Many friends have asked me how to move to Japan (and usually they’re from the USA). Usually this leads to me helping them find jobs, apply for visas, look for apartments, register at the ward office, etc.
After writing very, very long emails with instructions on how to do this, I decided that maybe it would be easier if I just wrote a long, detailed post about it that I can direct them to.
So, yeah. Here it is:
How to Move to Japan (from the USA)
Hopefully this article will become a good resource for anyone looking to make a move to the Land of the Rising Sun. It should be useful to citizens of any country, but since I’m most familiar about the process for American citizens, that is kind of a sub-focus of this article.
Also, if anyone else has better or different advice (or if you think my advice has some errors or shortcomings), please let me know in the comment section.
Step #1: Decide If You Really Want to Live in Japan
Are you SURE you wanna live in Japan?
Yes? OK, sweet. That was easy. Let’s move onto Step #2…
Step #2: Do Visa Research
If you look at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) website, they make long-term residency sound like a breeze. There are only four items on the requirements list:
- One visa application form (nationals of Russia or NIS countries need to submit two visa application forms)
- One photograph (nationals of Russia or NIS countries need to submit two photographs)
- Certificate of Eligibility (Note) – the original and one copy
The key item on that list is #4, the Certificate of Eligibility (COE).
The Certificate of Eligibility is Japan’s golden ticket, and they can be quite a pain to acquire.
Here is how the Japanese government describes COEs:
A Certificate of Eligibility is issued before a visa application by a regional immigration authority under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice as evidence that the foreign national meets the conditions for landing in Japan, including the requirements that the activity in which the foreign national wishes to engage in Japan at the time of the landing examination is not fraudulent and is an activity that comes under a status of residence (excluding Temporary Visitor Status) stipulated in the Immigration Control Act. (Application by a proxy in Japan is allowed.
Wordy, yeah? Here’s how I describe COEs:
A piece of paper showing that someone (or some company) in Japan has promised that they’re going to support you financially while you’re there.
Depending on your circumstances, it can be very easy or very difficult to get a COE.
At the time of this writing, the minimum financial support we’re talking about here is around 180,000 yen per month.
I have a good number of friends in Japan… but for some reason none of them have offered to give me 180,000 yen per month. (Not cool!)
MOFA gives a long list of the types of activities that can qualify you for a visa. First I’ll give you the whole list, then I’ll go into depth on which of these options will most likely apply to you:
If your objective is work or a long-term stay
- Professor (Examples: university professor, assistant professor, assistant, etc.)
- Artist (Examples: composers, songwriters, artists, sculptors, craftspeople, photographers, etc.)
- Religious activities (Examples: religious people such as monks, bishops, missionaries, etc.)
- Journalist (Examples: newspaper journalists, magazine journalists, editors, news cameramen, announcers, etc.)
- Investor/business manager (Examples: company presidents, officers, etc.)
- Legal/accounting services (Examples: attorneys, judicial scriveners, public accountants, tax accountants, etc. certified in Japan)
- Medical services (Examples: physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, etc. certified in Japan)
- Researcher (Examples: researchers, investigators, etc. at research institutes, etc.)
- Instructor (Examples: teachers, etc. at elementary schools, intermediate schools and high schools)
- Engineer (Examples: scientific engineers, IT engineers, etc.)
- Specialist in humanities/International Services (Examples: foreign language teachers, interpreters, copywriters, designers, etc.)
- Intra-company transferee (Examples: people transferred to the Japanese branch (head office of the same company, etc.)
- Entertainer (Examples: musicians, actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, models, etc.)
- Skilled labor (Examples: chefs specializing in the food of a foreign country, animal trainers, pilots, sports trainers, sommeliers, etc.)
- Highly skilled foreign professional visa
- Cultural activities (Examples: unpaid internships, people studying the tea ceremony or Japanese flower arranging, etc.)
- College student (Examples: college students, pre-college students, etc.)
- Training (Examples: trainees in a local government, etc.)
