Visas for Software Engineers in Japan
Obtaining a working visa that lets you work as software engineer in Japan is relatively easy compared to other countries. It costs a company almost nothing to sponsor your visa, there aren't any quotas on the number of visas issued, and the requirements to qualify for a visa itself are low.
The most common visa for software engineers in Japan is the Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa, which is trivial to obtain if you have a related university degree, such as a Bachelors of Computer Science or Software Engineering.
However, many great software engineers don't come from a traditional background, and with things like coding bootcamps becoming more common, this is only set to increase. Even if you don't have a related university degree, it may still be possible to qualify for a visa. However, determining which visa you're eligibile for becomes more challenging.
Many Japanese companies aren't aware of all the options to obtain a visa, and so it falls to you to educate yourself about the options, and find one that suits your situation. When you apply for a software development job without a relevant degree, you should indicate which visa you're eligible for as part of your application, along with your reasoning why you're eligible. If you don't do this, chances are good that a company will discard your application as soon as they seem you lack a relevant degree, as they'll assume you're not eligible for a visa.
This article documents all the paths to obtaining a visa that allow you to work full time as a software developer in Japan that I'm aware of. I should note I'm not an immigration specialist, and though I've done my best to fact check these approaches with Japanese immigration, you ultimately should do your due diligence.
Specifically, this article covers the following scenarios:
- University degree related to engineering
- University degree unrelated to engineering
- Eligible for the Highly-Skilled Foreign Professional Visa
- Existing Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa (e.g. you're working for an English conversation school)
- Ten years professional experience
- Passing an approved IT Exam
- Eligible for a working holiday visa
- Employer has a branch in Japan
- You start a Japanese company
Note that this article doesn't cover visas that rely on specific relationships (e.g. having a Japanese spouse) or that only allow you to work part time (e.g. being a student in Japan).
University degree related to "engineering"
As mentioned in the introduction, the default route to a working visa in Japan as a software developer is the Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa via a related university degree.
A degree in a subject like computer science or software engineering is best, as it is undisputedly related to working as a software developer. However, any degree related to engineering can theoretically qualify. As the "Engineer" designation is used for positions that require knowledge of technology, physical science, natural science, or engineering, a degree related to any of these topics could theoretically be used to obtain a visa as a software engineer. However, as each application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, it's impossible to say with certainty if a specific degree would qualify.
Also note that any degree you have can count towards the visa. For instance, if you have a Bachelors degree in Music, but a Masters degree in Computer Science, you'll be eligible.
University degree unrelated to "engineering"
When you change careers to software development, you may have previously obtained a degree in a completely unrelated field. It may be that degree qualifies you for a position with a job title that's not something like "Software Engineer", but still involves coding.
For example, if the position emphasized your English communication ability over your technical ability, it's possible that the position could be considered to fall under the "Specialist in Humanities" portion of the Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa. With that classification, degrees with majors like English are allowed, and so it opens up some options.
The downside to this approach is it increases the uncertainty for the company sponsoring your visa, and may require them to tailor a position to your unique skillset. Because of this, for a company to agree to go down this route, they'll need to believe you're a truly exceptional candidate, and one that is far more qualified than anyone else they can find.
Highly-Skilled Foreign Professional Visa
The Highly-Skilled Foreign Professional Visa is a visa that is tied to your employer, not a specific industry.
To be eligible for a visa, you need 70 points. Points are given for things like academic background, professional experience, salary of the position, age, and a number of miscellaneous things, most notably Japanese language ability (i.e. having passed JLPT N1 or N2). As long as you meet the threshold of 70 points, you are eligible for the visa. A university degree is not required provided you can obtain enough points from other sources.
An example of someone who qualified for this visa would be a person who held a Bachelors degree (10 points), had three years work experience (5 points), was 29 years old or under (15 points), passed N2 (10 points), and earned a salary of least ¥8 million / year (30 points).
Because of how points are calculated, you probably won't be able to obtain this visa for an entry level job, but for those people with some experience, but less than ten years, it's a good option.
Existing Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa
When applying for your initial Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa, your background needs to be relevant to the position at the company that's sponsoring you. However, while you have the visa, you're allowed to change jobs to any position permitted by the visa as a whole, even to one unrelated to your academic or professional experience. So if you have this visa, you can work as a software developer in Japan, regardless of how you initially obtatined it.
As this visa is the one used for teachers at English conversation schools, a position for which virtually any university degree is accepted, it opens up a relatively easy route to Japan: come initially as an English conversation teacher and then later find a job as a software developer.
This sounds like it might be a grey area, but I've specifically confirmed with immigration that it is permitted. Furthermore, they told me when renewing this visa, they only cares that you have a university degree, not that of a specific major. So if a company hires you as a software developer on this visa, you should be able to stay in Japan indefinitely.
Ten years professional experience
If you have at least ten years of professional experience as a software developer, you're eligible for the Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa, even if you don't have any university degree. Unfortunately there are no clear guidelines about this route, and the only way you'll know for sure whether you'll get a visa is to go through the application process itself.
From talking to immigration, they seem to be fairly flexible as to what kind of work experience they're willing to consider. For instance, in addition to full time employment as a software developer, freelance or even part time work can be counted. I've been told explicitly that experience as an intern won't be counted though. For documenting your experience, there's no set format, and immigration advises you to use whatever you can to prove you were an employee, such as a letter of employment or a contract.
