The advent of online stores have made it significantly easier for us to purchase stuff from overseas. There are multiple hurdles, however, if you do not live in Japan and you’d like to buy stuff from Japan. By the way, that is the assumption that I will have about you through the rest of this article, so when I say “overseas,” I mean countries other than Japan.
One of such hurdles is payment. Nowadays many of the online merchants and market places in Japan accept major credit cards, such as Visa and MasterCard cards. The problem is that they often accept those that were issued in Japan only. I ran into this problem myself when I came back to Japan from the US because at that time I only had credit cards issued in the US. I was stupefied to learn that my issued-in-the-US credit cards were pretty much useless within Japan.
My friend Spence (Twitter, Japanese blog) in the US pointed out Amazon Japan at amazon.co.jp do accept American credit cards and he has bought some stuff there and have it shipped to his address in the US.
Now there is a workaround, although it is never intended as such. It is to use prepaid credit cards — which sounds like an oxymoron, but you know what I mean. That is the subject of this article.
Since these cards are never intended to be used by those outside Japan, they come with many limitations for your use. First of all, these cards are generally intended to be obtained and used by those who physically reside in Japan. You might get lucky and be able to get those cards by yourself from overseas, i.e., countries other than Japan, but the chances are you will need some form of help from someone who lives in Japan.
Second, those prepaid cards can never fully replace credit cards because, well, they are not real credit cards. For example, they cannot be used for recurring payments, and not all merchants and service providers accept those prepaid cards even if they accept regular credit cards. Still, it is a valid, useful option if you just want to buy intangible stuff, such as MP3 music files and e-books, from Japan.
Third — and this is going to be a deal breaker for many of you —, it cannot be used to purchase tangible stuff that needs to be shipped to you, a person who lives outside Japan. In this scenario, they are likely to require that the shipping address and the billing address of your card be the same. I am sorry to say that none of the options I will discuss below can be used. So if all you want to do is import tangible stuff from Japan, then stop reading this article now; you will not get any useful information. The only option left for you in this scenario is to hire a proxy, I am afraid.
The reason why I decided to write this article is because they recenly published an online article in Japanese (“「ぜーんぶ後払い」で本当に大丈夫？ デビット＆プリペイド電子マネーで安心決済“), which neatly summarises debit and prepaid cards and e-money services in Japan. It has a section on prepaid credit cards, and I wanted to relay this information to my personal friends overseas. I know there definitely are demands for this. Once a friend in Canada desperately wanted to purchase e-books from Japan but couldn’t because they would not accept her Canadian credit cards; I solved her problem by giving her one of the prepaid credit cards that I will discuss later.
Below I copy the relevant portion from the article. Scroll down for more discussion on this matter in English.
A. 三井住友VISAプリペイド (Mitsui Sumitomo Visa Prepaid)
B. Vプリカ (V Preca)
C. e-さいふ (e-Saifu)
D. ドコモ口座 Visaプリペイド (Docomo Koza Visa Prepaid)
E. MasterCardねっと (MasterCard Net)
F. バニラVisaオンライン (Vanila Visa Online)
Those cards are pseudo credit cards, if you will, so they ask for your personal information to a varying degree. Since all of these cards are intended for those who reside in Japan, you will have to “wing it” when it comes to certain types of your personal information they ask for.
As long as you do not intend to use it for criminal purposes, then there should not be any problem for you to give your actual name, actual birthday, and actual email address.
Your Japan-specific personal information, such as your address and phone number, is troublesome, because you do not have any in realty. Your address is particularly of concern, because in case you want to get protection against fraudulent charges, you will need to produce an official document which states you do reside at that address — but you will not be able to.
Your phone number, on the other hand, is not so much of a concern because it normally does not appear in official documents. However, they could call that number to verify that you can indeed be reachable at that number. Of course, it has to be a Japanese phone number.
Docomo Koza Visa Prepaid (D) is out because you have to be a Docomo (a major cell phone carrier in Japan) subscriber. We will not consider this service any more in the discussion below.
My personal recommendations are as follows:
There are two options you can possibly do all on your own, i.e., without any help from a person physically living in Japan. MasterCard Net (E) is the more economical option, because if you use it through its sister service Chocom, you can potentially bring all the fees to a minimum; currently, they have a campaign in which MasterCard Net card issuance through Chocom costs 0 yen (normally 95 yen). It would not hurt that you can use the card not just online but at retail shops as well; MasterCard Net is the only service among the whole breed that has this advantage.
Unlike Paypal, you cannot withdraw the balance of your Chocom account (excetions).
You need to give your phone number, postal code, and prefecture (but not the whole address) when you sign up for Chocom. Chocom is a service similar to Paypal, and you can add credit to your account using your credit cards; I do not know, however, whether you can use those that were issued elsewhere than in Japan. If you cannot (… and I am afraid the chance are you cannot), you have to ask someone in Japan to add credit by other ways with varying fees. The maximum amount you can pay with your MasterCard Net card equals your Chocom balance. You can issue up to three MasterCard Net cards from the same Chocom account.
Alternatively, you can sign up directly for MasterCard Net, in which case you have to give your phone number. You have to have someone in Japan to charge it at a convenience store, but the issuance fee is pretty good (150 yen if the amount is less than 1,000 yen and 0 yen otherwise). You set the amount you want to charge; there’s no set amounts. What’s good about this option is that MasterCard’s authentication service (called “3D Secure”) is included. When you have a small amount of credit left you cannot use for purchases, you can only transfer it to your Chocom account; you cannot transfer it to a newly-issued MasterCard Net card.
e-Saifu (C) is somewhat like Chocom and MasterCard Net combined in the former case of MasterCard Net. The illustration on this page might give you a good idea of the whole picture. First, you either charge your e-Saifu account (like Chocom account) using your credit cards, or charge it or buy cards at convenience stores (there are fees associated with this). Then you issue up to three Visa cards with the pre-designated amount for each. The service is obviously designed with a family in mind, where parents want to give credit cards for their children with strict restrictions. e-Saifu requires you register with them with your phone number and prefecture (not the whole address). e-Saifu Visa cards support Visa authentication service.
The e-Saifu Visa cards are valid for two years, while MasterCard Net cards are for only six months. The balances of e-Saifu Visa cards when they expire will automatically go back to the e-Saifu account, but there is no clear description either way about MasterCard Net cards. Perhaps you could argue the MasterCard Net service is good for those who want to cut their expenses at the cost of additional hassle of constant monitoring, and the e-Saifu service is good for those who want hassle-free experience.
Those in Japan can purchase V Preca Gift Cards (a kind of V Preca cards) at convenience stores and you can use them after simple online activation (no phone number, no address, etc.). If Visa authentication is required, then you will have to sign up, in which case you will have to go all in and give all of your personal information. The same is true if you want to carry the balance of an old card over to a new card. Those who already have an account with them can give you a V Preca Gift Card as a gift. With regular V Preca Cards (B), you have to give your whole personal information in advance.
Vanilla Visa Online cards (F) can be purchased at convenience stores in Japan. You need to register with them with your prefecture (not whole address) to start using them, though.
You need to keep in mind that they may charge a fee when you do not use their card for a certain period of time.
Mitsui Sumitomo Visa Prepaid (A) is likely not to work well because it requires you register with them with your personal information including your phone number and full address.
Again, my friend Spence (Twitter, Japanese blog) in the US pointed out that if you want to buy music on iTunes Japan store, you can use iTunes Japan Music Cards, which can be purchased at, for example, JBox.