The eternal question many foreigners have to deal with: how can I get a credit card in Japan? In theory, this shouldn’t be a difficult task considering just how common credit cards are. In practice, however, getting a credit card in Japan can be bit more frustrating, particularly if your income fluctuates each month or if you are not an expat with a high salary. This means that many foreigners in Japan, like those working in the Eikaiwa industry (English conversation schools), can have a more difficult time getting a credit card in Japan. Fortunately, Japan is still pretty much a cash-oriented country, and one can even pay for things purchased online at the nearest convenience store. However, there are times when this is not an option, and having a credit card can certainly make living in Japan a little bit easier. Because we have all been in that difficult situation we have decided to share our experience and how we were able to get our first credit card in Japan.
Before we begin, I wanted to briefly talk about debit cards since many people tend to consider them as alternatives to credit cards, and because they are usually easier to get. However, something that we must remember is that the concept of debit cards is quite new in Japan. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that some of the nation’s major banks started to promote debit cards, their target market being university students with no stable income and credit history. It was during that year that I considered getting a debit card with MUFG. Unfortunately, the bank promptly told me that they would not let me apply for one because I couldn’t read kanji. The response got me quite perplexed because, in a nutshell, a debit card uses your own money; for that reason, I assumed that the rules would be loser just like they are in other countries. Of course, each bank will have its own rules, and even various branches might interpret them differently. So don’t be discouraged if you want to apply for a debit card.
One of the first things new residents have to do is open a bank account in Japan. Depending on the company you are working for, you were likely recommended various banks from JP Post to Shinsei Bank. In fact, Shinsei Bank is known for its bilingual staff and their English website, which makes them the top choice among many foreign residents. However, everything has its pros and cons, and Shinsei is no immune to that rule. To begin with, Shinsei Bank has a miniscule footprint in Japan, which means you will not find a single Shinsei ATM in the nation. Those who have accounts there know that this is usually not a problem since Shinsei has had a very healthy partnership with 7-Eleven, the largest convenience store chain in Japan, allowing people with a Shinsei cash card to use 7-Eleven’s extensive range of ATMs. However, Shinsei reviewed its multiple partnerships, and things ended up taking a turn for the worse. Starting October 2018, Shinsei began charging a 108-yen fee for using ATMs to those users who are not Shinsei Gold or Shinsei Platinum. If you want to be Shinsei Gold, you must either have an overall balance of one million yen in your account, or load 10,000 yen or more each month to your GAICA card (more on the GAICA card later). If you are being charged that 108-yen fee, you might initially think that it is not a preposterous amount of money, but unless you limit your ATM usage to once a month, those 108 yen will add up; and if you indeed plan to limit your ATM usage, you have to think about how much money you are comfortable carrying around with you. Japan might be a very safe country, but having hundreds of thousands of yen in your wallet can indeed be problematic if you lose your wallet or in the rare event that a pickpocketer targets you. As a result, Shinsei Bank ended up losing most of its allure despite still being the top choice among those who don’t speak Japanese and who rely on online banking. If you are in this situation, a good option is to open two bank accounts, using Shinsei for all things related to online banking, and the other one when using ATMs.
Many companies offer a variety of credit cards, which one can apply for online. Among foreigners, the credit card that pops up the most during conversations is the Rakuten card, the reason being that Rakuten has made this credit card very accessible. It is for that reason that you might see many Japanese nationals carrying their Rakuten cards, particularly those who are still in university. The Rakuten card is so popular that there are tutorials online so foreigners can apply for one.
However, since the Rakuten card is the one discussed the most, we want to focus on another card. In fact, a more traditional and elegant card: the SMBC one.
Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, not to be confused with Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, is one of Japan’s three largest banks. You might recognize them due to their so-called “Rising Mark”, a fresh green logo that looks like either a flag or three rectangular panels. One of the things SMBC is known for is its customer service, which many foreigners are able to experience when opening an account with them. Even the language barriers that can make other establishments treat foreign customers as a nuisance are not enough to detriment the SMBC employees from providing customers with their utmost sense of omotenashi, a Japanese term that reflects the country’s mindset when it comes to hospitality. Of course, not all branches are equal, and as a rule of thumb the farther from the city center you go, the more likely you’ll be to encounter an employee who clearly doesn’t want to deal with a foreign customer. Therefore, if you want to decrease the chances of having a bad experience, head to the SMBC branches located in the heart of your city.
Once you have opened an account with SMBC, the next step is the credit card application. SMBC offers several credit cards depending on your lifestyle and your age. For example, there is a gold card that is only available for those 30 years and older. You can apply for a JCB, Mastercard, or Visa card. Their Visa cards are particularly famous because The Sumitomo Bank, SMBC predecessor before Sumitomo’s merger with Sakura Bank, was the first financial institution in Japan to introduce Visa credit cards back when it was issuing BankAmericards.
One thing to remember is that, even though more Japanese are using credit cards these days, Japan is still a cash-loving country pacing behind other countries when it comes to the ease of internet banking. After having lived in Tokyo for a few years, I was impressed when I saw people in China and the U.S. pay what they owed to each other with services like Zelle. It was like traveling through time or witnessing witchcraft. That should give you an overall idea of what to expect when it comes to Japanese banks. It is also for this reason that Japanese financial institutions tend to be very cautious to the point of looking paranoid when it comes to issuing credit cards. That’s why as a foreigner with no credit history, you should not aim for the most luxurious credit cards until you’ve proven how much money you spend and that you pay all your balance in full each month. For that reason, SMBC’s classic card is great option. They issue it to those who are 20 years or older and with a stable income. If you are new to Japan, just estimate your annual income when filling out the application form. One of the reasons we recommend this card is that it has a very low annual fee (1,350 yen), which becomes 0 yen if you use your card at least once a year. Japanese credit cards tend to have very high annual fees, particularly if you are looking for gold and platinum ones. So being able to have a credit card with no annual fees is a huge plus.
