Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Japanese credits cards with Priority Pass lounge access for low annual fees

Airport lounge memberships have become a standard offering between legacy carriers and their credit card partners.  For example, instead of signing up for a United Club membership for $500, you can apply for the Chase United Club card with an annual fee of $395 that gets you United Club membership and added benefits such as Premier Access.  Though cheaper than the membership itself, a $395 annual fee is still quite a sting, and frequent flyers are always looking at cheaper ways to gain lounge access.  As the Amex Platinum card has taken a beating recently with the discontinuation of AA and US Airways lounge access, one of the mitigation attempts of the card's $450 annual fee card is Priority Pass Select, which gets you into 600 lounges in over 100 countries across the globe.  Not surprisingly, Priority Pass Select doesn't get you into United and US Airways lounges.  The exception would be if your credit card offering Priority Pass is issued by a foreign financial institution.

When I was researching Japanese credit cards last week, I ran into the usuals: expensive annual fees, ridiculous point-earning programs, and sign-up bonus jokes.  I was about to call it quits until I noticed that the Rakuten Premium card includes Priority Pass for an annual fee of only 10,500 yen (~$103 USD), which is a quarter of the annual fee of the Amex Platinum card in the U.S.  Furthermore, the Priority Pass membership offered by the Rakuten card is the full membership, which includes United, US Airways, and 22 domestic lounges in Japan.  The same Priority Pass membership costs $399 USD by itself, making the Rakuten card a steal.

For a meager annual fee of 10,500 yen, you get Priority Pass and a choice between 3 credit card issuers

The sign-up bonus for the Rakuten Premium card is a joke at 10,000 Rakuten points, which equates to 10,000 yen (~$98) of credit towards Rakuten purchases.  It's basically not even enough to cover the annual fee, which isn't even waived for the first year.  Purchases earn 1 Rakuten point per 100 yen spent, which is essentially 1% cashback.  During the entire month of your birthday, you'll be getting 3 Rakuten points per 100 yen spent.  Needless to say, you won't be signing up for this card for the sign-up bonus or the point earning potential, but definitely for the amazing Priority Pass benefit.  I did some further research and found that the Amex Saison Platinum Business card and the Amex MUFG Platinum card also offer Priority Pass, but with 21,000 yen (~$207 USD) annual fees.  The Amex cards appear to have better point earning potential and purchase protection benefits, but nothing worth paying the extra annual fee over especially since they barely have sign-up bonuses.

I was about to declare the Rakuten card king until I ran into the Citi Gold card, which offers Priority Pass and a 30,000 Citi rewards point sign-up bonus for a meager annual fee of 12,000 yen (~$118 USD).  Though the annual fee is marginally higher, the card earns 3 Citi points per 100 yen spent.  According to the Citi rewards program website, it looks like 2.5 Citi points = 1 yen, so it's like 1.2% cashback.  Once again, sign-up for the card so that you can get Priority Pass, not points.

Language barrier

Both the Rakuten and Citi cards only offer application pages in Japanese, so if you're not familiar with the terms and questions, be sure to have a native Japanese speaker next to you who is well-rehearsed in financial terminology.  Rakuten has an unofficial English support page to help you get through the application process.  Citi has an English page, but it looks stone-aged and it offers no help for the application process.  Don't be disappointed if you aren't approved because Japanese credit card companies have the opposite mentality of U.S. companies: weed out as many poor applicants as you can instead of accepting everyone, knowing that the poor will never be able to pay you back.

Bottom line

It looks like there are, after all, some hidden gem credit card deals in Japan; you just have to know what to look for and what's valuable to you.  If you never fly, then all the cards mentioned above are money-draining pumpkins.  But if you fly occasionally, even with low-cost carriers (LCCs) such as Peach, Jetstar, and Vanilla Air, these cards can prove invaluable, especially since you won't be restricted to alliance allegiances for lounge access.  Nothing like being able to step into the lounge for a couple of free beers before a $50 flight to Osaka on Peach.  For a list of the 600+ lounges Priority Pass offers access to, visit their lounge finder page.  Amongst the notable lounge partners: United, US Airways, Air Canada, Alaska Air, Korean Air, Asiana, and Plaza Premium lounges.


  1. would you be able to sign up with a US address?

  2. Unfortunately, no. My friends in Japan are asking the same question about U.S. credit cards with beefy sign-up bonuses.