Opening a Personal Bank Account in Japan

I've previously written an article about Japanese Corporate Bank Accounts. Some friends who are visiting Japan have asked me whether it is possible to open a personal bank account in Japan. The answer depends on your status in Japan whether your just a visitor (on a tourist or business visa) or your are formally a resident (possessing a valid Japanese resident card as a foreigner).

Can visitors open a personal account?

If you are a visiting Japan for pleasure or business, the laws are coded in such a way that it is impossible for any banks to open a bank account for you. (The only business they can probably do with you - personal banking - is foreign currency exchange.)

Answer: it is not possible to open a personal account in Japan if you're on a tourist or business visit.

Become a Resident in Japan

A foreign resident is defined as someone who has a long-term work, study or spouse visa. If you do become a foreign resident in Japan, you will be able to open a personal account with any bank in Japan. You'll be issued a Resident Alien Card which you can use it to open your personal bank account.

Choosing a Bank for Personal Banking Needs

Where do you live?

The convenience of a bank for your personal banking needs depends on where do you need. I generally provide my recommendations whether you either live or work in Tokyo, or outside of it.

Living or Working Within Tokyo

If you're living within Tokyo, you'll notice that these are the main banks which has branches and ATMs almost everywhere:

Opening a personal bank account with any of these banks is easy.

Living outside Tokyo

If you live outside Tokyo - even if you're in a adjacent prefecture (such a Chiba, Saitama or Kanagawa) - you'll notice that the banks serving the geographic areas are very different. Having a bank account with a local bank will be convenient because of the available ATMs and either free or lower ATM-usage fees.

ATM services

ATM Fees

It is important to note that many banks charge ATM usage fees if you make withdrawals after working hours (i.e. after 6 PM on workdays and weekends/holidays). The applies even to the ATMs operated by the owned banks. If ATM fees are applicable, they are usually ¥108 or ¥216 per withdrawal transactions. Banks offer the fees to be waived if you maintain a minimum balance in your account. Such fees will be even higher if you use an ATM card to withdraw (or even to deposit) at an ATM not owned by your bank.

ATM Menu Language

Most ATMs offers English as an option, and is selectable from the main screen.

Internet Banking

Internet-Banking Fees

For personal bank accounts, Internet-banking access fees are usually free and there are no monthly charges. Internet-banking is convenient to check your balance and previous transactions. When you use Internet-banking to send money to another person or company (e.g. for paying your rent), the services charge will be much reduced then when you go to the bank counter to initiate the same translation.

English-language Interface Internet-banking

If you absolutely require English-language interface for Internet-banking, you basically have only two (2) choices:

Shinsei Bank

Shinsei Bank has English-language interface for Internet-banking. The further advantage of this bank is there are not usage fees for cash withdrawals at ATMs operated by Japan Post bank and Seven Bank.

Seven Bank

Seven Bank is another bank which has English-language interface for Internet-banking. Their ATMs are available at all Seven-Eleven convenient stores, after all they are the same group of companies.

Citibank Japan (not a recommended option)

Citibank Japan is another bank which offers English-language Internet-banking. However, this bank is not a recommended option because they are not fully integrated into the Japanese domestic banking network.

My personal recommendations

MUFG, SMBC or Japan Post Bank

I recommend you to have at least an account with at least one of these banks if you live in Tokyo: MUFG, SMBC or Japan Post Bank (JP Bank).

Internet Banks: Sony Bank and Rakuten Bank

Internet banks offer free or lower ATM transatction fees, as well as lower inter-bank transfer fees.

Sony Bank

Sony Bank offers 4 free withdrawals on MUFG and SMBC ATMs per month. Its Internet-banking app on smartphone and offers one-touch Touch ID fingerprint validation (instead on cumbersome password entry) to instantly display your current balance.

Rakuten Bank

Rakuten Bank is another internet bank worthy of your consideration.

How to Open a Personal Bank Account

Step One: Obtain Your Alien Resident Card

After you arrive in Japan with valid residency, go to your local city or town government (after you have decided where to live and found your apartment) to register your status. You'll be issued a Alien Resident Card, which is an absolute requirement to opening of a bank account.

Step Two: Make your Personal Seal

In Japan, your personal seal is used to sign and legally bound documents. Therefore, it is essential to have your personal seal for the purpose of opening a bank account.

Should you Register Your Seal with Your City or Town Government?

You have the option to register your seal with your city or town government. It is a procedure to signify that you're using this seal to enter into all contracts.

Using Your Seal or the Signature Method?

You might have heard that is possible to sign your documents instead of using your personal seal with your bank. First, only a few banks allow this practice, and most require you to have a personal serial. However, I recommend you against using the signature method for the following reasons:

Signing space is too small

Unlike document forms for signing used in western countries, the Japanese forms are meant for putting your personal seal and offers a very small space. So, that means you really have to squeeze your signature into a confined small circle. The space is usually not a white or blank area, and printed with some shapes or text.

Japanese bank staffs are not trained to authenticate and validate signatures

This is the killer reason: Japan is not a signature-based country and therefore Japanese bank staff are simply not trained to validate and authenticate signatures. There are are stories that bank staff refuses to recognize the signature because the style of writing is different than the original one signed when the account was opened. The Japanese staff expects the signature be very similarly to what they have on record. So, if you don't want the nightmare in future whe you sit in front of the bank account signing documents many times to get your money, you should always use your personal seal instead.

Step Three: Open the Bank Account

If the bank has a branch, you'll need to visit them with your ID (Alien Registration Card) and Personal Seal. If the bank is pure Internet bank, all procedures are completed online and/or by mail and are done in Japanese.

Having multiple bank accounts

It is important to bank with at least two different banks "just in case if something happens" like unexpected computer downtime, etc. For example, Mizuho ATMs suffered a temporary unavailability for several days around March 2011, strangling people needed access to cash. Do not put all your eggs in one basket, but instead split your assets across multiple banks for your protection and convenience.