All About Working Visas for Hiring Foreigners Full-time in Japan

Photo of Takumi Nakamura

Takumi Nakamura

Contributor to TokyoDev

This article is a translation of a Japanese article by Takumi Nakamura, the CEO of Sociarise, a consultancy for hiring global talents.

When considering hiring foreign nationals, their status of residence matters heavily. In this article, we cover the “working visa” that foreign employees must obtain to be employed full-time in Japan.

There is no such thing as a “working visa”?

First, I’m going to tell you a shocking fact: what we call a working visa is not actually a visa. This may sound nonsensical, but in Japan there are two systems, visas and statuses of residence, and the common name “working visa” is often used to refer to a status of residence that entitles the resident to work in the country.

The differences between visa and status of residence are as follows.


Handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A visa is a recommendation letter from the head of the Japanese embassy or consulate-general, which states that the person has been judged and considered suitable to enter and stay in Japan, and asks immigration to undertake an inspection of the person.

Status of residence

Handled by the Ministry of Justice. Status of residence is a system that permits a person to stay in Japan for a certain period of time and to engage in a specific activity, status or position.

These two are often used interchangeably, but remembering the differences could help prevent unexpected mistakes. In this article, we’re using the common name “working visa”, since we titled this article using the term.

The most common five types of working visa

There are many different types of working visa, which allow foreigners to be employed full-time in Japan. It’s difficult to cover them all, so here I’ll explain five most common types of working visa.

  • Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa (Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services status of residence, 技術・人文知識・国際業務)

  • Highly Specialized Foreigner visa (Highly Skilled Professional status of residence, 高度専門職)
  • N1 visa - Designated Activities (No. 46 status of residence, 特定活動46号告示)
  • Special Skilled Worker visa - (Specified Skilled worker status of residence, 特定技能)
  • Intra-company Transferee visa - (Intra-Company Transferee status of residence, 企業内転勤)

Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa (Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services status of residence)

Most foreign office workers in Japanese companies are said to have the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa, commonly referred to in Japanese as the “Gi-Jin-Koku” (技・人・国) visa. We’ll explain this type of visa first.

The Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa is a status of residence for foreigners who want to work using their skills and knowledge that they acquired at universities, professional training colleges, etc. There is widespread misunderstanding of this visa, with approximately 15% to 20% of foreign students who apply for switching their visas have been rejected in recent years. It is regarded as a “hard-to-get” visa.

In reality though, it’s not that difficult to get accepted. In fact, the Immigration Office provides plenty of guidelines that tell the cases they reject or accept, so if you read them carefully, there’s a very good chance that the application will be accepted. I have seen more than 300 applications in the past, but only a few of them have been rejected. When it comes to university and graduate school graduates, I’ve never seen anyone rejected.

There are two main reasons when applications get rejected. One is when the applicant clearly does not meet the requirements for the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Service visa. For example, the job they’d be engaged in only includes simple tasks that anyone could do (such as simply packing goods into boxes or placing parts on a production line), the salary is cheaper than Japanese employees doing the same jobs, or the company has the person do work that is completely unrelated to what they learned at school or their past work experience. In this case, no matter how hard they try, they’d never be able to get the application accepted, so it’d be better trying to get another type of working visa.

Another reason is that submitted documentation is insufficient. This is a pitfall when applying for a working visa, but there are things that should be submitted even if they are not clearly described on the Immigration Bureau’s website. Conversely, if you submit more documentation than you are required, it could also increase the possibility of rejection. What is sufficient and appropriate can only be gathered from past experience of application procedures, and it may also change due to social situations and other factors. Therefore, the right level of documentation is something that can only be accurately predicted by those who regularly undertake these procedures. Submitting inappropriate documentation is probably the reason for most of the companies that have been rejected.

Characteristics of the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa

There are some exceptions, but basically, this visa is granted if the educational background or professional experience requirements are met. The education requirement is that the applicant must have graduated from a university (including junior college) or graduate school with a degree. Additionally, those who have graduated from a Japanese vocational school (専門学校) and hold a title of “Specialist” (専門士) meet the requirement.

Universities and graduate schools the applicant graduated from can be located overseas, but professional training colleges are in principle only ones in Japan. However, depending on the hours of study and the content of the course, the school could be treated as a junior college (短期大学) or a higher technical college (高等専門学校) instead of a vocational school, so you need to check individually if the applicant’s educational background is equivalent to what’s required. In my experience, an Associate Degree has a high chance of being accepted, while a Diploma or Certificate has a high chance of being rejected.

As for the alternative work experience requirement, the applicant is required to have at least 10 years work experience in the job the person is going to be engaged in. The requirement is described as “work experience”, but it could also include the period that the applicant learned and acquired relevant knowledge and skills at a university or technical college.

