Updated December 9, 2023

How to get a visa as an engineer in Japan


Eric Turner

Founder of Japan Dev

If you want to work as an engineer in Japan, you'll need a visa.

I’ve been on everything from the "instructor" visa to the so-called "highly-skilled professional" visa, to now being a permanent resident. So I know how confusing this topic can be.

That's why I wanted to share a holistic overview of the visa options for engineers who want to work in Japan. If that's you, I hope this post will help you understand the requirements and choose the right visa for your situation.


The standard options for work visas in Japan

This discussion can get complicated... in fact there are 29 different types of working visas recognized in Japan. That's OK though, most of them are irrelevant for engineers.

If your goal is to work as an engineer, you'll probably want to apply for one of the two working visas aimed at engineers. For those without any special circumstances, this is the default case.

Here are the two options:

  • Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services ("Engineering") Visa
  • Highly Skilled Professional ("HSP") Visa

I'll call the first type "Engineering visa" and the second type "HSP visa" since their full names are quite long.

So what's the difference between these two? Let's take a look.

The Engineering Visa

The Engineering visa is the most common visa for foreigners in Japan. It encompasses a wide range of work fields, and it has a variable period of stay: 5 years, 3 years, 1 year, or 3 months.

The period of stay is decided by the immigration bureau based on your "expected period of employment" and "desired period of stay" that you enter on the application form. Employment contracts and size, stability etc. of your company can also impact this.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that you will receive your desired period of stay. There are people who get 5 years on the first try, and there are people who get strings of 1-year visas and have to keep renewing every year.

5 years is often granted to those who work at a publicly listed company or an affiliated organization, or to people with a working visa who are continuing to work for a company for an extended period of time and seek to renew it during their period of stay.

The shortest period of stay, 3 months, is granted in cases such as when Japanese companies wish to bring employees from foreign offices to Japan for short-term training, such as sharing knowledge, know-how and information, which will last less than 3 months.

Requirements for an Engineering visa

For a foreign engineer to qualify for the Engineering visa, you must meet the following three requirements.

  1. Be involved in work that requires skills or knowledge relating to science, engineering, or other natural sciences
  2. Have studied subjects relating to work and graduated from a university in Japan or in a foreign country (includes junior college), or to have graduated from a vocational school in Japan
  3. Receive payment equal to or higher than that of a Japanese national

Usually, this boils down to one main hurdle: having a university degree in a discipline related to the job.

There are ways to get the Engineering visa even if you don't have a degree in a technical field.

The first way is by having 10 years of related experience in the field instead.

Even if you don't meet the educational background requirements, immigration will waive this requirement if you supply proof that you have 10 years of practical work experience. (※ it can include academic background from universities etc., software engineer freelance work, and part-time work.)

Avoiding the requirement by passing an IT exam

There are certain approved IT exams that you can pass to get a visa even if you don’t have work experience or an academic background related to IT. Qualifying exams are held in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, China, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Mongolia, Bangladesh, and other countries.

The purpose of this program is to make it easier for global talent to obtain the right to work in Japan regardless of background. Starting in the early 2000s, the ASEAN countries + China, South Korea and Japan began recognizing each other’s exams, making this process possible.

Starting in 2006, exams in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Bangladesh have been holding exams (the ITPEC exam) that fulfill Japan’s requirements.

The exam covers three sections: technology, management, and strategy. Despite being an exam for IT professionals, it actually tends to have a lot of business-related content as well. Recently they’ve also been adding more questions relating to information security, algorithms and software engineering.

Old exam questions and practice workbooks are shared publicly, so take a look if you want to see the level that's expected. These are also super helpful when preparing for the exam.

If you pass this exam, not only will the requirement for a university degree/10 years of experience be waived, you’ll also receive 5 extra points on the HSP system (I'll explain more about this shortly).

Where to take the exam?

The government of each country where the exam’s offered award a certificate when you pass the exam. It's possible to take the exam in Japan if you're comfortable doing so in Japanese, but it's not offered in English unfortunately.

There is one English alternative though: the Philippine exam (PhilNITS) is open to non-residents and it’s given in English. So you can go to the Philippines and take the exam (see this video for more info: Japanese Engineering Visa Without Degree?). You don't have to be a resident.

