The banking system in Japan can cause frustration for visitors and new residents. Although credit cards are increasingly accepted in metropolitan areas, you cannot rely solely on them as currency and should keep a good amount of cash on hand. Furthermore, most Japanese ATMs will not accept foreign bank cards (with the exception being post offices and foreign CitiBank account holders who use a CitiBank ATM). By making some preparations before leaving your home country, you can avoid the inconvenience of having to deal with these issues upon arrival.
First, know that checks are not a good way to transfer money. They are not used in Japan, and the fee involved in cashing checks is substantial. Instead, money transfers in Japan are commonly done by wire-transfer, or furikomi. You can send a wire-transfer from either a bank or post office.
If you will be working in Japan, check with your employer to see if they have specific banks that they deal with. It might simplify things to have your account with the same bank as your employer.
One easy route for foreigners to take is to open an account with CitiBank. The staff is English-speaking and can guide you through the process. However, CitiBank Japan will not be connected to CitiBank in other countries, meaning that you cannot transfer money between a foreign account and your Japanese account. CitiBank has multiple locations in large cities, and, unlike most Japanese banks, they do not require a hanko/inkan (a stamp used in place of signatures). Only your Alien Registration Card is necessary to open an account. Accounts offer online banking and 24-hour telephone banking services, and Citibank cards can be used with almost any ATM machine.
Consider opening an account at a Japanese bank if you are not in the Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukuoka, or Sapporo areas. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group is the largest bank in Japan. Other large banks include Mizuho and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation . These banks do require a hanko to open an account, and may or may not have English-speaking staff.
Postal Savings is the best option for people who are living in rural areas of Japan. The government insures these accounts. Post offices are widespread and may be more convenient due to the lack of big branch banks in rural areas. The downside is that post offices are only open for a limited time during each day, except for main branches that are open 24 hours and during holidays. Also, do not expect postal employees to speak English. Visit the Japan Post Bank website for more information on Japan Post services.
The most convenient way to pay bills in Japan is to opt for automated payment, which means that you will be invoiced through the mail and the money will be directly taken out of your account. To arrange this, you must visit your bank with your bills and fill out the proper forms. Another option is to pay your bills at a convenience store. Any bills that you receive for phone, utility, health insurance payments, etc. can be paid at a convenience store by using an electronic terminal or simply going to the register and handing over your bill and payment.