Making the Big Move: Let’s Talk Visas

There are many ways to move to Japan, but pretty much all of them require getting your hands on a visa.  With the exception of a few special countries, you’ll need a visa if you plan on staying longer than 90 days or 3 months in Japan.

Requirements for applying and being granted a visa depend on what kind of agreement Japan has with the country your passport is issued from.  Requirements also depend on what kind of visa you’re seeking.  The following sites are very useful reading:

During my stay I’ve had three different kinds of visas and all of them required jumping through different hoops to get my hands on.

The first time I visited Japan was in 2005, on a student visa for studying abroad in Tokyo. Because I applied from outside of Japan, I had to first qualify for a certificate of eligibility that could then be changed over into a visa.  In my case, my school took care of most of it and I only had to submit:

  1. the student visa application form
  2. a copy of my passport information
  3. two passport-size photos
  4. proof of financial stability* during my intended stay

Some schools might charge a fee to apply on your behalf, but applying and obtaining a certificate of eligibility/visa in itself is free for U.S. citizens.

*If you’re not totally financially stable going in to the process, you might not be completely out of luck.  There are a number of scholarships available and/or you can apply for special permission to work part-time (under 29.5 hours a week) after you arrive in Japan.  I was nominated for and received the JASSO scholarship, with an award of an 80,000 yen stipend a month.  I believe the current scholarship stipend amount is lower than that, but is still very generous.  For more scholarship information, click here.

After my certificate of eligibility arrived, I mailed it off along with my passport and other required documents to my local Japanese consulate general and waited for them to post my passport back with my visa stamp.  Student visas can be issued for a couple months up to a couple of years, depending on your program.  My program lasted a year, therefore the visa was good for a stay of up to one year.  So with all the proper documentation, I hopped a plane over with a group of bright-eyed students just like me, and immigration was a breeze.

During my time studying abroad, I began dating a Japanese guy.  We’re now married, but at the time we’d been dating almost a year and were trying to figure out what to do with our relationship after my time here was up.  Whether we kept things going or not, I still needed to go back to the U.S. in order to put in my last year of college and graduate.   Eventually we decided to try long distance and see how things went.  Sometime during that year apart, we agreed that one of us needed to start making moving plans.  Since I’d already been to Japan and liked it well enough, it seemed like me moving back to Japan was the most sensible option, and I started interviewing for jobs.

So once again in 2007, I found myself applying for another visa.  This time it was for an instructor work visa in order take on an Assistant Language Teaching (ALT) position I was hired for.  Same as last time, because I was applying from overseas, I had to get the certificate of eligibility before getting the visa stamped into my passport.  My company served as my sponsor and mostly assisted me in obtaining one, but they needed an official bachelor’s degree and a certified letter of graduation to get the ball rolling for a late August start.  The problem?  I hadn’t graduated yet so I didn’t have the proper documentation, and wasn’t set to graduate until June, cutting it pretty darn close for getting everything processed in time to start work.

I went ahead and sent in everything I had so far.  I was allowed to send in an official transcript verifying that I was in good standing to graduate to at least get my application in the door until I could mail in the two documents I needed.  I’ve heard this is no longer allowed.  If anyone knows for sure, give a holler in the comments!

Unfortunately, the only road to working in Japan as a teacher involves having a bachelor’s degree (in anything) or higher, being a national of any country on the Working Holiday Visa program, or having a Japanese spouse/parent or dependent-related visa.  For other types of work visas, if you have an insane amount of work experience that is well-documented, there is the slight chance a company might hire you and sponsor your visa.

Generally the process takes about 2 or 3 months.  I remember having to postpone my flight because the certificate of eligibility didn’t arrive on time, and that was a huge pain.  I was packed and ready, just waiting for the green light.  When it finally came, the following morning my family piled into the car and we drove four hours to the nearest Japanese consulate in Houston.  It was kind of like Little Miss Sunshine, but less glamorous or spiritual.  We stayed in a hotel for a night while my visa was being processed, retrieved it the next day, and then drove the four hours back.  Within the next couple of days I was on a plane over to Japan for good.

Like most people on a first time work visa, it was valid for a year before I had to renew it.  I’ll be the first to admit the visa renewal process is annoying, but pretty straightforward- after doing it so many times you’ll get the hang of it.  Applying in-country for a visa or a visa renewal requires taking a trip to the nearest immigration bureau, or nyūkokukanrikyoku, to you.

The immigration bureaus in Tokyo are pretty nice on the outside, but in the countryside they can look like drab, little offices you’d never guess were official government buildings.  Sometimes they have bad English signage to boot.

© Sugiyama Sōgo Jimusho

Inside an immigration bureau in Japan
© Sugiyama Sōgo Jimusho

Things I had to bring in to the immigration bureau for the renewal included:

  1. an extension of period of stay application
  2. my passport
  3. my alien registration card, gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho (resident cards, zairyū kaado, were introduced in 2012 to replace these)
  4. a copy of my renewed work contract
  5. my statement of earnings, gensen chōshūhyō
  6. some documents concerning my company, which my company always provided me

It gets a little trickier if you’ve changed jobs before the renewal, as you need a release form from your previous employer and possibly other documentation.

