Japanese highways have tolls. You either pay in cash, or use a fancy ETC reader installed in your car, paired with an ETC card, which electronically tracks your highway usage and charges your credit card as appropriate.

However, getting hold of one was not as easy as it sounded... until today!!!!!!!!!!

Read on for a full description and a guide to filling out the application.

The benefits of ETC are obvious: saving money through ETC's multifaceted discount system. The snag for most foreigners in Japan is that almost all ETC cards are tied to domestic credit cards. And getting a credit card tends to be difficult for many foreigners. (Though it's not impossible! Check out our guide.)

Anyway, the exception to the rule among ETC cards is...

The ETC Personal Card. It's independent of a credit card, any resident of Japan can apply, and the approval process is lenient. If you have an alien registration card, you'll almost certainly be approved. The tradeoff is that the card requires a financial deposit.

Interested? Read on for our guide on how to apply!

  • Getting an Application
Applications are available from the personnel on duty at ETC-equipped highway tollbooths or from the Information or Concierge desks at Service Areas along the national highways. It's ironic, since this means you need to ride on the toll road in order to get a card for it. Furthermore, Concierge desks at Service Areas are often only open during certain business hours, such as 8:00-16:00, though usually 7 days a week. (Info about Service Area hours can be found here, but you may have to follow links to the SA's own homepage to find the Concierge's hours.)

You'll need to ask for it. This will do the trick:
"ETC paasonaru kaado no panfuretto wa arimasen ka?"

The alternative, which lets you stay at home, is to call up the ETC Personal Card Issuing Office (ETCパーソナルカード事務局) and ask for an application to be sent to you. You'll need enough Japanese to ask for the application and provide your name and address. The office is open 9:00-17:00 on weekdays only. The number is 044-870-7333.

  • Filling out the Application
The application is in Japanese, but filling it out will be easy thanks to AccessJ!

First, you'll need to make a photocopy of your alien registration card to cut out and paste in a space provided on the application. Don't bother sending them your driver's license instead, because the ETC Personal Card Office won't accept it as proof of identification for a foreigner. They'll just call you a week later when they process the application and ask you to fax a copy of your alien registration card separately anyway, making the application process take even longer.

By the way, you can use a fancy 7-11 convenience store printer to easily make a clean copy of the front and back of your ID on one page. Unenlarged copies are fine, as is folding your copy to fit into the space provided on the application--it probably won't fit otherwise, since you need to copy both the front and the back. Paste it in a way that it can be unfolded while still attached to the application.

Phew. Copy done, right? Now just fill out the rest of the form. If you can't get a Japanese person to help you do it, then here is a high-quality, annotated scan made by us. Beware: this may feel like the most ridiculous form in the history of paper. (Unless you've ever filed US taxes.)
Things that need further explanation:
  • When you are asked for your name in kanji, you may write it in English alphabet letters. Just follow however your name is written on your alien registration card. Always make sure the form matches your ID. Above your name, just use furigana you normally use in Japan, even though it probably isn't recorded anywhere on your ARC.
  • Date of birth. This section asks for your DOB in Japanese years. You must also circle the era in which you were born. The Japanese date system is based on the length of a given Emperor's reign, so it doesn't follow the usual Gregorian calendar system. The main modern eras are Showa (昭和) and Heisei (平成). (If you're reading this application guide, you probably weren't born in Taisho (大正). More like somewhere between Showa 50 and like, uh, Heisei 2.) Anyway, check the converter here for exact date conversions. For example, if you were born in 1984 you'd circle 昭和 and write 59.
  • Types of job categories are 1. self-employed, 2. company employee, 3. civil servant, 4. student, 5. housewife, 6. part-time, 7. unemployed, 8. other
  • The deposit (Part 2)
    • As you can see from the annotations, once you've estimated your average costs you must choose a yellow box with an amount in. These amounts are the required deposit you must pay.  If you only want to pay the minimum deposit (40,000 yen), then just adjust your average cost calculations to fall into the lowest categories. The deposit will not be used to pay tolls when you get the card. Rather, it acts as a guarantee on the charges you rack up on the highway. So, your deposit, for most users 40,000 yen, will be held by the ETC Personal Card Center until you choose to relinquish your ETC card to them. Your actual highway charges will be billed once a month to the bank account you fill our later in the application. However, your deposit amount is relevant, because if the total of your tolls over any 2 month period exceeds 80% of your deposit, your ETC card will be locked, unusable, and the ETC Personal Card center will contact you asking you to increase your deposit amount.
  • Bank types from Part 3:
    • 銀行 ginkou- bank
    • 信用金庫 shinyou kinko- this one is tricky. Often times its written as “credit union” or “co-operative bank” in English, or simply “local bank” or “shinyo bank.” Basically it’s a local financial intuition that is dedicated to serving local clients and small to medium sized business
    • 信用組合- shinyou kumai- this is quite literally a “credit union,” usually associated with a labor or business group. I have seen it written as “credit association” to distinguish it from the above
    • 農協 noukyou- agriculture coop bank, like JA
    • 漁協 gyokyou- fishermen coop bank
    • 労金 roukin- labor bank or labor union bank
  • Branch types from Part 3:
    • 本店 main branch/hq
    • 支店 branch office
    • 出張所 extension/mini-branch
  • Other options from Part 3 ask who's bank account the details belong to:
    • 本人 self 
    • 配偶者 spouse 
    • 親・子 parent/child
The application pack also comes with an explanatory copy of the form. If you want to battle through it in Japanese, here it is:

And here is the application without annotations, if you want that.

  • Paying the Deposit

After you send in the application, you should get a call from the ETC Personal Card center. If they have any inquiries about your application, such as "Please send us your alien registration card, not your driver's license." or "Your name is too long and you have too many middle names, which is causing general panic at our offices. How do you want your name truncated to fit on the card?", they'll ask those now.

Then they'll explain that they are sending out a bill for the deposit. This bill is similar to ones you may have received when paying for utilities the first time. You can take it to a bank, post office, or any convenience store and pay there. The funds will reach the ETC Personal Card office on the next business day, after which they'll continue processing your application.

  • How Long Will This Take?

Time wise, be aware that the receipt of your ETC Personal Card will be about two to three weeks after you first send in the application. In our experiences, the bill for the deposit arrived almost exactly a week after application, and the card itself arrived another week after the deposit was made.

By the way, here are some maintenance issues you might wonder about after getting the card:
  • Changing Address: The ETC Personal Card office sends out its mail in an obnoxious 転送不可 (tensou fuka) fashion, which means if you change addresses in Japan any mail pertaining to the ETC Personal Card will not be forwarded to you, even if you requested at the post office to have all your mail redirected to your new address. So, if you change residences after getting the ETC Personal Card, you need to call them ( 044-870-7333 ) and ask for them to update your file. ("Jyuusho henkou no tetsuzuki wo shitai desu ga.")
  • Relinquishing the Card and Reclaiming Your Deposit: After you get your flashy ETC Personal Card in the mail and use it for a few years in your fancy ETC card reader, you may someday decide that you want to get rid of it and lay claim to that hefty deposit you paid on application. The process for this is simple but lengthy: Again, call the ETC Personal Card Center ( 044-870-7333 ) and tell them you're done using the card. They will guide you through the process and the deposit will be furikomied into your bank account about one month after you make the request. Be sure to time this correctly. It'd suck to have that money appear in your account after you've left Japan or bounce because you've already closed your bank account.

For frequent drivers, the benefits outweigh the snags. ETC cards qualify you for big discounts when driving on expressways around Japan. So, good luck with the application process, and let us know how it goes.

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