Best ways to spend travel money in Japan: Debit and prepaid cards

Learn more about the best card to use, if you should use a UK debit card and other ways to take spending money to Japan.

No other country in the world combines the traditional and the contemporary like Japan. The natural beauty of the Ryukyu Islands and the dizzying lights of Tokyo’s Akihabara district attracts hundreds of thousands every year. With the country easing restrictions on international tourists in autumn 2022, the country is once again open for business.

Whether you’re visiting the islands of Japan for business or pleasure, you can save money by using travel-friendly plastic while you’re there. We’ll look at how much Japanese yen (JPY) you’ll need and check the travel cards, credit cards and debit cards most suited to your trip.

Low cost travel money options for Japan

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Japan is a cash society. However, credit and debit cards are accepted in most places in Japanese cities. On the other hand, many local restaurants, markets and rural inns (ryokans) are cash only.

In the places where you can use your card, you may have issues if you’re using a travel card at the point of sale. Some merchants may reject this card because it doesn’t have your name on the front.

Most digital banking apps, which are a great option owing to very low transaction and withdrawal fees, come with either a Visa or Mastercard bank card. They work as normal bank accounts do, so the “topping up” process consists of transferring money into the account.

Using a debit card

The majority of debit card issuers charge you a fee when you make a purchase in a foreign currency.

The Starling Bank personal account is worth highlighting here. Starling won’t charge you any fees for currency conversion. The bank uses Mastercard’s own exchange rates, which are as near to perfect as it is possible to get from an everyday banking product.

Using a prepaid travel card

A travel card lets you load your British pounds and convert them to Japanese yen, along with a number of other currencies. The main advantage to these cards is they allow you to spend without paying extra for currency conversion. Other benefits for travellers include:

  • A dual card account. You get a backup in case your first card is lost or stolen.
  • Security. Travel cards are chip- and PIN-protected.
  • Prepaid accounts. Stick to your budget and top up your travel card when you need more money.
  • Better exchange rates. You can choose to pre-load your money at a time when the exchange rate is more favourable, rather than relying on live rates as you would when using a debit or credit card.

These products require a little more management than debit and credit cards as you’re responsible for topping up the card before you run out of money. Remember that it can take up to 3 business days for funds to clear and even longer if there’s a public holiday or weekend in the UK.

You also need to be wary of travel card fees (initial load, reload fees and ATM fees). If you’re a rate hunter, you may want to compare the exchange rate on offer from your travel card issuer. Travel card foreign exchange rates are different to the rate your bank gives you when you send money online or when you buy foreign cash.

Using a credit card

All credit cards allow you to spend in a foreign currency. Some cards are cheaper to use than others while some charge a fee for currency conversion. This is an additional charge of roughly 3% when you use your card outside of the UK.

Other fees include the following:

  • International ATM fees. The majority of credit card issuers on the market will charge a fee to use an international ATM. Some credit card issuers waive the international ATM fee.
  • Cash advance fees. Withdrawing cash on credit is one of the most expensive ways to get money. Cash advance fees and interest charges apply to this type of transaction and you’re not eligible for interest-free days either. Some issuers waive the cash advance fee and rate of interest if you’ve preloaded a credit card with your own money.

Taking traveller’s cheques to Japan

Although traveller’s cheques are becoming an antiquated form of travel money, they are still used by people who take money to Japan.

Fees charged to purchase traveller’s cheques vary from one establishment to another. Some will charge a nominal fee while others will offer traveller’s cheques free of a charge as a service to customers.

After taking your traveller’s cheques to Japan, you can redeem them at banks announcing “authorised foreign exchange bank” outside the front door. You can also redeem your cheques at Japan’s main post offices. Be prepared to wait in line to cash your cheques, especially during busy periods.

In Japan, the traveller’s cheques attract a relatively better exchange rate than bank notes. To get the best rates, redeem your cheques in banks and post offices. Redeeming the cheque at stores or hotels will attract fees and commissions.

How much yen do I need to bring?

Compared to some of its neighbour countries, Japan has a reputation for being pricey. However, if you’re on a budget, there are still plenty of options to make sure you have a great visit, including a huge variety of affordable food outlets.

On the other end of the scale, Japan caters to those who look for a luxury visit with many lavish hotels, experiences and some of the finest cuisines in the world.

TokyoBudget (cheap)Mid-rangeLuxury (high-end)
to-sleepDorm bed
£20 per night
Double room at a business hotel
£120 per night
Double room in a 5-star hotel
£325 per night
foodSet meal at casual restaurant
£5–£10 per person
Dinner at an izakaya (Japanese-style pub)
£15–£20 per person
Meal at an upmarket sushi restaurant
from £65+ per person
camera1 temple or museum entry
£5
Private cooking lessons
£30+
Mt Fuji day tour including Lake Ashi sightseeing cruise
£80+

*Prices are approximate and are subject to change.

