Staying Cashed-Up & Connected in Japan
Japan is something of a contradiction when it comes to convenience and technology. While transport and moving around the country is impressively easy, seemingly simple actions like withdrawing money or even using a foreign bank/credit card can be challenging. Thankfully, increased competition in recent years means that old stumbling blocks including banking, phones and WiFi are now much more easy to arrange, in a land where it’s not uncommon to still be asked to fax something, things are sometimes harder than you’d expect. On this page you will find the following information:
5 / Japan Post
7 / Electricity
For further essential travel information, see our ‘Plan Your Visit’ main page.
1 / CASH IS KING: GETTING YOUR HANDS ON IT
As the old saying goes, ‘cash is king’ and nowhere is that more true than in Japan. The big surprise for many first-time travellers to Japan – especially those expecting a country of robots and mega-tech – is that this is still very much a cash economy. That’s right! Depending where you are from, you may well have to handle cash – good old physical cash – for the first time in a long time and be prepared for many businesses that only accept cash – especially in rural/regional areas.
The Japanese currency is the ‘yen’ – also pronounced ‘en’ – and represented by this symbol ‘円’. Bank notes are issued in denominations of 1000円, 2000円*, 5000円 and 10,000円, while coins are issued in in denominations of 1円, 5円, 10円, 50円, 100円 and 500円.
Most travelers use ATMs to withdraw cash – see below for our recommendation of the best ATMs to use – while currency exchange is available through many major banks, post offices and at the international airports. Exchange rates will of course vary between outlets and depending on where you are coming from, it might make more sense to exchange your cash in your home country (to get a more competitive rate). Traveler’s cheques are another option although increasingly less popular. They include a little more hassle and are subject to the same variation in exchange rates and fees however they are insured, making them a popular option for some travelers. For the current exchange rate between Japanese yen and other major currencies, XE.com is a reliable website.
*2000円 notes are rarely seen in Japan and most commonly, issued by foreign bankers before you travel. When paying with a 2000円 note in Japan, expect some initial confusion and then interest in a note many Japanese have never seen… and rest assured, while it might prompt some confused looks and conversation it will be accepted.
2 / USING ATMs & INTERNATIONAL CARDS
Until recent years, withdrawing cash from a Japanese ATM using a foreign-issued card was one of the more infuriating experiences you could have here. Thankfully, while still not great things have improved. Open 24 hours a day, Japan’s more than 10,000 7-11 convenience stores have ATMs that accept most foreign-issued cards. The transaction fee is low however this varies depending on the charges of your bank. ATMs are available in English and other foreign languages.
The next best option is Japan’s more than 20,000 post office ATMs. Fees are also typically low and machines can be switched to English however located inside post office branches, the ATMs can only be accessed during business hours. Japan has many banks – the largest being Mitsubishi UFJ, SMBC Group and Mizuho – with multiple international banks also having a presence. All of them have their own ATMs however international visitors often encounter difficulty using foreign-issued cards at them. If you need to, give them a go but your best bet is always going to be 7-11 or the post office.
3 / PAYMENT METHODS IN JAPAN
Travellers Japan have a range of payment methods as they move around, noting that small businesses, especially those in rural and regional, are likely not to accept payment by using foreign-issued cards or mobile payment options and in many cases, only accepting cash:
Payment using cash: remains one of the most commons methods throughout Japan and especially outside the large cities. When traveling through rural/regional areas, it’s a good idea to carry cash with you to avoid being caught-out. This is especially the case at family-run businesses including restaurants and guesthouses, that will often only accept cash. This applies to both Japanese and foreign guests. Rest assured, Japan is a safe country and theft is rare so carrying large amounts of money here is not the risk it is in many places. To be safe, we recommend always having cash on you to cover immediate expenses.
Payment by credit/debit card: shops, restaurants, accommodation and tourist attractions in big cities will all accept payment by credit and debit card however there can on occasions be problems using cards issued overseas. This has nothing to do with the store or their policy – after all, why wouldn’t they want to take payment – but comes up when the bank they process payment through doesn’t handle the payment system you are trying to use. To avoid this problem we recommend always having some cash on-hand.
