Using Suica on iPhone when travelling to Japan

I love the iPhone. So much so that people have accused me of being an Apple fanboy in the past before (they’re probably right).

I also love Japan. I spent a chunk of my childhood growing up there and I now enjoy traveling back to the country whenever I can.

So during the September Apple keynote this year, you could imagine how excited how I was when Apple announced not just the iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2, but that both of these devices had the necessary capabilities to have Suica loaded onto them.

What’s a Suica? Suica is a NFC-based prepaid smart card that you can use to pay for things in Japan with a simple tap of the NFC receiver. You can buy them pre-charged in Japanese train stations, and while they were originally intended for automatic paying of fares on train lines, they can now also be used to pay at vending machines, and even some types of stores.. Easily the most convenient way of paying for things when you’re over there.

I have a trusty Suica card I bought several years ago, and it still works perfectly every time I travel to Japan. But admittedly the prospect of ditching it and using my iPhone 7 Plus in its place is very appealing to me.

Sadly, there’s a catch. The Suica functionality on these new devices is regrettably limited to the units that are sold in Japan. Unless you physically buy the device at a store in Japan, it simply won’t be visible at all on your device.

According to Ata Distance, it would seem the iPhone models in Japan don’t actually have any different hardware, more that the functionality is simply disabled at the software level on non-Japanese devices due to Japanese regulations. The company in charge of Suica has gone on record saying they’re investigating making the service available to ‘inbound’ visitors, which would hopefully just mean one day Apple could just flip a switch to enable it on all phones.

With all that said, if you’re like me in that you travel to Japan enough times that Suica on your phone would be REALLY useful, what can you do? The obvious solution would be to just simply go and buy an iPhone 7 the next time you’re in Japan.

Don’t do that. All Japanese iPhones are terrible. (Yeah, an Apple fanboy just said an iPhone is terrible. XD)

Due to Japanese law, all Japanese smartphones must play an audible shutter noise when taking a photo. Even if the phone is on mute, it’ll override the volume and play the shutter noise at max volume. In Japan, this is accepted as normal, but in every other country where people are used to silent iOS devices, it can easily be perceived as being very obnoxious. Still, in a country as conscious about privacy as Japan, it’s easy to see why this sort of thing would be law.

But sadly this limitation extends to include every iPhone sold in Japan. So while I would still love Suica on my phone, I also love taking LOTS of photos, so having that camera shutter noise on all the time is a real deal-breaker for me.

So, while the iPhone is definitely a no-go, what about the Japanese Apple Watch?

Only the Series 2 watches have the necessary NFC hardware to handle Suica, but the main question is, can you get Suica working on a Japanese Apple Watch that isn’t paired to a Japanese iPhone? And can you charge it without needing a Japanese credit card?

After some research and testing, the answer is ‘yes’!

Apple has a page on their website explaining how to set up a Suica card on both the phone and the watch. If you already own a physical Suica card, transferring it to a Japanese Apple Watch regrettably requires you to have a Japanese iPhone 7 as well. The hardware to actually scan a physical Suica would appear to only be in the iPhone.

But that’s not the end of it! If you don’t mind registering a new Suica card from scratch for this, you can indeed register a new one Suica online, which can then be loaded onto your watch. There’s no requirements for the iPhone when doing this, as long as it’s one that can actually pair to the watch (i.e iPhone 5 and up).

All you need to do is download the Suica app onto the phone paired with your watch. This appears to be a special app that has system access capabilities beyond what’s normally allowed on the App Store in that it will not work unless it detects that it’s either directly running on a Japanese iPhone 7, or a Japanese Apple Watch is paired with the phone.

An awesome iOS developer living in Japan, Toto Tvalavadze was able to test this personally and confirmed that it worked:

I’d love to extend a massive shoutout to Toto for testing it out, and sharing his results online. :)

On an additional note while you can’t set up the Suica card to auto-recharge, you CAN manually recharge it from the Suica app with an international credit card. An excellent Japanese iOS developer named Kyoro living in SF was able to confirm this when he managed to get ahold of a Japanese iPhone 7 and tested not just Japanese Apple Pay but charging Suica from the US as well. He wrote a very detailed blog post about it, and while the post is in Japanese, he replied to my comment at the bottom in English. ;)

So there you have it. If you travel to Japan a lot, and you want to get access to Suica on iOS, your best bet is to go and buy a Japanese Series 2 Apple Watch while you’re in the country next time, and then manage it from the offical Suica app.

Now, the only question remaining is if you wear your watch on your left wrist, and the scanner on the ticket gate is on the right side, do you need to walk through it backwards…? XD

Featured image sourced from Apple’s official press release.

  • Published October 30, 2016
  • Categories Tech, Travel
  • Just found your article, and it’s really cool. It’s not often that we have Apple Pay related content that is not just a copy-paste from Apple’s website.

    I’m going to Japan soon, and I hoped that would have been easy to set up a Suica on my iPhone : too bad.

    I also had no idea for that shutter sound on the iPhone.

  • John Ramirez

    The shutter won’t deter me from getting an iPhone 7 or whatever the latest one is once I’m back down in Japan. There are ways to get around this one being jailbreaking and modifying the software. There have been other methods without actual jailbreaking that were figured out if it gets that annoying.

  • Geekly

    I have a Series 2 watch and an iPhone 5, both purchased in the US and I cannot get them to work. The iPhone app is basically defunct – it won’t even let me add a card to it. If anyone knows of a workaround, that would be great.

    • Hey Geekly! Yeah, it looks like it’s just limited to Apple hardware purchased in Japan. I’ll need to write a new post to follow up this one, but I went to Japan and bought a Series 2 there. It paired to my Australian iPhone 7 and I was able to use the app to charge Suica via Apple Pay (attached to a US bank account) as well as one of my Australian credit cards.

      It doesn’t look like there’s anyway to ‘enable’ this functionality on Apple products bought outside of Japan at the moment sadly. Since it involves the payment mechanisms of the devices, I’m not even sure if a jailbreak tweak could theoretically enable it.