If you're an independent soul and would like your time in Japan to be flexible and adventurous, a working holiday could be your best option.
Want to live in Japan but don't fancy being an English teacher? Can't do the JET Program because you're not a native English speaker or don't have a university degree? Or maybe you've saved up a little money and want to travel around Japan while working part-time? If you're from an eligible country, a Working Holiday visa for Japan might be just your ticket. It allows you to live and work in Japan without a full-time job, a university course, or a visa sponsor.
If you're an independent soul and would like your time in Japan to be flexible and adventurous, a working holiday could be your best option. Mine was one of the most memorable years of my life: from teaching English to freelance writing and entertainment work, I held many different jobs. I studied Japanese hard, partied harder, and in the end managed to get employed in my field and convert to a regular Specialist in Humanities visa.
What follows is the full guide—from applying for your visa, to work and housing options, and even how to convert to a standard working visa if you want to stay in Japan—all from someone who has done it. I'm British, so I'll be writing from that perspective, but most of my advice and experiences apply to any nationality eligible for a Working Holiday visa (and now more countries than ever have joined the party). When in doubt, check with your country's Japanese embassy.
- About Working Holidays in Japan
- How to Apply for Working Holiday in Japan
- Tips for Getting Your Application Accepted
- Life on Working Holiday in Japan
- Staying in Japan after Working Holiday
- Testimonials from Working Holiday Participants
- On to the Best Vacation of Your Life!
About Working Holidays in Japan
In Japan, a working holiday is a visa classification that falls under the "Designated Activities" category. It allows you to live, travel, and work in Japan for a limited period of time, usually about a year, although it varies by country. Working holiday programs are bilateral agreements Japan enters into with individual countries, which means that if you're working in Japan, there's a Japanese counterpart working in your country too.
According to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this kind of visa allows young people to enter Japan "primarily for the purpose of spending holidays while allowing them to engage in employment as an incidental activity of their holidays for the purpose of supplementing their travel funds." This means the visa is specifically designed for you to work part-time or freelance, all while having the time of your life.
Even if you're interested in the visa just to have a holiday, there is no limit on the number of hours you can work per week—unlike, say, the student visa, which forbids you from doing more than twenty-eight hours during term time. On a standard working visa, you're restricted to a certain type of work (such as teaching in public schools on the Instructor visa). By contrast, with a Working Holiday visa, you can do any kind of work as long as it's not at "businesses which may impact public morals" (e.g., host bars). Working holiday is one of the only visa types in which a foreigner can do "unskilled" labor in Japan, such as working at a café or factory.
Am I Eligible?
Working holidays aren't new. The first country to enter into this bilateral agreement with Japan was Australia, in 1980, but many others have followed suit—Iceland and Chile joined in as recently as 2018. If you're a citizen of any of the following countries, you may be eligible to take a working holiday in Japan. You'll also find a link to your country's embassy with the relevant information.
|Ireland||Republic of Korea||New Zealand||Norway|
Check the specific conditions of the Working Holiday visa with your Japanese embassy using the links above. Age limits in particular can vary depending on nationality, but the following are the normal eligibility requirements:
- Being between eighteen and thirty years old at the time of application.
- Able to prove you have sufficient funds in the bank to pay for your stay in Japan (around $3,000, or $2,000 if you apply with a return plane ticket).
- Traveling without dependents, although married couples can apply together if they both meet the criteria.
- Being in good health. Some countries require you to submit health information or have insurance coverage. I didn't have to do this.
- You must "be of good character." This is vague, but if you don't have a criminal record, you're probably fine.
How to Apply for Working Holiday in Japan
Compared to other visas, the working holiday application process is relatively straightforward. I was living in the UK when I applied, which was convenient since applicants must apply from their own country. And although I was worried because I had worked in Japan before and thought it might negatively impact my application, it never came up.
The first step was to gather my documents and head to my nearest consulate—in my case, the Embassy of Japan in London. I brought the following:
- Passport photo for the application
- Completed application form, which can be downloaded from your embassy's website.
- "Outline of Intended Activities." This was my itinerary: where I planned to travel, what I planned to do, etc.
- "Written Reason for Applying," typed on A4 paper. These were my intentions and reasons for wanting to spend a year in Japan.
- Three months of bank statements showing I had the necessary funds (in pounds, in my case).
- Return plane ticket. (Because I had this, the amount of funds I had to prove I had was lower.)
Compared to other visas, the working holiday application process is relatively straightforward.