- Family stays (Examples: The spouse and children, etc. of a foreign national on a long-term stay)
- General visa: Technical intern training (i)(a)/(b)
- Spouse, etc. of a Japanese national (Examples: spouse of a Japanese national, biological child of a Japanese national)
- Spouse, etc. of a permanent resident (Examples: spouse of a permanent resident, biological child of a permanent resident)
- Long-term resident (Examples: persons with Japanese ancestry, Indochinese refugee settlers, the spouse or children of Japanese nationals left behind in China, etc.)
- Designated activities (Examples: foreign nationals who wish to enter Japan as personal help privately employed by diplomats, etc., foreign nationals who wish to enter Japan for a working holiday or for paid internships, candidate nurses and care workers who wish to enter Japan based on an EPA, etc.)
- Diplomatic (Examples: constituent members of diplomatic mission, diplomatic couriers, etc.)
- Official (Examples: administrative and technical employees of diplomatic missions and members of the service staff, etc.)
Realistically, though, these are your options (I’ll touch on all of these options throughout this article):
- Teaching English (Specialist in Humanities / Instructor)
- Working Holiday Visa (Not applicable for US citizens; only for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, The Republic of Korea, France, Germany, The United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Hong Kong, or Norway)
- Japanese-Speaking Job with Sponsorship (probably Specialist in Humanities)
If you’re some sort of Super Saiyan, you might qualify for the Highly Skilled Professional visa. In my opinion, though, the requirements for that are just ridiculous. I don’t even come close to qualifying. Maybe that’s why it’s such a failure.
- College Student Visa
- Cultural Activities Visa
Tourist Visa Springboard
- Enter with a Tourist visa, then try to get long-term residency after arriving.
Step #3: Get a Job
Unless someone is supporting you financially, do not come to Japan without a visa that qualifies you to work.
Once you’re in Japan looking for a job, the first thing that every prospective company will tell you is MUST HAVE VALID WORK VISA.
I’ve met people that came here on a tourist visa planning to get a job and then change visas. Many of them succeeded. However, while waiting for their visa they were forced to spend three months in a (potentially) expensive city. $6,000 of savings down the drain. (Wow, that makes the Hacking Japanese Course look cheap, haha.)
You might might to think twice about studying abroad in Japan. There are much cheaper options for mastering Japanese.
How do I get a job in Japan?
I’m planning to write a long, detailed post about this at some point, but for this article I’ll give a super concise overview of options and how to pursue them.
Although there are a lot of jobs available for foreigners in Japan, the categories of jobs are pretty limited. Here’s what we’re looking at…
Here are the main sites for listing large batches of English teacher jobs in Japan:
- GaijinPot.com: They probably have the biggest selection. However, you’ll notice that even looking on a site like this, for the most part, the only companies that are hiring teachers and sponsoring their visas from abroad are the major English conversation school chains, the Japanese government (JET), dispatch companies for public schools in Japan (like Interac):
- O-Hayo Sensei: They have a very simple newsletter that comes out every two weeks, and it’s always packed with job opportunities.
I’m sure that I could seek out and list other sites to put here, but 99% of schools that are willing to sponsor your work visa from abroad are going to be on one or both of these sites.
If you do decide to go the English-teaching route in order to get yourself over to Japan, please keep one thing in mind:
The goal is not to get a good job. The goal is to get any job that will get you into Japan with a work visa.
If you look at forum posts online about any of the schools above (with the exception of the JET program, maybe), you’re going to find long lists of horror stories and people talking about how working at [English conversation school in Japan] was the worst experience of their life.
The thing is, though, that our goal is not to get a good job. Our goal is to get into Japan with a via that allows us to work.
When I moved to Japan, it was with one of the companies listed above, and overall it was a so-so experience working there. A lot of my co-workers seemed to hate it, but I didn’t really mind. And if I had gotten there and then decided that I hated the company, I would have had the option of seeking out a different job, because you can be “jobless,” with a work visa in Japan, for up to 90 days.
If you look on a site like GaijinPot.com, a lot of the job postings will say that they are “willing to sponsor work visas.” However, this is different than saying that they will hire you from abroad. “Sponsoring a work visa” just means that they will take responsibility for the work visa that you already have if you leave your current company.
