Moving to Japan: A 2024 Guide for Americans

Last updated on April 30th, 2024 at 11:25 pm

Japan’s strong education and medical system, low rates of crime, beautiful scenery, and booming economy draw immigrants from all over the world. Although many come from other East Asian countries, the immigrant community also includes North American expats. If moving to Japan is on your list, we have you covered.

As of 2018, 53,000 American citizens resided in Japan, and around 10,000 Canadians called Japan home as of 2017. This guide will help you prepare by explaining the immigration process and describing what you can expect from life in the country.

Can you live in Japan permanently?

You can live in Japan permanently if you receive a permanent resident visa. To qualify for one, you must:

  • Live in Japan for 10 consecutive years
    • work for at least 5 of those years under a valid work visa (you or your spouse)
  • Have no criminal offenses during your time in Japan
    • even a traffic violation can prevent you from becoming a permanent citizen
  • Show proof of financial stability, such as records of employment or a bank or investment account
  • Pay taxes on income that you earn under a long-term visa
  • Have a Japanese national or permanent resident sponsor you

6 types of Japanese visas for moving there

To resettle in Japan for longer than a vacation-length stay, you must qualify for one of the following visas: working holiday, working, highly skilled professional, startup, specified, or general. Here’s an overview of visa types.

Note: these are different than the standard tourist visa or a student visa.

Visa Type Who it’s For
Working Holiday Visa For 18–30-year-olds from participating countries, allowing part-time work to fund travel for up to one year.
Working Visa Requires a job offer from a Japanese company for professional employment.
Highly Skilled Professional Visa For individuals with advanced degrees or specialized skills, offering a fast track to long-term residency.
Startup Visa For entrepreneurs planning to launch a business in Japan, requiring sponsorship from a local municipality.
Specified Visa Covers various categories, including spouses of Japanese nationals and long-term residents.
General Visa For cultural activities, studies, or training programs, requiring a sponsor in Japan.

Working holiday visa

Japan has a special program established with 26 countries as of 2023.  Residents of these countries between the ages of 18–30 may qualify to live and work part-time in Japan to pay for their travel expenses for one year through the country’s Working Holiday Programme.

Countries include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, and others. Notably, the United States is not part of this program.

The number of working holiday visas that can be issued depends on the country. For example, Japan admits up to 6,500 Canadians through the program each year. There is no limit to applicants from Germany, Norway, or Portugal, on the other hand.

To obtain the visa, you must:

  • Travel without dependents or children
  • Have a return ticket home purchased or show proof of funds to buy one, verified by a bank statement
  • Hold a valid passport that is good for as long as the length of your stay
  • Demonstrate that you have some money saved to support yourself by providing bank statements

Working visa

Residents of many countries can apply for a general working visa to Japan. To obtain a such a visa, you will need to find a job with a Japanese company and have them sponsor your application. The working visa is good for three months to five years.

You will need to present your passport and documents that prove your employment, such as a contract or an offer letter on official letterhead.

Highly skilled professional visa

The highly skilled professional visa is available for individuals with advanced degrees or other specialized skills. To obtain one, you must first find a job in Japan, and have your employer sponsor you.

The visa is usually good for five years, and, in some cases, you may be allowed to bring your parents and a domestic helper or nanny with you. In addition, the visa allows your spouse to work full-time in Japan.

You will need to provide:

  • valid passport
  • proof of education and experience like a transcript, CV, or degrees
  • proof of employment like an offer letter printed on official letterhead or a contract

Startup visa

Startup visas are available for individuals who wish to open businesses in Japan. To obtain one, you will have to work through a municipality in Japan. Requirements vary, but you will typically need to provide your business plan and show proof of funding like a business bank account.

If the municipality agrees to sponsor you, you can enter the country with your spouse and children and stay one–five years. You will need a valid passport from your home country.

Specified visa

Specified visas are available for:

The visas are good for six months to five years and require a valid U.S. passport and proof of the relationship like a marriage or birth certificate.

General visa

A general visa is a long-term visa open to individuals who have a sponsor in Japan and wish to come to the country to perform functions other than work. The sponsor can be a nonprofit organization, a cultural institution like a museum, a relative, or a school.

