How do I carry my yen?
May 16, 2012 6:13 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to handle getting/carrying foreign currency? (For travel to Japan, in particular.)

In addition to the ninety thousand other bizarre anxieties I'm having about this trip to Japan, I've realised that I don't actually know how 'normal' people handle money while travelling. For past trips, I've simply changed money before I left and taken cash and that was all the money I've spent. But that's never been more than €150. (The one time I haven't stayed with friends/relatives, my friend was drawing money out of a local account and I paid him my share in dollars.)

The options I can see are
  • Change enough cash for the whole trip before I leave. I have qualms about carrying that much cash. I don't know if it's simply psychological because the numbers are so big for JPY.
  • Traveller's checks. Yes, they've gone super out of fashion. They may be hard to cash in Japan.
  • Credit card. As I understand it, Japan's a cash economy. I need to pay for the hostels in cash. Maybe good for train tickets, though there's an irritating 3% surcharge on foreign transactions. Oh, plus Japan has chip-and-pin it seems.
  • ATM. My bank charges an outrageous $5 plus 3%. To be honest, I want to avoid this option out of principle, though it's probably the best option if my aversion to carrying large sums of cash makes sense.
So what to real adults do? Are there options I haven't thought about?
posted by hoyland to Travel & Transportation around Japan (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Post office ATMs are the most friendly for foreign ATM cards, as they even have English and post offices are relatively common. Learn the word for post office (yuubinkyoku) and you shouldn't have too much trouble finding them. Surcharges suck, but they might be unavoidable in this case. I believe a handful of other banks allow you to use foreign cards as well (Shinsei, maybe, as its a foreigner-friendly bank) but it's been a few years since I've lived there.

While I would stress that carrying a ton of cash on you for the trip would be relatively safe (you're not going to get mugged), I would worry about accidentally losing it. If you chose to exchange a lot of cash ahead of time, I'd really recommend breaking it up and keeping it in different locations.

Traveller's checks are really uncommon. Bigger hotels might take them and you can probably get them cashed at bigger banks, but that's about it.

Credit cards can be used but they're not that common and aren't accepted everywhere you'd expect. Taxis usually accept them, but most restaurants won't.
posted by yellowlightman at 6:25 PM on May 16, 2012

For our visits to Japan we've changed a few hundred dollars before traveling and used the ATM periodically to replenish our wallets. The surcharges aren't great (neither was the exchange rate), but there's a reason for that; the alternatives are worse.
posted by notyou at 6:30 PM on May 16, 2012

Japan is becoming less of a cash economy, but it still is more than the US.

A lot depends on where you're going, but in Tokyo itself I've been able to cash TC's on weekdays during business hours and every hotel I've ever stayed at in Japan will cash them too, though at various rates. I've paid with a CC at a ryokan, but haven't tried to cash a TC there. If you already have hotel reservations call the hotel and check what their current rates are.

A lot of banks have ATM's that have both English and Japanese menu's.

The best option is to have a bank that has ATM's in Japan.

You can buy a Suica (JR) or Passmo (Keikyu) at the airport using credit cards, but you can't plus it up using a card. Suica and Passmo are usable at 7-11's and most stores within the stations.

Actually, if you're staying in Tokyo, the Suica+N'EX is a heck of good deal, and it is only available to visitors. If you're based in Tokyo the other JR passes are worth a look too. The current special on unlimited travel for 3 days including shinkansen for Y10,000 is incredible.

The rule of thumb is that you should just expect to lose 2-3% on each transaction. If you don't lose that on the direct transaction like your ATM, you will on the rate that is offered for changing money (i.e., the conversion rate for TC's will be worse than it is for an ATM transaction). Obviously, given the $5 change fee on top of the 3%, you're better off withdrawing $150 than doing it three times at $50.

If you've got time it might be worth it to shop around for a bank that doesn't charge those rates, and open a $1000 account with them.

There are also money exchanges to be found in Japan, though if there's one close to where you are is a crapshoot.

And for actual, real numbers, on my trip last month my hotel offered 72Y for TC, my bank ATM withdrawal was 80Y, the Japanese bank for TC was 79Y, and the money exchange was 78Y.
posted by Runes at 6:59 PM on May 16, 2012

I tend to go only using CC, and make large-ish cash withdrawals. As few as possible of course and the first one at the airport after landing.

