Getting a Credit Card: A Marathon Test of Japanese Bureaucracy

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I can’t imagine how many years of study until I can read this all.

Here’s a challenge for you: you need a Japanese phone number to sign up for anything. You need a credit card to get a Japanese phone number. You cannot get a phone number without a credit card. You can’t get a credit, or even debit, card until you’ve been in Japan for six months. What do you do?

It has been a month since my last blog post, and to be honest with you, the only thing of note that has happened is that did I finally get that freaking credit card. The thing is, it actually DID take a month– I can’t tell you how many hoops I had to jump through and just how convoluted the entire process was. Wait, just kidding, I can and I WILL tell you because you’re sitting here right now, with seemingly nothing better to do than to read my blog. You should be out with your friends.

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“Hey, how do I tell them I can’t eat pork–“

Although it’s easy to navigate around Japan on a surface level with only the most basic knowledge of Japanese (train signs, asking for directions, ordering at restaurants), combine not-speaking Japanese with MOUNTAINS of paperwork and bureaucratic hoops for anything related to living, and you’ll find a plethora of articles on the Internet on things as simple as buying a used bicycle, which requires a registration and “deed of transfer” paperwork. As you can imagine, this also extends to getting a credit card.

For this reason, you conduct most of your business in cash, which is handy in its own way. I pay my water and gas bills at the konbini (convenience store); that is, I am mailed slips that can be scanned and paid for in cash. You can even make online orders on, say, Amazon, and get emailed a QR code that lets you pay in cash at the konbini.

But paying for non-Amazon things online, or transferring money back home, is a nightmare. I had to wrangle a teacher at my school to help take me to my bank (SMBC), withdraw cash, feed it back into the same machine, have the same incredibly nice teacher call the bank on the ATM phone, and then walk me through the right sequence of buttons. Though ATMs offer Japanese and English, advanced services like sending money are in Japanese only. If you can’t read it, then you either find a good Samaritan-san or go home defeated. Or, come back in a few years when you’ve mastered Japanese enough to navigate matters such as these.

I do have a card, featuring Midosuke the SMBC otter as seen above, but it is for ATM use only (i.e. no debit card function), and I can’t even use the online banking app until February either. The only way to check my balance would be to go to an ATM and get a physical receipt printed. On another trip, I had also tried to apply for the bank’s credit card, the paperwork for which is the picture at the top of this post. After about an hour of back and forth in broken English and my broken Japanese to painstakingly fill out the form, the result was that no, you can’t do it after all and to come back in February when you’ve been in Japan for six months. Sorry!

In the end, I filled out an online application for the foreigner-friendly Rakuten credit card, and to solve the phone number problem I bought one from Skype. One week, one approval, and one failed delivery attempt later, I can finally conduct online financial business without needing to bike a few miles and/or strong-arm a harried teacher into helping this foreigner dude press some Japanese buttons in the right order.

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