What to Expect at Customs in Japan

by Nicola Spendlove
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Are you an airport stress pot? Even after more years of world travel than I would care to admit, I still manage to convince myself that something innocent in my luggage will get me locked up in a jail cell. I find that getting to know the customs requirements of the countries I visit in advance of my trip puts some of these irrational jitters at ease.

When traveling to any new country, it’s important to be well-versed in what you can and cannot bring through customs. There’s nothing worse than starting or ending your trip with a stressful (and usually entirely avoidable) airport drama. Japanese customs guidelines are very reasonable and similar to most other countries – familiarize yourself with them and you can’t go too far wrong.

Without further ado, feast your eyes on our comprehensive guide to all things customs in Japan. It might not be the most exciting subject to read about, but it could save you a headache at the border!

What to Expect When Entering Japan

You’ve come off a long flight into a completely foreign country, where the time zone is different and everybody speaks a new language. If you’re not used to traveling, this can be an intimidating experience. In order to take some of the worries out of your experience, here’s a blow by blow account of what you can expect when you first arrive in Japan.

The first stop after disembarking the plane is the quarantine counter. More than likely you won’t have to go here, but if you think this applies to you, please continue reading.

This is where your health will be checked to ensure you aren’t bringing any infectious diseases into the country. If you’re coming from a country with an outbreak of infectious disease, you must fill out a form detailing any symptoms you have, and your temperature will be taken using infrared technology. Provided you are in good health, this check is extremely quick. Please note – I have not traveled to Japan since the coronavirus pandemic, and am unsure about what new measures may be in place at the health quarantine desk.

Next is immigration control, where you will present your passport and your disembarkation card (more on that later, don’t worry) to an official. They will take a photograph of you, and your fingerprints. You will be asked some basic questions about why you’re in Japan and how long you intend to stay. In some cases, they might ask for evidence of when you will be leaving – have a screenshot of your return flight details ready to avoid a panicked fumble.

From here, you’ll head to baggage claim. If you’re carrying certified plant or animal products (more details on this later) you will go onto the plant and animal quarantine desk to complete your required inspections. If you have anything to declare (again, more on this later) you will complete your customs inspection. If you have none of the above, you’re free to head into the brave new world of Japan!

Japan Customs Declaration

All visitors to Japan must complete a Declaration of Personal Effects and Unaccompanied Articles form. If you’re coming to Japan on a holiday, just one form will suffice – it needs to account for everything in your suitcase and carry-on.

If you’re moving to Japan, you may also be shipping over additional unaccompanied baggage. In this case, you will need to fill in a second Declaration of Personal Effects and Unaccompanied Articles form. You should also clearly label your shipped luggage as “unaccompanied baggage” and ensure it is shipped within six months of your arrival to ensure smooth passage through customs.

Japan Duty-Free Allowance

Certain items will need to be declared if you are carrying them with you into Japan. For example, if you have a single item that is worth upwards of 200,000 yen this will need to be declared (this might affect you if you’re traveling with an expensive piece of technology, or if you wear a designer watch).

You can bring three 760ml bottles of alcohol with you into Japan – anything more than this you will have to declare upon arrival. This is worth considering if you’re visiting someone in Japan and bringing gifts – it can be very easy to unknowingly exceed the allowed amount if you’re bringing fancy whiskey or gin as a thank you present for your hosts.

You must declare cash in excess of one million yen – this includes traveler’s cheques. If you’re someone who likes to convert their money to local currency in advance of their trip, make sure you don’t exceed this amount – besides the headache of customs, carrying this much cash is a major security risk.

You can bring up to 400 individual cigarettes and up to 2 fluid ounces of perfume through Japanese customs undeclared.

For essential items such as toiletries and clothing, you can bring reasonable quantities of these across the border duty-free. Reasonable quantities generally mean about two months’ supply. If you are staying in Japan for more than a year, you can reasonable quantities of household effects for personal use (think furniture and appliances) duty-free.

If you exceed these amounts, you must document this on your customs declaration upon entry. You will likely have to pay a customs tax on excess items.

Items You Can’t Bring Into Japan

Food And Drinks

Certain food items are restricted by Japanese customs – see the below section for further information on this.

Medication And Drugs

Certain medications are also restricted by Japanese customs due to strict laws around medicines. Do your research before packing your first aid kit, as many common Western drugs are illegal in Japan. You can find more information on this here.

If you use prescription drugs, check that none of your prescriptions use ingredients that are illegal in Japan – if they do, you can source a legal equivalent in a pharmacy as soon as you land. If your prescription drugs are legal, you will need to fill in a Yakkan Shoumei in advance of your trip – this explains to customs your reason for carrying the drug. Please note that this also applies to elective prescriptions like contraceptive pills and contact lenses.

Illegal Drugs

You are obviously not allowed to bring illegal narcotics or related paraphernalia into Japan. It’s unlikely that you’ll even get through security in your home country with these – but believe me, if you do, the law will come down on you a lot harder in Japan.

Exotic Items

You aren’t allowed to bring items made from endangered animals into Japan – for example, fur clothing made from the coat of an endangered animal. If you’re a big fur wearer and are unsure of what constitutes endangered, you can search your furs under this database.

Counterfeit Items

You cannot bring counterfeit designer items with you into Japan – even if they’re clearly just for personal use. This is considered to be in violation of the designer’s intellectual property and will result in the item being seized from you. If you have large quantities of fake designer goods, you may be subject to further questioning and will likely have to pay a fine.

