About a month before I was to meet Sony Bank to hear about their new service for foreign residents, I was at one of Japan's megabanks, changing personal information related to my bank account. I was there with my 6-month-old son, hoping to finish as quickly as possible and rush back home to feed him. Instead, I spent the next three hours desperately trying to remember how I wrote my strokes of signature two decades ago. The problem was that I had to write the exact same signature I had used when opening the account (when signatures were still acceptable), or I couldn't complete the procedure — but there was one stroke that I was just not getting right. "A tad longer and tilting to the left," the clerk kept giving me hints, but the harder I thought about it, the harder it was to get it right.
While my unpleasant bank anecdote was, to a greater degree, my fault (I am after all responsible for remembering my signature), it made me think about other banking problems foreign residents in Japan continue to face today. When Japan Today recently asked our readers what some of the main issues they have had with banking in Japan were, we received over a hundred comments within a few hours. Insufficient English support, lack of flexibility, and incompatibility with foreign banks were just a few among the most commonly expressed ones. Many mentioned complicated paperwork and inconvenient business hours — while some summarized the chain of problems all too well: "The bank wants me to have a phone number, and the phone company wants me to have a bank account first. #firstworldproblems."
It shouldn't, however, be so difficult to address the issue. A record 2.8 million foreigners were registered as residents in Japan last year, including a record-high of 1.65 million workers. Given the eased immigration control law, which went into effect in April 2019, and the influence of international events like the Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo in 2025, the numbers are only likely to continue increasing. With this comes the pressing need for stress alleviation in various spheres of life in Japan, and banking is undoubtedly in the top three.
Luckily, Sony Bank's new service for foreign residents, English online banking, was just launched, vowing to ease some of Japan's most frustrating banking issues.
Created by internationals for internationals
The new service, English online banking, launched on March 30, 2020. It comes with Sony Bank WALLET, an international cash card with Visa debit functionality that is easy to navigate, and available with English support. It can be used in Japan and more than 200 countries and regions to pay instantly, to withdraw cash in 11 currencies (10 foreign currencies and Japanese yen). This new service also enables customers to remit funds abroad from Japan in English. Launched by Sony Bank, an exclusively online bank founded in 2001, the new service differs from the competition because it was created "for internationals by internationals."
"In every step of the way, there were always international people involved," says Ruth Marie Jarman, CEO of Tokyo-based consulting firm Jarman International KK, who, herself, recalls having similar banking problems when she first arrived in Japan over three decades ago.
Sony Bank and Jarman got together in 2018 with the mission to make Sony Bank "the most foreigner-friendly bank" that can help foreign residents start their lives in Japan as smoothly as possible. The team studied a sample group of approximately 50 foreign residents from mostly English-speaking countries, who had lived and worked in Japan on average longer than 11 years and had basic to intermediate level of Japanese language proficiency. The purpose of the study group was to point out the main banking issues foreign residents in Japan have and find solutions. Not surprisingly, the key issues the group pointed out were very similar to the responses Japan Today's readers pointed out:
"Number one was lack of English support, number two was lack of flexibility, and number three was (that Japanese banks were) 'too conservative,'" Jarman says. "So those were the three things that Sony Bank decided to address: provide English support, flexibility, and (refrain from) being too conservative."
Sony Bank’s English online banking: Easy, Fair, Smart
Based on the data they collected from the study group, the Sony Bank team founded their new service on three keywords: easy — to use and obtain, fair — same services apply to all, and smart — go entirely cashless in Japan and abroad.
To open an account at Sony Bank and obtain the Sony Bank WALLET, customers need to simply download the Sony Bank “Open Account” app, provided entirely in English, and fill in the necessary personal information. Instead of a hanko (personal seal), required by most Japanese banks now, customers only need to scan their residence card (with a valid address in Japan), and their health insurance card. Unlike most other banks that require a minimum of six months of residency in Japan, Sony Bank imposes no restrictions related to one's visa status or length of stay in Japan — provided that they have a valid residence card and health insurance card.
It takes approximately 10 days to receive your Sony Bank WALLET. Inside Japan, this card can be used as a debit card for payments at stores where Visa is accepted. Outside Japan, the card can be used the same way, at stores where Visa is accepted, and holders can also withdraw cash in 10 foreign currencies from local ATMs, including US Dollar, Euro, British Pound, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Swiss Franc, Hong Kong Dollar, New Zealand Dollar, South African Rand and Swedish Krona.