What is the best travel money card to take to Japan?

Best is a subjective term – it means something different for everyone. However, when you’re comparing your travel money options, you should choose an option that offers at least one of these:

  • No currency conversion fee
  • Either no international or local ATM operator fee
  • Travel extras: insurance, airport lounges, worldwide concierge service

Next, you need to have an idea about how you plan on transacting in Japan. While Japan is very much a cash society, there are times when you need to use your card. Hotel and travel bookings as well as big-ticket items should be purchased on your credit card if possible to make the most of your card’s interest-free days feature.

If you plan to indulge in Japanese culture — think tea ceremonies, guided tours in sakura season, entry to the Emperor’s Palace and small cafeterias and eateries — you’ll need cash. The cost of withdrawing from an ATM should be a factor in your comparison of travel money products.

A product which doesn’t charge for currency conversion or to use the ATM is ideal. Some ATMs in Japan (mainly in 7-Eleven stores and post offices) don’t charge a local ATM operator fee. Pick the right product and it could be cheaper to withdraw your money in Japan than it would be at home.

A quick summary of travel money options for Japan

Travel money optionProsConsiderations
Debit cards for travel
  • Comes with a secure PIN and chip protection
  • Emergency cash facilities
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
  • Currency conversion and international ATM fees
  • Can’t be used over the counter in some places
  • No backup cards
Prepaid travel money cards
  • Protected by PIN and chip
  • Pre-load and secure your exchange rate in multiple foreign currencies
  • Emergency card replacement and backup cards
  • Ideal for managing your travel budget
  • Local ATM fee
  • Reloading time
  • Reloading fee, inactivity fee, card issue fee
  • No fee, assuming cardholder is spending on a currency loaded onto the card
Credit cards for travel
  • Protected by PIN and chip
  • Access to funds up to your credit limit
  • Accepted worldwide
  • No currency conversion/ transaction fees
  • Benefits including rewards points on spending, 0% purchases, frequent flyer perks
  • Emergency card replacement
  • Can charge high withdrawal and cash advance fees
  • Higher spending limit (depends on your approved credit limit)
Traveller’s cheques
  • Secure and can be easily replaced if lost or stolen
  • Photo ID needed to cash cheques
  • Can be costly with initial purchase charges
  • Not all merchants accept traveller’s cheques
Cash
  • Greater payment flexibility
  • Convenience
  • More difficult to manage expenses
  • Higher risk of theft
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A guide to the Japanese yen

Since the introduction of the yen, the denominations have ranged from 10 yen to 10,000 yen. The following is a brief description of the ¥1,000, ¥2,000, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000.

Japanese yen notes

Japanese yen coins

  • 1,000 yen note. This note has been in use since 1945 and is currently the lowest-value yen banknote. The front side of the note bears the image of the legendary regent and politician under Empress Suiko, Prince Shōtoku. The reverse side bears a drawing of Mt Fuji and cherry blossoms.
  • 2,000 yen note. This banknote was issued on 19 July 2000. The front of the note bears a serial number and portrays Shureimon, a 16th-century gate at Shuri Castle in Naha, in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. The reverse side portrays a scene from “The Tale of Genji” and a portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, the noblewoman to whom this work of literature has been attributed.
  • 5,000 yen note. The front side of the 5,000 note has a portrait of Ichiyo Higuchi, a Meiji-era writer and poet. The reverse side depicts “Kakitsubata Flowers” from a folding screen by Korin Ogata.
  • 10,000 yen note. The front side of this note has a portrait of Yukichi Fukuzawa, a Meiji-era philosopher and founder of Keio University. The reverse side has a drawing of the hoo (Chinese phoenix) in the Hall of the Phoenix, Byodoin temple.

ATMs

Most ATMs in Japan do not accept international cards. Look for ATMs inside Japanese Post Bank and Seven Bank. Citibank has a presence in major cities and airports. Visa and Mastercard have ATM location tools on their website so you can find the closest ATM.

The post offices’ opening hours vary with size. Some open from 7am to 11pm, between 8am and 8pm or from 9am to 4pm.

  • Tip: Avoid dynamic currency conversion (DCC) exchange rate charges by choosing to be charged in the local currency when withdrawing your yen.
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Using a mix of travel money options

Japan is still a cash-heavy economy; you’re likely to need to have some cash handy to experience some of the best parts of Japanese food, hospitality, entertainment and culture. Many travellers visiting Japan opt for a combination of traveller’s cheques and debit, credit, and travel cards. Debit and travel cards are a good way to pay for your everyday spending, while credit cards can be used for deposits, big purchases and emergency situations.

If you do plan on using your credit card in Japan, make sure you tell your card provider about your travel plans first so that your credit card is not blocked.

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