Moving to Tokyo: A Complete Guide for Cheapos

Lily Crossley-Baxter

Leaving home and moving to the biggest city in the world can be a bit of a daunting prospect, but don’t worry—we have you covered! From finding a flat to furnishing it and making friends to have over for tea, we’re here to make moving to Tokyo as smooth as possible.

moving to tokyo
Photo by Kate Ter Haar used under CC

Tokyo is a massive place, and while that can be good for some things, it can also make it a bit … well … intimidating and scary, if we’re being honest. Don’t get us wrong, it’s exciting, busy and a complete adventure, and you’ll be glad you moved here, but there are some things that can be challenging. Whether you’re moving to Tokyo for work, school or have just decided to take a chance and see how life goes—you’ll have some ideas about what you want from your time here.

No money mo problems

rent an apartment in Tokyo
The more in your wallet, the better. | Photo by Japanexperterna.se used under CC

While we strive to prove that living in Japan can be cheap, there are some things that this country is expensive for, and moving can be one of them. Set-up costs can be unusually high due to the (ridiculous) fees added on to rental agreements, for example: key money, cleaning fees, maintenance fees, contract fees and agency fees—all on top of a deposit, which means you can end up paying about six times your rent when you first move in to a place.

There are ways to avoid this, and we’ll go into that, but paired with delayed payment from work (for example, if you start mid month, it may be over eight weeks until you receive your first full paycheck), it can be an expensive time, so be prepared and make sure you have enough money to see you through (ideally brought in cash).

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moving to japan
Photo by Max Braun used under CC

Visas and your residency card

Whether you have a study visa, work visa or a working holiday visa, when you arrive at the airport (assuming it’s one of the larger ones) you should head to the appropriate desk and show them your passport and visa. They’ll take your details, your photo and fingerprints and give you a Residence Card. This is very important, and must be kept on you at all times (there are tales of $1000 fines if you’re stopped without it). It is also now used as your visa, rather than the one in your passport which will no longer be updated if you change status (only the card will)—so keep it on you and keep it safe.

If you arrive on a tourist visa and somehow find yourself a job and end up actually moving to Tokyo instead of just visiting, you’ll need to head to your local immigration office to apply for a change of status, although your company will most likely help you with this.

Moving to Tokyo: Registering as a resident

Residency: Armed with the aforementioned residence card, passport and a copy of your new permanent address, head to your ward office to register as a resident. Although you are meant to do this within two weeks of moving to Tokyo, if you know your current place is temporary and will be moving again soon, don’t worry—just do so as soon as you have a permanent home.

If you register and then move to a new area, you must go to your ward office and fill out a leaving form, then re-register at your new ward office. The form is pretty simple and most places have English translation services available. If you move from the address you provided when you were first given your registration form, take your card to the immigration office along with a contract and passport, and they will write the new address on the back of the card.

Health insurance: When you register, you will be set up with national health insurance coverage which requires monthly payments. Employers generally pay half of the contribution, and it may be deducted from your pay automatically—although some employers (such as English conversation schools) do not always do this, as you are technically employed on a part-time basis—so be sure to confirm this with them.

Bills can be mailed to you in the post to be paid at the convenience store, or you can pay in bulk at the start of the year if you prefer. You will be given a health insurance card, or sent it in the following days, which you should keep on you and present when you go to a doctor or hospital. If you forget it, you will have to pay in full, but can later return with the card for reimbursement.



The insurance only covers 70 percent of costs, and doesn’t cover things like contraception or glasses, meaning you will still be paying to see the doctor and for any medication—so remember take cash with you. Women’s health is a whole other kettle of fish—have a read of this to know where you stand. If you need to bring medication to Japan, you’ll need a Yakken Shomei form on arrival—ask your local Japanese embassy or consul about the requirements.

Pension: Your employer or ward office will enrol you in the Japan Pension Scheme too, which is technically mandatory—and up to three years’ worth of payments can be claimed back through an arduous process once you leave the country. This is similar to health insurance in that employers often pay half if you are in full-time employment, and it can be taken automatically from your pay each month, or bills can be mailed to you. You will receive a little blue pension book which you must keep safe.

MyNumber: You will also be given a MyNumber, which is a relatively new scheme designed to keep track of an individual’s tax payments, and will soon become a strict requirement, although at the moment it is still pretty vague. They will either give you the card or mail it to you, be sure to keep it safe, as having a replacement made is a slow process. You will soon be required to use this number for tax returns, employment and when you send money home via services such as GoRemit.

Finding the right place to live

Gradually, more and more housing options are becoming available in Tokyo, as flexible contracts move in and different needs are catered to. Now you can find women-only sharehouses and guesthouses with month-long agreements, or private apartments—but all come at a price. The first decision is location vs cost vs size. Unless you’re loaded, you can’t have all three—so it’s best to prioritize: two out of the three is the goal. Living further out of central areas means you’ll get a larger apartment for less, but if you really want to be at the heart of it all, get ready for shared accommodation or high, high rent.



