Having been here for more years than I care to remember, I'd kind
of lost touch with what people have to go through when they step
off the plane - or boat (my personal choice) - in Japan for the
first time. Of course, it's the same for everybody, except for
your 'visa' situation. When people refer to changing their 'visa
status' or extending their 'visa', what they're actually talking
about is their 'status of residence.' It really doesn't matter what you call
it unless you're in the middle of being deported or some such, so we'll keep
things simple and use the word visa from here on.
The Ministry of
Foreign Affairs (MoFA) Web site (see below) has all the information you could
possibly need on this. In theory no-one should arrive in Japan
without a visa but most countries have visa exemptions for visitors,
varying from 14 days to 6 months. Once you're established here and
need to, say, renew your visa or change your status, you're under the
jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Countries with visa exemption status
(as of October 2005. Some countries omitted)
6 months or less
UK, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico etc
3 months or less
Canada, Belgium, France, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Netherlands,
Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Turkey, Singapore,
Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Lesotho, Tunisia etc
90 days or less
USA, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, New Zealand etc
Malaysia, Peru etc
In short, most people can just turn up in Japan and get permission
to stay for anything up to 6 months. Of course, if you're coming
to work but don't have the necessary visa yet, you should at least
have a return ticket to show at immigration and an 'appropriate'
reason for your visit. Things get a bit complicated later when you want
to change your status from tourist to one of the working categories.
You will then need a sponsor - usually your employer, although
if you're prepared to go through the paperwork and have the necessary
income, you can sponsor yourself (this is not a very common practice).
The biggest hassle is then that people from most countries have to
leave the country and have your change
of visa status processed in a Japanese embassy abroad. The most
popular destinations are Seoul or Hong Kong as they are close
and return flights pretty cheap. Your sponsor may even pay for
this trip (but don't bet on it).
For language teachers (the most common job for Westerners), the
main requirements are that you be a native speaker and that you
have a college or university degree. You'll probably have to produce
the original degree and transcripts. Plenty of people work without
having a 'working visa' and some language schools are known to
hire people on a 'tourist visa'. But a quick look through the job
classifieds will show you that most employers state that applicants
must hold a valid visa. Hiring someone without one is skirting the
law somewhat and is potentially risky so most employers naturally
would rather avoid the whole process. Working in
bars or restaurants pays less but may offer a more hassle-free, "no
questions asked" alternative.
At the end of 1999, immigration offices quietly started issuing
three-year extensions to working visas rather than the standard
one year. I myself received this welcome extension although I
didn't know anything about it until the day I picked it up. Yet
another example of the shroud of mystery that the MoFA likes to
maintain about these things.
Visa categories and types of residence status
Specialist in Humanities/International Services (incl. teachers)
Visitor's Visa (temporary)
Temporary Visitor *
Transit Visa (temporary)
Temporary Visitor *
Cultural Activities *
College Student *
Precollege Student *
Spouse or Child of Japanese National
Spouse or Child of Permanent Resident
( * Statuses of residence not permitting work. Whether work is permitted or not depends on the content of individual
The following info from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web
site are the things most commonly faced by foreigners already in Japan.
Permission to extend term of residence (ie. visa extension)
This permission is required when a foreigner wishes to remain
in Japan under the same status of residence after the originally
authorized term of residence has expired. Applications must be
made before the term of residence expires.
Permission to change status of residence (eg. from tourist visa to working visa)
This permission is required when a foreigner wishes to cease his
or her present activity and engage in another activity covered
by a status of residence different from the one originally granted.
This is also something you need to go through at much greater length if you decide
to marry a Japanese and get a spouse visa, or if you want to become a permanent
resident. There are conditions attached to both those visa statuses.
This permission is required when a foreigner residing in Japan
wishes to leave the country temporarily and then return during
the authorized term of residence.
(Single or multiple re-entry permits are available. A stamp costing
4,000 or 6,000 yen respectively has to be bought - sold at a post
office near the immigration office - and attached to the application.
Together with the 2,000 yen departure tax at the airport, this is a nice little
Another procedure that foreign residents must not forget is alien
registration, which they must complete at the municipal office
of the area in which they live (not at a regional immigration
authority). Foreigners staying in Japan for more than 90 days
are obliged to complete alien registration. They will receive
a Certificate of Alien Registration, popularly refered to as the
'gaijin card,' which they must carry at all times. Did I hear
someone say Police State?