Updated: Jun 22, 2018
Making the decision
Making the decision to move to a foreign country, for a year or for forever, is very difficult thing to do. Everyone has their own reasons for doing it. I talked about my own reasons in an earlier post, Why I came to Japan. If you ask me if it was worth it, I will tell you it absolutely is. While I will admit that it is not something everyone can do, I would tell anyone contemplating the experience to give it a try. The life experience, the cross-cultural exposure, and the memories you make will all have an impact on you that you will carry for the rest of your life. There are of course countless other benefits, but that doesn’t make the decision to do it any easier. There are many uncertainties that can cause fear to drive you into a corner and trap you in a comfort zone that would deny you a life changing experience. Here I will attempt to talk about a little of the process that is involved in making the actual move. While I focus on my own decision and process of moving to Japan, it is my hope that anyone contemplating living in another country will have some of their fears put to rest and make that decision just a little bit easier.
Make a plan
First and foremost is to make a decision. That doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers, it just means you have to have a direction. What country do you want to live in? What interests you about it? How long do you want to live there? A few years? Forever? Begin the decision process by asking yourself as many questions as you can. You don’t have to know the answer, you just have to be prepared for the possibilities. Once you decide you want to do it, make a plan. Plan where you want to live, for me it was a desire to see more of Japan than what I had experiences when I visited Tokyo or when I studied at Hiroshima University. That's why I wanted to end up in an area I had not spent a lot of time in. Ideally that would have been somewhere closer to Osaka and Kobe, but really I was open to anywhere. Do you want to be in a big city or countryside? Maybe you want to live in a small town but be close to bigger cities. What kind of job do you want? Does it require you to speak Japanese? Would you want a car in Japan? All these are good questions to get you started on a plan. However the funny thing about plans is that nothing ever goes according to plan. The trick is to keep an open mind and be open to change. Realize that a plan is good to give you direction and it is absolutely OK for things to not go according to plan. Along your journey continuously reassess your plan and your goals. Who knows, maybe along the way you experience something or meet someone who changes your ideals all together and thus changes the things you want or the place you thought you wanted to be. Keeping an open mind will help greatly as you plan the next steps of how to get there.
Now that you have decided to do it and developed your grander plan, you must make a more practical plan to get to you there and get you to your new life in Japan. Start with what you know. You know you need a visa to live there, a job to support you, and a place to live. Even though you may know an area you want to be in, be prepared to take a job somewhere else for that first year at the very least. In addition to the job hunting, plan what you will take with you and what you will do with anything you leave behind. The more you minimize what you bring, the better. Most international flights allow two free checked luggage which usually weigh no more than 40 to 50 pounds, one carry on bag, and a personal item bag. Sounds like a lot, but its not. You will also be the only one there to handle all that luggage upon arrival. This can be an exceptional pain if you have to take busses or trains upon arrival, or worse yet, you have to do the Haneda shuffle (this means you have to change airports in Tokyo between Narita and Haneda in order to get to your destination). The Haneda shuffle is the worst because you have to pick up your checked luggage and take it with you, even if its the same airline, they wont transfer your checked luggage. So no "checked to your final destination" dream trip. If you wont be taking it with you, will you store it? if so, how will you pay storage fees? will you maintain an American bank account? How will you transfer money into it? How often? How much? I will write a guide to money management and transfers soon that I hope will quell any fears or worries you have about this. Will you sell off you things? How? How long will that take? I had many months to do this and I still had to store things with family unfortunately. If you have a pet, have you prepared and made proper arrangements? make a plan for contacting family and friends too. I absolutely love my life in Japan, but even I get a craving for home sometimes. Whatever your plan, be thorough. It helped me a lot to write out everything I had to do before flying out to Japan. I was able to write it on a whiteboard and add to it when I thought of something else, or check off something when I finished. Making lots of small achievable goals that built to larger overarching goals helped me stay motivated and actually feel like I was making good progress.
