The Weekly

2022-03-14 Spring Cleaning

Mobile Suica day pass support started March 12

Mobile Suica App Day Passes
As promised Mobile Suica added day passes starting March 12. These are digital versions of the 4 day passes available for plastic Suica at JR East station kiosks: Nobiri Holiday, Tokyo Free Pass, Tokyo Ward Pass, Yokohama-Minatomirai Free Pass. Day passes are ‘same day’ purchases, valid from the first train through the last train of the purchase day.

Mobile Suica day passes are purchased via the smartphone app (Suica App on iOS, Mobile Suica on Android) and can be added to any Suica card displaying in Suica App that does not have a valid commute plan attached (expired commute plan Suica can be used). See the Suica App guide for purchase details.


Greater Kanto area Suica and PASMO extensions
March is always a busy month for transit companies, on the bright side new schedules go into effect and new services launch, on the not so bright side some older services are terminated. COVID has hit all transit very hard, but there are some good changes too such as increased Suica and PASMO Transit IC card use instead of paper tickets, and the extension of those networks.

March 12 saw two big launches, Suica 2 in 1 nolbé card with wide Gunma area bus support, and the Chichibu Railway joining PASMO. As the Yahoo Japan news blurb says, it’s finally possible for to ride all transit in Saitama Prefecture with just a Suica or PASMO.


Off Peak Commuter Suica Point Service Extension
Last but not least, the JRE POINT Off Peak Point Service campaign for Commute Suica cards (plastic and Mobile Suica) is being extended for another year, 2022-04-01~2023-03-31. The point service is being tweaked a bit. Instead of offering different point rewards for ‘early’ and ‘late’ commute times, the same points are given for both designate off peak times. The update also gives more points after 4 commuter pass transits in the same month. The program promotes commuter pass use and the updated point schedule doesn’t up the monthly max but it does offer max points to all Suica commuter users now, not just late off peak users.

JR East Off Peak Points

The PASPY thing

HIroden, NEC and LECIP team up for the new system announcement that replaces IC smartcard PASPY in 2024 (Hiroshima Home TV)

PASPY announced today that PASPY transit IC card service ends March 2025. The official replacement has been announced, billed as the “the fist Account Based Ticketing system in Japan” (yeah right) and launches October 2024. Main PASPY operator Hiroshima Electric Railway Co.,Ltd. (Hiroden) has been thinking out loud since last May that they planned to go all in with a QR Code smartphone app. Twitter users complain, a lot, that QR will be an inconvenient pain in the butt over what they have now.

Here’s the thing, most people assume that killing PASPY card means Hiroden and Hiroshima region PASPY transit partners will rip out all the FeliCa readers and replace them with optical code readers. I don’t think so. FeliCa PASPY cards will disappear but not the transit IC readers. If you listen carefully to Hiroden’s bitching and moaning about having to shoulder PASPY system costs from the PASPY/FeliCa fare processing server side (that the PASPY partners don’t help us enough with…boo-hoo-hoo). Dump that and get out of the plastic card issue business, leave ICOCA / Transit IC readers where they are and let them handle their own fare processing, retrofit a QR scanner or install Denso Wave QR+NFC readers, toss out a QR PASPY app and the PASPY associates can call it a day.

PASPY had all the limitations of region transit cards: no e-money functions for store purchases to juice the recharge business side, slowly declining ridership, and the card could not be used on JR West ICOCA and larger Transit IC network…limitations that the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate program resolves. Too bad JR West doesn’t have a similar program for the ICOCA region but it says something about JR West and local government relations that Hiroshima City and prefecture officials have kept quiet.

Nevertheless, there are way too many ICOCA and Mobile Suica users out there and Mobile ICOCA goes live 12 months from now. PASPY partners will want to keep those users riding no matter what Hiroden ends up doing. And local government transit subsidies will help keep the Transit IC readers in place. The whole point of transit is encouraging people to use it…right? And if it all works out, for QR based PASPY MaaS with Transit IC support, all the better.