Almost every job posting you’ll find on GaijinPot.com will come with a visa sponsorship. However, very few of them will hire from abroad. We can see this by ticking the “Overseas applications OK” box in their advanced search feature (bottom left):
At the time of writing this article, searching for jobs in Japan (mostly Tokyo) that accept overseas applications brings up 137 results:
Compare this to a search that includes companies not willing to hire from overseas, and that number jumps to 687:
I know that it’s kind of messed up to recommend taking a job for a visa, then ditching it after you arrive, but I’m mostly just saying that you shouldn’t be picky if and when you get an overseas job offer. Who knows, maybe people blasting these companies on forums are distressed lunatics with nothing better to do… you might show up in Japan and actually like this job. I know that it wasn’t a bad experience for me at all.
At the same time, though, we should play it safe:
Boost your teaching qualifications before you go to Japan.
Japanese people LOVE qualifications. If you can make a standardized test for it and give people certificates when they pass it, then it’s probably respected in Japan. As a result, it would be a good idea to get (1) a teaching qualification and (2) teaching experience before you get to Japan.
If I just look at the first ten English-teaching job postings on GaijinPot.com, I can see that the majority of them require or desire (1) experience, (2) formal qualifications, and (3) a proper visa.
Get qualifications & experience online.
I would give some recommendations, but I don’t know anything about ESL qualifications. You could also do a search for CELTA programs in your area, but CELTA is pretty expensive and demanding, so watch out for that.
As for online teaching experience, it’s very easy to get a teaching position at an online tutor-matching school, as they don’t require formal teaching qualifications or experience (although the pay is slightly lower). For example, I teach part-time on Cafetalk, and all of my students are Japanese. You could also try italki.
It would definitely be helpful if you show up to an interview for a teaching interview in Japan with a certification and X months/years of teaching experience. Maybe you only taught one lesson per week for six months, but “Six months of experience teaching one-on-one English lessons with Japanese students,” sounds pretty professional to me.
NOT Teaching English
Although it’s much less common, it is technically possible to get hired from overseas to work in Japan in a non-teaching job.
Typically, this means working at a recruiting company (they like to call themselves consulting companies). If you’re a qualified worker (especially in IT), you might even be able to get a job through one of these companies. Here are some examples:
Personally, I could never work at one of these companies, though, because I HATE using the phone. Maybe it’s an introvert thing, but it’s just the worst. Actually, I don’t even have a phone, and I’m hoping to keep it that way… but, we’ll see. The world is against me!
Working Holidays and Spouse Visas
If you’re married to a Japanese citizen, you can come on a spouse visa and pretty much do whatever you want. The same applies to anyone on a working holiday visa.
There’s only one problem with these options though:
- What if I’m not married to a Japanese citizen?!
- What if my country doesn’t have a working holiday agreement with Japan (like the USA)?!
In these cases, you’re screwed. Sorry, yo.
Teach English or bust!
Step #4: Find Temporary Accommodation
Okay, so let’s say that you interviewed online and got a job at a demon-spawning conversation school that is sponsoring your visa to come to Japan. Sweet!
Getting the actual visa is kind of a pain and takes a couple of months. I’d write about it in this article, but your company should walk you through it.
While they walk you through things, take note of the following:
Do NOT let your hiring company arrange your accommodation in Tokyo.
This is a trap.
It’s a trap for a few reasons:
- If your company arranges your accommodation, then it’s much more difficult to quit.
- Company accommodation tends to be overpriced, because they front your (very expensive) move-in costs, and this is factored into your monthly rent.
- With company accommodation, you get no say in where you live, and this sucks.
Instead, we can…
Start out with temporary accommodation, such as a share house.
This advice pretty much only applies to Tokyo, so if your company is somewhere else in Japan, you might be stuck accepting their accommodation. However, if you’re in Tokyo, there are a lot of super awesome share houses that are easy to move into on your very first day arriving in Japan.
