Suica App Commuter Pass Limitations

A reader asked about Suica commuter passes and limitations. It’s a good question because there are Suica App limitations to be aware of when creating a virtual commuter Suica pass for Apple Pay use.

Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association Map
The Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project started in 2007 and achieved transit and e-money interoperability in 2013. It continues to evolve and incorporate other transit smartcard systems into a single standard. Wikipedia

Let’s review the limitations of the current Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association standard. The various JP transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) are tightly bound to the physical rail network fare area of the card issuer (JR East, JR West, etc.). Transit IC cards are compatible and allow users to travel in any transit IC area with any card, but the system architecture is limited to a single fare area per trip. It does not allow continuous travel between 2 different fare areas (such as Suica and TOICA) on the same trip.

Unfortunately this results in ‘gotcha gaps’ when a user might start a trip from a Suica region station but exit in an area outside the Suica region or an area with no transit IC card coverage at all. Going from Tokyo to Minobu for example: Suica works fine up to JR East operated Kofu but the JR Central operated Minobu line that starts there is outside any transit IC card fare area. Good old paper tickets or cold hard cash only please. If you make the mistake of traveling from Tokyo to Minobu with Suica, the train conductor or a station attendant will issue a paper voucher that you have to use to get Suica reset for transit use when back in a Suica area station. This kind of nonsense should disappear with Super Suica in 2021.

Metropolitan areas like Tokyo (Suica & PASMO) are highly integrated fare areas that operate as one virtual region covering all possible commuter routes that transverse different rail company lines such as JR East, Metro, Seibu, etc. Buses are also part of the mix and covered by Suica or PASMO cards.

Apple Pay Suica supports Suica commuter passes of course but there are limitations when creating them with Suica App:

  • The start point must be a JR East station
  • No bus, Shinkansen commuter pass (FREX), or student commuter pass options are available

Suica FREX Shinkansen commuter passes that cover both Shinkansen and regular lines in the JR East Suica region can be purchased via a web link (virtual), or JR Station (plastic) then loaded into Apple Pay like any Suica card.

Suica bus commuter passes have to be purchased at a bus company window such as Seibu, Tokyo Metro, Odakyu, Tokyu, etc. depending on the bus line. Confirm with the bus company that a Mobile Suica commuter purchase is available for the commute route. Purchase the Mobile Suica commuter pass then show the attendant your iPhone so they can record the Suica ID card number.

Suica commuter students passes are available for university students is the Mobile Suica web site but are complicated by the credit card requirement for using Apple Pay to setup a virtual Suica. Not every university student has a credit card. Mobile Suica support recommends purchasing a plastic Suica commuter pass at a JR East station then transferring it to Apple Pay, but there are some potential glitches. Apple support:

Commuter Suica cards that use romaji names or international phone numbers are not supported.
If you are trying to add a second Suica card to Apple Pay, make sure the name on the second card matches the first name on your My Suica and Commuter Suica card. If you have different names on multiple cards, download and register in the iOS Suica app, and call Suica Support at 050-2016-5005.

For complex Suica commuter route options not covered in Suica App, Mobile Suica support has a web link to apply for a virtual Suica commuter pass.

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Mobile Suica Alert: Slow Apple Pay Suica Recharge for some users (U)

Mobile Suica Alert
Apple Pay Suica Recharge is slow for some users

JR East issued a Mobile Suica alert today October 5 at 15:00 JST that Apple Pay Suica Recharge was down 14:30~15:35. Service is restored but can be very slow in Wallet and Suica App. JR East is working on the problem but there are no other updates with the latest time stamp at 15:00 JST. If Suica recharge does not work the first time try again, it make take time. Other services are not affected.

In the meantime you can always Recharge Suica with cash both at convenience stores and Recharge machines at JR stations. I will update this post with any developments.

Update
16:35 JST JR East removed the alert from their support site, full service has been restored.

The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls

Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association Map
The Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project started in 2007 and achieved transit and e-money interoperability in 2013. It continues to evolve and incorporate other transit smartcard systems into a single standard. Wikipedia

PiTaPa is the perpetual outliner of the major Japanese transit smartcards: Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, SUGOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, manaca, Nimoca, Hayaken. Starting in 2006 the major transit cards were stitched together into one common national platform for mutual transit and e-money use achieved by 2013. The result is the fertile ground that Apple Pay Suica is growing and thriving in. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey recently said that Apple Pay is doing well in Japan. The Apple Pay Japan story is all Suica and transit reamains the golden uptake path for contactless payments on smarphones.

And then there is PiTaPa. PiTaPa is the main transit smartcard for non-JR ‘private’ rail companies in the Kansai: Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai and Hanshin. The excellent Japanese Transit IC map graphic on Wikipedia perfectly captures the problem of PiTaPa incompatibility and isolation: the background blue is transit only compatibility, the red is transit and e-money compatibility.

The PiTaPa Story
PiTaPa has an interesting history but not a particularly happy or successful one. It’s the perfect case study of what happens when banks and credit card companies call the shots on transit ticketing system infrastructure instead of letting transit company management make those decisions. It’s also a story of how most Japanese transit companies, except for JR East, failed to see the coming revolution of mobile digital wallet platforms.

The PiTiPa founding members originally planned to build a transit IC smartcard system just like Suica: pre-paid stored value (SV). Then Sumitomo Mitsu stepped in with a seemingly good idea: a Sumitomo Mitsui credit card + transit card post-pay combo card to save transit users from having to recharge the transit card smartcard at all. A credit card transit card for transit and shopping. What could go wrong? The Kansai area is home town for Sumitomo Mitsu, the Kansai banking indsutry Godzilla for over a hundred years, how could transit companies, Sumitomo Mitsu borrowers all, resist?

