Speeding Up Your Commute is as Easy as ETC

Business - February 17th, 2006
Breeze through Japan's expressways

Joe Peters shows us how to whiz through the expressway tollbooths

Are you tired of sitting there in the toll-booth lanes, fumbling for coins to pay the toll, while you watch all those other car whiz through the ETC lanes? According to Japan’s Transport Ministry over 40 percent of the vehicles going through tollbooths are now equipped with ETC capability. Considering that there are over 72 million vehicles registered in Japan (10 percent of the world’s to­tal) that’s a whole buncha ETC transponders. If your car isn’t one of them maybe it’s time you had your own ETC card reader installed. For those of you who don’t yet know what the ETC system is read on.

First of all, ETC stands for Electronic Toll Collection. The ETC system was introduced by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in March 2001. The system is sup­posed to ease traffic jams on the nation’s ma­jor expressways, allowing vehicles equipped with a transponder to pass through the gates without having to stop to pay the toll. Using the system requires your car to be equipped with an ETC card reader and for you to have an ETC compatible credit card or an ETC Card that is issued by your credit card company and is linked to your credit card. This card is inserted into the transponder’s card slot and as your car passes through the tollgate the fare is recorded on both the ex­pressway computer system and the card in the transponder using wireless telecommu­nication. There are even discounts available on the tolls when you use your card on spe­cific highways at specific times.

Now that you know what it is and what it does, all you need to know is how to get one. Right, first you need to get an ETC transponder installed. This is a relatively painless process, requiring only six days of doctor visits and wearing your arm in a sling for two weeks. No, wait, that’s for a sprained wrist.

According to Japan’s Transport Ministry over
40 percent of the vehicles going through toll
booths are now equipped with ETC capability

For getting the transponder installed you have a few options, and they don’t include a weekend do-it-yourself project. You can take your car to your friendly Toyota, Nissan, or Aston-Martin dealer and they’ll (usu­ally) be happy to do this service for you — for a small fee of course (the cost of the transponder and labor for installation). You can also go to one of the auto parts stores such as Yellow Hat or Autobacs and get one installed. Prices usually start around ¥9,800 for the basic ETC transpond­er, but if you want one that’s hidden away with only a small antenna af­fixed to your windshield you’ll pay more — probably around ¥15,000. If you really want to splurge (keeping up with the Satohs are we?) you can even go up to around the ¥35,000 range. You should also figure on paying the shop a ‘set-up’ fee of around ¥3,000, give or take a bit.

Now, you have your transponder installed, all shiny and new, and you’re just itching to get out there and test it out. Hold on, Homer. Before you can do that you have to apply for an ETC card through a credit card company and of course, that means you have to have a Japanese credit card. Citibank and the Citicard are always foreigner-friendly. American Express also offers an ETC card. There are a few other cards that will issue lower limit cards to foreigners in Japan so if you get re­jected don’t give up — try others. And no, these Japan issued cards don’t go on your credit record back in the U.S. When applying, you should also ask for an ETC card if that option is available. If you already have a Japan issued card then you can apply for the ETC fairly easily and for a small annual fee. Some even issue the ETC card with no annual fee.

Some credit card companies may activate the card for you, but if that service isn’t part of your card you’ll need to contact the ETC Plaza (www.etc-plaza.jp) to register your card. You’ll get a user ID and password that can be used online once you are registered. Unless you read Japanese you’ll need some help on this one so get your secretary, or a coworker, or a friend to lend you a hand. ETC Plaza used to offer a hefty discount on prepaid tolls, but that ended on Dec. 20, 2005. Under the new system you need to register your card for their newly minted system, ‘ETC Mileage Service.’ This system ‘rewards’ you with points every time you go through an ETC toll gate. Once you’ve charged ¥50,000 of toll charges to your ETC card you’ll be rewarded with ¥8,000 of credit on your card which will then be good for more tolls. To register your ETC card for this service, go to (www.smile-etc.jp).

See? Now wasn’t that painless? I mean getting the sprained wrist wrapped. So off you go to get your ETC reader installed and your card approved and then its happy ETC lane whizzing for you too!