Mobile Payments in Japan

Using your Smartphone to make purchases in Japan

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I have a confession to make: I haven’t carried any cash at all with me in about two weeks!   How – you may ask at this point – is that even possible?  Japan is such a cash-loving society!  All through the magic of mobile payment systems.

Since Apple Pay was finally rolled out in Japan late last year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see how “cashless” Japan really is, and if the infrastructure is ready to accept the new payment options ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
After a few months slowly getting away from having to carry cash in my pocket to only taking my phone as the sole payment method, here are my impressions of going cashless:

QuickPay vs Suica

There are a few options for mobile payments, but for me, I had the choice between Suica and Quickpay.

Using QuickPay (Credit Card Payment) is very quick, easy, and painless.  It’s very liberating in a certain way, to go up to the counter, pull up the card in your phone, and paying with it.  The whole interaction usually takes less than a minute.  It’s super-quick and painless, which coincidentally also makes it rather easy to accidentally overspend.
Getting the card into your phone in the first place is super-simple.  If your card is supported, just “scan” it into your phone via the “wallet” app, and you’re ready to start using it right away.

Using Suica is equally quick and easy to use, but there are two caveats to consider:  First, it’s an initial pain to set up, since it’s nowhere near as streamlined a process as any Apple software usually provides.  Second, if you use it as an express transit card for the subway, you won’t get any points (for free subway rides), as you would with the (Nagoya-based) Manaca Card.  Personally, this is not a major problem for me since my credit card (through which the Suica is easily recharged) is linked to my frequent flyer account, so I’d rather get a flight upgrade or even free flight than the occasional free ride on the subway. Not getting points for the subway might be a deal-breaker for some, however.

For me, having both of these cards on my phone is all I need to be able to pay in most places easily and conveniently without having to use any cash.

Apple Pay in Japan

Japan is about 3 years behind the curve when it comes to Apple Pay (though not on mobile payment platforms), but the world-wide system finally rolled out in the land of the rising sun this past year as well.  Even though Apple Pay is a world-wide system (in supported countries), Apple Pay in Japan is quite unique in its implementation, because rather than exclusively relying on NFC, it piggybacks off the FeliCa payments standard that’s been widely adopted in the country and has been available for a number of years already. iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models sold in Japan include a FeliCa chip, as do Apple Watch Series 2 models. So, if you buy your device in Japan, you can use it world-wide INCLUDING Japan.  If you bought your device overseas and come to Japan, you can’t use it on the unique Japanese payment network (AFAIK).
In that case, what some people have done is use their foreign iPhones and buy an Apple Watch series 2 here in Japan.  That way, you can keep your existing phone and still enjoy the benefits of being able to use mobile payments on the FeliCa network in Japan.

For right now, mobile payments are available for use at all locations that accept the Suica / Manaca (et al) prepaid money cards, QuicPay, or iD payment systems, such as in Convenience Stores, various shops, Supermarkets, and an ever-increasing number of restaurants.  To make sure, look for the sticker in the store window, or have a gander if there’s a mobile payment terminal next to the cash register.  Even taxi services are jumping on the bandwagon.

At the moment, Apple Pay in Japan works with credit and debit cards issued by American Express, JCB, Mastercard, Aeon Financial, Orico, Credit Saison, SoftBank, Id Card, View Card, MUFG Card, and many more.  Full List of Supported Cards/Banks

If you have a Japanese Credit Card from this List, you can add the card quite easily by going into the Wallet App, click the little + button at the top of the screen, and follow the instructions for scanning your card into the app.

Note: Make sure to set the device region to the card issuing country before you attempt to scan the card.

It was quite an easy and straightforward process with no problems.
Right after the card was added, I wanted to grab some lunch and was delighted to notice the CoCo Ichiban near my apartmentent already accepted Apple Pay (or rather QuickPay).  After my meal, I selected the newly added card in my phone through the Wallet App, held it up to the card reader, and with a quick fingerprint confirmation in the phone, I had paid for my meal in less than 2 seconds!  It was a total game changer!  No more having to worry about carrying enough cash with me, or having to take a wallet, credit card, or prepaid Manaca card.  Just use the phone I already carry with me everyday anyway.  Fantastic Stuff!!

Used it once again in a convenience store right afterwards, and it’s actually dangerously fun, since you don’t ever have to worry about using cash, which means it’s rather easy to spend a little more than you had intended.