For instance, if an applicant you are looking to hire as a programmer has studied information and communications for four years at university and two years at graduate school, then those six years are considered to be part of the required 10 years experience. So in this case, four years of actual work experience is sufficient. Note however, in this case, since the education requirement is already fulfilled with the university degree, there’s no need to apply with the work experience requirement in the first place.

Another example is “work that requires perspectives or sensitivity based on foreign cultures” such as translation, interpretation, language instruction, public relations, advertising or international trades, fashion or interior design, or product development. For these jobs, three years of work experience is sufficient to meet the work experience requirement. Furthermore, for positions related to translation, interpretation and language instruction, if the applicant is a university graduate or above, the educational background or work experience requirements are mostly disregarded. This explains why the number of permits for “interpreter/translator” jobs are overwhelmingly high.

The periods of residence under the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services status can be valid for three months, one year, three years or five years, depending on the applicant’s situation. This visa is renewable.

Things to note about the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa

Even if the applicant meets the educational requirements, the level of difficulty to get this visa depends on where the person graduated from. Specifically, if the person has graduated from a university or higher, or from a vocational school. Both have the same criteria such as a connection between what you have studied as a student, and what you are being hired for. But there is a big difference between university and vocational school graduates in terms of how this is judged. I won’t go into the details, but in general, university degree holders are considered to have knowledge in wider fields that could be applied in their work, while those with a title of Specialist are considered to have expertise in a limited area and are good only in that area. So, obviously people with a title of Specialist are expected to relate their educational background to their work more strictly than those with a university or higher degree.

For instance, a graduate in economics from a Japanese university is more likely to be permitted to work in fields like accounting, marketing, planning, sales, and trade administration. On the other hand, if a person who studied “accounting and bookkeeping” at a Japanese vocational school is basically only permitted to work for accounting positions.

Highly Specialized Foreigner visa (Highly Skilled Professional status of residence)

The Highly Specialized Foreigner visa is a working visa for “high-level talent”, such as people who can fulfill the positions that require a particularly high level of technical skills or expertise. Because such people are extremely valuable to the Japanese economy and society, they are accorded much advantageous treatment.

The first thing to understand about this Highly Specialized Foreigner visa is that it is based on a point system. An applicant will only receive this visa if they earned a certain number of points.

About the point system

This Highly Specialized Foreigner point system certifies the applicant as a highly specialized foreigner if their total points are above the reference points (currently above 70 points), basing the points on factors such as education, work experience, annual compensation, age, bonus, and others.

See the list below. If the points of the foreigner you are looking to hire has above 70 points, the points are sufficient.

What are “Type 1 Highly-Skilled Professional” and “Type 2 Highly-Skilled Professional”?

The status of residence for highly skilled personnel is divided into Type 1 and Type 2. They are not divided by field or industry, but those who have worked for more than three years after having received Type 1 Highly-Skilled Professional could then be eligible for Type 2 status. You can say the Type 2 Highly-Skilled Professional status is an extension of the Type 1 Highly-Skilled Professional status.

The Type 1 Highly-Skilled Professional is valid for five years. Once it’s transferred to Type 2, the holder is eligible for a permanent residency. Also, they can be eligible for a permanent residency only after one year if they have more than 80 points. Note that this permanent residency is not granted automatically, so the holder needs to apply for it.

The Highly-Skilled Professional visa principally allows (i) advanced academic research activities, (ii) advanced specialized/technical activities and (iii) advanced business/management activities.

  1. Advanced academic research activities are defined as “activities of research, research guidance or education based on a contract with public or private organizations in Japan”, such as university professors.
  2. Advanced specialized/technical activities are defined as “activities that require knowledge or skills in the natural sciences or humanities based on a contract with public or private organizations in Japan”, which is similar to Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services.
  3. Advanced business/management activities are defined as “activities of business management or administration in public or private institutions in Japan”, such as company owners and managers.

As mentioned above, this Highly Specialized Foreigner visa offers various kinds of preferential treatment. That includes allowing multiple residence activities, the employment of a spouse, accompanying parents or domestic servant under certain conditions, and prioritizing immigration and residence procedures. At the moment, the benefits are only for the individual foreigner, so it might be important to give incentives to companies in order to increase the number of foreign people acquiring this visa.

N1 visa (Designated Activities No. 46 status of residence)

The N1 visa is commonly called so because one of the requirements for this visa is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1, but originally it is “Notification No. 46” of the Designated Activities status of residence.

In short, “Designated Activities” means “all the other activities”. It is hard work to legislate all the residence statuses, as society is changing so fast that the legislation system often fails to keep up. In such cases, the Minister of Justice is given the authority to give permissions tentatively. This is the Notified Permit for Designated Activities.

