Coming to live in Japan is very different to staying there as a tourist. There are a lot more procedures and steps that you may not be aware of. Documentation will be showered at you from all directions (Japanese love paperwork I swear) and you might find yourself quite overwhelmed by it all. In the chaos of moving to Japan in the first place, it can be really stressful when this is piled on you and you have to figure out what needs to be done first and what you need to leave for later…
In order to help out with a smoother transition, I put together some of the tips I picked up along the way into a checklist!
1. Getting you student visa
After sending in your application to your Japanese university of choice, remember that’s only the beginning… The university in Japan will submit the visa application to the Immigration Bureau in Japan, after which you will receive a COE (Certificate of Eligibility) and COA (Certificate of Admission).
Now you can go to the Japanese embassy in your country! (Don’t leave this too late as it can take up to 7 days.)
You have to take your:
- Valid passport
- Passport photo (taken within the past 3 months)
- Any other documents your embassy will ask of you depending on your country.
You will get the visa application form itself at the Japanese embassy.
When collecting your visa, the residence card application document at the Japanese embassy. This helped A LOT. If you don’t get given it, then definitely ask about it while you’re there!
2. Arriving at Haneda vs Narita Airport
When going to cusoms make sure to bring :
- Passport (obviously) with student visa
- That slip of paper you’ll be given in the plane with your future address in Japan , even if this is just a hotel (you can change this at the ward office if you move).
- Pre-filled document to get your residence card (在留カード, zairyū kādo)!
I highly recommend filling in the form to get your residence card in advance as it saved me a lot of stress and one less thing to do. Make sure to keep this card on you at all times when going around Japan (along with your passport)! The police cans stop you to ask for it and if you do not have it you can be fined.
Should you be quite anxious about travel after you arrive, it is always possible to book a train from Narita or Haneda to Tokyo. It is better to book the train in advance if you want a cheaper deal, especially if travelling from Narita to Tokyo.
I don’t often feel the need to take the train as I’m fine taking the bus which you don’t really need to book in advance when you are travelling from the airport (Narita/Haneda) to Tokyo.
BUT I would highly recommend reserving a place on a bus from Tokyo (often Nihon-bashi, 日本橋) to the airport since waiting in long lines to just get on a bus is a frequent occurance if you don’t. Reserved seats are only really available in advance.
3. Register at the local Ward office in your city district
Each district in a city or rural area with have a local government office (区役所, kuyakushō). For example, if you are living in the Chiyoda district in Tokyo then you need to do to the ward office in that area to register where you are living for you Year Abroad (even if it’s a hotel).
All Japanese nationals go through the same system of registering with the local ward office each time they move. When I asked my Japanese host family Mama, she said it was because of tax (it is not necessarily something to do with monitoring like in mainland China).
Go there, there will be a machine nearer the front and you need to press a button on it to get a number. When your number gets called just follow the instructions.
Make sure to bring :
- Japanese resident card (if you didn’t get it at the airport, you can always get it at the ward office)
4. Pay for your Health Insurance at the convenience store
Once you register at the ward office, you will get sent a document about the Japanese Health insurance (健康保険, kenkō hoken) in the post. Unfortunately even if you aren’t Japanese, you will still have to pay this.
You can pay for it at the ward office, but I found it just easier to go to the nearest convience store and pay at the cashier. Make sure that the document you’ve filled in and given the convenience store staff gets stamped!
Honestly, having a health insurance definitely helped me when I was in Japan. When I had to go to the doctor unexpectedly, I was able to have the fee discounted because of it (I would have had to pay an astronomical amount otherwise).
After paying, you will get a small card with your insurance card number (保険証, hokenshō). Make sure to keep it with you at all times (along with your residence card and ID) !
Getting a Hanko/Inkan (optional)
You may have heard from others that to open a bank account then you will need a hanko (most foreigners will just use their signature instead). In Japan instead of signing people will use a personal stamp called a hanko (判子), which is typically the kanji of their surname.
I would say that even so, it was very fun choosing the kanji for my hanko and it is a big part of coming to live in Japan so I recommend going on a trip to get one if you have time! You can either order it or get it ready-made at a vending machine, 100-yen shop, or stationary shop.
