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Introduction to investing as a U.S. citizen residing in Japan

[meta: I ask for help in making sure this information is accurate and correct. Please contribute as you see fit!]
WARNING!! I am not a lawyer, accountant, or broker, nor do I have any experience or training in any of those fields. ALWAYS confirm with a professional before taking any advice you read on the internet.
Foreward
If you're old enough to pay taxes, you should start investing. The earlier, the better.
Here’s another example to illustrate the enormous benefit of getting an early start. At age 25, Eric Early invests $4,000 per year in a Roth IRA for 10 years and stops investing. His total investment is $40,000. Larry Lately makes yearly deposits of $4,000 in his Roth IRA starting at age 35 for 30 years. His total investment is $120,000. Assuming both portfolios earn an 8 percent average annual return, at age 65, Eric’s IRA will be worth $629,741, but Larry’s IRA will be worth only $489,383. By starting 10 years earlier and making one third of the investment, Eric ends up with 29 percent more.
- quote from "The Boglehead's Guide to Investing"
Target audience
This is an introduction for U.S. citizens with residency in Japan who want to do long-term investing in U.S. equity (stocks, bonds, etc.).
Disclaimer
This advice may not be accurate for citizens of countries other than the U.S. or for those U.S. citizens living in Japan who work for the military or are only temporarily living and working in Japan as affiliated with a U.S. company. This is also not advice for ForEx or day traders looking to make money. Nor is it advice for what to invest in. This is also not advice for investing in the Japanese stock market.
This is just one way to invest in U.S. equity from Japan. There are other ways.
Assumptions
  • You're a U.S. citizen
  • Your income is in JPY
  • You want to invest in U.S. equity (stock market, bond market, etc)
  • You have basic knowledge about taxes and tax-related terms
  • You have at least $10,000 USD to invest (or $3,000 USD if age 25 or younger)
Background
I am an ordinary guy living in Japan. I have disposable income and, rather than pour all of it into my local izakaya and Philipino hookers (who hang out in front of Mister Donut at night and ask if I "want the massage?" (just kidding, really!)), I wanted to invest in my future by saving for retirement. I'm an early 30's-year-old guy and spent about a month reading up on investing and then set off trying to invest as a resident of Japan.
My Story
I moved to Japan 3 years ago after working in the U.S. I have an IRA leftover from my time in the U.S., but never contributed to it since moving to Japan (thankfully - find out why in a bit). I recently saw a post from /personalfinance (seriously, go read information in that sub if you want to have more money upon retirement or just get out of debt!) and decided to read the book "The Boglehead's Guide to Investing" based on recommendations there. After that, I started looking into my options for investing from Japan.
Before I left the U.S. for Japan, I rolled over my 401k into an IRA using Vanguard (arguably the best broker available for U.S. citizens). Since moving to Japan, I had not contributed anything to my IRA. So, the first thing I wanted to do was start contributing to my IRA again, and use any remainder to invest in U.S. equity. Turns out this is not as easy as it sounds.
I found out that in order to legally contribute to my IRA, I had to pay U.S. taxes on my income used to contribute to it. Well, if you're like me and don't make an awful lot of money, you're probably filing with Foreign Tax Credit/IRS Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. This stuff basically let's you deduct all your taxes in Japan, as it on Japanese income and you already paid glorious Nippon taxes on that income. For me, this basically meant that I owed the IRS absolutely nothing every year. Great! Right? Buuuuut since I didn't pay any U.S. tax on my income, I cannot use it to contribute to my IRA! Dammit! (But actually a blessing in disguise because if I had been contributing to my IRA, I would have been breaking U.S. tax law because I didn't pay taxes on it.)
So, I started looking into other ways to invest: the U.S. stock market, bonds, etc. After reading The Boglehead's Guide, I knew I wanted to invest in Vanguard's mutual index funds. My first instinct was to open a brokerage account (which is different from your IRA account) with Vanguard. I started filling out the online form, but ran into issues. You have to specify a U.S. address. Also, you have to specify your U.S. employer. I had neither of these, so I called Vanguard (from Japan at a ridiculous call charge) and spoke with someone about doing this. They gave me the OK but said I'd have to submit a paper form through snail mail, and sent me a PDF to fill out and mail in. I mailed it (from Japan using EMS which was like $20..), and got a call about a week later. Surprise! Because I'm not working in Japan temporarily for a U.S. company or living on a U.S. military base (considered U.S. soil, I assume?), I actually can't open a brokerage account with them. Dammit again! What a waste of money calling them and mailing the form overseas.
So, I started looking into other options. I read about a few other brokers and most people agreed that I should either use Fidelity or Interactive Brokers. I had never heard of Interactive Brokers and honestly they seemed scary at first, so I decided to go with Fidelity, who I had actually heard of and is a U.S. based firm. I created an account with Fidelity, but once again ran into roadblocks when trying to open a stock trading account. I didn't have a U.S. address or employer, and actually wasn't able to link my U.S. bank account with them either (for reasons unknown). Dammit once again!
So, I started reading more about Interactive Brokers. Okay, it's still a little scary, but there are positive reports about using them online. I signed up for an account with minimal hassle, linked up my bank account, was able to transfer money over to them, and then successfully bought U.S. shares! Sweet success! Finally!