It’s offered every year in April and October, so if you’d like to take the exam in English maybe plan to head to the Philippines at one of these times.

Note that other countries (e.g Singapore) may also offer eligible tests in English, but the only hard data points I've seen of people using the test to get visas were with the PhilNITS exam.

Technically, to be eligible for an Engineering visa, your job must be related to the subject you majored in at your university or vocational school. However, the way immigration judges the validity of a degree depends on whether it's from a university or a vocational skill.

The relevance of subjects at university is judged relatively loosely, while vocational schools are judged more strictly.

Also, when you first apply for an Engineering visa, your background must be relevant for the job you're planning to do. So if your degree is clearly not related to IT, you can't use it to get the Engineering visa (you could always try applying of course, but it's unlikely to work).

However! If you change jobs while your Engineering visa is still valid, you can change to a different type of work unrelated to your previous experience, provided it is covered by the visa type.

In short, you can switch to a job as a software developer, regardless of how you first received this visa.

TL;DR for the Engineering visa

Here's a quick rundown of situations and whether you can get an Engineering visa or not:

  • University Degree related to IT => You're eligible.
  • 10+ years of work experience related to IT => You're eligible.
  • University Degree unrelated to IT => You can do another job (e.g teaching English) for a while first to be eligible, and then switch to a tech job.
  • No degree and no relevant experience => If you pass an approved exam, you'll be eligible. The Philippines is a good place to do this in English.

So there are quite a few ways to qualify, with studying for and passing an exam in the Philippines being the worst case even if you don't fulfill the other requirements.

The Engineering visa is the easiest way for most engineers to come to Japan. But it's not the only way... let's review some other options.

The Highly-skilled Professional Visa

The Highly-skilled Professional (HSP) visa is relatively new.

It was first established in 2015 to attract foreign talent to Japan. Its key feature is that it offers a variety of preferential immigration treatment that isn’t available with a normal visa.

To obtain this type of working visa, applicants must get at least 70 points in the points system setup by the Japanese immigration bureau. They give points based on conditions such as education, work experience, salary, age, and Japanese ability. Note that the minimum annual income to be eligible for this visa is 3 million yen so you must be earning a salary.

The content of work as an engineer is the same as with the Engineering visa. Let's take a look at what it offers.

Benefits of the HSP visa

Although both Engineering and HSP visas allow you to work as a tech professional in Japan, the HSP visa has the following advantages over the Engineering visa:

  1. Permission to engage in "multiple activities"
  2. A guaranteed 5 year period of stay
  3. Relaxation of residency history requirements for permission for permanent residence
  4. Permission for spouse to work
  5. Permission to bring parents to Japan under certain conditions
  6. Permission to bring a housekeeper to Japan under certain conditions
  7. Priority handling of procedures for entry and residence

Pretty much every source I could find online speaks highly of this visa. The standard advice seems to be that you should apply for it if you’re eligible, since it has these advantages over the other Japanese working visas.

But here's the thing: it has some major drawbacks too.

Drawbacks of the HSP visa

Clearly there are perks when you're on the HSP visa. But is it really more convenient overall than an Engineering visa?

I've personally been on both, and I would have to say no. I think the Engineering visa is actually more convenient in many cases.

Are you prepared to work for the same company for over 5 years?

One issue is that the HSP visa is tied to the company you work for, which is not normally the case in Japan. In places like the US, visas are generally connected to your company. If you leave your job, you lose your visa. This creates a lot of anxiety for people.

Not having to deal with this anxiety is one of the nice things about visas in Japan. But you lose this when you're on the HSP visa.

Because the HSP visa is tied to one company, you have to reapply every time you change jobs. So if you don’t intend to work for the same company for more than five years, you’ll have to provide complicated proof for point calculation every time you change jobs.

Difficulty of applying

And that brings me to the second drawback of the HSP visa...

Applying for it is a lot more complicated than other working visas because you have to collect documents to prove every point you claim. So in my case I had to track down and submit:

  • my university diploma
  • my JLPT N1 certificate
  • documents showing when I joined/left each company I had worked for
  • documents proving my salary
  • etc.