With that out of the way, I was psyched to move on to the subway payment system, or express transit card.  At the moment, it only works with the Tokyo-based Suica cards; whereas in Nagoya (Aichi), we have the Manaca cards.  It’s relatively easy to get a Suica if you have contacts in Tokyo, however, and the cards work anywhere in Japan.

Typically it would be easy to add a Suica card, but as opposed to the Credit Card, the Suica was a bit more tricky for me to add, as there is still (as of this writing) one big caveat:  Even though you can use it all over Japan, if your physical Suica card has your name written on it in Romaji (Roman letters), the system won’t accept the card yet.  Fret not, here’s a workaround.

It took me quite a while to figure out why my newly acquired card wouldn’t work, until I stumbled upon the support information linked above.
At that point, I had three options:

  • Give up!  (Not gonna happen – I love puzzles and trying to figure out these difficult scenarios).
  • Wait and buy a new (nameless) Suica next time I’m in Tokyo!  (Ain’t gonna happen, since I’m quite impatient when it comes to using new gadgets/functions).
  • Use the official SUICA app to create a VIRTUAL SUICA CARD to use in the phone.

Guess, which option I went for….. Yep – No. 3, naturally!

So, with the freshly downloaded Suica App and getting by with a little help from my friends (it’s all in Japanese), we were able to add a virtual SUICA card, set it up as an express transit card, and link it to my credit card for recharging.  It was a bit of a hassle, and the difference in usability between Apple’s Wallet App and the extremely cumbersome SUICA App is staggering; but we managed.

(Editor’s Note: We’ll have a walkthrough on how to do that, shortly).

Suica app creators, if you’re reading this… you really need to step up your game by 2020 for the upcoming Olympics!!

First of all, the design is reminiscent of the glory days of the  90’s internet, past the landing page.

but The Biggest Caveat of all is that the app is entirely in japanese with no english option at this point.

So, after much hassle and a few well-deserved beers, I headed to the nearest subway station to try it out, and…. low and behold!…. it works like a charm!  The nice thing about the SUICA is that you don’t have to unlock your phone to use it – just hold the phone over the scanner area and that’s it – your card automagically pops up and you’re good to go!  The best thing about this is that it WORKS ON ALL SUBWAY NETWORKS ALL OVER JAPAN, so no more having to carry two or three different cards with you when you travel – Brilliant!!

The only downside with using the SUICA card on the phone, as opposed to the physical MANACA card here in Nagoya, is that you don’t get points for using the subways (as you would with the Manaca). For me personally, that isn’t a major concern since my credit card (from which the SUICA gets recharged) is tied to my frequent flyer account, so I don’t mind missing out on the occasional free local travel when I can get airline upgrades or free flights.  For those who don’t travel quite so often, and/or don’t have a credit card that gives them miles, this could be a big “gotcha”, however.

As you can see in the video, it is very easy and only takes about a minute to recharge the card via the SUICA app.

So that’s using Apple pay in Japan.  As highlighted in the video, it’s quick and easy to use in various stores, restaurants, the subway systems, getting a drink from a vending machine, station lockers, and can even be used to pay for taxi rides. This convenient way of paying for things in Japan will surely increase in popularity here – especially with the younger crowd and tech-savy expats.

So, is it possible to go entirely cashless in Japan right now?  Yes, and no… It is possible if you stick to certain establishments, but it won’t be easy to forgo cash entirely at this point, as there are still many establishments that won’t accept mobile payment platforms. More and more places are catching up, but for mobile payment systems to be accepted everywhere will take time.  The long-established cash mentality here still has a firm grip on businesses and society as a whole.  Changing ideas about established routines won’t happen overnight.

With that out of the way, If you have a Japanese iPhone 7 series and a Japanese credit card, there’s no reason not to use at least Apple Pay to make your life a whole lot more convenient.  Me personally… couldn’t imagine going back to carrying cash everywhere or having to worry about not forgetting my subway card at home.  There’s a certain “freedom” you gain by not having to carry a wallet and just being able to carry your phone, which you’ll most likely have on you anyway.  You feel so much lighter and unrestrained in a certain way.  That being said, there are still plenty of places that don’t accept mobile payments (although that number is diminishing rapidly). So either plan ahead, or stick a few banknotes in your pant pockets, or Kimono – just in case.

Hope that helped some of you who were wondering what all the fuss with mobile payments in Japan is all about.
As always, thanks for reading, and see you next time!