How to move to Japan: step by step guide

Gabriela Peratello
25.03.22
9 minute read

Moving to Japan is an incredibly exciting prospect. Between delicious cuisine, beautiful destinations in nature, some of the world’s most interesting and modern cities, and a captivating ancient culture, it’s no wonder so many people from around the world are choosing Japan for their retirement, careers, or just their next adventure.

Regardless of your reasons for relocation, moving to Japan can feel like a bear of a task to take on. Armed with the right information, however, you’ll be enjoying life on the Asian island in no time. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about the process of moving to Japan from the US.

📑 Table of Contents

Things to know before moving to Japan

CurrencyJapanese yen (JPY or ¥)
Population125 million
CapitalTokyo
LanguageJapanese
WeatherHot and humid summers in many areas, with snowy winters in the east, and milder winter temperatures in the west
Amount of expatsAround 3 million
Biggest citiesTokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya
Average yearly salaryVaries widely by industry — overall average around 29,000 USD/year

This guide will go into lots of useful details about how to live in Japan and how to move to Japan from the US, including the processes for Japanese immigration and how to get a Japan visa. 

Let’s start with a few key pointers if you’re wondering how to move to Japan permanently:

  • Japan is a beautiful and safe place — both in the big cities and out in nature
  • Cash is still very widely used rather than cards — be prepared
  • You’ll need to either brush up on your Japanese or get used to using Google Translate
  • Rent is usually costly, but everyday items may not be
  • Japan’s average life expectancy is among the highest in the world, leading to an aging population
  • Tattoos are traditionally taboo — you may need to cover yours if you have any

Step 1: Make sure you fill all the moving to Japan requirements

Japan is one of a few countries where the visa process is largely identical regardless of whether you’re British, Australian, American, or from the EU. It’s also one of the most straightforward.

All you'll need to do is to apply for the relevant visa, depending on your reason for staying in Japan, at the nearest Japanese Embassy or Consulate General² in your home country. The documents that you should bring with you, are:

  • Your passport
  • Your visa application form
  • A photograph
  • A Certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system, both the original and one copy.

The Certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system is basically a certified letter from a Japanese person — typically an employer — who guarantees to support you financially while you’re in Japan. As such, the requirements for staying in Japan are pretty comparable to a work visa in other countries. 

When you want to study in Japan, the visa application procedure is basically the same, only the Certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system has to be provided by someone at the educational institution or university that you will be attending.

For some countries there are some additional requirements though, so make sure to check this with the embassy or on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan³, before you start the process.

Can an American move to Japan?

Yes. You can move to Japan from the US. You’ll need to apply for the relevant visa for your situation, at the Japanese Embassy or Consulate² which is closest to your home. 

If you’re moving for the long term, you’ll usually also need your employer — or your school if you’re moving for study — to apply online in advance and obtain a Certificate for completion of registration to the ERFS system for you.

Step 2: Budget for your move 

Before you finalize your plan to move to Japan you’ll need to draw up a realistic budget. Your day to day costs can vary a lot depending on how you choose to live — so some research is essential. Here’s some key information to get you started.

What’s the cost of living in Japan like?

Finances in Japan vary a little, depending on whether you’re comfortable with immersing yourself in Japanese life or if you’ll be spending more time trying to get your hands on imported goods. 

As an island nation, anything that has to be shipped to the country tends to be more expensive. The following table will give you an idea of some basic prices in Japan.

ItemCost in Japan⁴
Meal, inexpensive restaurant7.48 USD
3 course meal for 2 at a mid-range restaurant41.53 USD
Transportation pass (1 month)83.06 USD
Rent 1 bedroom apartment, city center715.24 USD/month
Rent 1 bedroom apartment, outside of city center474.71 USD/month

move-and-manage-money

How much does it cost to move to Japan?

