Ever changing situation
In 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese government severely limited entry into the country. In 2021, while tourist visas are still not available, as well as some other types of new visas, some travel in and out of the country is possible.
The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the current process, including what is required, and potential pitfalls based on the author’s personal experience and research into the situation.
However, please be aware that the situation here in Japan is extremely fluid. The rules, regulations, restrictions, and requirements regarding flying in and out of Japan can change at any moment. If you are making plans to travel in or out of Japan, it is recommended that you regularly check the official websites of the Japanese government, the destination country’s government, airlines, and airports to stay up to date. There are many horror stories of travelers being turned away at the airport or sent back to their countries because they were missing a vital piece of paperwork.
Currently, one of the best clearing houses of updated information is the Return To Japan Support Group on Facebook. First created by Metroresidences to assist their customers, it has grown into a resource of incredibly useful information, and perhaps more importantly, where over 23,000 members around the world share their stories, help each other, and answer questions.
Don’t panic! There are many more stories of successful returns than unsuccessful! With the proper preparation and planning, you can help make your journey a smooth and painless process.
Departing from Japan
Currently, the Japanese government does not require a COVID test to leave the country.
!!IMPORTANT!! However, most airlines require one to board the plane. Unfortunately, different airlines have different requirements about which tests and paperwork are acceptable. Also, as different transfer hubs/airports and destination countries can have their own requirements, it is highly recommended that you confirm ALL the requirements before making an appointment.
As travelers usually need a COVID test 72 hours or three days (depending on the airline or destination country) before the flight, it is important to confirm the details of the test and the appointment, especially how much time it will take to receive the results and any paperwork that needs to be processed and/or signed by the doctor. If possible, ask for the details in writing in case there is a problem.
Costs for COVID tests can range from approximately 2,000 to 40,000 yen or higher, depending on the type of test, the time required to receive the results, and/or the facility.
While there are no smartphone apps (applications) required to leave Japan, currently, the Japanese government uses smartphones and these three required apps as part of the quarantine system for travelers arriving in the country:
Google Maps (or similar app)
It might be wise to download these apps before you leave and confirm that they work. Also, check that the operating system (OS) of your smartphone is current enough to handle the apps. You should also be able to download the apps via Wi-Fi at the airport when you return if you cannot do it before the return flight, and airport staff will be available to help you.
Getting to airport
Currently, there are no restrictions on getting to the airport in Japan. However, as there are severe restrictions on public transportation upon arriving in the country, some return travelers choose to drive their own car to the departure airport and leave it in long term parking for an easy and somewhat cheaper return option than a COVID taxi to start their home quarantine.
Masks while flying
Keep in mind that if you must travel during this time, check with your airline about mask requirements. Some airlines and airports now require an N95 or similar mask to be worn for the duration of the journey.
Preparing to go/return to Japan
In general, there are very few, if any, reports of travelers having difficulty leaving Japan. Most reports of problems, delays, and being turned away at the ticket gate or at the arrival airport have occurred during the flight to Japan. With this in mind, you should be very careful and conscientious about making preparations to go/return to Japan. It is highly recommended to research and confirm EVERYTHING.
!!IMPORTANT!! The 14-day quarantine process starts at the first Japanese airport you land at. You cannot take a domestic connecting flight to another city because it is considered public transportation. You will either have to quarantine somewhere nearby for the two weeks or arrange for an approved form of transportation (private car, rental car, COVID taxi, etc.) to return home.
While the same general COVID tests suggestions in the above “Departing Japan” apply for returning to Japan section, there is one important difference.
!!IMPORTANT!! While there is no standard form or paperwork for the COVID test results that airlines require to leave Japan, you must use the Certificate of testing for COVID-19 from the Japanese government (often referred to as MOFA). You can find an explanation and PDFs of the form in different languages on the website linked above.
You can also read more about the form at FAQ for Confirmation of Certificate of testing for COVID-19.
!!IMPORTANT!! COVID testing in other countries can be very different compared to Japan. While there may be a variety of quick and even free testing available in your country, it may not be acceptable for re-entry into Japan. Be extremely careful to confirm with the testing facility that it is the correct test and sampling method and that the paperwork will be completed correctly. It is HIGHLY recommended to get this confirmation in writing. There is at least one report of a traveler who was assured by the testing facility in his country that the test was the correct one, only to be denied boarding on his flight because it was not.
