If you’re living in Japan and aren’t using an IC card to get around, you are seriously missing out. Tapping your Suica or Passmo card on the ticket reader at the train station or bus is much better than buying a ticket and paying each time. Now, we step into the future by integrating our IC cards into our phones.
In 2006, the advent of Mobile Suica allowed users with compatible smartphones to replace their Suica card with a convenient app. The app functions exactly like a physical IC card but without the hassle of stuffing yet another card into your wallet. You can use it at convenience stores, some restaurants, and my personal favorite, IC card enabled vending machines. Not having to shuffle around in my bag for change to buy a beverage when I’m in a rush is pretty cool.
Are you ready to jump on board? We’ll walk you through the process of setting one up.
Suica or Pasmo?
The most used IC cards are the Suica and Pasmo. Different companies issue them, but the usage is practically identical, unlike their mobile counterparts. Being around longer, Mobile Suica is the go-to for most. It was introduced first, and many people have been using it since. Mobile Suica’s interface is a bit lacking and can be confusing sometimes, but since it offers Apple Pay and Google Pay linking, this makes the process a little better.
In 2020, PASMO finally released a mobile version of its IC card system, providing users with an alternative. The app itself is easier in terms of usability due to its simple design. However, it is currently only available for Android users and is without Apple Pay and Google Pay integration.
How to use your mobile phone as an IC card
Before we begin, it is worth noting that most Android smartphone models only allow for only one app to function at a time. Also, these apps are not compatible with international model Android phones (even those purchased in Japan) without the FeliCa function or Osaifu-Keitai.
iPhone models from iPhone 8 and later are compatible with the Mobile Suica app. Just make sure the device region is set to Japan and that you have at least one card enabled in your Apple Pay wallet.
Step one: Download and set up the app
Mobile Suica is available for both iOS and Android.
The English version is also known as SuicaEng. It is very trimmed-down compared to the Japanese app, but it gets the job done. Alternatively, you can also add a Suica card (either a physical card or create a new virtual card) to your existing Apple Pay account.
Please note that you can always register for a new Suica even if you don’t own an actual card for both Android and Apple. If you have a Suica, there is an option to integrate it with the app once downloaded.
Mobile Pasmo is currently only available to Android users and only in Japanese.
Step two: Charge your mobile IC card
iPhone’s Apple Pay will automatically detect the Mobile Suica app once installed. After Apple Pay and Suica are linked, you can add money to your Suica easily. Just open your Apple Pay wallet, tap Suica card, and tap “Add Money.” Follow the rest of the prompts and it’s easy peasy.
Thanks to Google Pay and Apple Pay integration, non-Japanese reading users can charge quickly and safely.
The easiest way to charge your Mobile Suica is through Google Pay. Once Mobile Suica is installed on your phone, go to your Google Pay app and follow these steps.
- On your Google Pay landing page, tap “Set it up”
- If Mobile Suica is already installed, it will show an option to “Enable existing Suica”
- Tap that option and click accept at the bottom
Once you have this set up, charging your Suica is as simple as tapping add money on Google Pay and using your existing cards.
Charging with cash at the station
The second option is to charge with cash. This option works with both Mobile Suica and Mobile Pasmo. The most common way is to use the contactless recharge machines you can find at most stations. Just place your phone where the IC logo is, and the machine automatically reads it. You can then choose how much to charge, exactly like a physical IC card.
You can also charge it at convenience stores over the counter. Simply tell the cashier that you want to charge your Suica, and they will guide you through it. Seven Bank ATMs also have a function similar to the IC enabled ticket machines. Just place your phone on the IC card stand, and follow the screen prompts (available in both English and Japanese).
Step three: Tap it
Once your mobile IC card is set up and charged, all you have to do is hover it over the card reader. The app doesn’t need to be open, nor does your phone need to be unlocked. The terminal will automatically read your IC card.
For Apple devices, you need to make sure your Suica card is set as your Express Transit card. Otherwise, you will need to unlock/wake your iPhone or Apple Watch. To do this, go to settings, then open Apple Pay. Tap “Express Transit Card” and select Suica. Make sure the slider is on. This will ask you to authenticate your identity via Face ID, Touch ID, or passcode.
If you have a thick casing or if the IC terminal is a bit dated, it might not read your phone. In that case, try tapping the back of your phone on the IC card terminal. If it doesn’t work correctly, you’ll have to deal with the embarrassing chime that happens when trying to cross with an insufficient balance or an invalid ticket.
If that happens, relax, tap it again a little more slowly, and it should work.
Getting a mobile commuter pass
Another feature shared by both apps is the commuter pass for railways, buses, and a combination of the two. Both can be done via their respective apps, although the process will be mainly in Japanese and require a registered credit card as the payment option.
SuicaEng does not support this feature. Student commuter passes are a bit more complicated in the Mobile Pasmo app as a mailed-in application will be required. This process is to verify documents that prove the applicant is indeed a student.
Mobile Suica also offers an in-app Green Car upgrade. The process is all in Japanese, but many online resources show step-by-step tutorials on how to do this.
Congratulations! You have now successfully set up your mobile IC card on your phone. Try it out on your next adventure around Tokyo.