I found it to be a lot more of a hassle than applying for a normal Engineering visa.

And there's one more issue with the HSP visa: since it's relatively new, some companies don't really understand how it works. As a result, you have to be careful when switching jobs and make sure you re-apply in time, or else you risk overstaying your visa and getting thrown out of the country.

But doesn't the HSP visa help you get Permanent Residency faster?

A lot of people think this, but it turns out the answer is no. Being on an HSP visa doesn't help you get PR any quicker.

I got my permanent residency through the HSP points system, so I did a lot of research on this topic.

At the same time that Japan introduced the HSP visa, they also changed the rules around permanent residency eligibility. They made it so that you could use the HSP points system as a way to obtain permanent residency.

This change is well-known for allowing people to earn permanent residence in Japan after a single year (in the case of 80+ points) or 3 years (for 70+). This was pretty eye-opening when it was first announced because until then, you had to live in Japan for 10 years (in principle) to apply for PR if you were on an Engineering visa.

Here's the thing though: this is not directly related to the HSP visa. It's confusing so a lot of people conflate the two, and think you have to be on the HSP visa to get this perk.

You don't.

Even those residing in Japan without an HSP visa can drastically reduce the number of years they need to stay in Japan before applying for permanent residence.

All you have to do is get a certain number of points using the same criteria.

Here are the actual rules: 1) If you have 70 or more points when applying for permanent residence, and you also had 70 or more points at the same time three years ago, then the period of stay required for a permanent residence visa is reduced to 3 years. 2) If you have 80 or more points when applying for permanent residence, and you also had 80 or more points at the same time the previous year, then the period of stay required for a permanent residence visa is reduced to 1 year, even if the applicant does not have a Highly-Skilled Foreign Professional visa.

→ In other words, regardless of whether or not you're on an HSP visa, you can apply for a permanent residence visa after 1 or 3 years.

Note that there is one caveat to this: to be eligible for PR you can't be on a 1-year Engineering visa. Your current visa when you apply must be a 3 or 5 year visa. So in this situation (when you happened to get only a 1-year validity period for your Engineering visa) you may need to switch to an HSP visa to apply for PR faster.

But other than that, you just need to prove that you have the points now, and you also had them in the past. So maybe think twice about whether the HSP visa is really the best choice for you.

How difficult is it to get these "points"?

If you have a university degree, it's not too high of a hurdle in my experience.

Annual income is another way you can potentially earn a lot of points. For example, you can earn 30 points if you earn 8-9 million yen, and a massive 40 points if you earn over 10 million. A master’s or PhD also helps you rack up points fast.

There are a lot of points available to earn, even outside of education and work experience. For instance, you get 10 points if you have a university degree, but you can get another 10 points if your university is ranked in the top 300 worldwide. Being younger also affords you more points: you get an extra 15 if you're under 29 years old when you apply

You can also earn a lot of points if you have any research-based achievements in your field of study.

Japanese skills are another avenue to get points: the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) earns you 10 points for N2 or 15 for N1.

I got over 100 points despite not having a master's degree or any research-based achievements. Mostly thanks to my university degree, 6 years of work experience at Japanese IT companies and earning a decent salary, and passing the JLPT N1.

If you want to know the detail, check out the points calculation table for the HSP visa.

The Working Holiday visa

If you want a test-run of going to Japan, you can try going there on a working holiday. In that case, you will be granted the residence status of “Designated activities”. With this residence status, you are allowed to go to school, work, or just relax. It’s your decision. Furthermore, if you enjoy Japan and think that you want to work there, you can change your visa from a Working Holiday visa to a Working visa.

This is possible even in countries that have agreements that prohibit changing a Working Holiday visa into a Working visa (England, Taiwan, etc.). To do this, you must be able to meet the conditions necessary to earn a Japanese Working visa as explained above (educational background and relevance to the job itself etc.).

In order to continue living in Japan after your working holiday, you will need to find work during the working holiday period. In that case, employment status is flexible. For example, you can work part-time during your working holiday and change to a full-time employee after the working holiday period has ended, or you can become a full-time employee during the working holiday period and change your visa status then.

