Apple Pay China T-Union Transit Cards arrive with iOS 13.4.1 Update

Apple Pay China T-Union transit cards for Shenzhen along with an updated Beijing area card have been added for mainland China region users. It represents the first true release of China T-Union cards on Apple Pay that are already on Huawei, Xaiomi and other domestic smartphones. Shanghai remains in the older City Union format. Apple Pay China T-Union cards for Guangzhou and Foshan are listed as coming soon on the Apple Pay China page, China T-Union transit cards were announced in December. The release is simultaneous with the iOS 13.4.1 update but it’s not clear if updating is a requirement. iOS 13.4 is listed as required on the Shenzhen transit page, Apple Support recommends using the latest iOS.

China T-union cards are interoperable transit cards that work across the country, covering subway and bus transit for 275 mainland Chinese cities, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc., that work across the entire country. Unlike Japan IC transit cards however, China T-Union cards are limited to transit, they cannot be used for regular contactless store purchases or eTicket Shinkansen travel.

China T-Union uses the PBOC 2.0/3.0 protocol, the Chinese variant of EMV with the slowest NFC transaction speeds. All China T-Union transit cards on mobile are limited to Union Pay issue credit/debit cards for recharge and physical cards cannot be transferred, which makes them basically useless for inbound iPhone visitors to China, unlike the open inbound friendly Apple Pay Suica. Apple Pay has supported Beijing and Shanghai City Union transit cards since iOS 11.3 but were initially labeled beta because they did not fully implement the complete PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec. This is fixed with the China T-Union additions.

Once the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus for Hong Kong is released the Wallet transit card additions will eventually deliver Express Transit convenience to Greater Bay Area iPhone/Apple Watch users who were previously limited to China Union Pay (CUP) cards without Express Transit. Having 2 different Apple Pay transit cards in Wallet would not exactly be the same as the dual mode Sold Octopus•Lingnan Pass but it should be close once Apple Pay Octopus is released. It will be interesting to hear what the Apple Pay Greater Bay Area transit experience is like after all area services are rolled out.

There has been endless speculation about the release of Apple Pay Octopus after the planned launch was delayed in December, just after China T-Union Apple Pay cards were announced. Apple Pay Octopus was first announced in July 2019 but has yet to see release on iOS 13.4.x, the last major iOS 13 release.

Update: see the fun on YouTube (from the 1:44 mark), covers adding a China T-Union card to Wallet and using it on transit gate in comparison with QR Codes.

Transit Cards on Mobile

Transit cards on mobile devices have been around since 2006 with the release of Mobile Suica, the world’s very first comprehensive transit on mobile service. Only with the arrival of digital wallet platforms from Apple, Google and Samsung in 2015 have mobile transit cards become widely available outside of Japan.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorDigital WalletNFCProtocol
2006
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015
TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017
Beijing
Shanghai Transit
ChinaBMAC
SPTCC
Apple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018
iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020
ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
TAPLAMETRO/CubicApple Pay
(announced)
AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOApple Pay
(announced)
FMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’

Mobile transit card protocol overview
Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC, the slowest of the three protocols designed for supermarket checkout not transit gates.

While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit.

It may be a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate (comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan) and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, taps times really matter. Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa.

Open Loop NFC ticketing (in its current form, EMVCo Contactless specifications are adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec and uses the ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro is never supposed but as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes.

YouTube comment explaining the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada), lightly edited for clarity

The PBOC Protocol

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

The interesting thing here is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards but are migrating to the PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards that are much slower. Users notice the difference:

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <PBOC 2.0 China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong

Despite the slower gate speeds the PBOC 2.0 China T-union card spec is the Chinese mainland standard for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Mobile transit cards vs Open Loop
Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile, PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are some 257 China T-Union transit card compatible transit authorities already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce costs for both fare collection and plastic card issue. The downside is that open loop eats up precious system resources so that banks can get a cut from transit gate transactions. The end result is that native transit card mobile support is a secondary priority, if at all.

Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

China T-Union: streamlined for mobile
The large deployment of PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union cards on mobile has been cited as proof that the protocol ‘better’ than FeliCa and MIFARE, but in reality has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about streamlining on the cloud side:

  1. All China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by UnionPay. It’s the reason why China T-Union only support UnionPay recharge and sport a similar logo. It’s all one package.
  2. China T-Union cards on mobile have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. Local transit agency transit card apps are intentionally crippled and do not support any NFC features. Note that Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer:

You can create a new transit card in Wallet to use with Apple Pay. The first transit card that you add to Wallet automatically becomes your Express Transit card.

