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 first appeared in 2006 with the launch of Mobile Suica, the world’s very first comprehensive transit on mobile service. With the arrival of digital wallet platforms from Apple, Google and Samsung in 2015, mobile transit cards have gradually become widely available outside of Japan. The first mobile transit card on Apple Pay was Suica in 2016.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on embedded secure element (eSE) mobile digital wallets by service launch year. Entries are limited to native transit cards defined as reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Open Loop service is not listed. The chart is 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 2GO
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE 2GO
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE 2GO
NavigoParisÎle-de-France MobilitésSamsung PayBCalypso
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 PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
TAPLAMETRO/CubicApple PayAMIFARE
Apple Pay PASMOTokyoPASMOApple PayFMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple PayAEMV
2021
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay
(announced)
AEMV
ClipperBay AreaMTA/CubicApple PayAMIFARE

Mobile transit card protocol overview
The current lineup of transit card payment mobile protocols are

  • FeliCa
  • MIFARE
  • PBOC 2.0/3.0
  • Calypso

As explained in detail below, FeliCa and Calypso are the fastest protocols, MIFARE is in the middle and PBOC, the Chinese variant of EMV, is the slowest of the protocols, originally designed for leisurely supermarket checkout not rush hour transit gates. Transit has special needs for fast fare processing at the gate to keep people moving and operations safe. In theory all protocols can process transactions at more or less the same speed, but the reality of NFC+protocol OS integration+antenna and gate design is that there are differences. The truth is in the tap. Here is a good rundown of the technologies and real life tap times.

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), edited for clarity

Japan and China have de facto national transit card standards. Japan has Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc., which share the same basic architecture that gradually evolved from 2001 into mutual compatible Transit IC interoperability standard in 2013. PBOC 2.0 China T-Union is a Chinese Ministry of Transport initiative for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile, managed by Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology that started in 2015. With the rollout, China T-Union replaced existing MIFARE and FeliCa based mainland China transit cards.

The interesting thing about the latter is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards and users really noticed the difference when China weeded out and replace them with the slower PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards:

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

The slower China T-Union speed is one factor driving the popularity of QR codes for transit in China: there isn’t any speed difference between the two so most people choose AliPay and WeChat Pay for the convenience of reward points, campaigns and more services.

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 and now Garmin Pay Suica. 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.

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 with cash or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient the card is.

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? The answer: Open Loop.

Blame the slow mobile transit card rollout on open loop
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, Transport for NSW and New York MTA have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as their mobile solution instead of hosting 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 support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies native digital transit card support. As with all transit agencies that are run by, or receive movement funds, resources are limited, choices have to be made as to which mobile transit solutions receive funding. The end result is that native transit card mobile support is a secondary priority, if at all.

However open loop cannot cover all fare options as bank cards were not designed for transit. This is why Oyster, Opal and Ventra have had to keep good old stored value plastic MIFARE cards around for fares that don’t fit in the ‘one size fits all’ open loop box. To address this shortcoming Cubic has created a new mobile transit solution: closed loop EMV bank cards for digital wallets.

Cubic’s very first mobile transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is the world’s first EMV closed loop transit card. It’s basically a Mastercard debit card with an account candy wrapped as a Ventra digital card. This same configuration is being tested for digital Opal. As closed loop EMV transit cards are bank card account based schemes, they still come with all the EMV on transit shortcomings, bank managed accounts, slow transaction speed, poor user feedback at the transit gate, etc. For this reason I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle.

China T-Union: centralized straightjacket for mobile
The large deployment of PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union cards on mobile has been cited as proof that it’s ‘better’ at mobile than FeliCa and MIFARE, but the reality has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about the Ministry of Transport China T-Union card nationwide standard managed by a single entity, Beijing China Communications Gold Card Technology (BCCGCT) for plastic and digital issue:

  • All China T-Union cards have a single recharge backend cloud provided by UnionPay, managed by BCCGCT. It’s the reason why China T-Union only support UnionPay recharge and sport a similar logo with local transit agency branding. It’s all one package.
  • China T-Union digital 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 transfer features, Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer.

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management overhead and the UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards issued by the same company makes it simple because BCCGCT runs everything. The various local transit operators simply plug into it. They don’t have to host anything or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay runs the payment network. China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card run by a single government run enterprise monopoly that’s a streamlined straitjacket.

Every country and region has their own priorities and services for local transit, as it should be. My position is a simple one: even if a transit company does not implement a transit platform business model, there is a lot to learn from that model that can be adapted to local regions for long term sustainable transit in the mobile payments age.

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.