4 different types of hanko :
- Ginkou-in (銀行印): This your stamp that you register officially at your bank and it is specifically used for opening and closing your bank account, signing for a loan, and any transactions with big amounts of money (i’ve never seen it used for casual withdrawals).
- Jitsu-in (実印): This stamp is one you register at you local ward office and you get issued a hanko certificate (印鑑証明, inkan shōmei) that indicates that this particular hanko is yours. You use this hanko for big purchases (i.e. house or car) and requires you to submit your hanko/inkan certificate along with it.
- Mitome-in (認印): This is the most general hanko which isn’t registered or anything but is used to sign off parcels, to say that you’ve seen a document, for you CV/job application, or for joining the gym.
- Sanmonban (三文判): This one is typically cheap/ready-made alternative for mitome-in, and unlike the other hanko, it can have vermilion ink (朱肉, shuniku) built inside. This type of hanko is called a Shachihata (シャチハタ), which is actually a brand name like Kleenex.
*(Kaisha-in (会社印): If you create a company and want to open an account then you will have to get a company hanko.)
You might think having 3-4 different hanko/inkan is bothersome, but you can really just use the same one all the time. If you need to use it as a jitsu-in the register is at your ward office, and if you need to use it at your bank then register the same one with you bank (you can’t do this with shachihata since the impression is quite light and it gets easily worn out). The only reason why people traditionally use 3-4 separate hanko is because this lowers the risk of forgery. This is also why they also try to use it as little as possible.
Be aware that if you do use your hanko and then want to change it afterwards I have heard of it being confusing for staff as this doesn’t usually happen.
5. Opening a bank account
So, this was a tricky one and I know several of my exchange student friends at the host university never opened a bank account since it was stressful. For me, my Japanese host family Mama came along with me to open up my first bank account at Japan Post bank (ゆうちょ銀行, Yūcho-ginkō). And thank god she did because, as I quickly found, the Japanese bank staff there couldn’t speak sufficient English and my Japanese wasn’t enough to bridge the gap at the time either.
A bit of vocab:
- Open a bank account (口座開設したいです, kōza kaisetsu shitai desu / 講座を開きたいです, kōza o hirakitai desu).
- Close a bank account (口座を解約する, kōza wo kaiyaku shitai desu).
- General deposit account (普通預金, futsū yokin).
- Bank book (通帳, tsūchō) that can be used like a card to withdraw money at an ATM too.
- Withdraw money at an ATM (ATMで(通帳で)お金を引き出す, ATM de (tsūchō de) o-kane o hikidasu).
- Transfer/pay money into someone’s account (あなたにお金を振り込む, anata ni o-kane o furikomu)
- Balance inquiry (残高を確認・チェックする, zandaka o kakunin/chekku suru)
- 3-digit sort code for your local branch (店番号, misebangō).
- 7-digit account number (口座番号, kōza-bangō).
- International transfer (外国郵便為替, gaikoku yūbin kawase), which has a current fee of 2,500 yen.
If you anxious and worried about this though, I did find that Shinsei bank (新生銀行, shinsei-ginkō) is also a good one and the staff were all proficient in English! My part time job that I got in Japan wasn’t able to use Japan Post bank for some reason, so I asked around all the main banks and the only other bank that I found where you could open an account for less than a year was Shinsei bank.
Your host university may recommend you other banks as well of course!
Make sure to bring :
- Japanese residence card
- Letter showing the address you are at
- Small amount to deposit
- Hanko (optional)
A fair amount of banks may actually see that you are a foreigner and ask you to sign with your written signature instead of using a hanko. (I myself did get a hanko just in case, however.)
6. Getting your student card
Be aware that some people may receive their student cards (学生証, gakusei-shō) at orientation and some may have to wait and pick theirs up at their host university department’s office.
When you do get your Japanese host university student card, remember to go visit some museums as they many will be free! (This discount doesn’t work for non-Japanese university student.)
7. Sort out your travel cards!
I am pretty sure the system is similar to all cities in Japan, but I did my Year Abroad in Tokyo so the pictures and cards will apply to Tokyo (other cities may not use suica/pasma and will use other travel cards).