To qualify for this type of visa, you must hold a valid passport. General visas are valid for three months to three years.

How do you get a visa to move to Japan?

The first step to getting any long-term visa besides a working holiday visa is to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility from a regional immigration office in Japan.

Normally, the individual, company, or organization that is sponsoring your visa will obtain the certificate for you by appearing in person at one of the offices. You will need to have the official, original copy of the certificate when completing your visa application.

After you have obtained a certificate, you will need to visit a Japanese embassy or consulate office in the U.S. or Canada to complete the application process. Normally, you will have to pay a fee.

The base rates for fees are approximately:

  • $25 for single-entry
  • $45 for double-entry or multiple entry

Depending on the type of visa you’re applying for, there may be additional fees. The embassy or consulate office can provide you with an exact figure when you schedule your appointment.

Does Japan offer digital nomad visas?

A digital nomad visa allows people to relocate to another country while working remotely for an employer in their home country. Japan doesn’t offer a digital nomad visa as of August 2022.

Moving costs to Japan

The cost of flying to Japan depends on where your trip begins. For instance, traveling from the west coast of the USA is cheaper than starting in Europe. Avoid the peak tourist season from March–May (cherry blossom season) and September–November (autumn foliage) to get the best deals on airfare.

International moving companies charge for the cost of shipping by container, which includes inspection and customs’ fees. As a result, the cost can run into the thousands of dollars.

Expat forums like ExpatExchange will have up-to-date information from others about the cost of moving, as well as recommendations. In general, the amount you’ll pay will depend on the distance you travel and the total weight and size of what needs to be moved.

Once you arrive in the country, factor in the cost of initial accommodation in a hotel or hostel as you search for a residence.

How much monthly income do you need to live in Japan?

The amount of money that you’ll need in Japan depends on where you choose to live in the country. The cost of living is often higher in large cities.

All figures are at the time of this writing. In Tokyo, the capital and largest city, the average monthly cost of living, not including rent, is around $1,050 for a single person or $3,800 for a family of four. Average monthly rent prices in Tokyo for a one-bedroom apartment are around $1,150 in the city center and $650 outside it. For a three-bedroom apartment, the average monthly rent is around $2,500 in the city center and around $1,400 in the surrounding areas.

What is the cost of living like in Japan?

Generally, living costs in Japan are slightly lower than in the U.S. and Canada.

Tokyo is more than 25% less expensive than New York City, and rents are about 68% lower. Compared to Vancouver, monthly living expenses are about 23% cheaper with rent rates around 48% less expensive.

How to set up a bank account in Japan

To make purchases and deposit paychecks or other income, you’ll need to establish an account at a Japanese bank. While you can get cash from an ATM with your home country debit card, you’ll want the convenience of local banking for your permanent residency. The yen is the national currency of Japan. You’ll need to transfer U.S. dollars into yen to purchase items in the country.

The Corporate Finance Institute identifies the following banks as among the top financial institutions in Japan:

Remitly is a trusted app for transferring money between accounts in your home country and your Japanese bank. With international money transfers, your U.S. dollars will automatically turn into yen that you can use electronically or withdraw from an ATM.

Life in Japan: FAQ

What is the quality of life in Japan?

Japan’s social support systems, safe cities, and high rates of employment mean that most people in Japan enjoy a high quality of life. However, long working hours and pressure to excel and achieve mean that life in Japan can be stressful. As a result, Japan ranked 54th on the 2022 World Happiness Index, much lower than Canada and the U.S. at 15th and 16th, respectively.

How safe is it to live in Japan?

Overall, crime rates in Japan are very low. Even as the country became more industrialized after World War II, rates of violent crimes did not rise the way that they did following industrialization in the U.S. and Canada. A strong economy and a culture that emphasizes harmony, self-control, and group orientation are believed to contribute to the lack of violent crimes in the country.

What is the education system like in Japan?