However, there is the risk that if you cannot find a company to sponsor your visa during your working holiday, you will have to return home. If you are a young, adventurous, single person who wants to enjoy a new culture, this option might not be bad for you.

Note: Depending on an applicant’s country of origin, they may be required to return to their home country temporarily when changing directly from a Working Holiday visa to a Working visa.

Countries that don’t require you to leave the country when applying to change your visa

Australia, Canada, Korea, New Zealand, Germany

Countries that, in general, require you to leave the country when applying to change your visa

Countries with working holiday agreements other than the 5 listed above

※ However, while leaving the country is a general rule, changes may be possible while remaining in Japan, depending on the Immigration Bureau’s judgement.

※ When changing from a Working Holiday visa to a Working visa, the Immigration Bureau has a tendency to be a bit harsher in their judgement compared to normal Working visa applications.

The above is the current situation (May, 2021). Due to the increase in the number of foreigners working in Japan, it seems that the Immigration Bureau is becoming stricter in their screening process. If you are considering coming to Japan this way, it would be smart to contact the Immigration Bureau’s screening department beforehand to get the latest information on whether or not you will need to return to your home country or not when applying to change from a「Working Holiday」visa to a「Working」visa.

The Business Manager Visa

Japan also offers a "Business Manager Visa". It's much less common for engineers, but it's another route that may occasionally be a good fit for people who are willing to start a company in Japan.

It exists to help foreigners start and run businesses.

Here are the requirements:

  • Setting up a physical office for the company
  • Either 2+ full-time employees, or 5 million JPY of start-up capital

Note that there are other costs associated with actually setting up a business. For example, there's a fee of 242,000 JPY just to open a "KK" corporation, and the total costs can increase quickly (especially if you need English support). So the hurdles to getting this visa are fairly high.

So if you're just trying to work as an engineer in Japan (rather than serious about running a business), maybe consider going to the Philippines and taking a test instead.

Or you could look into getting a "start-up visa", which is a more lightweight alternative.

The Startup Visa

Japan's start-up visa system has been around since late 2015, and it's aimed at increasing the amount of foreign entrepreneurs.

They're only available in certain areas like Tokyo and Fukuoka, that have gotten special permission from the government to offer this visa. You can use it to get the right to stay in Japan for between 6 and 12 months.

Here's a more comprehensive list of areas where you can apply for this visa (as of 2021/06, according to Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry):

Fukuoka City, Aichi Prefecture, Gifu Prefecture, Kobe City, Osaka City, Mie Prefecture, Hokkaido, Ibaraki Prefecture, Oita Prefecture, Kyoto Prefecture, Shibuya Tokyo

Source: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Unlike the Business Visa above, getting a start-up visa is pretty easy. You need to submit a business plan to a government office in of the above areas, and get a "letter of invitation". Then you can take that to immigration and use it to apply for the actual visa.

It's not too difficult to get this visa if you're an entrepreneur and you're planning to engage in "management" or "operations" while in Japan. You still need a plan for when the 1-year validity period ends though.

The Spouse Visa

Japan also offers a spouse visa, which I'll mention briefly for the sake of completeness.

If you happen to be married to a Japanese national, then getting a spouse visa is probably the best bet. The application process involves proving you're actually married, but other than that it's very simple.

You may need to provide proof of your relationship (e.g photos of you two together, LINE messages etc) to prove you're a real couple. You'll also need documentation proving you're married in both Japan and your home country, you shouldn't have any issue.

You also have to prove that you have enough income to support yourselves, but that's the case for pretty much any visa.

Spouse visas have very few limitations and you're eligible to apply for permanent residency after only 3 years of marriage.

Japanese Permanent Residency

Let's talk a little bit about permanent residency. If you're thinking about HSP points, it might be an option relatively soon in the future.

As the name suggests, getting it allows you to live in Japan indefinitely. There are basically four main benefits:

  1. You can keep your existing citizenship
  2. There are no limits on your activities (types of jobs you can hold etc)
  3. It doesn't expire
  4. It's easier to apply for permanent residency for children and dependents

For example, someone who was working as an engineer on an Engineering visa can become a Youtuber or a chef after obtaining a permanent resident visa. Whereas before, they could have only worked as an engineer (or similar) since that visa limits the type of work you can do.