Be aware that you need photo ID to enter the embassy and that your bags will be checked for dangerous objects. Once inside, I took a ticket and waited for my number to be called. I brought my documents to the counter where they were inspected by a staff member. When the embassy was satisfied everything was in order, a cheerful man took everything (including my passport), gave me my application receipt, and told me to come back in ten days. Another plus for the Working Holiday visa is that it's issued quickly—waiting times are usually between one and two weeks.
I made sure not to lose my application receipt and came back in ten days. I was accepted! It was spring, and I celebrated by buying some takeaway sushi and heading to the park opposite the embassy, where I enjoyed it with a little rare British sunshine!
Tips for Getting Your Application Accepted
The good news is that almost everyone who applies for a Working Holiday visa for Japan gets accepted if they meet the eligibility criteria. I wanted to book my return flight before applying so I could show evidence of the spent funds, but I was nervous of doing so in case my application was rejected. Talking to other people who had been through the process made me feel more confident, however, as did reading stories online. Although there is very little cause for concern, it's still wise to do everything you can to ensure your application gets accepted.
I'm not an immigration lawyer, but I've picked up a few tips from people who've been through the process.
Time of Year
Depending on your home country, there may be a limit to how many people can do a working holiday per year. The visa application process usually operates on the Japanese financial year (April to March)—if you're concerned, it might be a good idea to get your application in early. I applied in May and had no trouble. But when I checked the embassy website in December, I saw that the quota for British nationals had been filled for that year.
Remember that the stated purpose of the Working Holiday visa is for a holiday. Japan wants you to come and spend your foreign money in every corner of its beautiful country, then to do a little work so you can go out and spend some more. What they don't want you to do is go to Tokyo and work at the same company for a year and not travel anywhere. From their perspective, if you want to do that, you should be seeking a standard working visa. Once your visa is accepted and you arrive in Japan, if it works out that you do end up working at one company and not traveling, that's fine. But for your "outline of intended activities," it doesn't hurt to err on the side of being adventurous!
A good itinerary should be vague enough to allow for flexibility in your travel plans, yet detailed enough to show you've done your research and aren't just flying to Japan on a whim. Demonstrating that you intend to go somewhere that's not the capital and that you know a little about the tourism specialties of multiple prefectures can't hurt. Again, your itinerary can be vague—skiing in Hokkaido, beaches in Okinawa, etc.
No one will check up on you, so while I don't encourage bald-faced lies, if you think there's something that sounds cool but you're not fully committed to doing it, go ahead and put it in! On my itinerary, I claimed I was going to spend three months as a chalet girl in Niseko—which sounds really fun—but that certainly did not happen. Also, if you don't know how to format your outline, the Japanese Embassy in the UK provides this handy layout.
Be Careful with Jobs
Is this you? "I've already got a job offer from a company in Japan, so I'll show immigration how serious I am by mentioning it in my application letter!" No, no, no! Aside from applicants with criminal records, this is one of the most common reasons people get rejected.
I'll say it again: the purpose of a working holiday is for the work part to be incidental. I've heard of less scrupulous companies, who really should be sponsoring proper working visas for full-time employees, asking their new hires to get a Working Holiday visa instead because it's less work for the company. This is the kind of situation immigration wants to avoid. Once you're in Japan, it's absolutely fine if you end up working full-time. But if you have a job offer, keep it to yourself at the application stage.
Money in the Bank
Unfortunately, in this world, money talks: if your bank account shows you've got more than the minimum required amount by a safe margin, it looks good for your application. Overdrafts, loans, credit cards—these aren't accepted as proof of sufficient funds. Some people get a family member to lend them the amount for the purpose of the application, but be careful. Depending on your home country, you may need to show three months of bank statements. If you're in the red and a suspiciously large transfer appears in your account one week before you apply, that's not going to look good. Arrange your funds so that you give yourself the best chance for success.
Life on Working Holiday in Japan
One potential downside to the Working Holiday visa is that you'll have very little support. Although some employers do offer assistance, for the most part you won't have any visa sponsor to hold your hand through the arrival process. However, managing your life in Japan independently is easy enough with a little research, even if you don't speak Japanese. Doing it will actually give you a better understanding of the country than if a company did it for you.
Here is some information you'll need.
Housing can be a little tricky on a Working Holiday visa. You probably don't have a full-time job with a company that can act as a guarantor, and the time limit on the visa can also count against you. Still, working holiday-ers have many viable options. If you're working a ski season (or similar), your job might be able to help you find housing or put you up in a company dormitory. Otherwise, "share houses" (シェアハウス) could work for you.