Japan has a strong education system. Following a drop in birth rates in the 1970s, the country implemented programs to expand support for parents. Early childhood education is provided for free for all children aged three–five. Children from low-income backgrounds can receive free childcare and early education starting at birth. Roughly 94% of all children aged 3–5 in Japan are enrolled in an early childhood education program.

All children in Japan are required to start attending primary school at age six. Compulsory education continues through six years of primary school and three years of lower secondary school. Upon completing lower secondary school, students receive a leaving certificate and can apply for upper secondary school. Upper secondary school is free for most Japanese people with only the wealthiest families in the country having to pay for tuition.

Overall, Japanese children perform well on international assessments like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Because of the strength of the Japanese education system, many expats enroll their children in public school.

However, there are also private international schools located in major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kobe. These schools usually provide instruction in English and Japanese. The International Schools Database offers a search tool for finding international schools by age and location.

Japan is home to more than 700 post-secondary institutions, which include colleges and universities.

Some top universities in the country include:

What is the healthcare system like in Japan?

High-level, there are major differences between the U.S. and Japan, in particular, for healthcare.

Aspect Japan US
Coverage Universal coverage for all residents Mixture of private insurance and government programs, not universal
System Type National health insurance system Primarily private, with significant public sector involvement
Cost for Basic Care Low out-of-pocket expenses, capped monthly payments High out-of-pocket expenses, especially without insurance
Prescription Medication Relatively low cost due to government regulation High cost, among the highest in the world
Access to Specialists Direct access without need for primary physician referral Often requires referral from a primary care physician
Average Life Expectancy High (one of the highest globally) Lower compared to Japan
Overall Satisfaction High satisfaction with healthcare services Mixed, varies greatly by insurance coverage and state

CEOWORLD magazine Health Care Index ranked Japan’s healthcare system the 5th best in the world. By comparison, Canada and the U.S. ranked 23rd and 30th, respectively. Roughly 98.3% of people living in Japan receive care through the Japan’s Statutory Health Insurance System (SHIS), and the remaining population receives care through the Public Social Assistance Program for low-income individuals. Most hospitals in Japan are privately owned and provide high-quality care and comfortable accommodations.

The healthcare system includes coverage for hospital stays, primary and specialty care, prescription drugs, home health and hospice care, mental health care, physical therapy, and most dental services. Typically, Japanese people pay 30% of the cost of their care out-of-pocket. However, prices are much lower than in the U.S. Supplemental health insurance is also available to cover some of these out-of-pocket costs, and government assistance is available for those who can’t pay.

Expats who work will normally get health coverage through their employers, but you can also sign up for the National Healthcare System as an individual or family. To do so, you must visit the local government office in the prefecture where you’re living and present the residence card that you receive after entering the country with a valid visa.

What is the climate/weather like in Japan?

Japan’s climate varies by geography. Northern Japan has a subarctic climate with warm summers and very cold winters. Snowfall is often heavy in the mountains and along the Sea of Japan.

In eastern Japan, summers are hot and humid and winters are cold and snowy, while western Japan sees hotter and more humid summers and moderately cool winters.

The southern islands have a subtropical climate with hot and humid summers and mild winters. In Tokyo, average annual temperatures range from 55–62°F (12.8–20.4°C) and average annual precipitation is around 63″ (1500 mm).

Japan is prone to severe weather and natural disasters. Generally, the country reports the highest number of annual earthquakes over any other country in the world. There are also active volcanoes located on the islands. Due to its location, Japan is also at risk for typhoons and tsunamis.

Can I get a driver’s license in Japan?

Most large Japanese cities are accessible via public transportation. In Tokyo, you can travel by subway, buses, taxis, and bicycles. The Japanese railway system connects major cities, and travel between islands is possible via bullet trains, planes, and ferries.

Expats can also choose to drive in Japan. Foreign licenses can be converted into a Japanese license or Gaimen Kirikae at a driver’s license center. You will need to provide a copy of your valid Canadian or U.S. driver’s license translated into Japanese and your Japanese residence card. You will also need to take an aptitude test, a traffic rule knowledge test, and a driving skill test.

What type of government does Japan have?