The shoes of your new housemates. | Photo by Global Lives Project used under CC

Next, depending on where you need to be for work or school, choose your area based on two things: amenities and train lines. Both are important—especially the latter, as it determines what time you’ll have to get up in the morning, how crowded it will be and when your last train at night will be. Have a look at our area guides for some ideas. If money is a stretch, or you’re not a big city person 24/7, consider living in the outlying areas of Chiba or Kanagawa—many places are still within 30 minutes of central stations in Tokyo, and offer much more affordable rent.

Shared houses: These are popping up all over Tokyo, some fancier than others—but all pretty much with the same perks. With monthly-rental agreements, no additional fees, fully-furnished rooms and utilities included, it can make your move to Tokyo much, much simpler. You do lose a few things though, the main one being privacy. As bathrooms and kitchens are shared, you need to be somewhat of a people person, but it can be a great way to settle in before looking for your permanent home. Homestays are another option with a few differences to share houses—have a read of our comparison article.

Private apartments: For your own space, with no one wandering into your kitchen and making toast at 3am or taking a shower shortly after, a private place is the answer. You can either find a spot through a letting agency or directly through the landlord, but there are some challenges.

Empty apartment in Japan
Time for some furniture. | Photo by Hidetoshi Yanagi used under CC

As Japan is yet to bring in any form of anti-discrimination law, landlords are perfectly within their rights to refuse to rent to foreigners, and very often do. So if you’re hunting privately, be prepared for rejection (no matter how good your Japanese is). Sites that advertise in English are often a safe bet for accepting foreigners, and many now offer no key money etc, which is a massive saving—just be sure to ask them to outline any other costs before you sign. The best option by far though, is UR housing—apartments rented out by a public corporation without any of the fees mentioned before. They are located all over Tokyo in various price brackets, but there are waiting lists in the more popular ones.

If you’re not easily creeped, you could consider renting out a jiko bukken apartment—a space where someone has died of unnatural causes or some other unpleasant thing has occurred. These are often offered at a heavily discounted rate and avoided like the plague by most Japanese renters.


Setting it all up

Getting your utilities up and running is a surprisingly simple affair, if you’re setting up your own apartment. People in shared housing may not have to worry about this as most bills are often included in the rent. There in’t quite the same competition you might be used to when it comes to gas and electricity companies here, but since the energy market was opened in 2016 there’s certainly a lot more than there was.

You can choose how to have your bills paid; either direct debit from your bank account or posted to you to be paid at a convenience store. The latter is easier if you’re going to be managing your money closely, as you can control when to pay (bills are often sent out pretty early, often with two weeks until payment is required).

Gas: Depending on your property, you may be using a city gas supply or propane, but as the former is more likely, we’ll focus on that. From April 2017, the rules on gas provision were changed, meaning you could get gas from any company, not just the one in your region—although most people still do. TokyoGas is your most likely provider, although you can shop around (keep in mind that “deals” in Japan just aren’t in the same league as many places; think “buy one for $5, buy two for $9.99!” as an example …). Once you’ve chosen, set-up is similar to electricity—you call them up and request a set-up visit, where they will turn up to connect you. If you have a new stove or don’t know how to connect the one already in your apartment, the gas person is a great one to ask—they will connect it for you quickly.

Electricity: Tepco and Kepco are the main electricity providers, but you might be able to choose from others—although if you live in certain buildings, it may be pre-decided by the building management.

The Japanese energy market was deregulated in April 2016. | Photo by Tanaka Juuyoh used under CC

Have a look at our guide to choose your provider, if this is an option for you. Whoever you go with, you have to call them up (so keep English support in mind when choosing if you don’t have a relatively good level of Japanese) and ask them to come and set up your apartment. It’s a pretty quick affair; they arrive, check your meter and ask you to sign, then flip your switch and you’re off (or on, rather)! When it comes to saving on that power, read this article full of tips.

Water: This is far simpler—it is run by Tokyo Water, and that’s that. Give them a call, remember to set up your bills in your preferred way, and enjoy your access.

Internet: This is the only optional one, and is often included in shared houses or some apartment buildings. There are myriad options, and most are expensive.

wifi router
Photo by Danny Choo used under CC

The main difference in Japan to most places is that you actually need two companies to get internet—the Internet Connection Company (like NTT East Flets or AU) and the Internet Service Provider (OCN, Asahi Net, SpinNet). The first company will offer the type of internet, like Hikari-fibre (fibre-optic) or ADSL, with some still offering cable. You will need to check with the building management which type is already set up in the building, as changing can mean a lot of hassle and drilling, and your landlord may just refuse.

Once you have chosen a plan and type, you can choose an Internet Service Provider; some are paired with companies, for example, OCN is linked to NTT and therefore has English support etc, and is easy to use. You’ll need to coordinate appointments to set up internet, and decide if you want to rent a router, which can be an expensive addition to your bill (so keep an eye out for a second-hand one). You may decide you’d prefer to stick to phone data or portable wifi—so be sure to do a little extra research into these options before committing to anything.