If your language skills are strong, you might get a better deal by searching for share houses in the same way a Japanese person would.
Share houses are communal living spaces (rooms) you rent month to month (or every three months). You're not usually required to have a guarantor to stay there, and many share houses actively welcome foreigners. And while they used to have a bit of a reputation among Japanese people for being spartan, they've been gaining popularity in recent years. Today you'll find a wide variety of share house options, from budget rooms to downright luxury (I have seen a share house with an honest-to-god grand piano in the communal space), as well as women-only share houses and "concept" share houses such as this share house/exhibition space for artists.
The main advantage of a share house is that you don't have to pay a deposit or the dreaded reikin (key money), and utilities are usually included. And while this makes share houses great for shorter stays, it also means the monthly rent can be higher than a regular, similar-sized apartment. For many people on working holiday, however, the pros of share houses outweigh the cons.
Here are some housing agencies for share houses that offer services in English. Many share house companies have self-contained apartments too.
- Oakhouse: Share houses and apartments in Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kyoto, and Hyogo
- Leopalace: Small, self-contained apartments in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka
- C's Share House: Women-only share houses in Osaka and elsewhere in Kansai
- Sakura House: Share houses and apartments in Tokyo and Yokohama. Short-stay guest houses and hostels are also available.
- Tulip Real Estate: Women-only share houses in Tokyo
If your language skills are strong, you might get a better deal by searching for share houses in Japanese. You'll sacrifice the foreigner-friendly service but, as long as you can communicate, your nationality isn't usually a problem. Sometimes individual listings will claim that they don't accept foreigners, but in my experience this is far more of a rarity with share houses than with apartments.
Here are some Japanese-only links to search for share houses:
Registration and Insurance
After finding a place to live, within fourteen days you are legally obliged to visit your local ward office to register as a resident. This will give you access to a range of government services, including national health insurance. For most full-time employees in Japan, including foreign nationals, their employer pays their social insurance as part of a system called shakai hoken. If you don't have a full-time job, like most people on working holiday, you will have to pay it yourself. Fortunately for you, it's calculated based on your earnings from the previous year, and as you were most likely not in Japan at that time, it will be very cheap. Note that if you change your address during your time in Japan, you'll have to register at the ward office nearest your new location. (This only applies to apartments and share houses, not hotels. If you're just traveling, you're good!)
The great thing about the Working Holiday visa is that it allows you to do almost any kind of work. Unless you speak native-level Japanese, however, some types of work are easier to come by than others.
Teaching English: Don't think that the JET Program is your only option. Japan has eikaiwa (English conversation schools) across the country, which offer part- and full-time positions to English speakers, including people on Working Holiday visas. Try a job board for foreigners such as Gaijinpot or Jobs in Japan to find out about opportunities in your area.
Ski Seasons/Resort Jobs: Japan boasts beautiful beaches in the summer and some of the world's best powder snow in the winter. It's not surprising, then, that many working holiday-ers opt to spend a season working at ski or beach resorts. This can be a good option for those with imperfect Japanese, since in these tourist areas you can often get by working in English. boobooSKI is an agency through which you can apply for resort jobs; they will help with accommodation as well.
Internships: If you're working in a big city such as Tokyo or Osaka, consider improving your skills and your Japanese by doing an internship. Bear in mind that although they are becoming more common, internships aren't yet the norm amongst Japanese companies, so you may have better luck applying at international companies, nonprofits, or embassies. (The Australian embassy and British embassy both offer highly-regarded internship programs.) Some agencies such as SJIP or ICC will organize an internship for you, but bear in mind that you may have to pay for it (and it's often not cheap). The EU-Japan Center for Industrial Cooperation has a list of recommended agencies.
Remote Work: Some people on Working Holiday visas don't feel the need to get a local job at all. I know some who simply asked their employer in their home country if they could work remotely for a year, allowing them to live in Japan without taking a career break.
Entertainment Agencies: Enjoy being in front of the camera? In bigger cities, entertainment agencies are eager to sign young foreigners to work as extras, models, and small-time actors. As the Entertainer visa is difficult to come by, plenty of these agencies have working holiday-ers on their books. This article has some good advice on how to submit to agencies, as well as some good ones to apply to. You could even become the next big foreign talent. I mean, it's unlikely, but it could happen…
Service Industry: A Working Holiday visa is one of the few visa types that allow foreigners to do "unskilled labor." This includes working in cafés or factories or as cleaners. Even if you don't speak fluent Japanese, Japan has a labor shortage and is accepting more and more foreigners into these roles, especially in touristy areas where your native language will come in handy. Plenty of nationwide job boards such as YOLO Japan advertise service roles to people on working holidays.
