Best debit cards for US travelers to Japan


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Japan is a unique country in more ways than one.  One interesting aspect of their economy is that they are both extremely cash-centric and extremely expensive. Therefore you will need a lot of money on your person since things are expensive and you will only be able to pay using a credit card at a small set of stores. I would generally feel a bit uneasy carrying around massive amounts of cash in a foreign country but fortunately Japan is just about the safest country on earth.

Because you will ultimately take out a lot of cash when you visit Japan, it is critical to arm yourself with a debit card that does not charge a foreign transaction percentage fee or you will wind up with lots of unwanted fees.  To complicate matters, it can be difficult to find ATMs in Japan that accept US Debit Cards so the brand of the card and where you are headed does matter.

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Debit cards don’t get too much coverage on the blogs but there are three that I have recommended in the past.

  1. Bank of America Checking used only as a member of the Global ATM Alliance
  2. Capital One 360 Checking / Savings Account (Earn $50 through my referral link)
  3. Schwab checking account

I want to review each as it applies to travel in Japan, a location in which I receive a lot of reader questions.

Bank of America Debit Card

First off, forget about the Bank of America debit card.  Japan does not have a member bank in the Global ATM Alliance so you will pay a 5 dollar out of network ATM fee and an additional percentage. Don’t do it.

Capital One 360 Debit Card (MasterCard)

In two past trips to Japan, the Capital One 360 Checking MasterCard was a great choice since it was usable at Seven Banks in Japan for no fees at all.  It can be a bit difficult to find ATMs in Japan that accept US Debit Cards but since Seven Bank ATMs are the ATMs in all 7-11 stores, you are covered well given 7-11 stores are literally on every corner in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more.  Unfortunately a recent change to the bank’s policies removed the ability to use MasterCard at their ATMs which is the only branded option for Capital One 360.

When I was in Japan last month I had to look elsewhere to see if this card was still useful in Japan.  The good news is that other convenience stores including Family Mart which are also extremely prevalent in Japan accept the MasterCard and neither bank charged a fee.  I compared the exchange rate and it appeared to be a direct match to the previous day’s official rate. 

Another interesting trick for Japan travelers is that their post offices have ATMs that accept US debit cards.  I tried my Capital One 360 at the postal office in three cities and was never charged a fee.

Schwab Debit Card (Visa)

The Schwab checking account offers unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide and no foreign transaction fees. There are no minimums on the account but having the card does require a link to a Schwab investment account (which also does not currently have minimums). This card will work just about anywhere in Japan including the Seven Bank ATMs in the 7-11 stores because it is a Visa.

The bottom line

If you are traveling to Japan, you will almost certainly need to take out large amounts of cash from an ATM so picking the right debit card is crucial.  Both the Capital One 360 MasterCard and the Schwab Visa are great options for a trip to Japan.  What are other debit cards have you found useful in Japan?

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or suggestions expressed on this site are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. This post was accurate at the time of posting, offer may be unavailable on this site at a later time. For details on current offers visit the card issuer’s site.

About alex

Alex loves to travel and does so a lot. Logging 100,000 flight miles each year over the past 4 years, Alex uses points and miles to power his passion. Alex is continuously striving to experience the far reaches of the globe. In his day job, Alex is a Management Consultant frequently on the road advising Technology organizations. I love thinking about, reading about, and talking about all things travel. Feel free to reach me at pmmalex@gmail.com

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Comments

  1. Seven Bank (available in most 7-11’s and in many stations) is the best ATM to use, it takes just about any US debit card. I have had all sorts of trouble with other banks ATMS while living in Japan and I finally just decided seven bank was my go to.

  2. Having lived there for over 3 years with a MasterCard debit card, getting money out was extremely difficult. The best options are:

    1) Chase ATMs. They’re generally only in the larger cities – Tokyo, Yokohama, Fukuoka, etc.

    2) Japan Post. This is the rough equivalent of a Japanese Postal Service Credit Union. They take MasterCard, but the machines are a little funky compared to what we’re accustomed to in the States. They’re in most large train stations and actual post offices. The sign is green and white and simply says “JP”

    3) 7-11 (7 Bank) ATMs inside 7-11 stores. Be careful with these, though, as 7 Bank has gone back-and-forth on allowing MasterCard-branded cards. During my time there, 7 Bank went from accepting them, to not accepting them, then back to accepting them. Just try it out.

    For Visa debit card holders, the options are greater, but I’d stick to ATMs in convenience stores (called “cone-been-ee”, phonetically; kon-bi-ni, transliterated; or コンビニ if you want to use katakana) as the Japanese banks are very hit or miss, and may not have ATMs that operate in English. All the ones I’ve mentioned have multiple language options available.

    Some of the more noteworthy convenience stores are:

    Lawson
    Sunkus
    7-11
    Family Mart

  3. False! Japan is actually very affordable , comparable to a typical American city. It’s this mind of misinformation that scares people away from this wonderful country.