The Sony Bank WALLET also has perks that any users can benefit from — including a minimum 0.5% cashback on all shopping done inside Japan, and a 3% discount at Sony stores. Card holders are also entitled to minimum four times fee-waived cash withdrawals per month at Sony Bank's 90,000 partner ATMs inside Japan — and you can even earn a 1,000 yen present if you use your Sony Bank WALLET more than five times by the end of the second month after the month in which your card was issued.
In terms of language support, aside from providing all details in English on its Open account app and English website, as well as having online banking entirely in English, as of present, Sony Bank also offers an online live chat in English during the day, as well as telephone-based night support from 5:30 pm to 9:00 am (weekdays) for card loss and unauthorized use cases only. The bank is, of course, looking to later expand to other products and services, but one step at a time.
"We know that the first few months in Japan are a really tough period," says Noriko Rzonca, Executive Officer at Sony Bank's Digital Transformation Department. "As a start, we want to make sure that we cover the fundamentals (for starting a life in Japan)," Rzonca says. This means, she explains, to ensure that newly-arriving foreign residents can set up an account in a language they understand, at their convenience, and make it as quickly as possible without any unnecessary stress.
"It's the first time after 32 years of living in Japan that I feel like I'm in control of my finances at a bank," Jarman says. "I am truly excited about this."
For more information on Sony Bank WALLET, details on how to open an account and other related FAQs, see here.© Japan Today
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Iskra Vasileva Gencheva-Mikami
Thank you! Great article, helpful information.
How long before the bait-and-switch?
All services free ?
I pay nothing to my current bank outdide overseas remittance.
So what is the catch ?
Why do they need your health insurance card? No need to show health insurance card to get a hanko registered.
MUFJ also has significant portions of its online banking system in English, probably others do too.
Health insurance? I think a majority of the foreigners I know here don't have the national health insurance.
I signed up soon after the last article about it. It’s fine, still a little bit of a runaround online to get simple things done but really not much hassle. Now that I’ve got the VISA debit card things are going to be a bit easier. If it weren’t for the free withdrawals I wouldn’t have bothered though.
Ruth Jarman Shiraishi
The Sony Bank Blog also offers great info on security, etc. https://moneykit.net/en/blog/
Zichi - give Sony Bank a go. If nothing else, at least the withdrawals are free for the first 4 each month. I also used Shinsei but was very disappointed when they started charging for withdrawals a couple of years ago. TBH I really don’t know why the ATM fees are needed when in most countries they seem to be moving away from charging those.
I was going to sign up due to the expected ease-of-use. But the website says it will report the account to the US IRS, which is unacceptable to me.
Do you have a link to the MUFG Bank English site? I currently use MUFG's online banking site, and it is totally JA, with no EN option that I can see. I use Chrome's built-in translation. But, an actual English page would be preferred to machine translation.
SMBC Trust Bank/Prestia which gobbled up CitiBank will accept checks from foreign banks...for a fee of course, but if you want to drop $100,000 American dollars by check, it is only ¥5000
Living in Japan for many many years with a business, I have never opted into the national health insurance scheme. I have never had trouble renewing my visa and never been turned away from any hospital if I needed care.
That is what I mean by Bait-and-Switch! They are also become more intrusive in terms of personal data. They want American's Social Security numbers!
Foreign residents are required by law to join one of the health insurance schemes, but some opt out because they have their own insurance contracts with private firms or they do not want to pay the fees.
There is no penalty for not joining public insurance. But the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau asks foreign residents to show their public health insurance cards when applying to renew their visas to urge them to join the health care system.
Zichi: SMBC Prestia Trust Bank. Not the regular SMBC Banks. Research it.
@Yak, you are not required to present your health insurance information when renewing your visa.
Apologies, I checked it again and it may only be the money transfers section of their system. When you click on transfer a language option comes up on the bottom right of the screen and you can change to one of about 6 languages there.
So maybe MUFG isn't so hot after all.
While the website still needs to happen, SMBC has an English app and that's great. I tried to use this new Sony app to open an account and it couldn't read my alien registration card. At that point they say they can't do anything for you and that was the beginning and end of my banking relationship with Sony. I'm sure an English bank is great but the app needs to better identify the information on the card you are taking photos of.
Zichi: There home page is actually very good considering it is in English and done by Japanese that actually like to overload garbage all over the place.
