Still a plus for Seven-Eleven

September 27th, 2009 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

“Welcome to Japan,” but you still have to pay the ¥210 handling charge

Most residents of Japan didn’t notice it at the time, but if you were a foreign tourist here in the summer of 2007, Seven & I Holdings made it much easier to travel the country by allowing its Seven Bank ATMs to accept bank cards and credit cards from overseas.

Networks like VISA’s Plus and MasterCard’s Cirrus systems let travelers access bank ATMs all over the world, but  Japanese banks never joined these systems, and until Japan’s post offices signed up earlier this decade, there were very few ways for foreign tourists in Japan to get emergency cash, save for foreign exchange kiosks in airports, some machines run by credit-card companies and placed in or near department stores, and maybe at the front desks of the larger hotels. You could, of course, always go to a teller window at a bank, but many banks outside the larger cities weren’t equipped to handle such transactions as recently as the late ’90s. Anyone who has tried to buy a money order or cut a cashier’s check in foreign currency, even in Tokyo, knows what a pain in the neck it can be.

When the post offices started allowing its ATMs to accept Plus and other foreign cards, it was a boon to foreign tourists, but post-office ATMs tend to be limited to the same business hours as post offices. And after Junichiro Koizumi privatized national postal service in 2005, the number of post offices decreased.

That’s why Seven-Eleven’s decision to accept foreign bank cards was so significant. Though Seven-Elevens aren’t everywhere in Japan (they’re practically nonexistent in Shikoku and many areas of the Tohoku region), they’re open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and in most major cities they’re on practically every street corner.

I’ve never been able to find out why only Seven-Eleven offers this service. In a discussion I once read at a tourism Web site, somebody said that Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation acts as the watchdog of Japan’s ATM network and that SMBC didn’t want to allow foreign cards. Why it didn’t want to allow foreign cards isn’t a mystery: revamping the ATM system would be very costly. But supposedly when Seven Bank expressed interest in joining the Plus System, VISA, which accepted SMBC cards at overseas ATMs, threatened SMBC by saying if it didn’t allow Seven Bank access to the Plus system then SMBC customers would be restricted from using Plus ATMs in other countries, so they relented.

Whether or not this is true, no other convenience store has in the intervening years joined Seven-Eleven in accepting foreign cards at its ATMs.

As for the difference between post-office ATMs and Seven-Eleven ATMs, Seven-Eleven only gives cash in denominations of ¥10,000, while at post offices you can withdraw in ¥1,000 increments. And while both services have English-language screens, post-office ATMs also speak in English.

As could be expected, Citibank ATMs also accept foreign cards. Shinsei Bank, which is relatively new and has always been something of a rebel in the domestic banking industry (for a while they didn’t charge ATM handling fees to non-Shinsei bank card users until industry pressure forced them to), also accepts foreign cards, but their network is rather small.

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