One possible source of information specifically related to testing and paperwork in your country can be the Japanese embassy and/or consulate. If the information is in Japanese, you can use machine translation, such as DeepL or Google Translate. It is also recommended to keep the embassy or consulate contact information handy in case there are problems (vias, etc.) at the departure airport.
Even though the airlines are responsible for checking all paperwork and visas, not all airline staff may be familiar with Japanese visas or other required documents. Travelers have reported having difficulty at airports and have had to resort to contacting the Japanese embassy or consulate for assistance.
It is recommended to have all paperwork printed and organized in a clear plastic folder before the departure flight for faster processing through checking in, COVID testing, immigration, and customs at the departure airport and upon return to Japan. However, most paperwork will also be available on the airplane or at the airport. Digital copies on your smartphone as backup are also recommended.
Required paperwork at departing airport:
Required paperwork at arrival airport:
Pledge - a written pledge that travelers must sign, stating that they understand the rules and regulations of the Japanese infection control guidelines related to COVID testing and quarantine and the penalties for not doing so.
COVID Questionnaire (with QR code)
Arriving in Japan
In general, according to multiple reports from members of the Return To Japan Support Group Facebook group, it can take anywhere from two to five hours from landing to clearing customs. Advice to speed up the processes are as follows:
Print and fill out all paperwork in home country or fill it out on plane
Download apps (if not already done) immediately with airport Wi-Fi
Don’t eat or drink anything 30 minutes beforehand due of saliva COVID test rules
Book a seat near the front of the plane if possible
Walk quickly to get ahead of crowds
As mentioned above, the Japanese government uses smartphones and apps as part of the quarantine monitoring system. These apps will track your location, ask you for updates on your health, and allow the quarantine monitoring staff to video call you to confirm your location and status.
As part of the process of clearing the airport after landing, airport staff will confirm that you have the three apps (MySOS, COCOA, and Google Maps) installed and operational on your smartphone. They will also assist you with the process if necessary.
You cannot leave the airport without these three apps.
!!IMPORTANT!! The apps currently require these versions of operating systems (OS):
iPhone: iOS 13.5 or later
Android: Android 6.0 or later
It is not necessary to have a functioning Japanese SIM card in the smartphone. Everything can be done via Wi-Fi at the airport and at the quarantine location. However, iPads cannot be used.
It may be possible to rent a Japanese SIM card and have it delivered to you in your home country if you want to have a functioning smartphone during your quarantine. You will not be able to visit a SIM card shop at the airport.
!!IMPORTANT!! If you do not have a smartphone or your smartphones are incompatible with the apps and requirements, you will be REQUIRED to rent a provided smartphone at the airport. You do not have any choice of phone or plan. The cost is 20,000 yen for two weeks and must be paid by credit card. The smartphone will be returned by mail/post. The apps are pre-installed, and the smartphone pre-set to only work with the apps. Users cannot download any other apps, and the smartphone cannot be used for any other purposes.
Leaving the airport
International travelers arriving in Japan are currently not allowed to use public transportation to help reduce the spread of COVID infection. Once you clear COVID testing, immigration, and customs, you are free to go/return to your residence by the following means:
Own car left in airport parking
Private car pickup by family or friend
COVID taxi: As regular taxis are not allowed, there are now a variety of special taxi services available that will pick you up from the airport and drive you to your residence. One of the most popular (and cheapest) options in Tokyo is reported to be Goal International taxi service.
While there has been discussion in the Return To Japan Support Group on Facebook about walking or riding a bicycle home from the airport, it is not clear if this is allowed.
Side note - Quarantining in Japan
The COVID quarantine system in Japan is also a fluid situation and can greatly depend on your personal situation. The Return To Japan Support Group on Facebook is a great source of information about the quarantine process. There are also many personal stories and suggestions/advice that can help you prepare and plan to make it easier on you and your family.
Bon voyage and good luck!
!!DISCLAIMER!! The author takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information presented due to the fluid nature of the situation. Please do your own research, and proceed at your own risk.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.