You can buy these travel cards at practically any ticket machine area. However, to buy the student travel card option you will need to go to an actual ticket office at the station nearest where you live. These are called midori madoguchi (みどり窓口).
In Tokyo at least, they use a fixed rate system which means that you will pick a certain route (from one station to another station) and you will pay to use this route as may times as you want (with no extra charge) for a fixed length of time.
This can be for 1, 3 , 6, or even 12 months.
Make sure to bring :
- Host univeristy student card (学生証, gakusei-shō).
- Japanese residence card
- 3-7-man yen (3万円〜7万円)
When you get to the midori madoguchi (みどり窓口), you will need to look for a slip of paper (通学証明書, tsūgaku shōmei-sho) that you will need to give in to the train station staff at the ticket office. there. I have translated one down below (you can click on the picture if you cannot make out the writing).
After filling the form in, you will need to go to the desk and ask for the student travel card:
- (新しい) 通学定期券を買いたいです ((atarashī) tsūgaku teiki-ken o kaitai desu) = I would like to buy a (new) student travel card.
- Keigo : (新規)通学定期券をお買い求めたいです ((shinki) tsūgaku teiki-ken o o-kaimotometai desu) = I would like to request a (renewal of) my student travel card.
You will also need to go and apply for this student travel card to the ticket office at the station near where you live since this is the station from where you could typically begin your commute to your host university. For example, if you want to get a student travel card that begins from Shinjuku station, you wouldn’t be able to apply and pay for it at Shibuya station apparently.
Tip 1 : What to do if you don’t have your student card yet
Given that you really have to wait till you have your student card to apply for this, I recommending keeping the receipts to any weekly cards or top ups you do for commuting to and from your host university. Although I cannot speak for other countries, in the UK you can be eligible to receive reimbursement from SFE (Student Finance England) for travel you do on your Year Abroad.
Tip 2 : Student discounts when traveling around Japan
If you do want to travel within Japan, after you get your Japanese host university student card you can also get student discount vouchers (学割証, gakuwari-shō / 学生・生徒旅客運賃割引証, gakusei seito ryokaku unchin waribikishō) that are normally issued at a machine on campus or at your university department’s office. These slips are usually limited to about 3-5 for every few months. These student discount slips will give you 20% off shinkansen, some ferries, and JR limited express trains. You will not be able to use a non-Japanese university card to get these discounts though.
8. Get your SIM card
It really isn’t too hard to get a SIM card in Japan. For some reason I thought that I’d need to rent an entire phone with a SIM card if I wanted one more more than a few months.
Obviously, you can always skip getting one, but I found that there were many benefits…
- Many of your new Japanese friends and exchange student friends (as well as your host family) will use LINE which is a messenger app like Whatsapp that requires data to use.
- You will need data to check were you are on a map if you’re lost or just want to check things (or watch stuff) when commuting to campus.
- The wifi around is good but often unreliable and a hassle to connect to.
- You will need it for you part time job.
- It’s also useful when reserving a table for you and your friends at restaurant or izakaya (居酒屋).
What I did was get a SIM card at the airport that lasted for a month while I sorted out my options.
Then, after I got my Japanese university student card and my Residence card, I went online and got a SIM card off Sakura mobile which I really found easy to use. This got recommended to me by a fellow exchange student when I was at the Japanese university. Make sure you check their cancellation policy and request to cancel at the right time!
Choose your courses really quickly!
Keep an eye on the deadlines for applying to the courses for the semester as there are typically three rounds and with each round, the places available on all the interesting courses/modules gets booked up fast. (This was even more so in Japanese courses that were for lower levels.) If you miss the first round of applying to courses, then DONT miss the second round once it opens (really, don’t).
I actually found the course list from the university department’s website and looked over it when on the flight to japan. It helped me to not stress out so much and feel like I had one less thing on my plate so I could go hang out with the new friends I made.
What I would suggest doing it trying to organise your timetable so you have 3-4 days in a row free in a week. This means that you will be much more free to go take short trips, go clubbing, etc. without worrying about homework for a few days.
Visit the society/club fairs (optional)
Can go visit the society/club fairs at other universities too. Many student will go to Waseda University’s one since it has the most variety and number of societies/clubs (if the groups have any fees they tend to be cheaper too). If you find yourself mixing a little too much with exchange students and not speaking Japanese, go join an international student society, even if it’s halfway through the semester!