Education can also be counted towards this ten years. For instance, if you started to study computer science but dropped out, or if you obtained an associate diploma in something IT related. Again, to prove this experience, there's no set format, so you can use whatever you have, such as a transcript or diploma.
The main downside of this approach is the uncertainty it creates. If you've spent ten years working for big name tech companies like Microsoft or Google, there's probably not much of a worry that you wouldn't get a visa. But if you're trying to cobble together experience from different sources and just meet the ten years benchmark, your in a much more uncertain situation and might have trouble finding a company that's willing to sponsor you.
Passing an approved IT exam
If you have passed one of the approved exams by Japan's Ministry of Justice, the normal requirement for an Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa of a related university degree or ten years work experience will be waived. Currently, exams are offered in India, Singapore, Korea, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Bangladesh.
Of these exams, the only eligible exam that is clearly available to citizens of any country is the PhilNITS Fundamental Information Technology Engineers Examination. I've heard of several non-filipinos who have taken this exam and used it to get a visa in Japan, including a guy who made a youtube video about his experience.
The exam covers topics both of both a practical and theoretical nature, and you'll most likely need to study for it. Luckily, there's a study guide available, and you can see past exam questions as well.
Here's a couple of sample questions from past exams
1) What is the Hamming distance of bit strings 10101 and 11110?
2) A candy box contains four flavors of candies: 6 lemon-flavored, 12 strawberry-flavored, 8 orange-flavored, and 4 grape-flavored. When a candy is randomly chosen from the box, what is the probability that it is either lemon- or orange-flavored?
3) Which of the following is an e-mail header field that is removed during the message transfer using SMTP?
a) Bcc b) Date c) Received d) X-Mailer
As you only need 60 out of 100 total points to pass, it looks like the bar is relatively low. One person I talked to told me it took them about a month of studying to be ready to pass it.
Beyond the time needed to study for it, the other downsides to this approach is that you'll need to fly to Manila to take it, and that it is only offered two times per year. The cost of the exam itself is only 2,100 PHP, or roughly 40 USD.
Besides making you eligible for an Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa, passing any approved exam will also give you 5 points towards a Highly-Skilled Foreign Professional Visa.
Working Holiday visa
The Working Holiday visa doesn't require a specific education or work background, but rather the primary requirements are that you're a citizen of a country that has an agreement with Japan and are under a specific age (typically, 30 years or under). As the intention of the visa is for you to work to support your holiday, you shouldn't have a job offer in place when you obtain it. However, once you're in Japan, it allows you to do virtually any job, with no restrictions on hours or employment status.
This visa is ideal for someone at the beginning of their career as a software developer, who wants to try living in Japan, and is willing to move here with the risk that they won't be able to find any employment. Because companies can have you start working immediately, without needing to relocate you or apply for a visa, it opens up opportunities you wouldn't have otherwise.
If you don't meet the conditions of a normal working visa, it can also be a great option to try living here before investing in meeting the criteria for one.
Because this visa is a fixed duration, eventually it will expire, and if you want to continue living in Japan, you'll need to switch visa statuses. As a Canadian, I initially came to Japan on a Working Holiday visa, then found full time employment as a software developer, and so when the Working Holiday visa was going to expire, my company sponsored a normal working visa. During the renewal period I was able to continue living and working in Japan.
However, it seems that while citizens of Australia, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and Germany can change the visa from a working holiday visa to a normal working visa without leaving the country, those from other countries may not be able to. Each case is individually reviewed by immigration though, and so it's impossible to guarantee the outcome.
Even if you are forced to leave the country at the end of your working holiday, if you've proved yourself as a valuable member of a company that's hired you, they'll probably be willing to sponsor a normal working visa, and may even do something like allow you to work remotely while it is being processed.
Employer has a branch in Japan
If you're working for an international company that has a branch or subsidiary in Japan (or for the branch or subsidiary of a Japanese company), and the company relocates you to their office here, you can use the Intra-Company Transferee visa. This visa only requires that you've worked for the company for at least one year, and so even if you don't have a university degree you can obtain it. With the visa though, you're supposed to be only relocated for a fixed duration, such as a two-year contract.
Because it requires that you already be working for a company for one year, it's not an option for most people who are proactively looking to relocate to Japan. Theoretically you could seek out employment at a company in your own country with offices in Japan, but it's unlikely that even if you do obtain such a job, you'll be able to get a guarantee of relocation to Japan further down the line.
You start a Japanese company
Rather than working as a full time employee for another company, you can theoretically start your own business in Japan, and obtain the business manager visa, which doesn't require a university degree or a specific number of years of experience.
Approval for this visa is on a case by case basis, but in principle you'll need to invest at least ¥5 million in the company you create, rent a dedicated office, and have a viable business plan. Most likely, you'll need professional help establishing the company, which will probably cost you ¥1 to ¥2 million (though this can be paid from your initial investment in the company).
This route is probably only viable for someone who already has business experience. For instance, if you've run a software business in your own country or done substantial freelancing work, and are looking to relocate that business to Japan, it could be worth investigating.
For more information, you can see my article on setting up a business in Japan.
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