Delete Suica from Apple Pay for free

Stored value transit cards like Suica are different from branded credit/debit/prepaid cards issued by banks as the money is stored in the card balance. The truth is in the card not the cloud which is why a Mobile Suica card can only exist on a single device. The transit card issuer has to refund the card balance before the transit card can be deleted, forever, from Apple Pay. Deleting a bank issue payment card in Wallet app leaves the card intact, but this is not the case for Suica. Deleting Suica is the digital equivalent of cancelling the account and chopping up the plastic card.

The difference between removing from Wallet and deleting from Apple Pay
People assume removing a card in Wallet means that it is deleted from Apple Pay and gone, but this is not the case. Before iOS 15 it was impossible to tell the difference between cards in Wallet and cards still attached to Apple Pay•Apple ID but not showing in Wallet. A very confusing situation for users.

iOS 15 Wallet added a new category ‘Previous Cards’ to solve this problem. Previous Cards are Wallet items removed from Wallet that are still attached to your Apple Pay•Apple ID. The screen blurb says, “Quickly add the cards, keys and passes you have already used in Wallet.” Cards still attached to Apple Pay but not in Wallet show up in a standby list ready to be added.

Wallet wording is tricky, it makes a big distinction between ‘removing’ a card, which removes it from Wallet and parks it on the Apple Pay cloud, and ‘deleting’ a card which completely deletes a card from Apple Pay and Apple ID. Previous Cards makes things clearer than before, but you still need to pay attention to the wording. Let’s apply this distinction using the Suica example. It is very easy to remove Suica from Wallet but impossible to delete Suica from Apple Pay because Wallet has no mechanism for refunding the balance. Refunding a Suica balance is the job of Suica App.

Suica withdrawal refund
Getting a withdrawal refund from a Suica card balance isn’t easy for some as the refund can only be made to a Japanese bank account. There’s also a ¥220 fee that JR East charges for processing refunds.

Why not just refund the stored fare directly to a credit card like Octopus App? There’s a catch. Apple Pay Octopus only supports Hong Kong issue cards in Wallet. People without a Hong Kong issue bank card have to use the Octopus Tourist App that locks a foreign currency and a pricy predetermined currency exchange rate when adding Octopus. Inbound Octopus users get surcharged with every recharge, but they can refund the remaining balance to their credit card when deleting Octopus.

The Suica withdrawal refund workaround
There is a way to get around the refund to bank account with processing fee problem and permanently delete Suica from your Apple Pay associated with your Apple ID. Mobile Suica support states:

The “Withdrawal” procedure on the registered members menu (in Japanese only) allows the balance of the SF (Stored Fare) to be remitted to your bank account in Japan. Since it costs ¥220 for the refund, it is generally advised that you use up all the SF (Stored Fare).

Mobile Suica Support: Can I get a refund from the remaining balance on the SF (Stored Fare) ?

You still need a Mobile Suica account and Suica App to do the job and the process is simple. Before deleting Suica run the balance down to ¥0, then launch Suica App.

  • Step #1: scroll to the bottom of Suica App Ticketing and Management menu and tap the red ‘Refund this Suica’ item at the very bottom
  • Step #2: Confirm the refund terms and confirm
  • Step #3: In the next screen confirm the balance, refund and processing fee are ¥0, tap ‘refund and delete card’.
  • Step #4: Confirm refund and delete
  • Step #5: In Wallet Suica shows ‘this card cannot be used’, tap ‘delete this card’
  • Step #6: Confirm deleting Suica
  • Step #7: Wallet notification that Suica has been deleted from Apple Pay

Done, the Suica is deleted though it may show in Previous Cards for a few hours until the Mobile Suica system processes it completely. Use the same steps for deleting PASMO from Apple Pay.

Bad Suica App reviews, real or urban legend?

