Nothing is more mortifying than hearing that the restaurant where you just ate the best lunch ever doesn’t take credit cards…
Credit card use is spreading, but outside the big cities (and also in more traditional Tokyo neighborhoods), many small stores and restaurants are still cash only, so it’s a good idea to carry enough to cover anything you’re buying.
There’s very little crime (especially against foreigners), so it’s safe to walk around with tens of thousands of yen in your pocket, and most people do. Every day you’ll see people paying for a cup of coffee at the convenience store with the equivalent of a fifty or hundred dollar bill, and nobody bats an eye.
So…where do you get all this cash?
Seems like there’s a bank on every corner, but if it’s a Japanese bank, you’re out of luck. Japanese bank ATMs don’t accept foreign debit or credit cards. They only accept cards issued in Japan, from Japanese institutions. But you don’t have to pay exorbitant airport currency exchange rates or the outrageous upcharge for doing it at your hotel – here are three ways to get cash when you need it, once you’re in Japan:
7-11 convenience store ATMs
The easiest and most convenient option is to find a 7-11 or Family Mart convenience store (or a 7-BANK standalone ATM kiosk, which are often found at train stations) and get cash there, using your regular debit card and 4-digit PIN. Both chains usually have in-store cash machines that can be used by customers with foreign-issued debit cards. They charge the typical $1.00 per $100.00 withdrawal, but the exchange rate is a lot better than doing it at your hotel’s reception desk.* And unless you’re in the back of beyond, a 7-11 will pop up on your phone’s map app within walking distance of wherever you are.
The ATMs are usually at the back or the store, tucked away in a corner. Look overhead for a sign pointing you to it, or ask a clerk at the counter. You can use your 4-digit PIN debit card. The touchscreen offers many different language options, not just English, and the directions are very easy to follow.
Japanese post offices have standalone ATM units near their front doors, but they’re often not available outside of business hours (like at night and on the weekends aieeee!) They also have a pretty low maximum amount you can withdraw. (It used to be ¥10,000, or about $100) but they will work with your 4-digit PIN debit card.
You can search for “post office” in English on your phone’s map app and the nearest one will pop up.
Look for a branch of a bank from your home country
These are few and far between these days, but you might get lucky and find one near where you are. For example, here’s the page that will locate Citibank/SMBC ATMs in Japan. Note: not all SMBC branches have foreign card-friendly ATMs, so check the web page first.
But you still can’t use the bank of regular ATMs on the wall. The one you can use will be off to the side and clearly labeled with a sign overhead saying it’s an international ATM.
Also: If you use a credit card to buy something, the cashier at the store might ask you if you want the transaction to go through in Japanese yen or your home currency. Always choose yen, unless you want to pay the credit card’s exchange fee every time you shop. It’s better to have them calculate it once domestically, when they bill you at the end of the month.
*The only time you have to use the hotel reception desk to get cash is if you want a cash advance on a credit card. Even the ATMs noted above only take 4-digit PIN debit cards, not credit cards.
While you’re in Japan, why not read a novel set in Tokyo?