Also, since within the past few years, it’s now common to be required to submit your most recent proof of tax payment, local tax payment, and/or income tax payment certificates, or nōzei shōmeisho, kazei shōmeisho, and/or shotoku shōmeisho when you apply.  Not paying taxes can sometimes affect your ability to renew your visa, so be sure to keep up on your payments and remember to file each year if your company doesn’t take care of it for you.

When I submitted everything in, I also filled out a return postcard with my address that they used to mail me in order to notify me my new visa was ready to pick up.  Then I returned to the office, taking with me:

  1. the postcard I received in the mail
  2. my passport
  3. my alien registration card, gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho (resident cards, zairyū kaado,  were introduced in 2012 to replace these)
  4. a 4,000 yen stamp, shūnyū inshi*
  5. a photo
  6. a photo submission sheet, shashin teishutsu yōshi, to affix the photo on
  7. a payment of certificate fee, tesūryō nōfusho, to affix the stamp on

* The shūnyū inshi can be bought at any post office along with most convenience stores.  They have many official uses, so be sure to specify the right amount you need when you purchase one.

My first extension was granted for three years.  You can apply for a 1, 3, or 5 year extension, but most often will receive a one year or three year extension.  Over the course of that three year visa extension period, my boyfriend and I got engaged and then married, which meant a change of status on top of the second extension renewal the next time around.

By far, applying for the spouse or child of a Japanese national visa was the most work.  For the application, I had to submit:

  1. a spouse or child of a Japanese national application form
  2. an original copy of our marriage certificate*
  3. an official copy of my birth certificate (translation not necessary depending on luck)
  4. a copy of my resident certificate from our local city office, juminhyō
  5. my Japanese spouse’s family registration, koseki tōhon
  6. a letter of guarantee from my Japanese spouse, mimoto hoshōsho
  7. a questionnaire filled out by my Japanese spouse, shitsumonsho
  8. two photos of us together/with family to prove our relationship
  9. proof of employment**, zaishoku shōmeisho
  10. most recent proof of tax payment, local tax payment, and/or  income tax payment certificates**, nōzei shōmeisho, kazei shōmeisho, and/or shotoku shōmeisho
  11. my passport
  12. my alien registration card, gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho (resident cards, zairyū kaado, were introduced in 2012 to replace these)

* Translated if the wedding the certificate is from a marriage registered overseas.  In most circumstances, a translation done by your Japanese partner will suffice.

** These documents are usually submitted by the spouse with the larger income.  If you use documents from the spouse who has the lower income or your salaries are about the same, you may be both be asked to submit these documents.  In my case I submitted my husband’s, despite making a little more than him.  They didn’t make me submit my proof of employment, but I did have to additionally submit my proof of tax payment and local tax payment.

Make sure you give them originals you don’t need because you’re not going to get them back.  The officials will insist they can’t return them, even though they just put it away in storage “somewhere” to collect dust and never see the light of day again.  I played the usual waiting game until the postcard came in and took it in along with everything I needed to finish the process; the same stuff I brought in when I got the work visa renewal postcard previously.

As of writing this post, I’ve already renewed my spouse visa once.  The renewal requires everything on the previous list except the marriage certificate, birth certificate, and photos of you together.  Next time around should be exactly the same process, except I should be granted a three year visa.  When that’s up for renewal, I’ll be eligible to apply for permanent residency (PR).

You need at least 10 years of working experience, with a significant contribution to the welfare of Japanese society, or 5 years of marriage to a Japanese national including at least 1 three year visa, to qualify for permanent residency.

Tips on Dealing with Immigration

One frustrating thing about dealing with immigration is that each branch is different.  You’ll find that many of the personnel are unable to answer your questions or even tell you what you need over the phone until you arrive and they deem you don’t have everything necessary. Deciding more paperwork is required can be just as arbitrary as the weather that day or the mood of the person you get.  Not to fear!  In most cases if they find you short on documentation, they’ll allow you to submit whatever you’re missing later by mail without holding up your application too much.

Immigration bureaus in areas with less foreigners might not have English speaking staff.  If you’re unsure of your ability to communicate, I recommend bringing along a Japanese-speaking family member or friend.  Smooth communication results in less frustration on your part and the part of the official processing your application.

Come early!  Immigration bureaus are only open on weekdays, between the hours of 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.  They take a break between 12:00 – 1:00 p.m., and you will have to wait until the window opens again after lunch if you come during this time.  They may also refuse to receive your application if you cut your arrival close to their break/closing times, and you may have to wait longer or come back again.  Every time I’ve arrived a little before opening, I’ve been in and out in under 30 minutes.

Come prepared, with any written documents filled out beforehand.  While it’s true the bureau will provide you with any copies of applications you need, you can also print them off their website and fill them out at home.  They won’t usually wait for you to fill out something when you get to the window, and you will lose your place in line.  Believe me, nothing is more frustrating than waiting an hour on a busy day, only to be refused and made to wait another hour due to incomplete paperwork.
Whew, what a long post!  Do you have any visa-related specific questions?  I’ll try to answer them as best as I can or direct you to someone who can.

– J

One thought on “Making the Big Move: Let’s Talk Visas

  1. Pingback: Moving to Japan, Obtaining a Visa: (part 1) | ionasiatrend

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