The Japanese government operates a bit like that of the United Kingdom. Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government. The emperor, Naruhito, acts as a figurehead and symbol of the Japanese people, and the prime minister heads up the government. Prime ministers are appointed by parliament immediately following legislative elections.

The parliament of Japan is called the diet. It consists of a house of councilors with 96 members elected through an open-list proportional representation system for 6-year terms. The national diet with 300 members is elected by plurality votes. Eighteen of those members are elected through a pen-list proportional representation system. National diet members serve four-year terms.

At the top of the judicial branch is the Saiko Saibansho, the constitutional court. All justices are appointed by the cabinet and confirmed by the emperor. During the first general election after the new justices’ first terms, Japanese citizens decide whether to retain them through a vote. After that, voters reconfirm justices once every 10 years. If justice is voted out, the cabinet selects a replacement.

Living in Japan as a North American

Many Canadians and U.S. citizens have opted for life in the Land of the Rising Sun. These questions are specific for those coming from North America, while the questions above are applicable for any nationality.

Is it easy for Americans and Canadians to find a job in Japan?

In 2020, only 2.97% of people in Japan were unemployed. Overall, unemployment tends to be low in the country. These economic conditions mean that there are jobs available in the country. However, expats who don’t speak Japanese may find it difficult to get work, especially outside of Tokyo.

Is there a U.S. embassy in Japan?

Both the U.S. and Canada have embassy offices in Tokyo. Canada also maintains consulate offices in Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Osaka, and Sapporo.

Is Japan a good place for North American expats?

U.S. News and World Report ranked Japan the second-best country in the world to live in. North American expats can enjoy a high standard of living in Japan with its stable economy, government, and robust social services.

It’s important to note that Less than 30% of the population speaks English, and only 2–8% can speak English fluently.

Learning the Japanese language

Here are some resources and options to consider for learning Japanese:

  • Language Schools: Enroll in a language school in Japan or your home country. These schools offer comprehensive courses ranging from beginner to advanced levels.
  • Online Courses: Platforms like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Tandem offer flexible learning schedules and progress at your own pace.
  • Tutors: Personal tutors can provide tailored lessons and conversational practice. Websites like iTalki or Preply connect learners with native speakers.
  • Language Exchange: Participate in language exchange meetups or find a language partner online. This helps with practical speaking skills and understanding cultural nuances.
  • University Programs: Many universities in Japan offer language programs that can be part of a student visa curriculum. These programs often combine language learning with cultural immersion.
  • Mobile Apps: Apps such as Anki for flashcards or HelloTalk for conversing with natives can supplement more formal education.
  • Media Consumption: Regularly watching Japanese TV shows, movies, and listening to podcasts can improve listening skills and pronunciation.

Teaching English in Japan

Teaching English is a popular job for American expats in Japan. To become an English teacher, US citizens typically need a Bachelor’s degree and a certificate in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

While some knowledge of the Japanese language is beneficial, it is not always required. Schools and language institutes often sponsor a work visa, allowing Americans to share their language and culture while immersing themselves in Japanese society.

Moving to Japan

What are some things to do in Japan? Exploring your new home

Japan is a popular destination for tourists due to its history, culture, and natural beauty. It’s well-known for cherry blossom season, though any time of year offers its appeal. Christmas in Japan, perhaps?

Some of the most popular attractions in the country include:

Japanese culture: what to know

Some important customs to know before moving to Japan include:

