Japan is a cash society, and while many large department stores, restaurants and hotels in large urban areas allow credit cards to be used, in many places most expenses like food & beverages, shopping, etc, must be paid in cash. Therefore, it is important to bring some Japanese money with you especially when you first enter the country.
The unit of currency in Japan is called the yen, symbolised by ￥ and pronounced ‘en’. Coins are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen and bank notes in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen. Japanese yen is an experience in maths!
￥1 = ichi en ￥1,000 = sen en (1 thousand yen)
￥5 = go en ￥2,000 = ni sen en (2 sen) ( 2 thousand yen)
￥10 = jyu en ￥10,000 = ichi man en (1 man) (10 thousand yen)
￥50 = go jyu en ￥20,000 = ni man en (2 man) (20 thousand yen
￥100 = hyaku en
￥200 = ni hyaku en
There is no limit on the amount of any currency that may be brought into or taken out of Japan (however, if you transport any currencies, checks, securities or other monies exceeding 1,000,000 yen worth in Japanese currency into or out of the country then you must complete a customs declaration.)
Keeping your money safe
Even though Japan is considered a very safe place for travellers, it may still a good idea to use a money belt or similar travel pouch. Losing your money, credit cards or passport while overseas can create a very stressful situation.
You can exchange money at airport money changing counters (depending on what time you arrive and how much time you have). Banks often have booths in airports where you can exchange currency to yen. Still it is better to do this before you go as exchange rates at these counters are not so favourable. World Currency shops are situated in many shopping areas belonging to railway stations and famous department stores.
Payment methods in Japan
Japan has a reputation of being a cash-based society, but trends have gradually been changing, and there has been a significant increase in the acceptance of other payment methods. Below are the modes of payment that you might use when visiting Japan:
Cash is still the preferred payment method, especially when it involves small amounts. Big bills are readily used and accepted in Japan; you are unlikely to be frowned upon for using a 10,000 yen bill to pay even for low-cost items, although smaller denominations are appreciated for payments made in taxis, smaller shops, temples and shrines. The likelihood that credit cards are accepted decreases in small cities and towns, and thus it is advisable to keep cash at hand when visiting rural areas.
Cash is usually the only way to pay for small entrance fees at tourist sights, at smaller restaurants and small shops. The majority of lockers also require coins. Preparing coins in advance when using buses and trams is a good idea. Buses generally do not accept bills above 1000 yen, and the bus driver may not carry any larger bills. Vending machines typically accept 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen coins and 1,000 yen bills. Newer machines typically also accept 5,000 and 10,000 yen bills.
There is an increased acceptance of credit and debit cards, especially in big cities. Most hotels accept payment by credit cards nowadays, as do most department stores, mid to high end restaurants, outlet malls and large retail shops. In addition, many train stations, convenience stores, supermarkets, chain restaurants and boutiques also accept them.
IC cards, such Suica and Icoca, are a stored value cards which can be recharged. Primarily a tool for convenient payment of train and bus fares, IC cards now double as a means of payment at an increasing number of shops and restaurants, especially in and around train stations, at most convenience stores, many chain restaurants, numerous vending machines and some lockers in big cities.
How to get your Yen
Having seen the main payment methods in Japan, you should have a basic idea of how you should prepare money for your trip. Cash is handy because it is accepted under all situations, but credit cards can be a convenient alternative at appropriate locations. Theft and robberies are very rare in Japan, so with regards to keeping large amounts of cash with you, security is less of a concern than your propensity to lose money by accident. Here are ways to get your yen:
In Japan, currency exchange is usually handled by banks, post offices, some larger hotels and a handful of licensed money changers found especially at international airports.
Whether or not it is better to change for yen before coming into Japan depends on the currency that you hold. For example, the US dollar is a highly traded foreign currency in Japan, and partly for this reason you might get a favorable rate if you change US dollars into yen in Japan. On the other hand, in some Southeast Asian countries, the foreign exchange market is very competitive and money changers take a smaller cut, therefore it might be better to do the exchange there before coming into Japan.
Many ATMs in Japan do not accept cards that are issued outside of Japan. The big exception are the ATMs found at the over 20,000 post offices and over 10,000 7-Eleven convenience stores across the country. Exchange rates offered at ATMs tend to be competitive, but service fees vary widely depending on the card. Inquire with your card issuer in advance. Note that many ATMs in Japan are out of service during the night, and some are unavailable on weekends.
Traveler's Checks (T/C) tend to yield a more favorable exchange rate than the above two methods. The shortfall is the trouble of having to obtain them in your home country before you travel and then having to locate a place to change them in Japan. Whether you are getting more value for your money depends on your home currency and if your bank charges fees to issue the checks. Note that T/Cs are accepted in very limited currencies in Japan. International airports and leading banks are generally where you can change your T/C for yen.
Important Notice regarding Maestro cards with IC chips
Many international ATMs across Japan, including ATMs at post offices, are currently not accepting Maestro cards with IC chips. Among the ATMs that accept Maestro cards with IC chips are 7-Bank ATMs and Aeon Bank ATMs.
Many ATMs in Japan do not accept credit, debit and ATM cards, which are issued outside of Japan.
The big exception are postal ATMs found mainly at the over 20,000 post offices in all parts of the country and 7-Bank ATMs found at approximately 20,000 7-Eleven convenience stores and other locations across Japan (availability in very rural areas and in Okinawa is limited). These ATMs allow you to withdraw cash by credit and debit cards issued outside of Japan, including Visa, Plus, Mastercard, Maestro, Cirrus, American Express and JCB cards, and provide an English user menu.
7-Bank ATMs are available 24 hours per day around the year. In case of postal ATMs, however, only the ones in the central offices of major cities offer a 24 hour/7 day service, including the ones at the Tokyo Central Office, Shinjuku Office, Shibuya Office and at the central offices of Osaka, Kyoto and a few other major cities (note that even these ATMs are unavailable on Sundays and public holidays between 20:00 and midnight).
Postal ATM operating hours then decrease proportionally to the size of the post office, from major post offices (typically 7:00 to 23:00, shorter hours on weekends) to medium sized offices (typically 8:00 to 20:00, shorter hours on weekends, possibly closed on Sundays) to minor offices (typically 9:00 and 16:00, closed on weekends).
In addition to the postal and 7-Bank ATMs, international ATMs can be found at thousands of Family Mart and Lawson convenience stores (but not all of them), international airports, in major department stores, and at Shinsei Bank branches. ATMs by Aeon Bank, found at Aeon malls and selected other locations, also accept cards issued outside of Japan. Over the coming years, the situation is expected to further improve as Japan's major banks will gradually increase the number of ATMs that can handle international cards.
In order to use international ATMs, ensure the following at home before leaving for Japan:
- Make sure that your credit or debit card can be used abroad.
- Inquire what fees and daily and/or monthly limits are associated with international withdrawals.
- Remember your card's secret 4-digit PIN.
- Notify your bank that you are going to use your card overseas, since many banks will block a card which is suddenly used abroad, suspecting a fraud.