Once you have your budget for daily life in Japan you’ll also need to plan for the one off moving costs you’ll run into. The cost of moving to Japan will vary a lot depending on whether you’re shipping all your things, moving to Japan with family or even moving to Japan with your dog or cat. Important costs to think about include:

  • Flight costs
  • Visa and permit fees, which can include legal or translation costs
  • Shipping of household goods
  • Deposit on accommodation
  • Extra charges if you’re moving with family or taking your pets along
  • Temporary accommodation when you first arrive
  • Daily living costs when you first arrive and before your first paycheck

If you’re planning on moving to Japan with your pet it’s important to check all the rules about importing animals to the country. 

In most cases if you’re coming from the US your pet will need to complete a quarantine process on arrival — the only exceptions may be if you’re moving from Hawaii or Guam which have been designated rabies free by Japan⁵.

Step 3: Set up your finances in Japan

Setting up your finances in Japan should be pretty straight forward, and you’ll have plenty of choice as you’ll be within one of the world’s best banking systems. The only part that may seem a little foreign is the process of opening a bank account over a cup of tea and polite conversation.

It’s not normally possible to open a Japanese bank account before you arrive in the country — and you may then need to wait a few days to get a cash card you can use to make ATM withdrawals. You’ll need to be prepared with ways to access your money while you wait.

Usually to open your account you’ll need
  • Your residence card (zairyu card)
  • Your passport
  • A valid visa
  • Your Japanese address and phone number
  • A hanko seal may be requested — but many banks which deal with foreign customers will accept a signature instead

Move your money to Japan with a secure Wise transfer

When sending money to or from Japan, you can cut down on international transfer costs with Wise. 

Wise is a quick, cheap and secure way to send money internationally, all from the comfort of your own home.

You’ll get the mid-market exchange rate for all your transfers and know upfront how much and how long each transaction will take.

You can also get a Multi-currency Account to hold around 50 currencies and spend like a local wherever you are with the Wise card.

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Don’t forget to look into Japanese taxes

If you’re considered a tax resident in Japan you’ll pay personal income tax on a sliding scale from 5% to 45% based on your income, plus local taxes which are around 10%. Non-resident taxes are set at a flat rate of 20.42% of income⁶. 

However, you’re advised to get personal tax advice to make sure you’re fully aware of all your obligations both in Japan and in the US after you relocate.

Step 4: Find a job and work in Japan

Finding a job in Japan can be difficult, as many companies prefer to hire Japanese citizens. It’s also almost always required that you speak Japanese — English speaking jobs are very rare. 

If you’re able to secure a position, however, this is the number one best way to get all that's required for your visa.

If you’re looking for work in Japan, the following sites are a good place to start:

  • Dai Job⁷
  • GaijinPot⁸
  • Jobs in Japan⁹
  • Indeed¹⁰

Step 5: Get a place to live in Japan

If you’re financially secure and have some Japanese speaking skills (or a translator), finding a Japanese apartment won’t be too difficult. It’s possible — and common — to work directly with the landlord. 

You might want to go through a real estate agent as they get a feel for neighborhoods, rent prices, and what to expect from the apartment itself. It could also be easier to find an English speaking agent, if you’re not yet familiar with the language.

Best places to live in Japan for expats

Let’s look at some popular expat locations one by one.

Tokyo

tokyo

If you’re considering moving to Tokyo you’re far from alone. As the capital city, Tokyo is a common place for expats to travel for work. It’s a huge city with plenty going on and a relatively frenetic way of life. 

A major downside with Tokyo will be rental prices. An average one bedroom apartment in the city center will set you back over 1,200 USD/month — a full 74% more than Osaka¹¹, which we’ll look at next.

Osaka

osaka

Osaka has lower rental prices compared to Tokyo with a one bed apartment in the center averaging under 700 USD/month¹¹. Osaka is the second biggest economic hub in Japan — so still a good place to look for work — with friendly people and a real foodie culture. It’s modern and busy — but only half an hour by train from Kyoto when you need a bit of history and a slower pace for a weekend. 