Payment by IC Card: the term ‘IC Card’ covers various rechargeable cards that are primarily used to pay for journeys on public transport. There are many but some of the most common include Suica, Pasmo and Icoca. They are popular with Japanese who charge the cards to be used on trains and passes and to avoid the hassle of having to pay for individual trips. As the card holder can charge the cards with as much money as they like, they can also be used to make payment at many shops including convenience stores and restaurants. It is important to note that IC Cards cannot be used everywhere however if you are spending an extended in a large city as Tokyo, getting one and charging it every few days can save a lot of hassle. For more information about IC Cards, see our ‘Moving Around Japan’ page.
Mobile payment: compared to other countries, Japan has been slow on the uptake of mobile payment. While it is now growing in popularity, it isn’t as ubiquitous as you might expect and popular services including Apple Pay, Google Pay, WeChat Pay and Alipay can be used in Japan but perhaps not as readily in your home country. The most popular mobile payment apps in Japan – including Rakuten Pay, Line Pay and Edy are primarily aimed at Japanese and can be hard to register and use for international visitors.
4 / PHONES, SIM CARDS & WiFi
Until quite recently, staying connected while in Japan was surprisingly difficult and expensive, particularly when compared to travel in many other countries. Thankfully, things have also improved in this regard over recent years and while it’s still not as simple as you might expect, increased competition makes it relatively straight-forward.
Arranging a temporary phone while in Japan is most easily done while at the airport. There are many kiosks offering basic phones for around JPY200 to JPY500 per day to around JPY1000 to JPY2000 per day for smartphones. Additional fees will apply for mobile data, calls, messaging, etc. Same-day rental is available however many companies offer discounts for advanced reservations with many also offering return of the phone at a different location or by post, if you’re not returning to your point of entry. Kiosks at the airport will have English, Chinese and other foreign language-speaking staff to assist you.
For most travelers, arranging a temporary SIM for your existing phone is the best option. As long as your phone is relatively modern, it will work on the Japanese network however to use a temporary SIM your phone needs to be unlocked. Most temporary SIM cards are data-only and do not allow voice calls other than when using apps such as Whatsapp, LINE, Skype, etc.
This isn’t a big deal and making calls via an app is typically more cost effective. SIM cards can be purchased at the airports, online and delivered to you, or a major retail shops such as large electronic stores in Tokyo. Kiosks at the airports and many large electronic stores in Tokyo and Osaka will have English, Chinese and other foreign language-speaking staff to assist you. There is a lot of competition for your business so deals are quite good and rates are always changing. A simple Google search for a temporary SIM in Japan will bring up lots of options and current pricing.
Arranging a portable WiFi router at the airport is another popular option. Small and easy to carry, the router uses the phone network to create a local wireless network. They are a good option for international travelers as they allow you to access WiFi at all time – a cost effective way to stay connected. Much like SIM cards, there is a lot of competition and rates are always changing. A simple Google search for portable WiFi in Japan will bring up lots of options and current pricing.
Free WiFi Hot-spots
Accessing WiFi for free in Japan isn’t as easy as you might expect and certainly not as easy as in many other countries. Luckily, in recent years the situation has also improved but it still is a long way behind. Any large/modern hotel will provide WiFi free of charge in all area and rooms, however traditional guesthouses and accommodation in rural areas may only provide WiFi in the reception area – reinforcing portable WiFis as a good option to stay connected.
While you’re out-and-about, you’ll find free WiFi hot-spots at the international airports, major train stations including on some train services, tourist information offices, and some convenience stores and franchise coffee shops and restaurants. However, to connect to many of these you will first need to go through a registration process that can be slow and infuriating, which once you’ve had to do more than once, will quickly become annoying. Thankfully, the following free services only require you to register once for access to thousands of free hot spots:
Japan Connected-Free WiFi provides a one-off registration for approximately 200,000 hot-spots around Japan while Free WiFi Passport provides access to around 400,000 hot-spots including cafes, restaurants, train stations and other locations. Both services require you to provide personal data in order to use them.
5 / JAPAN POST
Japan’s postal service, known simply as ‘Japan Post’ or ‘郵便局’ ‘(yu-bin-kyo-ku), is very reliable and relatively easy to use (at least domestically). You will find post offices throughout the country including at the airports, in and around major train stations and in popular tourist spots. In total, there are approximately 24,000 locations typically open Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:00. Local branches are closed on weekends and public holidays however each city will have a central post office – if you need to find it, search for ‘中央郵便局’ – open 24/7. Full services will usually be available on Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 19:00, Saturday from 09:00 to 17:00 and Sunday from 09:00 to 12:30 with some services available via an all-night window between those hours.
