar to JR East but there are differences. And there are no off-peak commuter passes. Be sure to check how fare increases apply to your commute situation.

I will update the Apple Pay Suica • PASMO Commute Plan Guide with Suica Off-Peak commute plan options in early February.

Foreign VISA cards blocked for select Japanese in-app and online payments

Notice: latest situation updates here

SoftBank Payments network chart

When foreign issue VISA cards in Wallet stopped working for Apple Pay in-app Suica and PASMO recharge on August 5, the first people to howl in pain were Apple Pay PASMO users who suddenly couldn’t recharge with their Chase Sapphire VISA cards. Chase Sapphire still codes for 3x travel points with a PASMO recharge and long time resident Suica users migrated to PASMO when JR East and VISA shut down 3x travel points in May 2021.

I did the usual duty of talking with Mobile Suica support, official line: there should be no problem, contact the card issuer. I then contacted Wells Fargo card services support, official line: there should be no problem with your VISA, contact the merchant. Entirely expected of course but I did confirm that Mobile Suica transaction attempts were not even showing on the Wells Fago system. They said it seems to be a ‘communications issue’… code word for: something’s not right on the merchant transaction authorization side.

I suspected a larger issue than just Apple Pay and an Android Suica user confirmed the same non-JP VISA problem with Google Pay Suica. I also alerted IT journalist Junya Suzuki who focuses on mobile payments. His first thought was something might be going on with the VISA Japan merchant acquirer side of the payment network. For reference, the merchant acquirer handles transaction authorization from the merchant side, ‘this transaction is clear to send to the card issuer.’ The issuer then clears the transaction with the customer account, ‘this customer is good to pay for this charge.’

Merchant acquirers are very secretive and nobody knows who is the merchant acquirer is for Mobile Suica/Mobile PASMO. Maybe they were tightening online transaction security…or something else. Everything was clear as mud though a well placed source did say this:

An acquirer made the decision stopping handling cards issued in other countries… Another guy suggests Apple or such acquirer may face money laundering issue by registering Apple Pay with pre-paid Visa cards or such.

In addition, that means JRE doesn’t know what’s happening on this problem.

A reader asked me if Japan was banning non-JP VISA cards across the board along with a screenshot of Universal Studios Japan advance ticket sales page with a red colored important notice on the top that said: “We apologize that currently Visa and Mastercard credit cards issued outside Japan are not available until further notice.”

This points to a larger problem than just Mobile Suica and PASMO. The USJ wording also suggests that JTRWeb have their hands tied ‘until further notice’ and echos what JR East PR told Suzuki san about the non-JP VISA recharge problem being beyond their immediate control. Something seems to be happening with the VISA merchant acquirer…but in different highly selective ways. For example why does foreign issue VISA work for Apple Pay in-app purchases with Japanese apps like Starbucks, but not in-app purchase with JR East for Suica recharge?

Security and Apple Pay Enhanced Fraud Prevention
It’s helpful to examine the impact of phishing attacks that hit NTT Docomo, Line Pay, PayPay and other QR code mobile payment services in late 2020, and JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net and VIEW card) in early 2022. Responses to phishing attacks were varied and vague. Companies like to say they value customer security but are short detailing what they’re doing because nitty gritty details hashed out with the card brands and merchant acquirers are secret non-disclosure territory.

Japanese credit card issuers responded by upgrading to EMV 3-D Secure v2 (3-D stands for three domains: merchant/acquirer domain, the issuer domain, and the interoperability domain), for non-digital wallet browser and mobile app payments. EMV 3-D Secure is the EMV e-commerce browser and app authentication tokenization spec with card brands using their own naming and handling the merchant support. It’s important to understand that EMV 3-D Secure has nothing to do with Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and similar digital wallets who have their own tokenization. However, Apple Pay has been making some changes to enhance online and in-app security.

Apple Pay quietly launched Enhanced Fraud Protection in April 2022 when Apple Cash was upgraded from Discover to VISA brand debit card. The updated Apple Pay and Privacy text included a new section:

For cards with certain enhanced fraud prevention, when you attempt an online or in-app transaction, your device will evaluate information about your Apple ID, device, and location if you have enabled Location Services for Wallet, in order to develop on-device fraud prevention assessments. The output of the on-device fraud prevention assessments, but not the underlying data, will be sent to Apple and combined with information Apple knows about your device and account to develop Apple Pay transaction fraud prevention assessments. These transaction fraud prevention assessments may be shared with your payment network, together with a shipping address identifier and IP address if available, in order to prevent fraud at the time of transaction. The shipping address identifier differs per payment network and may be used to confirm whether shipping addresses for different transactions using a particular card on your device are the same in a way that does not reveal the underlying address. You can check whether a card has this enhanced fraud prevention at any time by going to the back of your payment credential in Wallet. To prevent the sharing of fraud prevention assessments with your payment network, you can select another card.