Kyoto

kyoto

If you’ve been to Japan on vacation there’s a high chance you’ll have taken in Kyoto — the country’s historical heart and home to geisha culture. Kyoto is a tourist hotspot with lots to do if you choose to stay for the longer term — giving you the best of both a slower pace of life when you need it, and plenty of foreign company if you choose to seek it out. 

When it comes to rent prices, you’ll probably pay about 700 USD a month for a one bed place in the city center, or under 500 USD/month outside the center¹².

Fukuoka

fukuoka

Although Fukuoka is smaller than Tokyo you’ll still get the modern vibe, with a lower price tag. It’s a great destination for entrepreneurs and people interested in the startup scene, with lots going on and some great culture to explore, too. Rent is in the region of 600 USD/month in the city center but on average under 400 USD/month outside the center¹². 

Sapporo

sapporo

If you’re into winter sports you may know Sapporo as a previous host of the Winter Olympics. With a long winter and plenty of snow, it’s a great place if you enjoy skiing — with milder summers compared to many places, and lots of nature to get out exploring. 

Rent prices here are among the lowest of our top pick cities — you can find a great one bed place for an average of 600 USD/month in the center, and just 300 USD/month if you’re happy to be outside the center¹³.

Step 6: Make yourself familiar with Japanese healthcare

Healthcare in Japan is geared towards the people. While individuals are required to carry their own health insurance, it is provided by a universal healthcare insurance system that guarantees mostly equal access to insurance and services, at a price laid out by the Japanese government.

For some special cases, like prenatal care, disease control, and screening exams, the government covers 70% of the cost of the treatment, with the individual being responsible for the other 30%. If you’re looking for a doctor in Japan, start with your new city’s local government website. Each city has their own online database of local doctors and clinics.

Write down important emergency numbers

In case of an emergency, carry the numbers below with you, so you know who to call:

InstitutionNumber
Coast Guard118
Police110
Fire/Ambulance119
US Embassy (Tokyo)+81 03 3224 5000

Step 7: If you haven’t already, learn the language

Though many Japanese people know the basics of English, Japan could be considered one of those countries where learning the language is key to fitting in. This will be an important factor of your life and how you build your relationships and work in the country.

For starters, you could try learning online with free websites or apps, but if you want a proper certification, it might be worth looking into a more complete course or even private tutoring.

Step 8: Don’t be lonely, make friends and get in touch with other expats in Japan

Japan’s gaijin, or expat community, is pretty strong, as inclusivity in Japan is fairly limited to other Japanese people or those who speak excellent Japanese. 

If you’re looking to meet up with other expats from your home country, a quick search on Facebook or meetup will produce tons of results.

Step 9: Moving to Japan with children? Learn more about the Japanese schooling system

In Japan school starts at 6 years old, with a 9 year compulsory education system. The Japanese school year runs from April to March, with a relatively familiar typical timetable of around 8:15 AM  through to 3:15 PM for most schools. Education is considered very important in Japan and families expect their kids to work hard and get good grades. 

As well as standard Japanese schools there are also international schools in the main cities which offer different curricula and exams — you could keep your kids within the US system if you’re only planning on staying for a few years and will need them to reintegrate to a US school in future.


Bottom line: is moving to Japan worth it?

Japan is a fascinating country with plenty to explore, learn and do. If you’re up for an adventure, moving to Japan can be a great opportunity — whether you want to work to boost your career, study the culture and language, or spend your time getting to see how things work in the Land of the Rising Sun. Use this guide to start your research and get planning your move to Japan — good luck!


Sources:

  1. Tsunagu Local
  2. Japan Embassy - Travel and visa
  3. MOFA
  4. Numbeo - Cost of living in Japan
  5. Petraveller - Bringing your pet to Japan
  6. Tax Summaries - Taxes on personal income
  7. Daijob
  8. Gaijin Pot
  9. Jobs in Japan
  10. Indeed - Japanese jobs
  11. Numbeo - Cost of living comparison: Osaka and Tokyo
  12. Numbeo - Cost of living comparison: Kyoto and Fukuoka
  13. Numbeo - Cost of living in Sapporo

Sources checked on 03.24.2022


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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