If you attempt to bring counterfeit money or counterfeit credit cards across the Japanese border, you will be immediately arrested – with good reason. Again, not sure why you would attempt to bring these, but good to be clear.

Animals And Pets

Pets obviously aren’t an item, they’re beloved and saintly creatures of whom we are not worthy, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll list them under the restricted items heading. There are very strict procedures for bringing pets into Japan – you can read this article for more details.

Pornography

You cannot bring “immoral materials” through customs in Japan. This includes uncensored pornography in all forms – videos, magazines, photographs etc. If you attempt to bring this in with you, it will be seized. In serious situations, for example, if you were in possession of child pornography, the consequences would obviously be much larger.

Firearms And Weapons

You can’t bring a firearm or bullets with you into Japan – regardless of whether or not you hold a license for it. Why on earth this would be on your must-pack list for your holiday I have no idea, but everybody’s idea of a good time is different so we’ll clarify that one nice and loud.

Food You Can’t Bring Into Japan

There are certain foods that you are restricted or completely prohibited from bringing into Japan.

Processed Food

You can bring in highly processed foods to Japan without issues – snacks like chocolate or chips are completely fine to bring into the country, and there is no limit on how many you can bring (though you might be stopped if you have so many snacks that you’re suspected of trying to open a snack shop!)

Organic Food

For vegetables or plants, you will need a valid phytosanitary certificate from your home country and will also need to present for inspection at the plant and animal quarantine counter upon your arrival in Japan. If you brought fruit or vegetables on the airplane as a snack, ensure that you have either eaten or disposed of it before you arrive in Japan.

Certain common plant foods are completely illegal to bring into Japan – including avocado and cashew nuts. For a full list of foods, you cannot bring through customs see here.

Meat And Animal Products

If you are bringing in meat or animal products to Japan (animal products includes honey!) you will need to obtain an inspection certificate in advance from your home country, and will also need to present at the plant and animal quarantine counter for inspection upon your arrival in Japan.

Again, be sure that any animal products you have brought on the plane for a snack (think sandwiches with meat or cheese fillings, jerky, or yogurts) have either been consumed or disposed of before you touch down in Japan.

Point of Embarkation Japan

When both entering and leaving Japan, you will be required to fill in a point of embarkation or disembarkation card. This will be provided to you on the plane.

This asks basic questions such as your name, flight number and purpose of visit. You will present this at immigration.

What Can You Bring Back from Japan?

Food

While Japanese customs are generally happy for you to leave the country carrying food products purchased in Japan, countries like the US have tight restrictions on what you can bring past the border.

Again, processed foods are fine – tinned foods, teas, sake, or Japanese snacks (for some shopping ideas check out this article) are all good to bring into the US. However, plants and meat/animal products are strictly monitored – many are outright banned from the US, even the following disinfection. Err on the side of caution and stick to sweet snacks if you’re determined to bring back an edible reminder of your travels.

There are restrictions around importing live animals from Japan into the US, you can read this article for more details.

Technology

For fans of technology, Japan is a haven – it is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Beware though, there are certain pieces of tech that you must declare if you want to bring them from Japan to the US. Certain types of ultra-high-performance personal laptops are export regulated, for example. This means you will have to fill in an application at the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry before your departure, and you will have to present your computer at airport customs. If you’re going on a gadget shopping spree during your trip, be sure to check the policies for exporting your new tech — leaving something so expensive behind at the airport would be a heartbreaking end to your Japanese odyssey.

Firearms

If you happened to have a permit to purchase and own a gun in Japan, but want to take it with you overseas, you must apply for an export permit with the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry in order to leave Japan with it. You must present the gun at customs, along with your permit, your passport, and any bullets you got with the gun.

Swords

If you’re fascinated by traditional Japanese swords and want to bring one home with you as a souvenir, it’s a bit of a labor of love. You will need an export permit for your sword, and in order to obtain this, you will need an official license to own the sword (torokusho) that can be only be issued following an inspection of the sword (shinsa). Even if you begin these proceedings the day you purchase your sword, you can still expect to wait a few weeks for your torokusho to be processed – by which point you will probably have left Japan. Your best bet is to ask a friend or agency to follow up on the export permit at this point and get it to you via post.  If you’ve bought a rare sword you may be blocked completely from bringing it out of Japan – be sure to check with the seller that it is eligible for export.

A way to get around all this sword-related red tape is to opt for a training sword, or laito. These are made of aluminium and can be freely exported from Japan (though be prepared to be questioned at airport security). The laito obviously isn’t as powerful as the real thing, but looks just as cool in a display case – and one would certainly hope that you’re not buying the sword with the intention of causing actual harm.

Designer Items

You cannot bring knock-off designer goods out of Japan – customs are very strict on this as it is considered a form of fraud. Think twice before purchasing fake bags or sunglasses at market stalls – it’s not a great bargain if you can’t bring it with you.

Enjoy!

Above all, enjoy your trip to Japan. The customs rules are clearly explained – nobody is trying to catch you out, and if you’re unsure about any item in your luggage you can always just ask before going to the airport about whether or not it’s likely to pose an issue. The Japanese are generally an extremely friendly and helpful bunch who will be more than willing to put your mind at ease.

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