Stranded in Japan – How Much Of A Difference ‘+1’ Makes

After getting back Stateside from a horrific experience in Japan due to my credit card not working and me subsequently having no money to use there, a bit of a closer examination of what exactly happened is in order.

While Matt (OC’s video administrator) was able to use his United Kingdom VISA credit card without any issues, my VISA card that I’d used in other countries before wouldn’t run on anything in Japan. The card worked on everything I’ve tried it on in the U.S. since.

Was this a matter of the worst case of luck imaginable, or is there actually a viable explanation for what happened, and what I can do to prevent it in the future?

I’ve Got A “Small-Town” Bank, I Admit It…

In the spirit of trying to support local businesses and help promote community growth, my main bank is one of the local credit unions in Lincoln, NE. While a lot of friends have gone to some of the bigger-name multinational banks with their accounts, I’ve hung on to the same bank account with this credit union since I was a little kid.

​Now, if you’d have told me that small-town banks don’t have a great international track record with their merchandise, I would have hesitated to believe you. I mean, it’s a VISA card – aren’t all VISA cards the same, anyway? “Trusted everywhere” is their motto – and my card has always lived up to that standard.

It’s worth mentioning that not all VISA cards come from the same factory or are made to the same standards. A basic framework set is provided to a distributing proxy or contracting agency that works as a brokering middleman with your bank, and they are the ones who actually program the card and assume liability for it. This is what you have to call your credit card issuer when you have to cancel it or investigate a lockup – not your bank.

So, the vendor who’s ultimately “programming” your card and is building all the integration for it into their system is the issuer – aka, this brokering middleman.

In my case, short thinking on the part of that middleman was half of my problem. The other half was incredibly poor coding on the part of the agency that designed Japanese credit card machines.

A Missing Country Code

Most of the network connections in central Tokyo are run by Nihon Telegram and Telecommunications (NTT) Docomo, and as would be expected of anyone having to dial a credit card transaction outbound through them, you’d have to specify the country code for your country. If you don’t, it’s assumed that you’re going to use the Japanese default of +81.

As an American engineer, I know that my country code is ‘+1’, but you’d be surprised at the number of my fellow Americans that actually don’t know that. People Stateside aren’t used to ever having a country code in our dialing because our systems automatically prepend it on calls, similar to how Japan’s does.

Well, let’s suppose for a moment that the brokering middleman who issued my VISA card didn’t actually hard-code a country code of ‘+1’ into their card’s dialing pattern stored on it. What would happen?

In most countries, it wouldn’t be a big deal regardless. Why? Well, because most cardscan systems are designed to first test the local country’s country code in dialing if the caller doesn’t clarify it. Fail that, they’d then try using ‘+1’ since it’s the most logical secondary choice even if you’re not in America – because most ‘800’ numbers use this country code even if they aren’t in the U.S.

Now, suppose for a secondary moment that whoever coded every last ATM and bank scanner in Japan didn’t configure a failover dial policy to check country code ‘+1’ for a number that didn’t specify it.

I trust you see the problem now – such a credit card used with such a system wouldn’t work.

To complicate matters, the Japanese card scanner systems I noted didn’t have a ‘+’ symbol on their keybad as a special character. This meant that banks or restaurants couldn’t manually type in my card number because their system wouldn’t let them manually append a country code to correct my card issuer’s mistake.

Now, this is an easy thing to simply say – understand that it took me 10 miles of walking around with all my daily and camping gear on my back, and not being able to buy food or drink until I could get local Japanese currency. Not a pretty situation!

The Aftermath

While I believe that the blame is somewhat shared between all involved parties for what happened with my Japan situation, the biggest share of blame probably needs to go to my bank and their card issuer. I’ll definitely have a conversation with them about this.

It’s pretty wild to know that 100% of Japan’s ATMs don’t compensate for this dialing prefix error. One would think that regardless of the flaws with a card, you’d at least built some degree of error correction into your scanners. Lesson learned, there.

On my end, I should have thought to bring some U.S. currency with me for exchange. I’ve never really done it before, but I least I know now to have a continuity plan of some kind in place.

All this trouble over a couple of missing characters on my credit card’s dialing prefix. Go figure.

Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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