So there I was, standing in the middle of the street, when it hit me: I didn’t have enough money to afford my room that night. Or a bus ticket back to the city. I wasn’t even sure if I could afford dinner.
And with the strongest typhoon in 25 years about to make landfall in Osaka, I needed to figure something out. Like, now.
Let me start from the beginning. A few months back, I took a trip to Japan. I was going to be there for three weeks, and for the first week I was all on my own. My flight into Tokyo landed on August 31, 2018. This is going to be important later.
When I landed, one of the first things I did was go to an ATM in the airport and pull out about $400 in yen. I took that money and travelled to a bunch of different cities over the next few days: Tokyo, Nikko, Kurobe, Toyama. Four days into my trip, I found myself in Takayama, Japan, in the center of rural Gifu prefecture. It was beautiful.
By then, I was running a little low on cash. I had around ¥5000, or $50, and I definitely needed more. In Japan, cash is king, and in rural Takayama, restaurants, hostels, and busses are all cash only. I knew this from my previous trips, and so I went to the only international ATM in town, at the 7–11 on the corner. I stuck in my debit card, and punched in my pin.
No problem, I thought, I probably mistyped my pin. I put my debit card back in the ATM, and re-typed my pin.
Declined again. This time I read the paper slip more carefully:
Transaction Declined: This card has expired.
I looked down at my debit card, and sure enough, my debit card had expired as of September 1st, 2018, the day after my flight landed in Tokyo.
In the corner of the 7–11, a newscaster ominously reminded everyone that there was a typhoon headed for Japan. Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years, was on collision course for Osaka and due to make landfall tomorrow.
Everything was going to be fine.
Let’s take a look inside my wallet.
Whenever I travel, I carry a four cards with me in my wallet:
- Charles Schwab Investor Checking Debit Card
- Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
- Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card
- Google Corporate Credit Card
My debit card was expired, so I called Schwab with lots of questions. Why didn’t I get any advance warning that my debit card was about to expire? Couldn’t they re-activate my card, or something? I was out of luck. You can’t use an expired debit card, no exceptions.
Problem #1: Schwab didn’t notify me that my debit card was going to expire. They claimed to have mailed me a new one weeks ago, but I never received it.
The customer service agent offered to overnight the card to me from the U.S., but it would take a few days to get through Japanese customs. They asked me where I’d be staying for the next few days. I had planned to stay in a different town each night for the rest of the week, so it didn’t seem like a good option. I told them to ship it to my hotel in Tokyo, and I’d pick it up at the end of the week. But what was I going to do until then?
Chase Credit Cards + ATMs = no luck
I started sticking my credit cards into the ATM, starting with my Chase Sapphire Reserve (which has no foreign transaction fees), and following up with the Chase Freedom Unlimited. I figured they’d probably stiff me on the cash advance fees, but I’d live.
I typed in every pin I could think of, and they all got declined with an “incorrect pin” message. That’s when I realized: Did I even have a pin?
Problem 2: My Chase credit cards were both chip + signature cards that don’t support pins for purchases.
Because my Chase cards were both chip + signature, I didn’t have a pin configured on them. Confused, I called Chase. It turns out these cards can be used for a cash advance at an ATM, but to do so you have to call Chase and specifically ask to setup an ATM pin. If you call and ask just to “setup a pin,” they’ll tell you that the card is chip and signature. (It took me three customer service agents at Chase to figure that out.)
Meanwhile, the winds of Typhoon Jebi just hit 130 mph.
So now on my fourth call to Chase, I get to the pin creation automated phone system. After painstakingly typing in my social security number and credit card number, I get to the end of the pin process and realize that while you can easily change your ATM pin if you already have one, you can’t actually create an ATM pin over the phone. Instead, they will mail you a randomly generated pin to your home address, in 2–3 weeks. Then, you can call in and change your pin to whatever you want. I hang up.
Problem #3: There’s no way for me to create an ATM pin over the phone.
I called Chase back, now for the fifth time, and grilled them. Why was this so broken? By this time, I was on the phone with the ultra-elite-emergency-super-customer-support person from Chase. The woman told me that they didn’t allow ATM pin creation over the phone for security reasons, unless the card is less than 90 days old (not true for me).
I had a flash of hope when she said “Wait a minute, I swear there used to be some emergency pin process, but I haven’t heard about it for years… let me go look that up.” She put me on hold to, as I can only imagine, take the elevator to the basement of the Chase customer support center, open up some filing cabinet, and blow years of dust off some ancient manual in search for this “emergency pin” procedure.
