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This month Japan eased re-entry procedures for foreign nationals with residence permits, allowing them to travel more freely for pleasure and business, as part of the nation’s phased reopening of its borders while maintaining efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.

From November, the government revised its travel ban list, which now covers 152 countries and regions, with the additions of Jordan and Myanmar and the removal of 11 from the list, including Australia, China and South Korea, where the coronavirus is considered to be relatively under control.

The strict travel restrictions covering non-Japanese residents have been gradually relaxed in response to growing criticism from Japan’s international community and global business groups, which have called for equal treatment of those with legal permission to reside in the country.

But even with the most recent changes to border control measures that came into effect on Sunday, there are growing concerns that unclear and strict requirements will continue to put non-Japanese residents at risk of deportation if conditions for re-entry permission are not met.

Here is a guide to help people navigate re-entry procedures and clarify requirements for returning foreign residents.

Conditions for re-entry

All non-Japanese returning from areas covered by travel restrictions need to undergo specific tests for COVID-19 in accordance with Japan’s guidelines prior to their return flight. Upon arrival, they will be asked to submit proof of negative tests from any of several listed types of tests for the coronavirus performed before coming to Japan. The government has said people may be denied entry if they fail to comply.

Only negative results for molecular diagnostic tests conducted via nasopharyngeal swab, saliva samples using the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction method (RT-PCR) or loop-mediated isothermal amplification method (LAMP), or an antigen test using the chemiluminescence enzyme immunoassay (CLEIA) method, will be recognized as valid. Such tests need to be conducted within 72 hours prior to departure. Documents confirming the procedure need to be filled out entirely in English and need to be signed by a doctor from the medical institution where the test was conducted or have the institution’s stamp. Officials suggest using the certification form for COVID-19 tests that can be found on the Justice Ministry’s website.

In principle, all returnees from regions covered by the travel restrictions are still required to undergo tests for COVID-19 upon arrival and self-isolate for 14 days, during which they are not allowed to use public transportation.

The requirements of pre-entry testing and tests upon arrival will not apply to residents returning to Japan from countries that are not subject to entry restrictions under the condition they had no recent record of visits to countries still on the travel ban list. Japan lifted such restrictions for Australia, China, Brunei, Hong Kong, Macao, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Government officials have said, however, that those places may be added to the list again if the epidemic situation there worsens.

Returnees do not need to take a direct flight to Japan as long as they do not complete landing procedures at their transfer points.

Japan Airlines employees at the departure area in Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture | REUTERS
Japan Airlines employees at the departure area in Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture | REUTERS

Re-entry permission

Following the most recent changes to the entry procedures, which were initially introduced in April to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, non-Japanese residents will no longer need to apply for permission to re-enter the country.

Starting in September, all non-Japanese residents of Japan were required to share their travel plans with immigration officials prior to their trip abroad and to obtain a document confirming they are allowed to re-enter. The government scrapped this requirement on Sunday.

Additionally, residents with valid residence permits who left before the pandemic and have not yet returned will also be granted permission to re-enter without being subjected to any review of the reasons for their travel to Japan. They will no longer be required to apply to immigration authorities for documents confirming that they are allowed to re-enter the country. The procedure, which was in place since September, was scrapped on Sunday.

Business travel

Foreign nationals with valid residence statuses in Japan can also apply for re-entry permission under guidelines for business travelers.

Short-term business travelers with residence permits in Japan as well as Japanese nationals can seek re-entry without quarantining upon return to Japan, regardless of their travel destination. But the exemption will only apply to those who travel abroad on business for seven days or less. If the traveler is required to undergo a mandatory quarantine at the travel destination, the quarantine period will not be counted as part of the business trip.

A flight arrival information board at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture. Foreign nationals with valid residence statuses in Japan can apply for re-entry permission under guidelines for business travelers. | BLOOMBERG
A flight arrival information board at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture. Foreign nationals with valid residence statuses in Japan can apply for re-entry permission under guidelines for business travelers. | BLOOMBERG

However, returnees requesting such an exemption will need to have their employer or the visa sponsor sign off on a document assuring that the traveler seeking re-entry will abide by all safety regulations during their trip and upon return. This means that the employer will be required to assure that the travelers won’t use public transportation and that they will report their health condition to the authorities during the 14-day period upon returning to Japan. Residents traveling for seven days or less will also need to submit their itinerary for their first two weeks in Japan if they wish to skip the quarantine period.

Business travelers are asked to submit proof they tested negative for COVID-19 prior to their return to the country. But those traveling for seven days or less can instead undergo tests for COVID-19 upon arrival.

Expired re-entry permissions

Returnees can seek re-entry permission even if their visa or re-entry permit has expired during their stay abroad.

The Justice Ministry announced earlier this year that non-Japanese residents who left before the end of August but were unable to return before the period of validity of their re-entry permits expired would also be able to seek re-entry under special circumstances described as humanitarian reasons.

The Immigration Services Agency has said that people whose re-entry permits expired after they left Japan temporarily will be issued a certificate of eligibility (CoE), a document confirming they meet the conditions for arrival and are eligible for a visa. To receive the CoE, those who are planning to re-enter must complete procedures at their nearest Japanese Embassy or consulate.

The arrangement for people with expired re-entry permits also covers those whose visas expired completely while they were abroad and people with valid residence cards who were exempted from obtaining an ordinary re-entry permit but were not able to come back to Japan within a year of their date of departure.

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