And so PiTaPa was born in 2004 as a Frankenstein credit card grafted with a transit card appendage that was supposed to do it all, but never delivered the benefits of either one. Sumitomo Mitsui imposed all the hoary old credit card conventions on the shiny new creation: credit checks and spending caps. It immediately shrunk the PiTaPa user base from everybody to people with good credit ratings who passed Sumitomo Mitsui credit checks. Compare this to Suica where everybody from kids to retirees with a ¥1,000 bill can buy Suica card at a station kiosk. That’s the beauty of stored value cards, simple immediate purchase and use.

The original PiTaPa did not sit well with a lot of transit users so a ‘PiTaPa lite’ card with deposits instead of credit checks, without the e-money function, was added in 2007. Unfortunately since PiTaPa was post-pay, PiTaPa didn’t work with the Japanese Transit IC e-money standard and was shunned by payment networks and merchants. Good luck trying to use PiTaPa credit outside of its core transit ghetto at 7 Eleven, other convenience stores or anywhere else.

If you want to know how well PiTaPa is doing in 2018 all you need to do is check the commuter pass pages of the PiTaPa member railroads: Keihan and Osaka Metro offer ICOCA commuter passes. Not only that but Osaka Metro and Keihan have moved away from PiTaPa commuter passes for general issue and use ICOCA instead.

No Future
The decision to let Sumitomo Mitsui call the shots instead of transit management killed any viable future for the PiTaPa system. PiTaPa uses the same FeliCa technology behind the highly successful Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica, but the unique one-off system architecture, limited user base and transaction volume mean PiTaPa will never be hosted on any mobile digital wallet platform. PiTaPa transit partners don’t want to spend resources to build a cloud and host mobile service because there is too much cost for such little return. And Sumitomo Mitsu will certainly never foot the bill to clean up the mess they created.

Now that JR East and Sony have announced ‘Super Suica’ for April 2018 that will incorporate all Japan Transit cards into one card system for transit, e-money and mobile, the PiTaPa participants face a choice: junk the old PiTaPa and get onboard the Super Suica express or be left behind in isolation with no future.

Transit payment platforms
The basic unsolvable problem is that banks and credit card companies want different things than transit companies. Banks and credit card companies want credit checks and caps, transit companies need as many people going through the transit gate as efficiently and safely as possible. These fundamental business differences will never be resolved, there will always be tension. That is why banks and credit card companies should never be in charge of running transit gates. They simply want to take their credit card cut and run, leaving the scene of crime, and the cleanup bill, to others.

You can see the similar things playing out on other transit systems such as Hong Kong’s Octopus system with AliPay and other QR Code ‘virtual banks’ putting pressure on operators to change transit ticketing system infrastructure to suit their needs, all paid by the transit operator of course.

It’s wasteful nonsense and who needs it? It’s last century credit card vs. smartcard, open loop vs. closed loop thinking. Digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay conveniently collapse the differences of open loop vs. closed loop rendering the whole argument pointless while offering a whole new game. Build a transit payment platform instead, in the long run it’s a win-win for transit companies and the banking industry.

It’s very simple: transit companies and a finance industry that stick with the old ways of thinking will miss the major unique new business opportunities offered by transit payment platforms hosted on digital wallet platforms, opportunities that build on transit but also extend it to exciting new places, a transit platform that grows and benefits everyone.

Important Suica App update due October 10

JR East announced an important Suica App update that will drop immediately after the early morning Mobile Suica maintenance window that ends 5:30 am JST. The new version is Suica App v 2.3 with seemingly minor app UI changes but has big updates on the cloud service side. The new features are:

  • Mobile Suica password resets can be done from Suica App. Finally. Until the new system becomes operational, ‘I forgot my password’ resets can only be done with a web site form or calling the Japanese only, hopelessly overloaded Mobile Suica Call Center.
  • Mobile Suica members can cancel their account without logging in. This is very convenient for users who want to switch to Android devices. Because of the way Apple Pay and Mobile Suica are integrated, users have to cancel their account and set up a new one for Android use.
  • Mobile Suica members can see Suica cards parked on the Mobile Suica cloud. This is extremely useful to have in case you delete Suica on one device but have yet to load it onto a new one, or forgot you even had another Suica card. Anything parked on the Mobile Suica cloud will all be there and visible in Suica App.

There are great new features and I look forward to using them. It should also help free up the overloaded Mobile Suica Call Center as users can take care of mundane Suica account management without calling in. It would be great if the Apple Pay Suica performance enhancing iOS 12.1 update drops at the same time.

Suica Platform Update: JRE POINT September Point Campaign

JRE Points

Now that you have your JRE POINT account setup on the JrePoint iOS App, we have the perfect opportunity to get free JRE POINT with the just announced September Premium Point Campaign running September 28~30. If you purchase a grand total of ¥5,400 worth of goods on those three days you automatically get an additional 500 free points in addition to the regular points (¥5400=540 points). At least 1040 JRE POINT that you can turn around for a free ¥1,040 Suica Recharge.

In order to get the 500 free points you must first sign up for the campaign in JrePoint App. Launch the app, tap the Yellow campaign banner, scroll down the campaign page, tap “Entry” and you are done.

The only thing left to do is shop at any store that offers JRE POINT. Look for the green logo below. At the register give the cashier your plastic JRE POINT card and pay anyway you want to: Suica, credit, cash.

There is a Kaldi Coffee Farm store in the Asagaya Station Beans Mall. I need some coffee and things and can kill ¥5,400 in less than a minute there. I’ll pay with my BIC CAMERA View JCB card and get JRE POINT + BIC CAMERA POINT. The latter will kick me over the line so I can pick up a new Apple iPhone case there for free.

Now that’s what I call platform lock in.