This is the case for me personally. I'm able to run Japan Dev full-time because I have permanent residency.

There are four requirements to obtain permanent residency.

  1. Good conduct
  2. Skills and assets to earn an independent living
  3. Your becoming a permanent resident must benefit Japan
  4. A guarantor

As a general rule, you have to reside in Japan for at least 10 years, with at least five of those 10 years having been spent on a working or residential visa.

However, as we mentioned above there are exceptions to this.

If you meet the following conditions, you may be allowed to stay in Japan even if your period of stay is less than 10 years:

  1. If you're married to a Japanese national

If you're married to a Japanese national, a permanent resident, or a "special permanent resident", and have been married for more than 3 years, you may be granted permanent resident status by special exception if you have resided in Japan for more than one year.

Also, if your spouse is Japanese, the "good conduct" and "skills and assets to earn an independent living" rules don't apply.

  1. 70 points or more on the HSP point system

As discussed above, having 70+ points at the beginning and end of a 3-year period (during which you were residing in Japan) gives you the right to apply. Or, if you have 80+ points that's shortened to 1 year.

There are also a few special exceptions, but they don't apply in most cases. For example, those who've been specially recognized by the government for contributions to Japan, refugees, foreigners of Japanese descent, and those who have been separated from their Japanese spouses.

Impact of Visa on Family

Overall, I feel like the Engineering (Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services) visa is the simplest and most beneficial for most people. However, there are pros and cons to each option based on each individual’s lifestyle, so it's impossible to say which visa is the best.

I didn't have to think about this myself since my spouse is Japanese, but moving your family to Japan may be a concern so I'll talk a little bit about what each type of visa allows you to do for this.

For the Engineering visa

The family members that can immigrate to Japan with you are limited to your spouse and children. Parents and siblings are not eligible. Children include both adopted and biological children, even if they're adults.

The accompanying spouse’s residential status will be set as "Family stay". This status includes permission to work part-time for up to 28 hours a week. So please be aware that this does not include full-time work (unless you apply for special permission).

For the HSP visa

The family members that can immigrate to Japan with you are generally limited to your spouse and children, but parents can also come under certain conditions. The conditions are that they must be responsible for assisting with the care of the highly-skilled foreign professional’s children (under the age of 7), or that they assist with caring for the pregnant highly-skilled foreign professional or their pregnant spouse. This is only applicable to households that earn a yearly income of 8 million yen or higher.

Spouses of highly-skilled foreign professionals can engage in work that falls under the categories of the "Instructor", "Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services", "Researcher", "Entertainer" visas, even if they don't meet the requirements for educational background and work experience. The accompanying spouse’s residential status will be set as "Designated activities", not "Family stay". In order to be employed, the spouse will need to apply to the Immigration Bureau after a place of employment has been found.

However, even if you don’t have an HSP visa and your spouse wants to work full-time, they may apply for an Engineering visa, which is relatively easy to obtain. Because of this, even if a spouse intends to work full-time, an HSP visa is not always necessary.

Why I recommend the Engineering visa in most cases

I recommend the Engineering (“Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services”) visa for those who want to keep their options open and advance in their career (since it allows you to change jobs easily).

You get a 5-year period of stay with the HSP visa, but do you really need this? Some people get PR after a year or two. Or decide to switch jobs and need to re-apply anyway. Others get married and switch to a spouse visa. Still others leave Japan entirely.

It’s actually not that great of a perk I don't think. Plus there's a chance you'll get 5 years with the Engineering visa anyway.

So unless you’re an edge case and one of the other HSP visa perks (e.g bringing your parents over from abroad) is important to you, I'd say it's not worth the trouble in most cases.

It’s a lot more complex to apply, and it’s actually more limited than a regular work visa (due to the difficulty of changing jobs).

It would be one thing if you needed to be on the HSP to be eligible for the faster permanent residency timeline (1-2 years based on number of points). But you don’t.

So maybe consider just getting a regular Engineering visa, or one of the other options above.

P.S Want to work in tech in Japan? Check out our curated list of software developer jobs in Japan.