Now that you have your plan, don’t go buy your ticket just yet, be prepared because its time to start. Start packing, start selling off things, start boxing things up, make arrangements, tell you bank you will be living abroad so they don't freeze your cards while there, and of course you should start that Job hunt. You should have started this last month. Get your resume together and do your research. Once you find a job in Japan, your employer will help you with many of the other big things you have to do such as getting your visa and arranging a place for you to stay when you get there.
It is easier to find a job that will sponsor your Visa when you are not limiting your options. Its hard enough to land the job from overseas, but better than the risks involved in coming on a tourist visa (90 days) and trying to find a job in time to have your visa changed before you have to exit the country and return later so you don't stay on an expired visa.
Some methods to consider for job hunting are:
Come to Japan on a tourist Visa and job hunt on arrival (Not recommended)
Apply from overseas and secure your job before coming (ideal)
Apply for English teaching job first, then apply for better job after arrival (best, easiest)
My suggestions will revolve around the second and third method. I do have a friend who was lucky enough to successfully use the first method, but I do not recommend it. I will try to ask him to write about his experiences sometime if you want more insight into it. Applying to jobs in another country can seem overwhelming, but I promise its not so bad. There are actually many resources available to do this. A few of my favorite are Gaijinpot.com, indeed.jp, and Daijob.com. There are many more which you can learn about by reading articles and blogs about people who did it before you. Search for your dream job. Why not apply for those jobs that can feel just a little out of reach? The important thing is to keep applying. Apply, apply, apply. Don’t wait for each job to contact you back. Get your resume and applications in as many hands as you can. You need experience being interviewed and you need experience job hunting. Even after you are accepted by a job, don’t stop applying for better jobs. Use that confidence to launch you forward.
Make a schedule for yourself to apply to a few jobs a day. Make a list to keep track of who you applied to, which have contacted you back, which want more information, which have scheduled interviews, and so on. Make sure to check job listings repeatedly! Even though Japan does have a hiring season, that does not mean that it applies to you. The sooner you apply to a job after it is posted, the better.
Visa, a place to live, an IDP, and a residency card
Assuming you applied from overseas, your new employer will help you with the next steps. First and foremost is getting you a visa to live and work in Japan. There are many types of visa which determine what types of jobs you can or cannot have. For example, I have an instructors visa that allows me to work in a public school system. It does not cover Eikaiwa (English conversation school) work however. But since I was asked to also run an English conversation class for the city I work in, I had to have an exception added to my visa and residency card. Some visas will require you to renew on a year by year basis, some will offer more long term. Whatever the case, you NEED your visa before you come. This process is simple, but it takes a lot of time. Essentially your new employer will send you a Certificate of Eligibility, an official form that says yes you have a job in Japan. Japanese love their bureaucracy and red tape. Take said Certificate to the nearest Japanese embassy or consulate along with your passport. Fill out application. Give them your passport, certificate, forms and a passport style photo taken within 6 months. Then wait. You will probably have to return at a later date and time to get your passport back with your new visa inside. Sometimes, you can give them a self addressed and stamped envelope to mail it back to you, but its best to just go get it.
Your new employer will most likely provide you a place to live as well. It can be difficult to arrange your own place to live, especially for a foreigner who doesn't speak Japanese. You do of course have the option to arrange your own place to live if you so choose. Easiest and best to use the company provided housing at first. This lets you avoid unnecessary fees like key money and deposits or having to pay the first and last months rent up front. It also gives you time to properly search for something else more suitable if you like. I used the provided housing for two years because it wasn't too bad. I didn't need to buy furniture, internet was included, and it wasn't too expensive. Plus rent was automatically deducted from my paycheck, so that's one less bill to worry about. My company also helped me to arrange for the power, water, and gas to be turned on. Something else to consider when getting a new place. If by chance your company does not arrange a place for you, then feel free to ask them for recommendations on finding a good place or about good areas to look in. There are some sites that can help, but not all will offer an English version of the site. One good go to site is Gaijinpot.com. They do have a section dedicated to helping foreigners find places to live in Japan, unfortunately it mostly has only places around Tokyo. A Japanese site I like is Suumo.com. Its all in Japanese but covers many more areas for both rentals or if you want to buy or build. Join groups with other expats, use the meetup app, checkout expat websites, hop on one of the reddit groups that might help. Best method of all, is word of mouth. make friends and ask opinions. Look for share houses or whatever you need.