Lots of phone numbers but no email contact. Kind of strange.
But they do accept bank checks, annuity checks etc. I do not think they would accept a personal check though. Tried to find that but to no avail.
Sooo, the app is not available on the US app store. So much for being international and foreigner friendly....
I see this a lot with apps from Japanese companies, not sure why it is so hard to put their apps on various region app stores. Just an oversight, or does Apple make it hard?
Shinsei don't charge for ATM withdrawals, what are you talking about?
I don't know what's so special about this. I've been using Shinsei bank for decades and it is always available in English and no hanko was needed. But their foreign currency deposit seems OK.
This looks like a cemmercial to me. Anyway, my bank is gonna start charging for basic transactions. Where’s the story on THAT big news? Time to switch?
No need to use a health insurance card, as many foreigners haven't got one (especially first/one year workers).
This "bank" looks similar to City Bank; basically only for rich ex-pats, working in high-level business, such as banking, investment, etc.
It doesn't appear to be useful, or flexible for most foreigners.
Everytime I go to a my bank SMBC..it's one of the most annoying, grating, time consuming experiences...no matter how simple the request is.. half the time the staff don't know the procedures but seem scared to ask anyone...
Japanese banks are like dinosaurs. They do not have online banking in English for nonresident customers. They should join the rest of the world Banks that serve the international banking community. They will be amazed with the magnitude of the international nonresident market.
Of course I have a health insurance card but non of Sony’s business or any bank. That info is just to steal your personal data and pass it on to Sony life insurance or other Sony group company.
and no credit card for the gaijin ? Only a debit card ?
Connor Michael Winter
Great idea, but I’ve just tried to download the app and I can’t because it’s only available on the Japanese region App Store. Meaning many foreigners won’t be able to access the app. Seems like a bit of an oversight if they are trying to help foreigners. (And no, it’s not always possible to change App Store regions, particularly if you have subscriptions to services from your native region)
Ruth Jarman Shiraishi
Thank you Connor! Will definitely check on this Japanese region app store issue. Do you think most internationals living in Japan use their home country's region? I wonder if those using the home country region for the app store would have smart phones bought abroad or who are here less permanently? Any input would be very helpful. You can also leave comments on the facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/sonybank.en/
Unless they've changed again, then yes they do.
Get the Giaca card with the Shinsei bank card, I think as long as you keep ¥10,000 on the Gaia account then you don’t pay any withdrawal fees on your Shinsei bank account.
Thanks for that bass... it could be very useful.
Android/Google allows for multiple accounts on your smartphone, each can have a different region associated with them. I use one account for my USA apps and subscriptions and another for the Japanese ones. That might help if you need to access the Japanese region apps - just make another Google account.
I renewed my visa every few years till I got a PR 5 years ago and have never been asked for Health Insurance. Unless the rules have changed in the last 5 years I don’t think that’s correct.
@Ruth Jarman Shiraishi
There are many reasons why someone may have their Apple App Store region set to something other than Japan. Likely the biggest would be they just never thought about it.
However, there is NO reason why the app should be restricted to the Japan store only, there is simply no advantage to doing this, it's not like someone could install it and open an account while not actually living in, or ever visiting Japan. You need ID, address, etc.
Fix the listing on the App Store, it's not the (potential) customer that should be having to think about this, it's Sony. If you want foreign customers, then allow those customers to install your app.
I'm with Shinsei and as long as you use their Visa Gaica card every month the banking including withdrawals is free. Only difference here with Sony is the reduction at Sony stores. I was originally with SMBC and they were absolutely awful requiring a 3 hour visit every month to transfer funds abroad. I can do it on my mobile app now with Shinsei.
Revolut is now available in Japan.
Free money sending, best exchange rates possible. A physical debit card or a virtual one etc. Free ATM withdrawals but with limit of 25k JPY per month. I don't think they Sony bank can best those...
I've been with Shinsei for over a couple of years now and am happy with them.
When I first came to Tokyo for a new job, most banks told me to sod off basically as my Japanese was non-existent at the time. I went to Shinsei's main branch in Shibuya and opened an account within 1 hour. They had an iPad application with everything in English. Only needed my residence card and a phone number.
Their online banking site was very basic at first but has since had a revamp and is quite nice now.
ATM withdrawals are free if you have a Shinsei Gold rank which you get for the first 3 months. After that you only need to maintain at least 1 million balance to keep the Gold rank.