Add a transit card to Apple Pay in mainland China

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management hotlist headaches and the UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards simple because there is nothing to negotiate and it’s the same centralized IT software stack running everything. The various transit operators only need to plug into the network. They don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay is the only payment network.

China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket.

China T-Union, QR Codes and Hong Kong Octopus
The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the UnionPay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Hong Kong Octopus Card Limited and MTR have been slow adding mobile transit service. The Apple Pay Octopus launch in June 2020 was a big success. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card.

Put another way, Octopus is living on borrowed time. If OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.

New Apple Pay Transit Support Page Jargon

iOS 12.3 might look like a minor update, but Apple Pay has gotten a major under the hood overhaul. It feels like Apple is pulling all the different NFC technology threads together into one tight knot in advance of iOS 13: Apple Pay Suica performance is stellar and finally bug free, the beta label on China transit cards which had been there since iOS 11.3 is finally gone, the Wallet UI has been revamped for Apple Card which Apple employees just started receiving with more changes coming, and we have the new EMV Express Transit option which uses a payment card (credit/debit cards) designated for Express Transit mode on Portland TriMet.

In case you have not noticed, Apple Pay Transit support pages have been completely rewritten with some new jargon:

  • Transit without Apple Pay Express Transit mode enabled: everywhere else

By the end of summer the Express Transit mode enabled list will look like this: China Beijing and Shanghai PBOC), Japan (nationwide Suica FeliCa), USA (Portland TriMet EMV and HOP MIFARE) and Chicago (Ventra MIFARE). New York OMNY will end up on the ‘Transit without Apple Pay Express Transit mode enabled’ list.

There is also some new jargon in iOS 12.3 Wallet Settings:

The Express Transit Card setting lists Transit Cards (Suica, HOP, etc.) and Payment Cards (VISA, Mastercard, American Express, etc.). Notice that Transit Cards can be ‘Multiple’ and the description: (EMV) will be used to pay for transit when (Suica, HOP, Beijing Transit, etc) is not requested by payment reader. Ideally this means that the payment reader will gracefully accept your preferred payment method to pay the fare.

The reality is going to be messy. I guarantee there will be lots of people who set a payment card for Express Transit and try going through a transit gate in Singapore, Sydney, London, Tokyo, etc. without a thought, and get a nasty surprise. What? I thought Apple Pay worked here?

That is not a problem for techies who want to try things, but for regular users who just want things to work, it makes Apple Pay look bad. People don’t have high expectations about bank cards, but they have higher expectations for Apple Pay. Put another way, banks have nothing to lose with lousy service because they already have a lousy reputation. Apple Pay is different and has more to lose when things go wrong. And that’s a risky place to be.

Suica Express Transit and China Express Transit Compared

Japanese tech journalist Satoru Nakayama posted his experience of riding the Shanghai subway with an Apple Pay Express Transit China card loaded on his iPhone. Using Apple Pay Express Transit in Shanghai is similar to Apple Pay Suica but there are interesting differences:

  • Apple Pay recharge for China Express Transit is limited to Union Pay credit cards
  • Recharge kiosks are available but limited to Union Pay and QR Code options. No cash recharge
  • China Express Transit can only be used for transit, you cannot purchase things like Suica

And yes, Nakayama san confirms that QR Codes are a pain in the butt for recharge as well as a transit gate entry option but we already knew that. Another interesting observation is that Express Transit China cards are slower at the transit gate than Suica. This is not surprising.

FeliCa based Suica cards and Japanese transit gates have been fine tuned for a 200ms (millisecond) processing time but are usually faster. NFC-F response time is about 50ms and most onsite transaction times for Suica in Japan and Octopus cards in Hong Kong clock in about 100ms. My guess is that China Transit cards are closer to the usual EMV transaction speed of 500 ms.

The tech side story of China Express Transit cards is an interesting one. The plastic smartcards started out on MIFARE technology but the current China T-Union card is an evolution of the Chinese PBOC 2.0ED/EP spec defined in the JT/T 978 standards. Conceptually it is close to a EMV-like stored value card for offline processing. It’s not clear what flavor Apple Pay is using, it does not appear to be the full China T-union spec but could be something like an Apple flavored PBOC 2.0ED/EP implementation. This could be a reason why Apple Pay Express Transit in China is still beta.