Japan is a country where cash is king. While they do use credit cards and IC cards (eg. Suica, Pasimo), cash is still preferred in most places. A question I get asked quite frequently by people wanting to visit Japan is “What is the best way to exchange currency?”
Before you learn how to exchange currency, you should understand what constitutes Japanese currency. Japan’s currency is called yen or 円, and comes in coin and paper form. The coins come in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen increments. Paper currency comes in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000 increments. The 2,000 is rarer than an american 2 dollar bill. It was printed for the 2,000 millennial celebration and is still in circulation.
Below I have listed the top 5 common ways to get currency or spend money in Japan. Using a combination of the methods is probably the safest method because any traveler should plan for the worst. At a minimum, you should inform your bank of your whereabouts before leaving the country to limit the chances of a fraud alert being placed on your accounts.
Using ATM’s in Japan is the most effective and efficient way to get Yen. Prior to traveling you need to contact your bank to see what their foreign currency fees are. It is possible to have a card that has rates as low as 0%, such as some cards issued by Capital One. However, some services will charge as much as $10 per transaction fee. You will incur a currency exchange fee of at least 1-2% using the ATM, but this is outstanding by any measure. A good place to start your research on card rates is over at NerdWallet.
While using the ATM is the preferred method of exchanging money, not all Japanese ATM’s accept American debit cards. The international airports are a good place to do your first ATM transaction. Other ATM’s that accept American cards are at one of the 26,000+ post offices throughout Japan, 7-Eleven’s, and CitiBank locations. If you are out and about and can’t find one of these places, keep an eye out for the Cirrus (Mastercard) and PLUS (Visa) signs on the ATM, these will more than likely work with your card.The ATM’s usually charge a flat fee between $1-$2, so withdraw the maximum every time you take out cash to get the biggest benefit. Also, remember to take more than one debit card in case something happens, such as the machine eats your card or you reach your daily withdraw limit.
Travelers cheques offer a better exchange rate than cash and also have the added benefit of insurance in case of theft. The exchange rate for travelers cheques is about 1%. On the downside, its somewhat of a pain to get traveler’s cheques and some banks charge a fee to get them as well. Unless you are exchanging a large sum of money, the convenience of the ATM may be more to your liking.
Stay away from travelers cheques if your bank charges you a fee of more than 1.5% because that is about the difference you will get when you exchange them for Yen in Japan over cash.
To be able to claim insurance on stolen cheques, keep a separate copy of the serial numbers.
Credit cards are a safe way to carry money, provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and generally offer relatively good exchange rates. Furthermore, many cards offer some form of
insurance on purchases and fraud. The downside is that many small vendors still require cash, remember Japan is a cash centric country.
When traveling abroad it is good practice to use a travel credit card which you do not have any automatic withdraws from home, like utility bills. This is recommended in case of fraud, it is easier to keep track of one card with only travel purchases vs a card used for everything. It is also recommended to bring a backup credit card from a different credit company such as bringing a Visa and Mastercard.
If you are planning on using your credit card, it is important that you make sure your card has a Chip & PIN and that you know your PIN. The United States has been late in issuing these types of cards and it has only become prevalent in 2015 that credit cards have this feature. Many people think that their PIN is their zip code because of using it like that at gas stations, but this PIN is a separate code. In Japan it is not used as often as in Europe but it is still being enforced by some merchants and kiosks.
When choosing a card, look for one with no international transaction fees such as those issued by Capital One. You will still incur a currency exchange fee, but this will most likely be between %1 and %2.
It is not recommended that you use your credit card for cash advances at ATM’s because you will be paying interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if the bill is paid monthly. Use a debit card for this instead.
There are two methods of exchanging cash, exchange before you go or upon arrival. If you can get Yen from a friend before going without a transaction fee, this is the way to go! Otherwise, exchanging money in Japan is usually the more efficient method. Even better, exchange money by using the ATM as mentioned previously!
Exchange in Japan
Exchanging cash in Japan will more often than not have a better exchange rate than doing this in America as long as you do it at large banks such as UFJ. Outside of the airport, you may need to be member of the bank to use their exchange services.
The large airports such as Narita have bank exchange centers which offer pretty decent rates for your travelers cheques or cash. Check outs their current exchange rates. You will notice the difference between travelers cheques and cash is only about 1.5%.
Lastly, stay away from “Money Changers” found around town. These charge the highest fees and will penalize you for exchanging lower amounts such as $100.
Exchange in America
To be absolutely clear, it is not recommend exchanging money in America prior to traveling to Japan, but some people like the peace of mind of having some currency when they land in a foreign country. If you are going to use one of the following methods, I suggest you only get what you think you will need upon arrival.
Some major US banks offer currency exchange, but not all branches. For example, Bank of America has an exchange program with a modest 5% spread fee. If you exchange less than $1,000 they will charge you a delivery fee of $7.50 on top of the spread, otherwise it is free shipping.
AAA offers what they call TipPaks of foreign currency for your trip. They will deliver it to your home for free if you order at least $1,000 worth of currency. Their currency exchange rate spread is about 7% if you can afford free shipping or can pick it up at one of their offices. Call ahead before you go to an office as not all offices carry TipPaks.
Airport Currency Exchange Centers
There are exchange centers at every international airport. These centers are notorious for charging outrageous fees. The currency exchange rate varies, but is usually around 11%. If exchanging less than $500 at a center, you are also likely to incur a service charge of about $10. For example, if you chose to exchange $400 for Yen at a currency exchange store, you could possibly be losing out on about %14 in charges.
This is a little used way to buy currency, but it is possible to actually make better than the going exchange rate through EBay. At the time of writing this article, I found several postings for 5,000 and 10,000 Yen notes at major discounts.
Most travel cards work just like debit and credit cards. They have major credit services backing them such as Mastercard or Visa and can be used similarly. Before you invest in a travel card, read the fine print because usually there are fees associated with them that can be avoided with traditional debit or credit cards. Below are two examples of popular travel cards.
Multi-Currency MasterCard Cash Passport
MasterCard’s multi currency card seems tempting at a glance. This card lets you pre-load it with up to $8,500 worth of currencies. What is pretty cool about it is that it will use whatever currency is loaded on it in each specific country. In Europe it will use Euro’s and Japan it will use Yen. Once it runs out of the respective currency, it will start conversion of whatever currencies you have into the required currency.
Now for the bad part and why I would stay away from this card. Fees, Fees, Fees!
- $9.95 to get started
- $2.50 ATM fees
- *%5.5 Currency exchange fee when needed + 1-2% spread fee.
- $3 per month inactivity fee (starts after 6 months)
*If you want to load it with Yen, you must have it first to avoid paying the %5.5 currency exchange fee upfront.
AAA Visa TravelMoney Card
This card is a re-loadable, prepaid card that can be loaded from $100 to $5,000 and used to make purchases at millions of Visa merchants, online or by telephone. It can also be used to access cash in local currency at millions of ATMs worldwide (same restrictions as most US debit cards in locations). It offers a load of AAA benefits such as live translated customer service and luggage reimbursement up to $250 per trip. At a glance, this card seems fantastic because it is insured similar to Travelers Cheques as well. However, the downside is in the fees shown below:
- ATM Fee domestic: $1.50
- ATM Fee international: $3.00
- Foreign Exchange markup: 3%