Whether your job requires it or not, I would recommend you get an International Driving Permit (IDP) just before you come to japan. Even if you don't plan to ever drive in Japan, it is best to have it just in case. Japanese law states that an IDP is only valid in Japan for ONE YEAR FROM THE DATE OF ARRIVAL. This means that if you have been in japan for a year, then decide to go back home for a couple weeks and get an IDP, it still wont be valid when you come back. For it to be valid, you would have to stay out of Japan for over three months. This also means that if you get your IDP after 11 months of being in Japan, then it will only be Valid for one month. After the one year mark, whether you had an IDP or not, you will need to obtain a Japanese Drivers License. I will have another post soon covering this process in detail as I am going through the process now of getting my Japanese drivers license.
Now that you have a visa, an IDP and a place to stay upon arrival, buy that ticket. Its around this time that the anticipation will reach its peak. But you should be ready and packed. Once you arrive in Japan, you will go through customs who will issue you a residency card. If you don't come in through Narita or Haneda airport in Tokyo then you have accomplished something very rare and are some type of travel god. That, or you really screwed something up. but not coming in through Tokyo means you might not receive your Residency card immediately. Either way, you will have to go to your local city hall after moving in and register (or receive and register) your residency card. They will also assist with the Japanese "My Number" card system (like a social security card).
I know it sounds like a lot and can be very intimidating, but really its just a lot of small simple steps. Take it one at a time and you will be fine. The hardest part of doing anything can often be to take that first step. Take a deep breath and dive in. As scary as it all was, I am so happy that I did it. Even if things don't work out and I move back to America, I have no regrets and a great experience. Good luck to you and feel free to ask me anything about the process I took for getting here. Also be sure to check back as I update with more posts on my own experiences or try to give you a guide to living in Japan.
Bonus: Takkyubin and temporary data sim
As an added bonus for those who do decide to come live in Japan there are two services I would like to let you in on. The first is takkyubin 宅急便. This is a fantastic door to door delivery service. If you know the address of your destination, you can send your luggage ahead of you. You can even delay the arrival by a day or more. You can send it directly from the airport or from your hotel too. Many hotels and convenience stores will help you do this. Its great to not have to carry around those two 50 pound bags from your checked luggage. Oh, and its super cheap. You can send to pretty much anywhere in Japan too. If I remember correctly, it cost me a little over $20 (~2000円) to send my bags from a hotel in Nagoya to my new apartment in Okayama. It was super nice not to have to carry those with me on the Shinkansen.
The second tip is to bring an unlocked smartphone with you. In Narita airport, you can purchase a prepaid sim card from a vending machine to give you unlimited data for 7 to 14 days. This is super helpful. I used it with my iPhone 6s and was able to also use the tethering feature to provide internet to my iPad and computer. It was a great short term solution until I could get something more long term. I can begin to tell you how helpful having maps and directions at all times can be. Also the ability to use websites like Hyperdia.com to navigate the train systems and times. Another added bonus to having the unlocked phone is being able to save money on phone plans. Most companies like Softbank and Docomo will tell you it is impossible to use an American phone on their networks, don't listen and don't use them unless you really want to. Instead, There are companies like Y-mobile or U-mobile that will sell sim cards. There is no contract, no cancellation fees, just prepay each month. Even tie it to a credit card and not worry about it. I used U-mobile with a sim card I bought from the electronics store Edion. I had to fumble with google translate a bit to register and set it up, but I eventually got it. Unlimited data that charged my American credit card about $23 a month.