Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
Currency exchange kiosks at airports, in your home country, and in major cities in Japan usually offer less-favorable exchange rates or charge high commissions. Avoid these if possible, since there are other options available if you plan in advance. Plus, if something goes wrong with the transaction, you might not have time to formulate a plan B. It’s possible to run into major hassles with fraud prevention if you try to change large sums - even sums less than $500 - at currency exchange kiosks. If you want to avoid long phone calls with ignorant customer service reps, try to talk to your bank about the transaction in advance, but even that isn’t a guaranteed method.
You're even more likely to run into trouble if you attempt to charge large amounts to a debit card at a currency exchange in Japan. This can easily be avoided by bringing cash to exchange, but then you run the risk of misplacing that cash - or being detained by customs on suspicion of illegal activities. (Japan isn't likely to detain you, but take extra care if your home country is known to be paranoid!)
Keep in mind that usual cash exchange methods inside Japan may take longer than usual during the 2020 Olympics, especially around Tokyo. Leave extra time and be patient with the currency exchange staff, and have an extra debit card ready in case you need to go to an ATM instead.
Use a Bank in Your Native Country
Luckily, the currency exchange companies and their high fees aren't your only option. Your best bet is to plan ahead and try to change as much money as possible at a reputable bank in your home country. Since many banks only offer their best exchange rates to customers, it may be worth it to open a checking account at a larger bank, but watch out for the minimum account levels some banks require in order for fees to be waived. This may not be worth the hassle for one-time, low-budget trips, but it’s probably worth it for longer stays or if you’re taking the whole family.
Many travelers recommend larger banks like Chase Bank and Bank of America. Branches of these banks in major metro areas in your home country may be able to sell you currency on the spot, but always call in advance. You may need to wait two business days for the currency to be delivered to the branch, but it may be worth it: major banks typically offer rates that are 5% better than Travelex or other currency services, and rarely charge fees.
Watch out, though: some banks will contract out currency exchange services to Travelex or another company, adding another layer of bureaucracy, hassle and fees to your transaction. Some will even require you to go to a far-off Travelex office to pick up the currency!
Use ATM Cards, Not Travelers' Checks
It is possible to withdraw Japanese yen from ATMs in Japan using major American debit cards, especially Visa. Many banks will charge a foreign transaction fee, which seems to typically be $3-$5, in my experience. This fee is reasonable compared to many currency exchanges, though.
Look for 7-11s, Family Marts, and other convenience stores for ATMs in Japan. If you notified your bank of your travel plans in advance, you shouldn't run into issues with being declined at these ATMs. The only problem is that the daily withdrawal limits for foreign cards at ATMs can be as low as ¥30,000 (about $300), which can be tricky to manage - and you can’t just go to another ATM and do a second transaction.
It may be tempting to take a traveler’s check or other safe money method, but be careful and do your research in advance, since many banks in Japan won’t take traveler’s checks. You may be redirected to cash the check at a branch of the bank that issued it, which can be very inconvenient or even impossible outside of Tokyo.
Carry Plenty of Cash
If you’re worried about traveling to Japan with large amounts of cash on hand, don’t be - the country is extremely safe. Take standard precautions against pickpockets, especially around Olympic venues, and don’t wave cash around. Being stuck in a situation with no cash and a malfunctioning ATM card can get you in real trouble, so stash extra cash someplace safe!
When out and about far from your hotel, carrying ¥20,000 per adult in your party at all times is your safest bet. This could potentially save you from major trouble if you suddenly need a taxi or a new hotel.
© 2018 Ria Fritz
Kameidopapa on July 01, 2020:
I realize this is an old post at this point but 7-11 atm's are everywhere and fee free. At least if you are with a u.s. credit union. And the exchange rate is very low, much better than the commercial bank or airport exchanges.
Pascal pierre on November 10, 2019:
Hello to all,
I have been to Japan a few time in the past years. Okinawa, Tokyo Kanto, Osaka , Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and there is no problem using ¥2000 notes. Japan is a cash country and paying with ¥5000 or ¥10000 bills is no issue at all. Of course if your purchase is under ¥1000, using a higher face value bill can prove difficult in small shops. To get a good échange rate for your euros or dollars, currency exchanges at haneda or any other airport offer good rates. Never had a problem.
Enjoy Japan. Such a beautiful country.