Suica App user reviews are relentlessly bad, rip after rip of ‘this software sucks’. Never a good thing to say. Here’s the thing however, when you dig into the reviews most of them have little to do Suica App. It’s also really weird that many reviewers/users seem to think they need Suica App for using Suica at the transit gate. They don’t.

Why are people even using Suica App anyway? You don’t need it to add Suica to iPhone, you don’t need it to recharge Suica. All these things can be done in Wallet app. And now that people are working remotely, there is much less demand for purchasing commuter passes, the biggest reason for using Suica App in the first place. But there is one good reason for using Suica App: setting up Auto-Charge. Set that and you’ll never have to use Suica App.

There’s an important difference to know about Auto-Charge vs. regular recharge in Suica app and Wallet app: auto-charge is locally processed via the transit gate Suica NFC reader. It’s instantaneous and doesn’t care about your iPhone network connection.

Wallet and Suica app recharge are processed via the iPhone (or Apple Watch) network connection. Apple Pay talks with iCloud and Mobile Suica, the transaction is processed online and relayed back to Apple Pay, the recharge amount is added to Suica card. Many network hoops.

There is a message the Mobile Suica twitter account puts out regularly: make sure your smartphone has a robust network connection and don’t use free WiFi when recharging Suica or using Suica App. A bad WiFi connection fools Suica App users into thinking their iPhone is connected to the internet when it is not. This is a particular problem with carrier Wi-Fi SIM auto-connect that bypasses a solid 4G/5G connection and automatically connects to an extremely unstable or overloaded carrier WiFi instead. WiFi on trains and in stations is never reliable and should be turned off when using recharging Suica in Wallet or using Suica App.

Which brings us to an interesting Suica App user review titled “It’s a real urban legend” which explains all the crap talk about Mobile Suica boils down to people trying to recharge at rush hour in transit gate areas with a crapped out carrier or free WiFi connection…the perfect Suica App killer situation. The reviewer recommends “recharge in a calm place at calm time,” to which I heartily agree. Or better yet, ditch network recharge altogether and use Suica NFC Auto-Charge. It will never fail you.

The Suica 2 in 1 mobile dilemma: promoting targeted region services on a wide mobile platform

Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Cards have a problem: it would be great to have these cards available on mobile wallet platforms (Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, etc.) however, the whole point of region cards is to promote region affiliate transit companies and service benefits for the people who live there. There are region affiliate transit points and services for everybody, discounts and point rebates for elderly and disabled users, commute plans and so on, subsidized by prefectural and local city governments.

Hence despite the Suica logo on them, region affiliate cards are not available from JR East. They are only available from region affiliate bus offices. But it’s a pain getting them, commute plan renewal requires another trip to the bus office and cash recharge is the only option. Suica 2 in 1 would be infinitely more useful and user friendly on mobile. Region affiliate users are certainly happy to have a card that covers all of their transit needs but it doesn’t bring them into the Mobile Suica era.

But mobile is a two edged sword. On one hand you want the convenience of Mobile Suica, on the other hand region cards need to promote subsidized services for a particular location, keeping them local on a wide mobile platform and restricting access for special services with certain eligibility requirements (local disabled and elderly residents) is a challenge. How does one promote targeted regional services on widely available mobile platforms like Mobile Suica on Apple Pay?

The Suica App mobile fix
Hmmm, this sounds like a similar problem with student commuter passes. JR East and customers want to do away with the drudgery of going to the local JR East station ticket window to confirm student ID validity, nevertheless, student ID validity must be confirmed before a student commuter pass can be purchased. Mobile Suica has supported student commuter passes but students have to go to a local JR East office to validate and activate it.

Mobile Suica will address this problem on February 13 with a system update and new version of Suica App (v3.1.0) that adds support for in-app purchasing and renewing student commute plans. Another Mobile Suica update on March 12 will add Tokyo region day pass purchase support. Think of these as selective local services on a widely available mobile platform. Let’s see how this approach can be applied to Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards.