Furnishing your new house

Second-hand: For all things free, check out the Mottainai Japan Facebook page (they also have occasional flea markets). With the only rules being that everything has to be free and the receiver has to collect (or pay shipping), it’s a simple trade space with plenty of action. With everything from sofa sets to kitchen appliances, you’ll be able to furnish your place pretty fast, although you may need a friend with a van or a very willing pair of hands if you live nearby.

The Tokyo Sayonara Sale page also has plenty of great items, but not all free—however, as people get increasingly desperate you can bargain with them (as their moving date approaches). Craigslist is also a decent option, but as with all online sites, be careful when arranging to meet people you don’t know—stick to public places and take a friend. If you’re furnishing an apartment there are often second-hand electrical stores in the neighborhood offering washing machines and fridges etc, for under ¥10,000 each, with help organizing transportation too.

tokyo flea markets
The Mottainai Flea Market is a good place to start. | Photo by Dave Hill used under CC

New: If you can’t find what you’re looking for, or just like shiny new things, then have a look at Nittori and Ikea. Both have a wide range of basic to fancy and both do delivery. Although Nittori is cheaper in some cases, you may be more familiar with Ikea and it has a discount section near the tills, which can be a goldmine for ex-display furniture—plus who doesn’t love meatballs for lunch? The delivery costs vary depending on your area, so try and go to the closest one.

Setting yourself up

Once you have an address after moving to Tokyo, you can start with the essentials like a bank account and phone—both of which are pretty vital for life here.

Banks: Setting up a simple bank account (i.e. not a credit card) is relatively easy, with banks like Shinsei offering English support and one free transfer a month. Some companies stipulate that you have an account with a specific bank (probably to reduce their own fees), but if you have to do this, there’s no reason you can’t open a second account elsewhere that’s easier to use.

To open an account you will need your residence card and passport, and they will tell you that you need a hanko (a small personal seal used in place of a signature here). If you have one, great—it speeds things along; if not, be prepared to say no eight million times until they have a small managerial meeting and finally relent. It is not a legal requirement, no matter what they try and tell you, so stick to your guns. (If you’re lucky they may just agree to a signature, but I have never heard of it happening without at least a bit of a fight).

Phones: If you have brought your unlocked phone with you from home, an MVNO is your best bet, as you can even have a proper phone number with them (not just data-only).

Japan SIM card
SIMs are cheap and easy to find. | Photo by Miki Yoshihito used under CC

An MVNO uses a larger company’s network but without all the stores etc, so they are much cheaper and don’t have the two-year contract requirements with hefty cancellation fees. With companies like SoftBank, Au and Docomo, you can easily pay over ¥7,000 a month for internet throttled after 3GB, whereas MVNOs like IIjmio and Sakura Mobile offer data+voice deals for under ¥4,000/month with 5GB limits—so it’s a pretty clear choice. Read up on the best options here.

Travel cards: Depending on your school or job, you may be taking the same route every day, or mixing it up on a regular basis. The easiest way to travel is with one of the IC cards— Suica or Pasmo.

These are rechargeable cash cards which you swipe in and out of the station with (like an Oyster card), saving you a few yen and—most importantly—the hassle of buying tickets each time. If you know you’ll be taking the same route, consider getting a travel pass stamped onto your card, which can be monthly or annual and will save money in the long run (remember to check which line you’ll need though, as it matches with one of the two cards—the article linked above explains further).

Stocking those bare cupboards

Now that your lights are on and your fridge is cold, you can get shopping and stop living off cup noodles! For affordable and healthy food shopping, have a look at our article on supermarkets in the city and your choices for farmer’s markets, as well as our guide to healthy eating. If you’re shopping in Japan for the first time and feeling a bit apprehensive/confused, have a quick read of our guide to shopping for beginners.

tokyo markets
Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson used under CC

To make your house more of a home, including those cute little socks for chairs (your neighbors will thank you), head to the nearest 100-yen store for little pieces and decorations. These stores are also good for the cleaning basics, with bin-bags, those sink-drain nets and countless other bits and bots like magic sponges! For the more upmarket, try the 3 Coins stores, where you’ll find some decent and nicer-looking items like plates and laundry baskets, to give your flat a more warming feel.

Getting out and about

An evening at Dr Sketchy's
Another night with the sketchpads at Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. | Photo by Louise Rouse

With your house and life sorted after moving to Tokyo, you’ll be itching for some social interaction no doubt, so have a look at our events pages for an idea of what’s on in the city. Once you’ve seen something you like, have a read of our transport guide so you know how to get there fast and cheap. If you’re creative, check out our top events in Tokyo for social art, and spoken-word events too. If all that moving has left you short on cash, we have a guide to the best free activities each day of the week. For sports, check out where to go climbing, the deal with municipal gyms and the numerous hiking options. Finally, check out the social scene with drinking spots and bar crawls to meet people in Tokyo!

Got questions about moving to Tokyo? Post ’em in our Tokyo Cheapo Community.


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