Ask LH: Do I Have To Pay Cash For Everything On A Trip To Japan?

Hi Lifehacker, I'm planning an overseas trip to Japan with my wife at the end of the year and have heard that most businesses will only accept cash. I'm wondering what is the best way to access our money over there without being ripped off? Thanks, Tokyo Tourist

Yen picture from Shutterstock

Dear TT,

That certainly hasn't been our experience when visiting Japan -- plenty of places in the larger cities will happily accept major credit cards. It's always dangerous to assume that any given card will work when you're overseas, however, and you will often be hit with foreign currency charges if you use a standard credit card when travelling. Unless you have a Visa or MasterCard branded debit card, you won't be able to pay directly from your bank account, EFTPOS-style, when overseas -- an obvious point, but one worth making given how many people conduct a near-cashless existence in Australia.

As a strategy, we'd recommend a mixture of three elements:

  • Actual cash, for small purchases and places that don't accept anything else. Ordering this in advance will be cheaper than changing money at the airport.
  • A designated travel money credit card, preferably one which doesn't charge high conversion fees and which lets you handle multiple currencies. When this topic has come up on Lifehacker in the past, popular choices have include the 28 Degrees MasterCard and the OzForex prepaid travel card.
  • Your existing Visa and/or Mastercard, as a backup if the designated card doesn't work.

For more specific tips, check out our guide to avoiding travel money rorts. And one bonus Japan tip: while ATMs are relatively common, unlike Australia, many also have set operating hours, so you can't necessarily hit late at night for an emergency cash infusion. Enjoy your trip!

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I used a commonwealth bank travel card (even though i would never have an account with them, they screwed me over when i was 15 so i left) when i went to America on my honeymoon, no conversion fees, not a big fan of their web portal for it though. Although the main reason i chose them was because i left it too late and only got it a week before i left and so couldn't get one online.

      A tour group I was recently apart of went to Japan, and had three of those Commonwealth bank cards...
      Not a single one worked..
      Nor would Commonwealth bank refund the money on the card...

      Mastercards don't really work in Japan // aren't accepted Visa is (I heard that mastercards were out as of April this year)

      Go to the Australia Post get your money from them, its cheaper than a bank, and when you arrive use the Japanese post offices to withdraw cash (don't forget to warn your bank you're going to Japan) Jpost have ATMs that withdraw directly from your account telling you how much you can withdraw (fees included) Very handy.

      Get a Suica Card for Rail travel, they're handy, and if you visit certain vending machines you can buy drinks with a wave of your card... or pay for certain meals (Gyudon / Ramen) using the card.

        thats strange i went for a 9 week backpack through europe, going to some remote places i might add and did not have one signle issue with the commonwealth card.

        Also it was an absolute breeze having the remining amount returned to me. Couldn't recommend them enough but obviously everyones experience is different!

        Just got back from Tokyo two days ago and I took a 28 degrees card and my brother took the travel money card. TMC does not work in Japan but 28 degrees worked most of the time.

        Best piece of advice is to get a Suica card ASAP and open a no fees Citibank account before leaving like I did. They have ATMs in most countries (Tokyo had one in every major suburb) and even if you don't use the ATM the card is a Visa Debit card so it will be accepted anywhere in the world.

        My brother even came back and opened one for our next overseas trip.

        I read reviews saying people had trouble with them (even in USA), but i didn't have a problem.

        I believe that in USA (from experience over 7 years ago with my westpac or was it BOM back then, debit card) if you have a debit card you have to actually select the debit option not credit or it will fail, perhaps there is a similar issue in Japan. I actually cant remember what i did earlier this year, i think almost every time i used it the merchant was the one that setup the transaction.

    1. Get 28 degrees card.
    2. Cash advance yourself at an ATM (maximise the amount you withdraw as some ATMs will charge a small fixed fee)
    3. As soon as possible, hop online and deposit money into your 28 Degrees Account to minimise interest paid. Thou even if you just wait and pay at the end of the month, worst case is 20.99%/12 = 1.75%, which is still less than the transaction fees you will get slugged by banks/travelex etc, as they are usually around 4-5% off the official rate.

    28 degrees card gives you the mastercard currency conversion rate which is within 1% of the official

    There isn't a cheaper way of getting cash or paying for things by card.

      You know you can bpay money into your 28degrees account in advance and overload the account into credit balance

      e.g. Credit limit: $3000. Dont take money out. Load extra $2000. Credit Limit: $3000 with extra $2000 credit ontop

      so basically you can do what you did above with no risk of interest charges

      Load some more money online when you need extra funds, which you can withdraw directly from an overseas atm as cash advance. You may get charged fees though but the money comes out as foreign currency instead of AUD

      Also just for fun. If the AUD drops while you are overseas (by at least 5% or more) you can max out your credit card in YEN and take it to a western union for a small FX profit

        Very much aware of it. But I don't bother as the interest charges you risk are so small I'm happy to just pay it. Also I prefer to spend in credit rather than cash advance to better track my expenditure (and to maximise the 55 days interest free you get), so I try to minimise cash advances. This means it's harder to determine how much to pre-load on my card, and I don't particularly want my credit card to be in credit at the end of a trip.