Tokyo Share House Companies
Here is a brief list of the major share house companies in Tokyo. Some of these only have foreigners, others mix it up with Japanese residents as well. I have lived in both. When I lived with all foreigners, my place was a bit dirty and a lot of fun. When I lived with half Japanese, my place was very clean and really boring. Overall, it depends on the individual house, though, not just the company…
Scam Your School Placement
So, when I moved to Tokyo with an English-teaching job back in 2013, my company said that they would take my preferences into account when choosing my school branch, but that ultimately it would be their decision.
This mean that I might have to work anywhere in all of Tokyo, which is huge! And, as you might have guessed, some places are a lot cooler than others.
Well, I had already told my company that I was going to arrange my accommodation. Next, I told them that I had found a potential apartment (I did not tell them that it was a share house) in Yoyogi (between Shinjuku and Harajuku–so, super central, awesome location in central Tokyo). Then I politely asked if they knew where my school branch would be, as my prospective apartment company was waiting for my decision.
In response, my company told me to go ahead and sign the lease, and then they would actually try to place me near that location. As a result, I ended up working at a school in Shinjuku. Boss!
After you get to Tokyo, you might change jobs. You might hate your company or your apartment or share house. The cool thing about starting out at one of these share house companies is that they all have month-to-month contracts, and they require low deposits. Sometimes they even have promotions for no deposits.
The goal here is getting to Japan. We can worry about setting up “My Perfect Japan Life” after arriving.
Step #5: Depart!
You’ve got your job.
You’ve got your visa.
You’ve got your temporary accommodation arranged.
Now just get that plane ticket, break up with your boyfriend/girlfriend, say sayonara to your mom, and peace out to Japan!
Step #6: Get a Phone (Maybe)
Assuming you’re like me, and you want to take cute selfies of your pathetic life in Japan, then after arriving, one of the first things you’ll want to do is get a phone.
The easiest way to do this is just by walking into a Softbank, because they always have English-speaking staff, especially if you go to a major branch like the one in Shibuya.
But phones are expensive! I feel you.
Plus, you might already have a smartphone, and you just want to use it in Japan. This is the option that I recommend (though I’m guessing some will hate it)…
Pocket Wi-Fi Attack
You can stroll into Bic Camera (for example, the monstrous ビックロ in Shijuku, which is sure to fry your brain with it’s ridiculous over-the-top, looping soundtrack).
Go to the Pocket Wi-Fi counter and get a Pocket Wifi like this one from UQ WiMax for free with a 1-year contract:
Wi-Fi is painfully scarce in Japan. With one of these, you have it anywhere in the country. If you get an apartment, you don’t even need to get or set up Wi-Fi, because these have unlimited data.
Then you can just use an application like Line (which everyone’s using anyways) to message and make calls on your smartphone.
This is slightly sketchy, though, because you technically need a phone number for a lot of things in the world, like bank accounts, contracts, etc. Personally, I just write fake phone numbers every single time. Then if/when I get an email saying “I tried to call you, but it didn’t work,” I just say, “Oh, yeah. My phone’s been acting strange. What’s your number? I’ll call you.”
Make fun of me if you will, but this tactic saves me like $300 a year, at least.
Step #7: Open a Bank Account
Banks are stingy in Japan. They’re certainly not very good at dealing with foreign customers.
As far as I can tell, there are two options for this:
- Shinsei Bank
I’ve had an account at Citibank Japan before, which was… uh, whatever. But if you didn’t keep a minimum balance of like $6,000, they charged ridiculous monthly fees. Citibank Japan has since become Prestia, I guess, which seems to have similar issues.
Most people have good things to say about Shinsei Bank.
So just walk into one of these banks’ bigger branches, be like, “Help me!” and they’ll get you set up in no time.
Note: If you’re using my shady Pocket Wi-Fi system described above, you absolutely must lie to your bank and give them a fake phone number.
Right now I’m actually using Resona Bank in Japan, because that’s what I needed to get paid for translating and writing jobs. I’ve had a pretty good experience with them so far, but I imagine that it’d be pretty torturous if your Japanese isn’t good. For example, they made me write my address in kanji. So I was staring at it on my phone and copying it onto paper, with Rei laughing at me the whole time, because my handwriting in Japanese is hideous.