Branches at the airports, in and around major train stations and popular tourist spots are likely to have English-speaking staff. It isn’t guaranteed but if you need to do anything that involves detailed conversation, it’s best to head to aim for one of those branches. Once you are away from those branches, you are unlikely to encounter English-speaking staff and anything but the most simple transactions can become confusing.
Sending items within Japan is pretty straight-forward and relatively cheap while sending items abroad can vary in price and complexity. All services you might expect are available including standard mail, registered mail and express mail. The service is reliable, fast and safe to use. When sending items abroad, be prepared to fill-out forms and answer questions. The post office Express Mail Service (EMS) is very reliable however can be quite strict about what you sending, depending on the items you are posting and the country they are bound for. Expect post office staff to consult a big book about what you can and can’t send to each country, and if it’s a process they aren’t familiar with, you might be inexplicably told you can send random items. For this reason, should you need to send packages overseas do so via the main/central branches who are more likely to be used to the process.
As noted above, post office ATMs are one of two the best options in Japan when using foreign-issued cards. ATMs can be switched to English making them easy to use but it’s worth noting that they are usually only accessible during the branch’s business hours and will be closed at night.
6 / OTHER DELIVERY SERVICES
There are multiple services for sending parcels around Japan and overseas, some of which might offer better value and efficiency than the post office. Most commonly referred to as ‘Kuro Neko’ or ‘Black Cat’, Yamato Transport is the most popular and ubiquitous delivery service outside of the post office. They have offices all over Japan including the airports and major train stations, and most hotels will arrange for pickup and/or delivery of items on your behalf. They have a very good website and while possibly more expensive, can at times be easier to use than Japan Post – especially when sending packages overseas. Kuro Neko also offer an excellent luggage forwarding service all over Japan, allowing you to send your luggage ahead of you to your next hotel, airport or any other destination to save carrying it with you. This service is fast, reliable and surprisingly cheap. Most accommodation, even small guesthouses, will arrange this for you at your request. For more information about luggage forwarding, see our ‘Moving Around Japan’ page.
7 / ELECTRICITY
Japan uses Type A or Type B electrical plug. Type A is the most common type – similar to those used in North America – which either has two non-polarised and ungrounded pins or two pins and a ground wire. Type B plugs are also found here, most commonly in older buildings, using two pins with a third rounded pin below.
The most important thing to note is that Japan uses a relatively low 100 volts in its residential power supply. This is notably lower than many other countries including Australia 230V, China 110V, Hong Kong 220V, India 230V, Indonesia 230V, Korea 220V, Malaysia 230V, Philippines 115V, Singapore 230V, Thailand 220V, United Kingdom 230V, United States 120V and most of Europe 230V. While this won’t affect electrical items requiring small amounts of power such as your phone, tablet or laptop, if you are carrying equipment that requires larger amounts of power be aware that they may not working properly on the lower voltage.
8 / CONVENIENCE STORES
Japan loves its convenience stores. It really, really loves its conveniences stores! There are estimated to be more than 50,000 of them spread throughout the country and open 24/7, you could – and many people do – rely on them for your daily needs. Among them 7-11 is the most common while Lawson and Family Mart are also everywhere. Inside major stations operated by Japan Rail (JR) you will find Daily News convenience stores while around the country there are many smaller and regional franchises.
Most are very well-maintained and stock a huge range of items from food and drink including alcohol, to toiletries, basic electrical item such as USB cables and phone chargers, top-up cards, basic clothing, magazines, books and more! The major three – 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart – will typically have ATMs, photocopiers with scanning and email facilities making them a great option for international visitors. As noted above, 7-11’s more than 20,000 stores are your best bet when looking for an ATM that will accept a foreign-issued card. Their ATMs are usually available 24 hours and typically have reasonable fees (depending on which bank issued your card).
If you come from a country where convenience stores only sell junk food and are generally a bit grotty, forget all about that. Japan’s convenience stores are the best in the world and offer some decent food including fresh fruit and all the basics you need to survive while here.