Apple Pay & Privacy

This means that Apple Pay ‘might’ share iPhone/Apple Watch location information when making online or in-app purchases. So far VISA cards are the only ones that have Enhanced Fraud Protection but it doesn’t seem an across the board change for all VISA issue cards and depends on the issuer. My Wells Fargo VISA card for example doesn’t show any sign of enhanced fraud prevention in Wallet app card details.

Does enhanced fraud prevention have anything to do with Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge not working for foreign issue VISA? I suspect not but it’s an important background development because: 1) it’s limited to online and in-app purchases, 2) VISA pushed for these ‘fraud prevention assessments’ so they could obtain device location information and more. VISA pushing this agenda could be causing issues on the merchant acquirer side.

The VISA open loop power play
So we circle back to foreign issue VISA use in Japan again. Why are cards cleared for Apple Pay, cards that worked fine until August 5, suddenly not working? JR East support says it’s not o them: all credit and debit cards that support Apple Pay in-app purchase are good to go. They certainly want inbound visitors to use Suica. Evidence points to a transaction authorization change on the VISA merchant acquirer side. Everybody else seems to be doing what they always do.

The timing is perfect however when you also consider that VISA is heavily promoting ‘VISA Touch’ EMV contactless and open loop transit in Japan as a challenge to the home grown FeliCa based Transit IC card system. It’s very convenient for VISA Touch open loop marketing purposes when Apple Pay Suica and PASMO are kneecapped as easy payment and transit options for inbound visitors.

VISA has a history of not playing nice with Japanese stored value cards on mobile. Japanese issue VISA cards didn’t work for Apple Pay in-app purchases and Suica recharge until May 2021, VISA waited 5 years to ‘resolve’ that issue. VISA cards still do not work with Mobile WAON and Mobile nanaco on Android and Apple Pay, they likely never will. My take is that VISA is happy with people buying things with VISA, they are certainly happy with people borrowing money at ATM machines with VISA, but they are not happy with people using VISA to move money into stored value prepaid cards for making payments, earning points, etc., that are not VISA.

One thing is for sure, VISA has played hardball with Apple Pay in the Japanese market before, maybe they are doing so again and refuse to be an ATM-like recharge backend for Japanese e-money cards…unless they also get ATM-like lending rate transaction fees. They certainly want to promote open loop VISA Touch and Stera Transit at the expense Mobile Suica market and mindshare.

Junya Suzuki thinks the VISA merchant acquirers might be coming under pressure from potential money laundering risks. I say bunk, after all we’re only talking a max Suica balance of ¥20,000 here. Whatever the reason let’s hope it is fixed, though I have learned over the years that card brand payment issues are never simple or solved quickly. Time will tell. At the very least we can mark this down as another skirmish in the ongoing digital payment turf wars.


2022-12-03 UPDATE
JR East updated the entire JR East credit card system with a series of special maintenance downtimes in November 2022. The work covered everything connected to credit card purchases: JR East station kiosks, VIEW ATMs, Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, etc.

After the last scheduled overnight maintenance session on November 30~December 1, a few select foreign issue VISA cards started working again for Apple Pay Suica and PASMO recharge but everything stopped again 2022-12-03. The VISA in-app block continues. JR East has also scheduled special Mobile Suica credit card system maintenance for March.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block

JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited). All JRE POINT services were later restored with new security enhancements.

There is another security limitation Apple Pay Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.” User reports suggest a general daily recharge limit between ¥5,000~¥10,000, however I think it also depends on the credit card issuer. My JR East JCB VIEW card for example has never run into any recharge limits in 5 years of heavy recharge use.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent Mobile Suica phishing attacks. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on Apple Pay PASMO but users should expect the same situation.

Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. Even my internet savvy partner fell for a Mobile Suica phishing mail and have to get his credit card reissued.

The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.

iOS 16 Wallet: expanding the Apple Pay experience, aka Suica auto-charge for the rest of us

iOS 15 added big new features to Wallet, expanding digital keys from cars to include home, office and hotels and ID in Wallet driver licenses for the first time. There were smaller but important UI changes too. A new add card screen offered new categories making is easy to add transit cards regardless of the device region and quickly re-add previous Wallet items from iCloud. iOS 15 was all about Wallet to the extent that Apple now advertises it as a separate thing from Apple Pay with a separate web page, and even referred to Apple Pay as “one of the most important areas of Wallet” in the WWDC keynote. Very interesting.

iOS 16 moves the focus back to Apple Pay and making digital payments more useful, practical and universal. The WWDC22 Keynote announced Apple Pay Later, in-app ID card verification and key sharing. Apple Pay Later is one aspect of several new Apple Pay functions unveiled in the What’s new in Apple Pay and Wallet session.