Step #8: Register at Your Ward Office
At some point within your first two weeks in Japan, you need to go submit your 転入届 (tennyuu-todoke). Basically, this just means informing the Japanese government exactly where you live so that they can tax and/or arrest and deport you whenever necessary. Awesome.
So stroll into your local 市役所 (shiyakusho; “city office”) or 区役所 (kuyakusho; “ward office”) if you’re in Tokyo.
Someone might speak English. If they don’t just show them your Zairyuu Card (the residence card they’ll give you when you pass through immigration at the airport in Tokyo) and be like, “Tennyu-todoke!” (= 転入届; Notification of Moving-in). The rest is their problem.
Step #9: Make Friends
You did it! Now it’s time to build a life in Japan.
I’m planning to write some big long articles on making friends in Japan (Tokyo, specifically), but here’s the easy way to get started:
First, if you live in a share house, then you have friends by default.
Second, sign up for an account on MyLanguageExchange.com and starting messaging people you meet through there on Line. At some point ask them to coffee or something.
Third, go to some disgusting international parties. There are three types of people at these parties:
- Japanese people trying to whore you out for English.
- Gross gaijin trying to game on Japanese girls.
- Losers with no friends (That’s us!)
Actually, I kind of love going to these parties, because they’re always all-you-can-drink, and sometimes you do meet some really awesome people. One time when I went I convinced everyone I met that I was born and raised in Ghana. Yes, I’m somewhat of an international party troll. Please don’t judge me too hard.
Here are some options:
- TokyoInfo Party
- Gaitomo International Party
- Tokyo International Party
- Hiragana Times International Party
- Tokyo International Party
Hacking International Parties in Tokyo
I wasn’t planning on including anything about this, because it’s kind of embarrassing, but I actually had a friend-generation system when I was living in Tokyo.
1. I’d go to one of these international parties.
2. At the parties, I’d get the Line and/or Facebook of as many people as possible (well, pretty much anyone who didn’t creep me out and could hold a conversation like a fully-functioning human).
3. The next week, I’d message all of those people, saying that some of my friends were having a Nomikai (= drinking party) 2-3 weeks later (usually a Saturday at around 7pm in Shinjuku), and ask them if they’d like to join.
4. 75% of them ask if they can bring a friend, and I say no problem.
5. Everyone meets up, and we booze.
Later, everyone would often realize that I didn’t know like half of the people there (or that I’d only met them like two weeks prior). Most thought that was chill, though, and many of them actually thanked me, because I helped them to make new friends (which a lot of Japanese people are not so good at).
After a while, I’d met hundreds of people, and a handful of those people were really awesome and meshed well with me, and a small group of friends formed organically. (Some relationships formed, too.)
It might seem strange to talk about a “system for making friends,” but the first time that I moved to Tokyo for school way back in 2009, I had ZERO Japanese friends. So I’ll go with the system any day.
Step #10: Learn Japanese
Living in Japan is 18,000 times more awesome if you can speak Japanese.
As all of you know, I could talk about this one for days. There are a ton of ways to learn Japanese. My favorite (obviously) is detailed in my giant book: The Hacking Japanese Supercourse.
You could also just check out this free course to get a bit of a preview of all that entails:
Step #11: Get a Japanese-Speaking Job
Study a lot, and then once you pass JLPT N1 or N2, why not get a Japanese-speaking job? Sometimes you can find them via the resources listed above. Other sweet options are as follows:
There are also options like teaching your own private lessons or modeling, neither of which I’ve very experienced in just yet. Maybe in a future, well-researched post.
Step #12: Live the Dream
Don’t forget whatever it was that first pulled you to Japan.
Don’t get jaded. Don’t get fed up. Don’t settle for a life less than you’d hoped for here.
Moving to another country is an extremely stressful and frightening experience. However, other people faced with more obstacles than us have done it before. So we can do it do.
Seriously. One time I had a co-worker in Tokyo that was diagnosed as mentally handicapped as a kid. But he studied, worked hard, and now he’s teaching in Japan. That’s awesome. What’s your excuse? (Mine’s that I’d rather drink beer in bed.)
Good luck! Please comment if you have any questions.