1) Region affiliate mobile issue
When I made my Apple Wallet transit card wish list mockup, I thought it might be nice to have all the new Suica 2 in 1 cards available directly in Wallet app along with Mobile ICOCA (coming in 2023).

In reality, it’s not a good idea to make region affiliate transit cards available to every Wallet app user. Transit cards are easier to add in iOS 15 Wallet app than ever before, but not delete and get a refund. Too many choices confuse users who may be new to Apple Pay. What if a user wanted to add a regular Suica but added totra Suica or nolbé Suica by mistake?

Apple Pay WAON deals with this problem in a smart way: regular WAON can be added directly in Wallet app, regional WAON cards are added to Wallet with WAON app. The beauty of issuing specialty WAON cards in the app is they have region specific goodies attached: a portion of the region WAON card transaction goes to a local government development fund.

This approach is a perfect fit for region affiliate Suica cards on mobile with local perks, bonus local transit points and so on when issuing cards on mobile.

2) Suica 2 in 1 commuter pass purchases and limited eligibility card issue
There are a few more hurdles to clear before Suica 2 in 1 can join the mobile era: region affiliate commute plan purchase and renewal, limited eligibility card issue (for elder and disabled users).

Let’s say you are a totra commuter who rides a region affiliate bus and a JR East train. In this case you need 2 separate commute plans on your Suica 2 in 1 totra card, one for the region affiliate bus, one for JR East. The commuters plans must be purchased separately: the region affliliate commuter pass is bought at the bus office, the JR East section is then purchased added at a JR East station ticket office. It’s a complex hassle. JR East stations are all cashless but only a few region affiliate bus offices take credit cards…and so it goes. How nice it would be to do this with an app and pay with Apple Pay.

Mobile Suica already hosts this kind of complex commute plan configuration but not in Suica App. Mobile PASMO and PASMO App are hosted on the JR East system, basically rebranded Mobile Suica, and easily configure complex bus + train commute plans from multiple transit operators for mobile purchase.

This leaves limited eligibility card issue. The February 13 Mobile Suica update adds student commuter pass pre-registration and ID verification uploading via the Mobile Suica member website. The student reservers a pass entering school information, commute route and uploads a picture of their school ID. Approved student commuter pass reservations are then purchased in Suica App. This ID verification method can be used for issuing elder and disabled Suica 2 in 1 cards. It’s still a manual authentication process that digital My Number cards will, hopefully, transform into a simple automatic one with instant verification of necessary personal information.

One of the really interesting things about Suica 2 in 1 is that the next generation format is the very first Suica card that supports disability fares. Up until now disability fare users have been limited to paper passes inspected at manned transit gates.

JR East plans to drastically reduce the number of manned transit gate areas. Before this happens, mobile support for all Suica cards of every kind, especially the new Suica 2 in 1 features, must be in place. The pieces of the solution are there, it only a matter of JR East integrating them into a Mobile Suica system and Suica App update.

One Suica App to rule them all
If we are promoting region affiliate Suica cards does it make sense to do it all in Suica App or have individually branded local apps for totra, nolbé, cherica, et al? One main goal of Suica 2 in 1 is cost reduction and infrastructure sharing. Despite all the different names and card artwork these are Suica cards with all the Suica benefits and JR East managing the Suica infrastructure for region affiliates.

I’d argue it doesn’t make sense nor does it fit with cost reduction goals to do a bunch of re-skinned local Suica Apps when JR East is making a bunch of replicas. Better to focus efforts on making Suica App a streamlined easy to use app with all the necessary tools for managing mobile region affiliate cards. And because physical cards remain an important part of the Suica platform strategy, Suica App must also add a physical card iPhone recharge feature similar to what Octopus App and Navigo App offer.

All in all I expect that 2023, which will see the launch of the highly anticipated JR West Mobile ICOCA service, will be a big year for Mobile Suica and Suica App too.