It turned out she was right, they used to have an “emergency pin” process for situations like mine, but they stopped the process several years ago. This woman, who tried so hard to help me with all of this, had to say “I’m sorry, good luck with all of this” and hang up.
No luck on my company card, either
I tried my Google corporate card in the ATM as well, to no avail. I had a pin on the card, but it got declined, with the error message “feature not available.” Apparently, my corporate card didn’t support cash advances.
Problem #4: No cash access on my Google corporate card.
Time to call in the cavalry: Google Security team
One of the many perks of working for Google is that employees have 24/7/365 access to the Google Security Team, the Google security team. No matter where you are in the world, you can call Google Security when you’re in trouble and they’ll help you figure it out. Even if you’re not on a work trip. (I was, at least sort of.)
I explained my situation: cash-only rural Japan, no cards that work, incoming typhoon. They told me I could apply to get cash access on my corporate card, but it would require manager approval.
Problem #5: I needed manager approval for cash on my corporate card.
The Google Security team filed a ticket, but it was the middle of the night back home in the U.S. I could call back if things got really dire.
So there I was, in the middle of the street in Takayama, Japan, when it really hit me: I didn’t have enough money to afford my hostel reservation that night. Or a bus ticket back to the city. I wasn’t even sure if I could afford dinner. With the strongest typhoon in 25 years about to make landfall in Osaka, I needed to figure something out. Like, now.
I started to get creative. In the US, you can get cash back at a grocery store, like Stop & Shop. So I walk up the counter at the 7–11 and whip out Google Translate, trying to explain to the 19-year-old working behind the counter what a cash advance is.
“I want to buy something using my credit card, and have you give me Yen.”
She shook her head, clearly confused and weirded out. She gave me the look that said “yeah… we don’t do whatever that is.” I had to try something else.
My solution? Begging strangers to help me use an ATM.
I’m actually pretty surprised it took me this long to think of, but it finally popped into my head. Could Venmo be my answer? Well, not Venmo because I was in Japan and no one there had Venmo, but some peer-to-peer payments app. I tried to sign up for one of the many Japanese P2P payments apps, but they all required Japanese bank accounts. No dice.
I did have one app that could work, though: PayPal. Boring, corporate, ubiquitous, PayPal. It could work. Someone with a working debit card takes out Yen for me, and I send them money on PayPal.
What came next wasn’t pretty. I went to the most touristy area of Takayama and started profiling tourists that seemed the most likely to trust me. I approached them, like a shark.
“Excuse me, sir, I’m so sorry to bother you, but you see, my debit card–here take a look at it–you see it expired the day after I arrived here in Takayama, and see I have these credit cards…so my question is, do you have a PayPal account?”
I was literally that scammer that walks up to you on the street and asks if you can help him get his hands on some cash. I probably approached 10 different couples, all from Europe or Australia or India or the U.S. in search of someone who would trust me enough to take out ¥50,000 from an ATM for me, in exchange for that amount, rounded up, on PayPal.
Time and time again, I got roughly the same answer. “Sorry.. yeah.. you see, we don’t really have any cash… No, no, we’re just using our cards… yeah sorry I can’t help you.” It was brutal. To them, I was just your average tourist scammer.
After an hour of trying, finally, finally, I found a willing tourist. Manuel, de Barcelona. Manuel and his wife listened empathetically to my sob story (I was an expert at this point), and after considering it for a moment, agreed. We went together back to the 7–11, he got me the cash, and I paid him on PayPal. There are good people in the world.
With cash in hand, I could finally afford my bus ticket to my next destination, and I could afford to check into my hostel. I asked if I could buy him and his wife a drink. They said they were headed to check into their hostel, but maybe later that night. “Where are you staying?” I asked.
Of course: They were staying in the same hostel as me. Not only that, but, as we found out later, we had rented neighboring rooms in the hostel. I’m not sure I could have made up something that coincidental. Of the hundreds of tourists visiting Takayama that day, it was Manuel that trusted me enough to take a risk, and do the PayPal for cash exchange.
The next day, I called back the Google Security team, and even though my manager hadn’t approved the ticket yet, they skipped the approval and put some cash access onto my corporate card. This got me through the rest of the week (Manuel’s ¥50,000 only went so far) until I arrived in Tokyo and picked up my new debit card.
I still carry these four cards with me whenever I travel. But now, I make sure to check my expiration dates, well before my trips start.