Japan Survival Guide
Money, Credit Cards, and ATMs

Welcome to Japan... do you know where your money is?
Let me warn you right now, especially if you've traveled in Europe previously... unless you are very lucky, your ATM cards will not work in Japan. As I have discovered, this is because Japan's banks use an entirely different ATM service system than either the United States or Europe; essentially, their ATMs speak a different language (though in most major cities there will be one or two -- literally just one or two -- ATMs that can take foreign cards; airports will be your best bet for finding these). I'm still trying to find a way to get a Japanese ATM card; even Citibank's "international account" couldn't give me a Japanese card... unless I started the account in Japan. Oy. The main advantage to Citibank's card was that it would work at any Citibank ATM in Japan, and Citibank can give you a list of those.
Credit cards are okay at most large businesses and hotels, and some will take travelors checks, but, in the end, a great deal of the things you'll want to see, do, and buy will require cash. Japan is still very much enamoured of the simplest of money exchanges; not only are many, many stores, restaurants, and services run as family stores (with living area behind or upstairs), but also almost every visitor to Japan will want to buy stuff from a vending machine at some point during their trip. Japan is one of the few countries in the world where it is standard practice for native vacationers to carry huge amounts of cash during trips so they don't have to go to banks.
Obviously, you may be a bit uncomfortable with the idea of traveling with a huge lump of cash yourself... but most banks have a foreign exchange office where you can cash in travelers checks. So I usually get a decent number of travelers checks, and exchange them as I go along so I always have cash for those tourist attractions and bookstores I get sucked into; and I use my credit card whenever I can -- usually for hotel stays -- to make my cash supply stretch.
Oh, and an etiquette note... don't try to haggle. Prices are what you see; if you don't like the price, go look somewhere else.

Exchanging Your Country's Money for Japanese Yen
It can be a real pain to try and get some Japanese cash before you travel; most banks won't offer the service, and the few who do will not give you good rates. The better plan is to do most of your exchanges after you get to Japan itself.
The only exception to that rule is this; you should exchange about $100 worth of money either at the airport you leave from or the airport you arrive at. The rates won't be the greatest, but it's more important to have the cash to travel to your first place of rest and get a meal than it is to get the absolute best deal. Narita Airport is forty miles away from Tokyo, so trains to Tokyo cost between $14-$30, buses between $20-$30, and taxis... well, don't take a taxi from the airport; use one of the other two means to get into Tokyo, then take a taxi to your location from within Tokyo. Once you've settled, then you can go to a bank for the better exchange rates.
Look for banks that have the English phrase "Foreign Exchange" on the window outside; these will generally be open Monday-Friday from about 10am to 5pm. Once inside, ask around a bit (if you can) or just show your foreign currency to one of the polite guards, and they will direct you to the right place.
The next step is to find and fill out the proper form. Look to the left; this form is your friend, and will generally look about the same at all banks. You only need to fill in a few bits; your name and passport number, the address you are staying at, circle either "cash" or "travelers checks", and write in the amount you are exchanging next to the symbol for your currency (in my case, the US dollar sign -> '$'). That's it!
Now you need to take the form to a teller; most banks will have some form of ticket system, wherein you take a numbered ticket from a machine, and then wait for your number to pop up on a sign above the tellers. When it is your turn, place your form, currency, and passport on the tray provided (there is always a tray). After they confirm your identity and have you sign your checks and the form, you will be asked to have a seat and wait. They then whisk off to double-check your information and to calculate your exchange, and, after a few minutes, you'll be called up to the counter again (often at a different teller), where they will give you your money and receipt on another little tray. Pocket it all... you're done!

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All illustrations in these pages are copyright (c)2002 Garth Haslam, and shouldn't be used without his permission. To contact him Click Here!