How to Invest

Part I: Contributing to your IRA
If you do not have an IRA, you probably should, as they are your basic investment option and tax-friendly to boot. However, good luck setting one up as a resident in Japan! Vanguard will happily babysit an IRA you opened prior to leaving the U.S., but they will not let you open a new one with a foreign address. I don't know about other brokers such as Fidelity or Schwabb, but it's probably the same story there.
If you are like me and happen to have an IRA leftover in the U.S., you CAN contribute to it, but in order to do so you must not deduct your Japanese tax on your IRS 1040 or file Form 1116, "Foreign Tax Credit". In other words, you must pay U.S. taxes on any income used to contribute to the IRA.
Refer to your broker for how to actually get the money to them from Japan.
Part II: Investing in U.S. Equity from Japan
Using Interactive Brokers
First, let me tell you a little bit about Interactive Brokers (IB). They are a service mostly used by regulaprofessional traders. The fees are very low and reasonable. However, they have a service charge of $10/month if your commission is equal to or less than $10 USD in that month. This is probably not a problem for people over 25 years old investing with $10,000+ USD, but for people 25 and under with an initial investment of $3000, it's possible you might not make the minimum commission per month. Beware of this fee.
IB lets you fund the account from many different currencies, regardless of what market you are buying (this needs confirmation, but seems to be accurate). So, whether you have a U.S. bank account or a Japanese bank account, you can fund the IB account. You can even fund from both.
IB does not let you invest in U.S. mutual funds. This sounds like a deal-breaker, but it's actually not. You can still invest in U.S. ETFs. This includes Vanguard's total stock market index ETF, total bond market index ETF, etc.
IB has an iPhone app that is pretty good and probably an Android app too. Although, as someone doing long-term investing for retirement, you probably don't need this and don't want to be checking your account too much (refer to /personalfinance as to why).
IB has multiple account types. You will probably see IBLLC and IBSJ. The differences are two-fold: First: an IBSJ is only used to trade Japan domestic equity. You don't want this because you want to trade U.S. equity. Instead, IBLLC is used to trade overseas (U.S. equity). Second: as of 2016, IBJS requires your My Number information, but IBLLC does not. Again, you don't want IBJS, so don't worry about the My Number information.
Open a "Japan Resident Individual Account for IBLLC" account online. This is a lengthy process. Make sure you have the required information.
  • You will need to send info about your current address in Japan, your 在留カード (zairyuu/"gaijin" card), job information, bank account information, and so on. I got confused and sent my My Number card information as well, but this only caused a hiccup in their process and I was told to remove it. Don't submit your My Number information.
  • You need to choose your base currency. Your base currency determines what currency you trade in and receive dividends/money from selling in. I think you need to specify USD here, but not sure. I chose USD because U.S. stocks are in USD and I used my U.S. bank account to intially fund my account. It may not matter, but this needs confirmation.
  • You need to specify that you have trading experience. I forget the actual numbers you need to put into the form, but make sure you put enough experience that allows you to trade ETFs overseas. You can fiddle with the numbers right there in the form, and options open up as you change the numbers. Play with it until it's just right. This part is hazy, and just seems to be some safeguards for IB so that new investors can't sue/blame IB for their own trading stupidity when they lose all their money. If you really don't have any experience trading, IB offers virtual "fake" accounts you can use to play around with trading. I suggest you try it.
After about a week you should have your new account. The next step is funding it, or you may have selected to fund it up front when you created the account so it may already be done. Anyway, the easiest way is to have IB request the wire transfer from your bank. I did this. It was really annoying, but it took about another week or so to go through. Beware that you probably can't start buying right away and need to wait for the transfer to clear.
Congratulations! You're ready to start buying now. Refer to /personalfinance in what to invest in. Remember that you are limited to buying ETFs and a few other things, and not mutual funds (but you can get their ETF equivalents).
Using
TBD... (anyone want to fill this out?)
Part III: Taxes
You need to declare and pay taxes on your dividends and any capital gains you make. Beware.
TBD... (this is arguably the most important part, but I just don't have time to go into it now. Someone feel free to help!)
TL;DR: Open an account with Interactive Brokers online and buy ETFs.
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