But you will need a PIN for that (There is a place in shibuya that will let you withdraw cash with passport and a bill). If your CC does not have a PIN, you can use it in shops and restaurants but you might need to take cash with you.

As for big numbers. You can consider yen to "always include the cents". Ie, 1000 yen, should be read as $10.00 ;)
posted by lundman at 7:29 PM on May 16, 2012

We used ATMs on our trip - be aware that not every Japanese ATM will take foreign cards; post office and 7-11s are your best bet. We took out a lot each time to minimise the fees our bank charged us. There are also Citibank atms strewn here and there.

Japan is totally a cash economy, there will be many, many places that only take cash. Thankfully, it's also crazy safe. You would not have to worry walking around with shittonnes of cash on you. I often had the equivalent of a thousand bucks in my wallet (paying for accomodation and meals etc) - way more than I would ever feel comfortable with here in Australia - and never felt dodgy.
posted by smoke at 7:40 PM on May 16, 2012

A lot good advice here. All I can add is that you should avoid over-relying on ATM availability. As already mentioned, many machines won’t take cards from foreign banks. A bigger danger, however, is that ATM machines in Japan are not available 24 hours. Most machines (even in Tokyo) don’t allow cash transactions past 11 pm on weekdays and as early as 9 pm on weekends. I got stranded cashless in Tokyo one night when I couldn’t withdraw money for the train back to my city. (Luckily I had enough for a cup of coffee, so I could spend the night in a 24-hour family restaurant until the ATM machines reopened the following day.) Basically, plan your ATM visits to be before 9, and withdraw enough that you won’t be screwed if you go a day or two without getting cash. Also, many shops and restaurants (especially non-chain restaurants) deal in cash only. Don’t rely on plastic.

When I used to vacation in Japan before moving here I would exchange a few hundred dollars at the airport, and exchange the rest at one of the major banks in the city the next day. (You’ll get a better exchange rate this way.) On my first visit I carried the cash on me in a light weight cash travel pouch that I strapped around my waist between my undershirt and shirt. On my subsequent trips I was too lazy and just carried it in my shoulder bag. Frankly, Japan is safe enough that you really shouldn’t worry about carrying cash on you. Just don’t leave large amount in unattended luggage.

Good luck, and have a great trip!
posted by Kevtaro at 11:15 PM on May 16, 2012

In terms of exchange, you can do it pretty reliably at banks and post offices between 9 and 4. Traveler's checks give a better exchange rate, but I don't know if the fees for TC's evens that out. It is a very cash based society, though credit cards are becoming much more widely accepted. There are some areas (mostly Osaka, if I recall) where pick pocketing is a problem, but for the most part, you'll have no worries carrying large amounts of cash. ATM machines and the variables of whether they'll work with your bank card, and the fees involved, just aren't worth the peace of mind of not carrying cash.

One thing to know, though, is that while Japan is secretly not a really expensive place, the yen spends very, very quickly. You might find yourself wondering where all your cash has gone. Just remember it died making sure you had a great time.

Also, if you're going to be using trains/subways/city buses, do yourself a favor and get a suica card. It's a ¥500 deposit for a swipe card useable on pretty much all public transport in the Kanto area. You can also use it to pay at a lot of convenience stores here. You can charge it up at any JR station.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:47 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This frequent Japan traveler pulls a bunch of dollars out of my bank's ATM on the way to the airport, and converts them to yen at Narita. Unlike other places, the airport exchange counters in Japan gives a fair rate. If I need more yen during the course of my trip, I hit an ATM in Japan.

Naturally, I divide up my wad of cash into a couple separate locations in my back-pack, but don't worry much, because Japan is so safe.
posted by Rash at 8:38 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, I'm back. I ended up changing a money before I left and not needing to get more money while I was in Japan. When I was in Tokyo (so before I'd spent most of it on train tickets and the hostel in Nagoya), I kept most of it in my locker at the hostel.

Someone I was with reported not being able to get money out of a 7-11 ATM, though they're commonly said to accept foreign cards. She did get a post office ATM to work.

Other people succeeded in buying rail tickets with US credit cards by going to the JR ticket counter, rather than the machines. (I bought the Puratto Kodama tickets from JR Tours with cash.)
posted by hoyland at 4:24 AM on August 6, 2012

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