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

Recent Hong Kong rumors say the long delayed Apple Pay Octopus will finally launch in March April May 2020 along with the recently announced Apple Pay support for Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Foshan China T-Union transit cards. The rumors also say that putting China T-Union cards on Apple Pay is easier than Octopus. Is this true? Let’s take a look.

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 operators. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorOS/Digital WalletNFCProtocol
2006Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai/AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay/Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017Beijing/Shanghai TransitChinaBMAC/SPTCCApple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay/Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple Pay (announced/delayed)FMobile FeliCa
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced/delayed)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay (announced)APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’, Beijing was updated to China T-Union PBOC 3.0 with iOS 13.4.1

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 with the slowest grocery store checkout transaction speeds of the three protocols:

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

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <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
YouTube comment lucidly explains the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada)
This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Some China transit cards used FeliCa and MIFARE protocols in the past but have been migrated to the PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-union card spec for interoperable transit cards that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc. 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. Initial Apple Pay support for Beijing and Shanghai transit cards was listed as beta on iOS 11.3. The early Apple implementation was not the full PBOC 2.0/3.0 spec, apparently fixed in iOS 12.3 when the beta label was removed.

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 cards 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 usually limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce system costs. The downside is that banks get a cut from transit gate transactions and transit cards for mobile are slow in coming, 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.

Putting aside the open loop fad for a moment, I think the large deployment of China T-Union cards on mobile comes down to a few simple things that has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware: all China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by Union Pay. It’s the reason why China T-Union sports a similar logo, the Union from Union Pay, and can only be recharged with a Union Pay card. It’s all one package. And China T-Union cards have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. From Apple Support:

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 and a common Union Pay recharge backend cloud shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards much easier, the various transit operators don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because Union Pay is the only payment network.

China T-Union in the cards for Hong Kong Octopus?
China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket: Union Pay is the only payment network allowed, there are far fewer service options than Suica or Octopus systems. 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 Union Pay 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.

Unfortunately in the face of pressure MTR/OCL, a world leading transit platform business model and innovator, has been surprisingly slow rolling out virtual Octopus card service on digital wallets to encourage the migration from plastic cards with new kinds of mobile services. It’s a troubling turn of events because OCL has all the necessary transit on mobile infrastructure in place to move forward quickly, and has for some time.

The Hong Kong protests followed by the COVID-19 crisis have certainly slowed things down. 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, 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.