No.46 is a new system that was put into effect in 2019, and introduced in response to the growing demand for inbound tourism. It allows full-time work in previously unauthorized occupations such as customer service in restaurants, retail sales and taxi drivers. While there was a high demand for these types of jobs, they were outside the scope of the “Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services”, “Highly Skilled Professional”, and “Technical Intern Training” (技能実習) systems, so there could have been an urgent need to establish a corresponding status of residence.

This is just personal speculation, but I think this could be a trial operation to create new residence status such as a “Japanese language visa” or a “Japanese knowledge visa” in the future. Since the declining birth rate and aging population are becoming serious issues in Japan, there will surely be a labor shortage in all industries. Due to this, it would be useful to have an all-purpose visa that could be used for any type of job. If Japan restricts visa issuance to people with a higher level of educational or professional background, it’d be difficult to secure enough people.

Additionally, the Technical Intern Training system has been criticized internationally. Being able to issue a visa simply when the applicant is proficient in Japanese would make it possible to secure a certain number of people as workforce who are likely to fit in well with Japanese society. The risk of them being forced into inhumane circumstances is also much lower since they are fluent Japanese speakers. It could be a good status of residence that could be used in parallel with the new status of residence “Specified skilled workers” (特定技能).

The N1 visa can be valid for six months, one year, three years or five years, depending on the applicant’s situation. This visa is renewable.

Characteristics of the N1 visa

N1 visa requires the following six requirements.

1. Must be employed full-time

Full-time employment as a regular employee or contractor is required. Part-time employment is not permitted.

2. Must have graduated from a Japanese university or graduate school with a degree

Even if it is a Japanese educational institution, a diploma from a Japanese language school, vocational school or junior college is not sufficient. Also, diplomas from overseas universities or graduate schools are not accepted.

3. Must have JLPT N1, or 480 or above on the Business Japanese Proficiency Test

However, those who have graduated from a university or graduate school in Japan or abroad with a major in Japanese language are exempted.

4. Must have equal to or higher compensation than Japanese nationals

The compensation and employment conditions must be the same or better than those of Japanese university or graduate school graduates.

5. The work must require smooth communication in Japanese

This includes works that require some sort of ‘interpretation/translation’, such as connecting foreign customers or employees to Japanese, or work that requires using Japanese language.

6. The work must require what they learned in university or graduate school

The job is expected to include work that requires what the applicants learned in university or graduate school. The relevance of the acquired knowledge and the work is not considered so strictly, so the applicant could be engaged in a wide range of works/industries. This is the difference from Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services that I explained earlier in this article.

Examples of jobs that can be engaged with Designated Activities. No.46

Example jobs that may be accepted include

  • Providing customer service in restaurants that includes interpretation for foreign customers
  • Acting as a guide or providing customer service in accommodation facilities that also includes interpretation for foreign guests
  • Communicating and passing instructions from Japanese employees to foreign employees who have difficulty in fully understanding Japanese while building multilingual facility guides or websites, which also includes translation work
  • A caregiver at a facility while also training foreign employees or technical interns
  • A taxi driver who provides foreign tourists with tourist information and customer service while also interpreting information.

Works that only require simple tasks would not be accepted, but if it is also expected to require Japanese language skills, it may be permitted.

Currently, the N1 visa is not that easy to sponsor due to the strict academic requirements, but it can be used more easy with some adaptation Specifically, I suggest you employ someone who has graduated from a Japanese university or graduate school first, and then have them get an N1, or 480 or above on the Business Japanese Proficiency Test within one year of joining the company. Both exams could be passed if they have strong reading comprehension skills. There are a wide range of good study support services available, so the company could support them in the same way as having Japanese employees prepare for their TOEIC exams.

Specified Skilled Workers visa (Specified Skilled Workers status of residence)

Since this visa has a similar name to the Designated (Specified) Activities in Japanese mentioned earlier, this may lead to some confusion, but this is a different visa. This is a new working visa established in 2019 for the purpose of accepting foreigners who are ready to work immediately to solve the labor shortage problems in Japan. The Specified Skilled Worker (i) visa requires a considerable degree of knowledge and experience in a specific industry (see below).

After obtaining this Specified Skilled Worker (i) and having worked for more than five years, the person becomes eligible for Specified Skilled Worker (ii). However, as of July 2021, those who could switch from Specified Skilled Worker (i) to Specified Skilled Worker (ii) are limited to two occupations: those who are in “construction” or “shipbuilding/marine industry”.

At present, the following 14 fields are permitted for ‘Specified Skilled Workers’ visas.

  1. Nursing care
  2. Building cleaning
  3. Materials industry
  4. Electrical, electronics and information-related industry
  5. Construction industry
  6. Shipbuilding and marine industry
  7. Automobile maintenance
  8. Industrial machinery manufacturing
  9. Aviation industry
  10. Accommodation industry machinery manufacturing
  11. Agriculture
  12. Fishing industry
  13. Food and drink manufacturing
  14. Food service industry

Specified Skilled Workers (i) is valid for four months, six months, or one year. This visa is renewable, but the total period of stay is limited to five years. If you want to stay more, you need to change the status into Specified Skilled Workers (ⅱ).