    Also CC are a lot more widespread than I thought they’d be and many items can be purchased with their local prepaid cards like Suica but cash is still necessary. However there’s a 7-11 on almost every corner that’ll take bluebird and other foreign ATM cards. I just went to Japan for 2 weeks and had no problems getting cash.

  4. @Frequent churner, have you ever been to Japan before? Japan is not affordable compared to a typical American City. Tokyo is probably on par if not more expensive than NYC (though Cost of food is definitely more expensive in Japan). NYC is not typical American City.

  5. @jrey – I computed my rate and it matched the official exchange rate from a day or two prior. I don’t know the exact formula used but it was close enough to give me the impression they are not taking a cut.

  6. @Peter — as I wrote, yes I’ve been there a month ago for over two weeks, been all over the country and I was surprised at how affordable it was. From admission to various temples to food. I paid $8-12 for lunch on average, and $15 – 25 for dinner, often that included a few bottles of beer or sake. Even in touristy parts of Kyoto, I was able to spend under $10 for excellent lunch.
    ..
    The only major expense was the Japan rail pass but it’s necessary to be able to cover most of the country affordably. I stayed at mid-level business hotels and never paid more than $60 – 150/night, even in Tokyo.
    ..
    I’m not sure what people do to spend so much money in Japan, maybe they insist on luxurious accomodations like Park Hyatt and eating at formal upscale restaurants, in which case you will blow through a lot of cash, and incidentally completely miss the real Japan.

  7. Japan is very affordable, I go there 4 times a year…
    Capsule hotel for 1700 yen per night.
    Eat at rice shp for 300 yen…

  8. @frequent churner: You mean I can use my Amex BB debit card to withdraw USD and then have to convert to Japanese Yen at an currency exchange store? Can I do it at NRT airport upon landing? Or I wait until we check in a Radisson hotel in Tokyo and get local currency? Thanks

  9. I live in Japan and the ATM situation is the most frustrating experience I have. First, there only JP banks are near by me (no citi or 7 banks, due to only having family marts). The family mart ATMs do not work for international cards.

    There are operating hours on the JP bank ATMs, which usually follow the store or post office. If it’s a federal holiday in Japan (there are lots of them) the JP bank ATM won’t process your transaction for some upsurd reason. Basically, make sure you have cash between 5pm-9am, otherwise you are out of luck.

    Also, Japan can be pricey but it’s really not that expensive. A lot more major stores and restaurants take credit cards now (though I always get a look when I pay with one and it takes forever in some places to pay with a card, it’s like pre historic times here).

  10. @Frequent churner: One more question. Does Amex BB charge foreign exchange fee if withdraw from ATM or use it in store or restaurant?

  11. As you have pointed out, use banks or credit unions that offers ATM fee rebates. Also, certain banking relationships, such as Citibank’s Citigold, offers free ATM withdrawal worldwide.

    Avoid BofA, as they charge $5/transaction outside of the US if not using one of the alliance ATMs, and they are far and few in between.

  12. What about Discover? On their website, Discover claims that there are over 1 million merchants in Japan that accept Discover through the JCB network. In practice, is that really true?

  13. @globetrotter — correct, BB works as an ATM card and charges only a $2 per withdrawal fee. Worked at 7-11 and Japan Post office ATMs, and possibly a few other random ones, but the first two are the only reliable ones.
    ..
    I got my first 10k Yen at the airport, it just spits out the cash and internally converts the amount charged on your card to USD, no conversion fee.

  14. We recently visited Japan. The ATMs in Seven Banks are currently not accepting most ATM cards from US Banks. We only had good luck with post office ATM, as well as one Citibank ATM at Kansai Airport.

  15. I recently went to Japan armed with my Schwab ATM card. The complicated thing about being reimbursed for ATM charges internationally is that they are often combined with the total withdrawal. Even with the receipts its hard to get a refund from Schwab internationally. The good news is (in Japan) there does not appear to be a markup on the withdrawal – no exchange rate tinkering. I checked the Japanese ATM slips against the Schwab account withdrawal amounts and they appear to be within 2% of the daily bank trading rate. The Schwab card worked at a few ATMs in department stores and major train stations, also 7-11’s which are more prevalent. And I agree that credit cards are more widely used than reported.

  16. It seems like the JCB Marukai credit card is a quintessential Japanese credit card. Would that be a good convenient way to buy merchandise in Japan, or is that not accepted in many places there?

  17. I was in Tokyo twice over the last couple of months – I wasn’t able to use my HSBC, Paypal or Chase United Mastercards at 7-11’s and other locations. I was able to use my Amex and CSP at the hotel and for taxis.

    Interestingly, I found a place near the Hyatt Regency in one of the office buildings near the hotel that had nice looking buffet. I noticed a credit card terminal on the checkout, so I dropped in for a bite.

    When I went to pay, the guy insisted that no credit cards. When I showed him that the only other option I had (besides washing dishes 🙂 was US dollars, he relented and ran my CSP card through the machine. Very cash obsessed society – make sure you keep some cash on you…

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