I’ve made a fool of myself more than once in Japan by trying to stick my credit card in every hole of a machine only to find it’s cash only. It’s just that much of a habit.
Yes, you can use credit cards in Japan, but not as widely or as easily as you’re used to. Cash is the go-to there, so if you do want to use a card, you need to know where and how you can use it. You also need to know how to get cash and pay at places that don’t accept cards. Make a plan before you go.
With the following detailed information, you can always pay with confidence and security in Japan. Here’s what you need to know.
How to pay in Japan
Japan is a cash-based society, at least relative to the US and even European countries. That isn’t to say you can’t pay with a credit card anywhere, but you can’t rely on it. Oftentimes this can even seem a little paradoxical considering how technologically advanced the country is. So many things are automated, that you might expect to be able to just waive your card over a vending or ticket machine and get what you want. However, these machines almost always just take cash.
Large chains or department stores will usually accept credit cards. You can verify this by asking an employee or checking for the stickers on doors and cash registers. Even in these situations, paying with the card is a bit of an ordeal. The employee checking you out will probably give you a little basket to put the card in, which they will take with a thank you and a bow. Then they’ll charge the card and give it back with the receipt to sign.
The only exception to this is 7/11 and maybe some similar large convenience store establishments. Paying with a credit card is easy and straightforward there. In fact, there’s usually a terminal you operate yourself that brings up your charges, asks for a signature, etc.
In small business establishments, which include most restaurants, you’ll need cash. Many
“fast food” places like ramen joints have automatic ticket machines at the front, so you never have to pay a person. You select the meal you want and feed the machine bills and coins. It prints out a ticket which you give to a chef. Your more elaborate sit-down restaurants will either have a cash register at the front door where you pay on the way out, or the server will bring you a bill, and you leave the cash on the table.
You also need cash to buy train tickets usually because the process is automated at self-serve computer terminals that only take cash. If you’re really in a jam, the big train stations usually have a Japan Rail office where you can pay with a credit card after talking with an agent. I did this in Narita Airport, but I don’t recommend it because, besides having to fill out some paperwork and let the agent charge my card with one of those manual credit card imprinters from the 80s, this meant waiting nearly two hours in line.
Boutique stores are pretty hit and miss. I’m not going to tell you you’ll never find one that will accept credit cards. I came across a tea store in Kyoto that did, at least after my fiance filled up a sack with over ¥10,000-worth of tea. Still, it’s not likely, and you should have plenty of cash just in case.
Suica IC Cards
One alternative to cash in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka is the IC card. This is a kind of prepaid debit card, the primary purpose of which is to pay for train tickets. Well, you don’t really have to pay for a ticket at all. Rather, you just pass the card through the turnstile like you normally would a ticket, and it debits money from it. You can then top it up when you need more money. Suica is the most popular brand of several.
This isn’t all, though. Because IC cards are so popular with people who want a convenient way to pay for the many Japanese public transportation systems, many other establishments have started accepting them as well. This includes a lot of convenience stores, vending machines and even restaurants.
Getting a Suica IC card is super easy, too. You can get one at most Japan Rail offices in train stations and airports, but they’re also sold in convenience stores. Additionally, you can get one from one of the automated ticket machines at the train station. You will have to pay a ¥500 deposit for the card plus whatever credit you want to put on it. For example, if you put ¥2,000 into the machine, the card will have ¥1,500 on it since ¥500 went to the deposit. You can then return the card to a JR office and get the deposit back whenever you want.
There is even a mobile option if you don’t want to deal with the card. You can download the app and top up the card from your smartphone. Of course, while most train stations have the infrastructure to accept mobile payments like this (you just wave your phone over the turnstile’s pad), you might not find as many other businesses that can accept it.
Why doesn’t Japan use credit cards?
There are a few reasons why credit cards haven’t caught on in Japan like they have in the West.
The first has to do with the culture of crime and security. For one thing, Japan has a lower crime rate in general than Western countries, especially when it comes to petty crimes like pick-pocketing. Therefore, the Japanese don’t have much of a problem carrying around a lot of cash. On the flipside, more technical crimes like credit card fraud are more common, so using cash actually ends up being the safer option.
Maybe more significantly, the Japanese do not like debt. The US especially has a culture of cycling through credit as a means of moving capital, but this isn’t as much the case in Japan, at least not for private citizens. Many people are afraid of ending up in debt, so they don’t even get a credit card. Part of this could also be due to the economic stagnation Japan has experienced since the early 90s.
