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.
Tokyo is a massive place, and while that can be good for some things, it can also be 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
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 some of those costs, and we’ll go into that below. However, even some of those fees 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 with enough money to see you through the first couple months (ideally brought in cash).
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.
Top tip: See our guide to arriving in Japan.
Moving to Tokyo: Registering as a resident
Armed with the aforementioned residence card, passport and a copy of your new permanent address, head to your local 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.
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% 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. See our article Women’s Health In Tokyo: White Lies, Pregnancy Tests and Pills
to know where you stand.
If you need to bring medication to Japan, there are allowances for a certain period. If you wish to bring in more or something that is restricted, you’ll need a Yakken Shomei form on arrival. Check the advice on the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare website or ask your local Japanese embassy or consulate about the requirements.
Your employer or ward office will enroll you in Japan’s 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.
You will also be given a My Number, which is a relatively new scheme designed to keep track of an individual’s tax payments. Your ward office will mail it to you. Be sure to keep it safe, as getting a replacement is a slow process. You will be required to use this number for tax returns, employment and when you send money from Japan via services such as Wise and Goremit.
Finding the right place to live
More and more housing options are becoming available in Tokyo, with flexible contracts and different needs being 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 farther 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.
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.
Top tip: Check out this interactive rent map of Tokyo for apartment price and size data by area.
Share houses 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 that 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—see our comparison article.
For your own space, with no one wandering into your kitchen and making toast at 3 am 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.
As Japan is yet to bring in any form of anti-discrimination law, landlords seem to be 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, 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.
It also pays to keep an eye on parts of Tokyo that are getting cheaper, and focus your search efforts in those areas. Here are more details on renting an apartment in Tokyo.
Bills, bills, bills: Setting up utilities
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).
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.
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.
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.
This is far simpler—it is run by the Bureau of Waterworks, and that’s that. Give them a call, remember to set up your bills in your preferred way, and enjoy your access.
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.
The main difference in Japan, compared 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 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, 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 secondhand 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
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 (as their moving date approaches) you can bargain with them. Craigslist is also a decent option, but as with all resale 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 secondhand electrical stores in the neighborhood offering washing machines, fridges, etc., for under ¥10,000 each, with help organizing transportation too.
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 (one recently opened in Harajuku, and a new one is set to open in Shibuya).
For boutique shopping, visit these smaller furniture shops along Meguro-Dori.
For decorating tips, here’s how you can maximize space in small Japanese apartment.
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.
Setting up a simple bank account in Japan is relatively easy, with banks like Shinsei offering English support and one free transfer a month. Some employers 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. See our Japanese banks comparison article for more.
Top tip: Getting plastic is not as easy—see our guide to getting a credit card in Japan.
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).
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).
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.
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 the Oyster card in London or the Octopus card in Hong Kong), 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 monthly or annual travel pass stamped onto your card, it will save money in the long run. Remember to check which line you’ll need though, as it matches up 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 farmers markets, as well as our guide to healthy eating. Lastly, for a taste of back home, check out these import stores in Tokyo.
Top tip: Finesse your first trip to the grocery store with our guide on grocery shopping terms
If you’re shopping in Japan for the first time and feeling a bit apprehensive/confused, have a quick read of our general guide to shopping for beginners.
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 bobs like magic sponges! For fancier folks, try the 3 Coins stores, where you’ll find some decent and nicer-looking items like plates and laundry baskets, to give your place a more warming feel.
Getting out and about
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.
Got questions about moving to Tokyo? Post ’em in our Tokyo Cheapo Community.
This post was orginally published in October 2017. Last updated: November 2020.