Just be aware that there is a difference between societies and clubs.
- Societies (サークル, sākuru): these are groups are more relaxed and for those who want to have fun or try out a sport that they haven’t tried before.
- Clubs (部活, bukatsu): these groups are for those who already have a high level in a skill (i.e. baseball, netball, music). Normally students who have already practiced a sport throughout middle school (中学校, chūgakkō) and/or high school (高校, kōkō) will join these clubs. They have strict practice schedules so I wouldn’t recommended these clubs for those who want to try more than one society/club.
Avoid 飲みサー (nomi-sā) : these are societies (サークル) whose main purpose is to have drinking parties with fellow society members and other university societies rather than the activity the society was intended for. During the drinking parties the senpai (先輩) would often urge their kōhai (後輩) to drink more and more, which ended up with a few students actually dying at Waseda University. The only nomi–sā that I was aware of was the tennis club at Waseda.
Avoid ヤリサー (yari-sā) : this is another type of society that doesn’t have the best reputation amongst Japanese students. They are societies whose main focus is having sexual relationships with the opposite sex within their society and through interaction with other university societies. (やる is basically the verb for “to fuck” in Japanese.)
Plan something for “golden week” (optional)
Golden week (ゴールデンウィーク, gōruden wīku / 黄金週間, ōgon shūkan) is also called “long holiday series” (大型連休, ōgata renkyū). Honestly, I’ve only heard it called ゴールデンウィーク though. It’s basically an annual national holiday for all Japanese that lasts for a week from around the 29th April to early May.
The holidays during golden week :
- 29 Apr : 1927–1948 Emperor’s bday (天長節, tenchō setsu), 1949–1988 Emperor’s bday (天皇誕生日, tennō tanjōbi), Greenery Day (みどりの日, midori no hi), Shōwa Day (昭和の日, shōwa no hi)
- 3 May : Constitution Memorial Day (憲法記念日, kenpō kinenbi)
- 4 May : Citizen’s Holiday (国民の休日, kokumin no kyūjitsu), Greenery Day (みどりの日, midori no hi)
- 5 May : Children’s Day (子供の日, kodomo no hi) which is traditionally celebrated as tango no sekku (端午の節句)
A lot of families go out of cities in the beginning of the week then start crowding back into their cities in the second half, so the best thing to do is to get the timing right. I would advise making use of the beginning of the week to explore the city a bit then, for the second half of the week, just hang out with friends or look around the less touristy, remote corners of the city.
If you do want to book a short trip to Ōsaka for example, then you need to book WAY in advance as it gets more and more expensive closer to the date.
- Organising a BBQ.
- Getting together with friends and go to an izakaya to play drinking games.
- Checking out the social events that societies have.
- Looking to see if there are any festivals near you that you can visit!
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been advised to stay at home, so golden week has been rebranded temporarily for 2020 to Stay Home Week (ステイホーム週間, sutei hōmu shūkan).
Keep your passport and residence card with you at all times (the Japanese police are within their rights to pull you over and check these at any time and you will be in unnecessary trouble if you dont.) Granted they don’t really do this and I have never experienced this.
1. Japanese embassy : get your visa (and residence card application document)
(Optional: Book train or bus in advance from the airport to Tokyo + Look at the courses available while on the flight too.)
(Optional: Plan something for golden week.)
2. Airport (空港) : get your residence card (在留カード, zairyū kādo) and 1 month SIM card.
3. Local ward office (区役所, kuyakusho) : register your address.
4. Convenience store (コンビニ, konbini) : pay for health insurance (保険証, hoken-shō) and get your insurance number/card in the post afterwards.
5. Bank (銀行, ginkō) : open a bank account.
(Optional : buy a hanko/inkan)
6. University orientation/department office : get you student card (学生証, gakusei-shō).
7. Nearby station ticket office (みどり窓口, midori madoguchi) : get a student travel card discount.
8. SIM card shop or Sakura mobile : set up a long-term SIM card.
(Optional : go to the society/club fair)
Check out this article down below too for accommodation tips and more!