What credit cards are accepted in Japan?
Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted credit card networks in Japan. Visa is the most popular credit card network in the US, but it seems to have more problems in Japan than Mastercard for unknown reasons.
Discover or Diners Club International cards are not as widely accepted, but you’ll probably see the sticker pretty often. The problem is a lot of places that have the Diners Club sticker don’t actually accept Discover. Why they have the sticker then, I don’t know. Maybe they just all buy the same mass-produced credit card sticker without knowing the difference.
American Express is the hardest to find. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it personally. There’s probably somewhere that takes it, but I wouldn’t count on it.
What to do if your credit card isn’t working
Foreigners regularly complain of having their credit cards declined in Japan, even cards their banks have promised should work. This can happen for a number of reasons, mainly:
- You’ve tripped off a fraud alert algorithm at your bank, either by spending too much, too strangely, or just by the fact that the charges are in Japan.
- Your card is old… or new. The Japanese establishments that do take credit cards still don’t have all the different ways to charge one. Their machine might be old and incapable of reading your new metal chip card. Or it could be a new machine that only reads metal chip cards.
- You’ve angered the banking network gods. Sometimes cards get declined for no explicable reason. One Visa will go through but another won’t. Who’s to say why other than the ghost in the machine who apparently doesn’t like you.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. For starters, you hopefully read this article ahead of time and brought with you several backup cards and a wad of cash. Try your backup cards, even if they’re the same kind. If they all fail, pay with cash.
Okay, so you didn’t read this article and take my great advice. You’re in a Japanese restaurant trying to understand the broken English your waiter is using to explain that your credit card has been declined. You’ve got no other cards in your wallet and no cash. What do you do?
It might sound like one of those nightmares you have once a week along with the exam in the class you forgot about and showing up for work with no pants on, but it’ll be okay. Just try to explain that you will have to go get cash. Use a translation app on your phone if you have too. The Japanese are polite and hospitable, and they’re also trusting. They will probably believe you and not assume you’re dining and dashing. If you really want to assure them, you can leave behind some kind of collateral like your driver’s license.
Where to get cash
Now, find your nearest ATM. If it’s during the day, Japanese post offices usually have easily accessible ATMs. After hours, though, your best bet is definitely a 7/11. Here you’ll find a 7Bank ATM that accepts almost any card—I’ve never had an issue personally. Plus, the stores are open 24/7.
The post office and 7/11 should be the first places you try because of their low fees, if they even have any. However, if worse comes to worst, you can find an ATM in a train station or outside a bank. It’s possible these will charge you considerably, though, to take out cash.
Of course, a final option is to exchange money if you happen to have your home currency on you. Banks are better for this because they usually offer a better rate, but it’s probably easier to find exchange counters.
My first time in Japan, I knew I would need cash, so I stopped by an exchange counter in the airport first thing. I actually ended up regretting this because the bad rate on top of the fee made it a lot more expensive than just going to a 7Bank ATM. If you’re worried you’ll need cash right away before you can make it to one of these ATMs, I’d suggest only exchanging a small amount, maybe $50.
Call your bank before you go
If you’re like most foreign travelers to Japan, you’re hoping to use your credit card as much as possible. It’s more convenient, and you probably get some kind of points. Whatever cash you use will be with reluctance. If this is indeed your plan, I suggest you call your bank and verify a few things before you leave for Japan.
First, tell them you’ll be traveling. With the advent of chip cards, travel alerts usually aren’t necessary anymore, and if they are, you can probably do them with your bank’s app. Still, there’s no harm in calling to let them know you’ll be using the card out of the country. Better safe than having your card get declined in the middle of a Japanese village where no one speaks English.
Second, make sure your card has no foreign transaction fees. This is the case for most travel credit cards, but others may charge steeply to use the card abroad. If you don’t have a travel card, see about getting one.
Third, see if your bank has information on where you can withdraw cash with your card in Japan. Some banks have international agreements with other banks. They might be able to tell you which banks and where they have ATMs near where you’re staying.
Finally, ask for emergency numbers. Travel cards often come with travel insurance for purchases made with the card, like plane or train tickets. They’ll likely have a toll-free international number you can call to report stolen luggage or a stolen card. Write this down and keep it with you. This number can be very useful and may even have an operator that can put you in touch with English-speaking assistance or consulates and embassies in your area.