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Net banks are your best bet
It's been many years since I wrote this guide, but Shinsei Bank is no longer the best bank for foreigners. They changed their free ATM withdrawals policy and now you can only withdraw money from ATM without fees if you hit certain requirements.
With many new banks since I wrote this, I would recommend looking at net banks. Net banks are banks without a physical locations. Almost all their services can be done online, including setting up an account. Some of the net banks include, Aeon Bank, au Jibun Bank, Sony Bank and SBJ Bank and the one I use, Rakuten Bank.
The reason you should go for net banks is because they are usually more modern with their systems. Since they save on renting physical locations and staffing, their “freebies” like ATM withdrawals are usually much more generous. Avoid big banks like Mizuho as their fees are usually highest and systems so backward that you'll spend forever even trying to accomplish simple tasks.
Each has different benefits, but I chose Rakuten Bank specifically for the fact that they have a feature that allows automatic transfer to another bank. Since Rakuten Bank comes with free transfers if you hit some simple requirements (ie. You get three free withdrawals a month simply by paying your salary into that account.), I am able to set up automatic payment for my home mortgage loan.
Another factor you should consider is the amount of free ATM withdrawals. I withdraw from an ATM about once or twice a month but Rakuten gives you five free withdrawals a month which can go up to five if you fulfill some requirements.
Overall, I've found the offerings of Rakuten Bank the best for my needs although customer service can be painful to deal with at times. But hey, what's new.
I used the recommend Shinsei Bank. Read on to see why
So you've made it to Japan, but the onslaught of complicated administrative processes, in a foreign language no less, has gotten your head in a whirlwind and you are just not able to wrap your head around setting up a bank in Japan. Well, fear not for you have stumbled upon the perfect blog post in which you will name me your savior.
With so many choices in a place where even your post office and convenience shop chain have their own bank, deciding which is the best for you is without a doubt a daunting task. I have looked at multiple banks and applied to one that made me wait two weeks before giving me a resounding no through a politely-worded letter. Before that, I did a fair bit of research online and chose to ignore all the signs pointing me to a certain foreigner-friendly bank, just because I thought I could get something better if I lean towards a more “Japanese” bank. Boy, was I mistaken.
Well, thankfully you don't have to look any further. The bank you need, and they say you need, is Shinsei Bank. Here's why.
Shinsei bank goes out of their way to cater to non-Japanese consumers. The website states that only the main office and the Roppongi Hills branch has English-speaking staff, but I went to the Shinjuku branch near my place and was serviced completely in English, which leads me to believe you should be able to do the same at any of their branches. Their online banking service, while could use a design update, is entirely available in English. They even have English-speaking staff on their customer hotline which you would appreciate unless you like each banking transaction to be a game of roulette.
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Get the account immediately
This means you get to use your account the moment you walk out the door. You get a bank card that you can deposit or withdraw money that you can use at your nearest Family Mart. If you haven't moved to a new country before, I can tell you how convenient it is to be able to transfer money for big-ticket transactions as opposed to carrying wads of cash around.
No ATM charges
Another big reason is that there is no charges to withdraw money, at any time, any day. Coming from Singapore, where a riot would happen if you charged a fee for ATM withdrawals, I was pretty amazed that some of the reasons that my Japanese friends pay up to 210 yen per ATM transaction were due to laziness to change banks or simply being nonchalant about such a negligible amount. Seriously, don't be wasting half a gyudon every time you need to supplement your wallet after you bought too much booze at Hub.
Withdraw money almost anywhere
I had a Citibank account that lets me withdraw from my Singapore account with no extra charges, but its branches are far and sparse. I had to walk 30 minutes one time just to get to a machine. For Shinsei bank, you can withdraw your money at any major convenience store. Seven Elevens, Family Marts and LAWSONs are at almost every corner. You'll never run out of cash!
So, seriously, just go to your nearest branch and set one up.