  • Bowing: When meeting someone, it is customary to bow as a sign of respect. The higher the station of the person you are greeting, the deeper the bow should be.
  • Suffixes: It is customary to call a person by their last name and attach a suffix to it. For men, the suffix is “-san”, and for women, the suffix is “-sama.” Normally, children are called by their first names. Suffixes of “-chan” for boys and “-kun” for girls are sometimes added, but are not mandatory.
  • Toasts: At dinner parties, you should let your glass rest on the table until someone makes a speech, raises their glass, and says “kampai!”
  • Hand cloths: Normally, you are given a wet cloth to wash your hands before your meal. This should not be used to wipe your face or as a napkin.
  • Slurping: In Japan, slurping while eating isn’t considered rude. In fact, Japanese people see it as a sign that you’re enjoying your food.
  • Tipping: Tipping is not practiced in Japan. Some people may even find being offered a tip to be rude.
  • Shoes: You should take your shoes off before entering homes, businesses, and hotels. In most places, you will be given guest slippers, but many people like to bring a pair for themselves. Slippers should not be worn in the bathroom or when walking over tatami mats.
  • Masks: Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was customary in Japan to wear a mask if you’re feeling sick. If you are coughing or sneezing, even due to allergies, it is polite to wear a mask as a sign of respect and caring for others.
  • Keeping a low profile: In Japan, it is considered rude to draw attention to yourself by eating on the go, blowing your nose in public, or talking on your cell phone in crowded places. You should also speak in a soft voice and avoid laughing loudly in public.

Learn more about finding an apartment in Tokyo in our updated 2024 guide.

What are the best places to live in Japan?

The best places to live in Japan depend on your age, income, marital status, whether you have children, employment situation, and overall preferences. Renting is usually the first step before buying property.

For retirees

Kyoto is one of the most popular places for retirees to live in Japan. With flat terrain and a simple grid system layout, the city is easy to walk, and crime rates are low. Many expats live in the area, so it’s not uncommon to encounter English speakers. There are numerous public parks and botanical gardens to tour and multiple golf courses in the area.

Yokohama is another popular place for seniors. Like Kyoto, the city is home to a large population of expats, but it is smaller and less crowded than Kyoto. The city enjoys pleasant weather conditions. While the cost of living is higher here than in other cities, Yokohama is less expensive than Tokyo and home to a wealth of museums, sports arenas, and restaurants.

For families

Entrepreneurs who wish to move to Japan to open their own business may wish to live in Fukuoka. The local government frequently sponsors startup visas for immigrants. Generally less crowded than other major cities, Fukuoka is still home to many shopping centers and restaurants.

Expats who want access to top international schools may prefer life in Tokyo. As the headquarters for many companies, there are many places to apply for employment for working and highly skilled professional visas. Some of the most popular neighborhoods for families include Azabu, Kojimachi, and Sangenjaya.

For young singles

Tokyo is usually the city of choice for young singles. Kichijoji is among the most popular neighborhoods for young people with its trendy, hip atmosphere, famous second-hand shops, and modern restaurants and bars. Because the area is so popular, the cost of rent tends to be high in the neighborhood.

Young people who want easy access to all Tokyo has to offer may prefer the neighborhood of Shinjuku. Nine train lines meet in the neighborhood, making it easy to travel throughout Tokyo. Its location also makes the area home to many stores, restaurants, and bars.

How to find a place to live in Japan?

Many expats live in temporary housing like a long-term Airbnb rental when first moving to the country. If you wish to establish a more permanent residence, consider working with a real estate agent located in your destination city.

A real estate agent can help you find apartments or homes to rent that fits your budget. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, and other expatriate forums can be a rich source of information for finding housing.

10 quick facts about the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan is an East Asian island nation that touches the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu are the four largest islands, with Honshu the most populous. There are 6,848 smaller islands located within its territory.

Currency Japanese Yen (JPY or ¥)
Size All islands make up 45,937 sq. mi. (377,976 sq. km.)
Population Approximately 124 million people
Foreign-born Population Roughly 2.3% of total population
Ethnicities 98% Japanese, 0.5% Chinese, 0.4% Korean, 1% other (Filipino, Vietnamese, Brazilian)
Capital Tokyo
Language Japanese
Climate Varies from hot and humid summers in many regions, to snowy winters in Hokkaido and eastern areas, and milder winters in western Japan
Total Expatriates Roughly 3 million
Biggest Cities Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya
Median Salary Industry-dependent, median salary is $41,640 USD annually

Japan is known around the world for its cutting-edge technology and its pop culture, which includes anime, manga, and karaoke. Many dishes from Japanese cuisine like sushi and ramen noodles are enjoyed around the globe, too. Other oft-recognized symbols of Japan include cherry blossoms, pagoda architecture, and Mt. Fuji.

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