A very important thing you will need, and which might very well be one of the reasons foreigners don’t get approved when applying for credit cards, is an inkan or hanko. For those who don’t know, inkan and hanko are seals that work as personal signatures. There are actually many types of seals, ginko-in being the ones used for banking. Nevertheless, the difference won’t be important here. You will be completely okay even if you decide to buy the cheapest hanko you can find and use it as your banking seal. What you have to do is go to hanko store and get one with your last name, preferably in katakana and as you would write it in official documents. Also, and quite sadly, some expensive hanko are made from ivory, so make sure you don’t go a store that sells those. Once you have your own hanko or inkan, use it both when opening your bank account and when applying for SMBC’s credit card. It might sound quite insignificant, but using a hanko instead of your own signature does make a difference.
After you are done with the application and the SMBC employee who helped you through the process thanks you for your time, you will head home and wait. Perhaps you are used to credit cards that are instantly approved, or ones that take a few hours. That’s not really the case in Japan, and you will have to wait some days until you know what the outcome was. Some banks say that you will receive your credit card (or a letter informing that you were rejected) within three weeks from applying, though hopefully it will be far shorter than that. As a reference, I got my credit card after seven business days, which I would say is actually a very reasonable timeframe. However, following it’s always a good idea to live by the idiom “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”
When it comes to credit cards, the outcome of an application could be the one we were dreading. If yours happens to be denied, don’t sweat it. There could be many pedantic reasons behind it that have nothing to do with you and that are outside your control. Simply go on with your life in Japan and wait until you are ready to apply again; and be certain you are being financially responsible: pay your rent on time, file your taxes, and try to have an income that is as stable as it can be. These things will show financial institutions that you are someone worthy of a credit card.
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We are recommending SMBC because of the very positive experiences many of us and our friends have had when applying for one of their credit cards, but it’s also good to know that SMBC is not the only option. Additionally, other major banks like Mizuho and MUFG also offer credit cards. So if you open a bank account with them, you should try to get one of their credit cards as well. Besides them, there are other credit cards worth checking out since they are notorious for being easier to get:
1. Rakuten Card:
As we mentioned before, the Rakuten card is very popular among foreigners because of its accessibility. It has no annual fee, and it can be a fun card to use if you are into rewards.
2. EPOS Card:
The Epos card is not only easy to get, but it’s one of the few that you can get instantly upon being approved. That’s right. You can go to any Marui department store, apply, and be approved on the spot. Additionally, some landlords allow you to pay rent using the EPOS card, if not downright telling you to get one so you can pay rent.
3. ANA to Me Card PASMO JCB:
As the name suggests, this credit card allows you to collect ANA miles. Additionally, you can get MetroPoints each time you take Tokyo Metro train’s【NOTE: Only Tokyo Metro, not the JR lines and other companies’ trains】 and then transfer them to ANA miles. The ANA to Me Card PASMO JCB is not the best credit card to accrue miles (if you are interested in credit cards that accrue miles, I can write an article about my recommendations), but it’s a great card to get into this hobby. Additionally, it’s not that difficult to get.
4. Saison Card International:
Just like the EPOS card, the Saison card can be issued on the spot, making it a good option for those in Japan who are in dire need of a credit card.
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When we talked about opening a bank account in Japan, we mentioned the GAICA card that Shinsei Bank offers, and that loading 10,000 yen or more into the card each month could get you a Shinsei Gold status. However, what exactly is the GAICA card? Since Shinsei doesn’t offer a credit card of their own, they introduced the GAICA card to fill in that void. Its full name is GAICA Flex Prepaid Card, and as that suggests, it is essentially a prepaid card. The benefits of the GAICA card are that it gives you the option of using a card even if you were not able to obtain a credit or debit card through another financial institution, and that it offers free ATM withdrawals when traveling abroad. Additionally, Shinsei’s cash card used to work when using ATMs located overseas, but that service stopped on December 8, 2018, making GAICA the only option (and your one and only must) for people who only have an account with Shinsei Bank.
SMBC Trust Bank became part of the Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group in 2013, and following the acquisition of Citibank Japan’s retail banking operations, they launched a new brand named PRESTIA in 2015. PRESTIA offers similar services to those of Shinsei’s, and thus operates as their competitor. As customers, the rise of PRESTIA means that Shinsei is no longer the one and only bank to offer online banking in English. More options are always good because they force companies to step up their game. As a result, PRESTIA has had an aggressive campaign to attract foreign customers. They offer foreign currency deposits, a comprehensive English website, online banking, English-speaking staff, a cash card that offers free ATM withdrawals when traveling overseas, housing loans, and two types of credit cards. The only downside is that PRESTIA’s two credit cards are gold and platinum ones, which means that their annual fees are quite high. However, if you spend over 300,000 yen a year with the gold card, the annual fee will be free; and if you spend 1 million yen with the platinum one, the annual fee will be halved.
As you can attest, Japan has many options when it comes to credit cards and their alternatives. However, it is quite unfortunate that foreigners face such a hard time getting something as essential as a credit card. Because we have all been there (and some continue being there), we decided to share some of our tips and alternatives that will hopefully allow you to have a smoother time when applying for a credit card in Japan, and facilitate your life here. Don’t forget to let us know about your experiences with Japanese banks and credit cards! We would love to know what kind of things you have been through and encounter.