Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Caroline vs. SWAP Japan

Last autumn, when I started thinking seriously about moving to Japan with Clem while he finished his MPP, I knew I needed help navigating the application process for a working-holiday visa.  I'd heard of SWAP (Student Working Abroad Program) from an info session I'd attended late in undergrad, and based on the fact that they cater to young adults and are very involved in the process, I decided to they were the best option for my needs.

SWAP Japan is available to Canadians between the ages of 18 and 30, and doesn't require student status.  The visa is initially issued for six months, and can be extended for an additional six months by visiting the Immigration Bureau and paying a small processing fee.  The registration fee for SWAP Japan is $350, which is considerably less than other destinations because there is no hosting centre in Tokyo.

Once you register with SWAP, they send you all the documents and checklists of things needed to apply for your visa, as well as tips to ensure your application is successful.  For Japan, I needed a standard application form, an "intended schedule" listing places I wanted to go during the first six months, a letter outlining why I wanted to live in Japan, my passport, a doctor's letter declaring me free of communicable diseases, a letter from my bank ensuring I had at least $2500 to my name, passport photos, a flight itinerary, and travel insurance.  Phew!!  Some of these took planning and running around on my part, so it's best to get started on everything as soon as possible.  Do NOT leave things to the last minute, as it might screw with your travel plans; you need to have flights booked just to apply for the visa, and if you don't get all your documents in on time you could end up having to rebook your journey.

The fabulous Maryse at the Merit Travel near Ottawa U (now closed and moved to 375 Richmond Road) helped get my documents together and sent to the SWAP team in Toronto, who did an initial review before everything was sent to the Japanese Embassy.  Once everything was submitted, all I had to do was wait, and a week before my scheduled departure, everything arrived ready for my journey!  SWAP also gave me a departure kit, which included loads of travel literature on Japan (including the Holy Grail of travel guides, a Lonely Planet), and instructions on how to navigate the bureaucratic process of registering as an alien resident of Japan and extending the visa, if necessary.

I didn't need accommodation in Tokyo since Clem had already rented us an apartment, but the two free nights are great to have if you don't have any connections.  SWAP puts up travellers in a Sakura House hostel, which is convenient as Sakura House is a major company that rents rooms and apartments to foreigners in Japan.  They have tons of things available and are often able to get you into a place within a few days; all you need to do is go to their office and look at places within your desired neighbourhood and budget; you can also browse for apartments on their website before you even leave home.

One thing that makes SWAP Japan different from other destinations is that the Japanese government doesn't allow SWAP to set up a hosting centre in Japan.  So, once you arrive, you're pretty much on your own.  I did email the SWAP office a few times, but most of the information they had was out of date, which ended up causing a few unnecessary trips to the Immigration Bureau.  It is also very difficult to find English-speakers at the ward offices and immigration bureaus, which makes the bureaucracy really difficult to navigate if you don't speak Japanese, or if you don't have a friend to help you out.  I count my blessings that the university assigned Clem a Japanese-speaking "buddy" who came with us to all our bureaucratic appointments and helped us make sure we paid the right fees and filled out the right forms.

Because there is no hosting centre in Japan, there is nobody to give you tips and tricks on job hunting.  I used GaijinPot, which has a very active job board for foreigners, and found it easy enough to use.  A lot of interesting, career-related jobs require at least some Japanese language skills, but there are more teaching jobs than you can shake a stick at.  Some companies are really picky about how your application is put together, so be sure to ask lots of questions if you are unsure of anything!

So, to the point of this post: would I recommend SWAP?  In general, yes.  But for Japan, maybe not; the lack of a hosting centre meant that once I arrived they didn't really do anything for me, and I didn't meet other SWAPpers.  I will say, however, that if you are insanely busy (like I was) in the months leading up to your departure, it is really handy to have someone taking care of the nitty gritty details for you and making sure the process moves quickly.

Have any of you used SWAP for other destinations, or applied for working-holidays on your own?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

xx, C.