Requirements for obtaining a Specified Skilled Worker visa

The requirements for the foreign applicants are to pass both the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and the Specified Proficiency Test (field-specific tests). The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is very easy, as it only requires N4 or above, or the JFT (Japan Foundation Test of Basic Japanese). On the other hand, the Specified Proficiency Test requires a certain amount of time to prepare for, because in the test, there are many technical terms and perspectives that are not familiar to people outside Japan. However, many sample questions are available, so if the applicant is good at exam preparation, they could be ready in about three months.

The requirements for employers are that they must employ the foreigner on a full-time basis (permanent or contract), and the compensation must be the same or higher than Japanese employees. Whereas in the case of Technical Intern Training (技能実習), the company could continue to employ the foreigner at the minimum wage the entire time, the employment conditions for Specified Skilled Worker are based on the Japanese employees at the company, so the employer can not expect to save labor costs much. In addition, employers are obliged to provide support when hiring foreigners with Specified Skilled Worker visa, which may actually end up in increasing costs and responsibilities.

For example, employers would need to pick up foreigners who are coming to work at the airport or port, and be ready to handle complaints or give support about work and daily life. The following page explains very well regarding this, so please read it if you are interested in the details.

Details of the obligations to accept and support specified skilled workers:

Also, there’s something different with this visa from other visas. In order to employ a foreigner with the Specified Skilled Worker visa, the employer company must join the council (協議会) that is established for each industry. Only after joining that council can the company can be recognized as a ‘’specified skilled worker organization” (特定技能所属機関) under the Immigration Control Act (and thus be an organization that accepts foreigners with the Specified Skilled Worker visa).

Furthermore, in order to accept personnel from abroad on a Specified Skilled Worker visa, the employer company is required to organize pre-entry guidance, prepare accommodation, support learning Japanese language, and provide assistance with administrative procedures. This is quite difficult for companies without knowledge and experience, so there’s a system of “registration support organizations”, through which companies can outsource these support for foreigners.

Like the N1 visa, for many companies, the Specified Skilled Worker visa is not very user-friendly. This Is because since the reduction of labor costs is limited, and how companies need to bear more responsibilities, there may be less advantages to sponsoring this visa compared to the N1 visa. However, the operational requirements for this visa are expected to gradually be eased. There is much discussion on the topic, but since the visa was created in order to solve the labor shortage, it should become a system that allows companies to employ foreigners with less costs and burdens.

At the moment, there is strong domestic and international criticism towards the Technical Intern Training (技能実習) system, so this new system is intended to protect foreign workers more. But in reality, companies that are short labor are unlikely to be able to handle all these regulations and obligations, so the system will probably change to make it easier and more beneficial for companies to sponsor this status. Until then, it may be wise to wait and see.

Intra-company Transferee visa (Intra-company Transferee status of residence)

Finally, it is the Intra-company Transferee visa. This is exactly what the name suggests. For instance, when there is an overseas company called “ABC Industries” and ABC Industries has a branch in Japan called “ABC Industries Japan”, employees who work at ABC Industries’ overseas office could obtain this visa when being transferred to ‘ABC Industries Japan’. That means when employees are transferred from an overseas office to a branch or subsidiary in Japan they can obtain this visa. This also applies when an employee is transferred from an overseas branch or subsidiary to the head office in Japan.

Once accepted, this working visa allows the holder to engage in work related to the natural sciences, humanities, international affairs, etc. for a certain period of time. You might think “’Then why would the Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa not work?”. The difference is that the Intra-company Transferee visa doesn’t require any educational qualifications and is available to non-university graduates. It also requires work experience, but only one year is sufficient with this visa, whereas the basic requirement for Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services visa is more than 10 years, or three years for some specified occupations.

The Intra-company Transferee visa can be valid for three months, one year, three years or five years. As the transfer period should be determined in advance, the period of stay is basically in line with that transfer plan.

Requirements for Intra-company Transferee visa status

The definition of “intra-company” is acceptable if any of the following applies:

  • Transfers between parent company and subsidiaries
  • Transfers between head offices, branches and sales offices
  • Transfers between parent company, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries
  • Transfer between subsidiaries
  • Transfer between sub-subsidiaries
  • Transfers between affiliated companies

I hope this article was informative. The types of working visas are complicated and difficult to understand, but please make sure you understand and make use of this information when hiring foreign nationals.

More about the author

Photo of Takumi Nakamura

Takumi Nakamura

Contributor to TokyoDev

Takumi is a career advisor for international students and a global HR consultant to help Japanese companies hire diverse talents from all over the world.

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