Multi-merchant payments: In our online world we can never be sure how many sub-merchants are involved when we order something and how our card information is shared. In multi-merchant Apple Pay, multiple payment tokens are issued for each merchant in the same transaction, preserving user privacy, with the iOS 16 Apple Pay paysheet showing a breakdown of each sub-merchant charge. This feature works mostly on the backend, but showcases how smartly the Apple Pay Wallet team design features to ‘just work’ securely for merchants and customers.

Automatic Payments
My favorite iOS 16 feature as it addresses a lot of interesting use cases, much more than just Apple Pay Later installments which fall under:

Reoccurring payments, which include things like installments and subscriptions, basically any regularly scheduled payment. With the recent Starbucks Japan price increases, I decided to sign up for the new JR East Beck’s Coffee Shop subscription plan. Up to 3 cups a day for ¥2,800 a month. A pretty good deal for commuters like me. The Beck’s subscription service is subcontracted out to an interesting online business venture company called Favy that uses Sign in with Apple to create an account. Payment however is manual credit card entry with the onerous, ubiquitous 3D Secure sign-in. Pass issue and serving size selection (M=¥50, L=¥100 extra) is done in Safari. It works well enough, but canceling or getting payment details is a real Safari expedition. It would be a much better, and faster, customer experience doing it all in Apple Pay.

Automatic Reload: this is the real money feature for me because it plays on the classic snag of using Apple Pay Suica…recharge. All pre-paid cards are a catch-22. Japanese users love them because they like the “I know how much money I’m adding to my card” aspect of manual recharge, but there’s the inevitable, you know you forgot about it, bing-bong ‘please recharge’ transit gate alarm when Suica balance is short.

JR East offers Suica Auto-Charge (auto-reload) as a feature of their VIEW card. The auto-charge option works great with Apple Pay Suica but like all transit card auto-charge, it is tethered to the transit gate NFC system. This means the users gets instant, seamless auto-charge but only on the operator’s transit gates. Suica auto-charge does not work outside of the Suica and PASMO transit gates, not at store terminals, not in other transit card regions like JR West ICOCA. This limitation is a big customer complaint, I and many others would love Apple Pay Suica auto-charge to work everywhere.

Apple Pay automatic reload takes care of this problem very nicely. Suica would recharge anywhere because the card balance ‘trigger’ and reload process is done via Apple Pay and internet connections instead of being tethered to JR East/PASMO transit gates and the Mobile Suica system. JR East could keep auto-charge exclusive to their VIEW cards as they do now but opening it up to all Apple Pay credit cards would greatly increase the usefulness of Suica. JR East could still keep the VIEW advantage with JRE POINT recharge points. Automatic Apple Pay Suica reload would also help alleviate, if not eliminate, the ¥20,000 balance limit problem for most users. The possibilities are are pretty exciting.

Order tracking
Another very useful feature I think people will love using. The addition of QR/barcodes in the Apple Pay sheet is a first and will greatly shorten the order pickup~delivery process. The best use case of Apple Pay and bar codes that I can think of.

ID verification in apps
This is where ID in Wallet gets real. Wallet app has TSA airport checkpoint verification built-in but that’s not going to help all the government issuing agencies, not to mention software developers, around the world who want to implement digital ID verification to unlock various digital services.

JR East for example has centered their whole Super Suica MaaS Cloud initiative around ID PORT and the ability to match various region or age based services (discounts, special fares, etc.). In other words JR East and their sub-merchant or local government agency want to know where I live and how old I am. This is all provided on the Japanese government My Number digital identity card launching later this year on Android, and Apple Wallet later on. But I don’t want my personal details going everywhere. If the MaaS campaign app or website only needs to know that I live in Tokyo and am over 60, that’s the only info I want to give them. This is what the new PassKit ID request APIs in iOS 16 do: give apps only the information they need to perform a verification for a service and nothing more.

Key sharing
Nothing big here, but it does address one iOS 15 Wallet shortcoming for home, hotel keys which that could not be shared and expanded share options beyond mail and messages. I’m doubtful Apple includes office keys in the bargain but the fine print reads: available on participating car brands and access properties. We’ll find out when iOS 16 ships.

And then there’s Tap to Pay on iPhone. It’s really not an Apple Pay function to me because it turns iPhone into a very handy and portable NFC payment terminal, but it makes sense branding wise. Just say Apple Pay for making…and accepting payments. Anywhere the merchant has their payment provider POS app and a network connection, they are ready to go. This is big. Apple has lined up an impressive number payment providers in a very short time who are happy to leave all the hardware certification and secure element management to Apple and focus on software. I can practically feel the intense interest from Japan where local payment providers would love to leverage the global NFC capable iPhone for seamless EMV and FeliCa payment services. It could be an interesting Apple Pay year.

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 use reload. ‘Top up’ is too quainty UK English for my tastes, sounds like 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