        There are some other cards now that have similar zero international transaction fees to the 28 deg card, so it might be worthwhile having 2 cards; 28deg for cash advances that you pay off immediately, and another for credit purchases which you only pay off within the 55 interest free days.

    If you want to wring out the most bang for your Yen, travellers cheques actually give the best exchange rate for cash (strangely enough).
    However not all banks will cash AUD travellers cheques, but the big ones will.

      traveller's cheques? seriously? its not the 90's anymore

        Travellers Cheques the cheapest way to change money overseas.

        I have only ever used my visa debit card once overseas, because I had to, and i'm absolutely "21st century" addicted - but this is one area of life where the new world technology/way of doing has failed us.

        These new online cards are still more expensive because you know companies like 28 degrees are there to make a profit, they are not a charity.

        Last edited 23/07/13 11:05 am

          so tell me what rate your travellers cheques allow you to exchange rates at include all end to end fees

          because ive had my 28 degrees card for 2 years and have gotten the wholesale rate (within 1% to account for intra day variance) and have never paid any interest or fees

          in addition to that, i can shop online and anywhere where master card is accepted

          Cause cashing travellers cheques in a cab in tokyo is so convenient and cheap these days

          Last edited 25/07/13 10:43 am

            I'm not sure about the percentages, but every time I exchanged in Japan, TCs gave me the best rate. it was literally within a few Yen of the official rate. There are no extra fees associated with exchanging TCs either.
            No argument about convenience, but my original post was about getting the best rate.

            That might be fine for Tokyo, just don't visit Thailand with that strategy.

            It will cost you about $10 AU anytime you use a credit card in Thailand because of imposed government fees on that use, plus the fees from the ATMs themselves.

            People carrying credit cards are seen as arrogant rich tourists who deserve to be ripped off.

            Australian cash provides the cheapest exchange rates, followed closely by Travellers Cheques.

            There is still a fee for using TC's but it's much less, about $1 AU per cheque.

            I guess it depends on where in Asia you were planning to travel.

    I lived there a few years back and was really surprised at how much more of a cash based society they were (considering how high tech they are in many other ways). I would generally carry enough cash at least for food in restaurants and smaller retail purchases. As above the bank travel cards are a great option and ATMs are quite common. Old style paper traveler's cheques took 45 mins to process (no exaggeration). Its a really safe country so don't worry too much about carrying cash, unless you are careless and just lose it you should be fine.

    Tip: ask locals where to get the best Ramen in town and go there!!!
    Also good fast and clean cheap eats at Yoshinoya, or other places where you pay for your meal at a ticket vending machine. (I could go on and on about the food but its getting well off topic now so I'll stop)

    Note, you cant withdraw money from a standard ATM in any bank! Most ATMs will only accept Japanese cards (and won't have an english option anyway). If you're staying in a hotel, the owners/staff should be able to point you to a foreign friendly ATM. Seven Eleven stores ALWAYS had a ATM which you could withdraw money from, and they're everywhere (which are open 24 hours), so that's your safest bet for withdrawing funds.
    I found that a number of smaller family business' don't accept cards (small ryokans, out of the way places), but Yeah, I'd use a 28 degrees card as much as you can, and rely on cash when you need it.
    As Sparta mentioned, it's a really safe country, and everyone carries around a heap of cash. I've seen on a train a guy accidentally dropping his wallet (with a ton of cash in it) without him noticing. Serisously, EVERYONE on the train was immediately notifying him of it dropping.

      yeh but doesnt change the fact that, deep inside, everyone was thinking about wanting to take it

      Its just that their society has taught them not to take it, so they point it out so no one else can take it either.

        Whilst I think you're wrong, my point remains... your valuables are safe no matter what they want to do but can't. I maintain that they would help you out because deep inside, they wanted to help you out, not because they thought that'd get caught, or didn't want anyone else stealing that persons money. I used to live there and saw this stuff all the time. Yes, there's exceptions to the rule, but it's rare.

          I know what you mean

          but im just saying what you see is a distorted reality. The whole tall poppy syndrome thing.
          Human morals can change. and with japanese people they may very well have. but their society still forbids them to act selfish, so whilst every fibre in their body may be telling them to take it and run, they still alert the owner

          that being said, the proportion of genuinely kind and helpful people in japan are astonishing.
          Their brainwashing clearly works better than what the communist chinese regime have been trying to do for 60 years. Must be something in the fish

      Something to note for Master Card, Meastro, Cirrus card users. I live in the U.S. and have a MasterCard Debit Card. As of April 19, 2013, 7-11 stores DO NOT accept foreign Master Cards of any kind and neither will their ATMS anymore. In addition, ATMs in the post offices will no longer accept Master Cards with an EMV chip in them. It is unclear, however, if post office ATMS still accept Master Cards without an EMV chip. I have heard conflicting stories. The official report from Master Card says they will, but someone who recently visited told me she could not use her EMV free Master Card at a post office ATM in Japan. Anybody else have information on this? I found this thread trying to find an answer...will I be able to withdraw money from a post office ATM with my MasterCard Debit Card (EMV chip free)? My only other 2 credit cards are a Visa (with a $250 limit) and another MasterCard. I hear exchange rates for cash or travelers' cheques are terrible.

