Trip Tips

Trip Tips: Money in Japan

A bit of a monetary snafu this past summer while traveling is prompting me to write this post. Many of you may already know that Japan’s banking system is quite unique, but the details aren’t terribly important. What’s important is knowing how to withdraw money while traveling in Japan and I hope the following tips are useful.

But first, let’s start with the real basics. Japan uses the yen. It’s written like this (¥) or like this () or even spelled out like this (えん). When people pronounce it, sometimes you’ll hear the “y” at the beginning … and sometimes you won’t. The yen comes in bill form (mostly ¥1000, ¥5000 and ¥10000 bills) and coins (¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100 and ¥500).

Japanese bills and coins

Japanese bills and coins

For a very long time, the yen and the dollar were at a 1:100 exchange rate, making it very easy to convert in one’s head. For example, if my sandwich is ¥500, then I’m paying about $5 for it. Today, the exchange rate is quite favorable to American and European travelers. That 500 sandwich is now more like $4. But I still do the conversion in my head as 1:100 … and then end up saving money in the process.

Japan is a still a cash-based society, meaning you’ll want to have cash on hand for many things – train tickets, vending machine drinks, many restaurants, some traditional inns (ryokan and minshuku), and a host of other occasions. So how do you get this cash once you arrive? Your best bet is the ATM.

But not just any ATM will do. Most (nearly all) Japanese banks will NOT accept foreign debit cards, even those tied to the Visa or Mastercard system. Your best bet is to seek out a post office. Nearly all post offices have an ATM in their lobby (though beware that some smaller branches or really rural post offices may not) which will accept foreign debit cards. There is even a button you can push for one of four foreign languages. As post offices are ubiquitous throughout the nation, this is one of the best solutions for taking money out.

Post offices are marked with red Ts but the ATM is always written in green

Post offices are marked with red Ts but the ATM is always written in green

For those who can’t use the post office ATM (more on that in a minute) or can’t find a post office, you can also use the ATM at any 7-11. As with the post office, you can choose one of several foreign languages to help you in your transaction. The only downside to relying on 7-11 is that this is not a nationwide convenience store. For example, Shimane Prefecture (Matsue city and surroundings) as well as much of northern Japan (the Tohoku region) do NOT have many 7-11s, if any at all. If you are preparing to leave the major metropolises of Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka for somewhere further afield, take a significant amount of cash with you.

7-11s are pretty common in Tokyo but not always in other regions of Japan

7-11s are pretty common in Tokyo but not always in other regions of Japan

As a resident of Japan with a foreign debit card, I have quite successfully withdrawn money at both locations for many years … until this summer. Right before our move, my US-based bank mailed me the newest version of its debit card … with a chip in it. Now, I know the chip and pin system is fairly widespread in Europe but here in Japan, it causes a problem. If you have a Mastercard or Maestro-linked debit card with a chip in it, the post office ATMs will not accept your card.

Talk about something fun to discover in the middle of Shimane prefecture with only ¥3000 to your name.

As the post office is aware of the issue, they have provided a list of alternative ATMs (mostly tied to AEON stores or properties) that travelers can use as a replacement. While they are nowhere near as common, it at least offers some sort of temporary solution until Japan updates its systems to be chip-card compatible.

11 thoughts on “Trip Tips: Money in Japan

    • Do they, Kei? I had no idea so thank YOU for cluing me in. I was shocked when my card was rejected at multiple ATMs on the trip, when the old version had just worked the day before we left. What timing, right?? It seems to be just the Maestro/Mastercard debit cards with chips but worth giving the heads up to everybody, I think.

      • These types of things always have excellent timing – right when you need them to work the most!

        Actually just this year my credit and debit cards have suddenly been replaced with chip cards. Both Visa and Mastercard/Maestro. So I imagine this is the new trend. Very important travel information if you expect to use your cards at the ATM!

        I wonder if this will affect credit card purchases as well, or if the regular magnetic strip will bypass any issues…

      • Ironically enough – though seemingly unrelated – ALL of our credit cards stopped working on the same day. We tried four three separate ones at the gas station, and all were declined Calls to the bank and credit card companies showed we hadn’t even attempted transactions anywhere. A frustrating day for sure!!! Since then, the credit cards have worked fine and 7-11 is our best bet for ATMs. But Japan really needs to hurry up and make their PO ATMs chip-compatible. So many travelers rely on them.

      • I can’t believe they all stopped working at once! Of course, that’s how it always goes, all at once. I hope that Japan catches onto the chip phenomenon ahead of the Olympics, and maybe brings a few other things (wifi?) up to speed as well!

      • Kei, it was that perfect storm of bad things all happening at once! Murphy’s Law, right? But yes, Japan really needs to bring certain aspects of its infrastructure up to speed, especially with their lofty tourism goals of 20 million visitors by 2020.

      • In the current climate I’m not sure how quickly they can implement these things, or if these things are even on the agenda. But I think that it would be the perfect time to get certain things up to speed and it would only help increase tourism after the Olympics! 日本がんばれ! ^^

  1. That’s interesting. In the UK we’ve had chip&pin cards for a number of years, and my husband and I haven’t had any trouble withdrawing cash. Admittedly, we’ve only used 7-11 ATMs or CitiBank ATMs. Perhaps it’s because UK debit cards are predominantly Visa? The only trouble we’ve had is in not understanding that you put your card into a Japanese ATM the opposite way to the UK. UK chip&pin debit cards are currently being replaced with contactless cards, so it will be interesting to see whether Japanese ATMs can cope with our cards next time we’re there!

    • Mrs Hicks, the problem seems to be confined to Mastercard/Maestro. I’ve always preferred Visa-linked cards but when my husband and I merged accounts, I got stuck with Mastercard. Interestingly, Mastercard also had a dispute last year with 7-11, where we couldn’t use THOSE ATMs for about 8 months. Sheesh! It almost makes me want to shop around for a new bank!

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