Can I Leave and Come Back?
When doing your research, bear in mind that the information on Working Holiday visas on certain websites, even official ones, can be out of date. One example is whether people on working holiday can leave Japan and come back without forfeiting their visa. I remember being confused because I wanted to go back to Europe for a couple weeks to attend a friend's wedding, and even on embassy websites I found contradictory information about whether I could or not. I was under the impression that I would have to pay ¥5,000 for a re-entry permit, but when I went to the Shinagawa immigration bureau to get one, I was told it wasn't necessary.
Turns out it's completely fine to leave Japan while on a working holiday, so feel free to take that trip to Seoul or go home for Christmas. Just remember that your visa expiry date won't change, so consider whether your trip home is worth sacrificing your precious Japan time for!
Staying in Japan after Working Holiday
You're nine months into your working holiday and having the time of your life. You'd intended to have twelve wild and wonderful months in Japan then go back home, but you're finding that you're falling in love. Could it be you want to stay in Japan?
The process is similar to sponsoring a new employee without a visa—with the added convenience that you're already in the country!
The Working Holiday visa is not designed for you to stay long-term. One of the application prerequisites is that people on a working holiday "intend to leave Japan at the end of their stay." Don't be deterred though. If you decide you want to stay, converting to a standard working visa such as Specialist in Humanities is entirely possible. I did it and so have many others. The process is similar to a visa status change if you wanted to convert from, say, a student visa to a working visa. The main thing you need is a company willing to sponsor you.
Four months before my visa was due to expire, I started dropping hints to one of my employers about how much I would love to stay longer. When this didn't work, I threw caution to the wind and decided to formally apply for a full-time position. After I was accepted, my company helped me apply for a working holiday henkō (amendment). They did most of the paperwork, but from what I could gather, the process is similar to sponsoring a new employee without a visa—with the added convenience that you're already in the country! Documents I had to submit included my new employment contract, degree certificate, and a detailed application form.
Testimonials from Working Holiday Participants
A working holiday in Japan has the potential to be life-changing. But don't take my word for it! Two working holiday alumni from opposite sides of the world share their thoughts and experiences:
Anne-Marie is from Australia and spent most of her working holiday working as a performer.
I came to Japan on a Working Holiday visa so I could both work and travel with relative ease. When I arrived, I signed up to several agencies working as a model, actress, session singer, and narrator. My backup plan was to teach English, but I never ended up teaching a single lesson. Different jobs from agencies started coming in, and before I knew it I was starring in random commercials on Japanese national TV and was the female voice narrator for children's textbooks. It wasn't always easy: some weeks I had no work and others I was working thirteen-plus-hour days and hardly getting a break. It was a really fun experience, and I enjoyed it a lot, but for me it wasn't a sustainable lifestyle in the long run. After eighteen months on the visa, I felt it was time to go home. I would definitely recommend taking the opportunity of coming here on the Working Holiday visa because it offers the most freedom to figure out if you really want to live in Japan or not.
Agathe is from France and spent the first part of her working holiday baking in a bakery before traveling around Japan for four months.
The best part of the experience for me was the food and meeting unique people—not only Japanese people, but interesting characters from around the world. On the downside, when I started my job as a pastry chef in Tokyo, I felt like some of my coworkers treated me as if I were a cute animal. They were very nice to me, but I could not gain their trust completely. This was frustrating as I was already a trained pastry chef in France. After I finished working, I looked for the cheapest ways to discover Japan. Sometimes I stayed in a farm (mainly in Hokkaido), and I also slept a lot in my tent. The Japanese countryside can be very wild, and that was something else I liked about my time there. Traveling felt very safe, so I slept well even if sometimes I was the only woman (and the only foreigner) at the campsite. For people considering a Working Holiday visa, I would advise you to learn a bit of Japanese before arriving and spend some time with a Japanese person to try to understand how it works over there.
On to the Best Vacation of Your Life!
A Working Holiday visa isn't for everyone. Programs like JET offer more stability and support, or you may have your heart set on getting a full-time job at a Japanese company. There are many ways into Japan, which is good because more people want to live in Japan than ever before. But if you value flexibility, have a little money in the bank, and don't want the type of work you can do to be restricted, a working holiday in Japan could be your next adventure.