    We take American Express travellers cheques in Yen. Zero hassles - when the concierge at the bank sees the cheques they might say no, just point out the "Y" and then they're all smiles.

    It's not that much different in Japan than in Australia. Hotels, department stores, even pharmacists and 100yen shops accented my Mastercard in Dec 2011. A lot of small businesses do not. Just keep an eye out for the mastercard/visa sticker on shop windows and cash registers.

    If I visited another State/city, I would never rely solely on my CreditCard. It would be the same visiting another country. I do some homework, see how much day-to-day cash I might need and pay for big items (gifts, accommodation, etc) on CreditCard.

    I always take as much cash as I think I would need and a bit more. I've never exchanged cash in Japan as it *can* be a nightmare with the language barrier, and takes time away from other things I would rather be doing like sightseeing. Usually better exchange rates getting it beforehand too. I'm planning a trip to Japan in September but made sure to get some cash back in April when the exchange rate was about 97yen. It's just under 88yen today, about 10% or in my case, $500 difference (2 week trip for 2people)

    Also be aware, recently MasterCard stopped cash withdraws from ATMs in Japan. CreditCards with chips were not accepted by ATMs. This *might* have been fixed, but assume it's not working so you don't get in trouble.

    We had pretty good luck using either the JP Post ATMs or the ones in 7-11s. There are plenty of those around, so you can usually just go to one every 2-3 days and get enough cash to tide you over to next time.

    I did spend one very stressful morning waiting for an ATM to open(!) so I could rush back to the ski lodge, pay my bill, and then catch a train to my next destination. Always have enough cash to settle up your hotel bill.

    You'll find that Germany is becoming the same way - it's either cash or German bank-issued debit cards unless you're dealing with an international hotel or chain store. Even using a euro-denominated Visa debit card from elsewhere in Europe won't work.

    I tried to replace some camera gear last year but couldn't withdraw enough daily cash to cover such purchases and other daily out of pocket expenses, so I had to wait until I'd travelled on to another country.

    Australia Post is still by far and away the cheapest way to change and spend money overseas.

    They are free to order, you only pay for the value of the cheques you are ordering. When you get to your destination, change the cheques to cash at any exchange place. Simples.

    I have never used a "travel card" and after seeing all the fees and charges, nor would i want to.

    On top of fees for using an ATM, many countries now have fixed government-imposed fees as well (to, you know, get money off all the rich tourists) and you've still got the heightened risk of card skimming fraud (I say heightened not because it's Japan, but because tourist areas are a really good place to put card skimmers - everybody is distracted).

    In Japan last year my normal ANZ debit card worked at 7-Elevens and Japanese Post Offices to give me cash withdrawals in Yen. The exchange rate was excellent. Hotels and retail stores accept credit cards. Traditional Inns (Ryokans) and stalls selling souveniers around temples usually don't. It is quite normal to have the equivalent of $500 to $1,000 cash on you because Japan is quite safe to carry cash about. having lived there I can tell you that is what the locals do. I learned the hard way some years ago to have both a Visa and Mastercard on you overseas in case one card system doesn't work. But I have never needed either in Japan. This is a good source of Japan info for travel.

    Comparing to cash access and card availability issues, the mobile internet could be a larger problem since there is barely nil pre-paid sim around and you'll have to rent one or order a disposable sim plan at ridiculous high rate before you arrive.

    Would love to see an article having this covered.

      Renting an unlimited data only SIM is about $10/day for a week. Longer you rent, cheaper it gets too. Not bad considering my hotel was $200/night and flight was $3000 return for 2 of us. Why get voice when you can skype, email or IM.

      If you must have voice, it's about the same $10/day for the SIM but Y25/min to fixed and Y50/min to mobiles in Australia. Not THAT ridiculously high. And they include unlimited data.

    You'll come back with hundreds of ¥1 and ¥5 pieces! What a waste, I think they should drop at least the ¥1.

    Not sure if they still do it but you can upgrade your NAB account to a gold account $10 a month, no other fees or charges. I used it all through Europe and it worked everywhere !

    I discovered one ATM trap on my first trip to Hong Kong that may also apply in Japan. The ATM keyboard was arranged calculator style (1,2,3 near the bottom) instead of phone style (1,2,3 near the top), so the usual key sequence didn't work for my pin.

    i still remember the time i walked into a convenience store with 240,000 yen to pay for my macbook pro, because apple's online store only accept credit cards, not bank cards >.>

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