The best thing is their ATM network which is basically every convenience store (7/11, FamilyMart, Lawson) and more. So free convenient 24/7 withdrawals!
You can't use the National Health service without your health insurance card and would have to pay the full 100% of charges. Also the same for drugs. I have had a card like so many others for 30 years.
Good for you. However, there are foreigners, in their first year in Japan, that do not (and may use private health insurance and/or coverage from home). There might even be poorer foreigners in Japan (from developing countries and/or working for wages less than eikaiwa, etc)
Regardless, that's not my point. My point was that a health insurance card is irrelevant to setting up a bank account, especially for foreigners, many of which may not have one, thus making this new bank, aimed at foreigners, irrelevant to them.
It's akin to opening up a restaurant, aimed mainly at women, and installing only urinals in the toilets.
What does being in their first year have to do with it? That just generally means it's a lot cheaper for that first year since they don't have a declared income from the previous year in Japan.
Anyone who resides in Japan for more than 90 days (i.e. not on a tourist visa) must enroll in the national health sytem. It's the law. The days being able to use private insurance went over a decade ago along with the international driving license shortcut. I guess that Sony are asking for a health card to weed out people who have left the country or are only staying short term. This may also explain why their app is only on the Japan store. Also, you need some financial stability to be able to get a health card, and that's the customers they want.
I just started with Sony Bank this week, Quite straightforward, decent website, good security. So far so good. Hopefully I can do away with my inaka bank soon.
Talking about banks and phone services in Japan is like talking about a PAIN IN THE NECK.
They take all and give nothing in return. My current bank recently started charging for 540 yen for "same bank transfers", plus 110 yen minimum for any withdraw, plus 1,350 yen annual visa card fee, plus 430 yen for "FURIKOMI" and since there are only 3 major banks where I live my options are limited.
Recently I started using Transferwise.com and it made my life a little easier, still I have to make a trip to the ATM to transfer money to them but the fee is ridiculously low and the exchange rate is live. My old bank STOLEN from me 6,000 yen for all international transfers, but that is history now.
I'll give this card a try, but is their an annual card fee??
"""while some summarized the chain of problems all too well: "The bank wants me to have a phone number, and the phone company wants me to have a bank account first. #firstworldproblems."""
This is how Japan keeps the economy going, all major businesses work together or are interconnected towards one common goal, PROFITS, and they do it by blackmailing and Cornering their customers, and most customers DON'T EVEN REALIZE IT!!.
This has been my experience so far, from phone companies, to Insurance, to banks, to Car dealers, to realtors, and even doctors, hospitals. and Pharmacies all cover each others back and work together towards one common goal, Profits regardless. and sadly some times I fall into their traps.
The average citizen don't even stand a chance, and constantly gets trapped in their webs network one after the other.
No, you must be enrolled in National Health OR Employer Provided Health Insurance (kenko hoken/social insurance), eg (usually the blue colored card) if you look at the Sony Bank website that's the card they are showing as an example actually, not an NHI card.
When I first came to Japan, Shinsei was a good option, but over the years, their service has really deteriorated. Used to be free ATM even when off network (gone), their bank card used to work overseas (gone/now you got to go through the hoops of applying for their other Gaica or whatever it's called card), used to be able to do some services over their counter (mostly gone).
Both of these plans are part of the health system, so I was not incorrect. And both are accepted by Sony。
Nope you clearly said must enroll in National Health. Employer provided health is the other provision of the health law that your employer must enroll you.
I said national health system, not National Health Insurance. The two types of insurance that you mention are part of the system. Stop being so pedantic and annoying.
I may give it a go. The problem is my MUFG account is integrated with my pension accounts and PRESTIA has really upped their game recently, with a debit Visa ATM card with English support that can be used easily and cheaply overseas. Do I need three main accounts? Hmmmm.....
Who in the world would transfer USD 100,000 (or any amount) into a Japanese Bank by "check" that would have to be sent back to the issuing bank in the US in order to clear? Wire remittance is the only way to go.
I bank with Prestia as well, they will accept a US check for deposit depending on the issuing bank. And you can expect to take forever for it to clear. I find it much easier to maintain a US bank account to receive checks. Then wire remit to your account in Japan.
There is no excuse today for any company not to wire transfer. Computershare will transfer. The Social Security Administration will wire transfer. Really have to wonder what kind of companies you deal with.