Life in Japan

Japanese Driver’s License

Since yesterday I’m the proud owner of a Japanese driver’s license!
Despite being in Japan for almost 4 years, I didn’t have any until now.

I thought it might be interesting to read about the process of obtaining a Japanese driver’s license as a foreigner, so I’m gonna share my experience.

In order to be allowed to drive in Japan you need a valid driver’s license that will be acknowledged here. You cannot just use your home country’s driver’s license!!! Be aware of that!

 

International Driver’s License vs Japanese Driver’s License

Be aware that it makes a huge difference whether you’re just a tourist, staying for a short time or an expat who intends to stay a longer time.
What you’ll need in order to be allowed to drive in Japan also depends on your nationality!
Generally speaking, you’ll need an international driver’s license to be allowed to drive in Japan.

However, a few countries have a different agreement and so they cannot even drive with an international driver’s license in Japan!
One of them is Germany! Others are Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland and Taiwan.
International driver’s licenses of those countries are not valid in Japan! Be careful!
In that case you need to get a translation of your license, e.g. at your embassy or JAF.
If you stay longer than a year in Japan, you need to obtain a Japanese driver’s license unless you leave and go back to your home country for more than 3 months and then come back to Japan!

Japanese driver's license

 

How do you obtain a Japanese driver’s license?

I’m writing the following being German, so you might want to check the specific requirements for your country!

Japan has agreements with many countries to make the process of obtaining a Japanese driver’s license easier.
Among those countries are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
If you’re lucky enough to live in one of those countries, then the process is not that difficult (and I’ll write about it in a minute).
Americans on the other hand need to actually take the Japanese driver’s license test which can be quite expensive (300.000-400.000 yen / ~3000-4000$ USD)!!
If you need assistance, check out this website.

Even if you’re one of the lucky ones mentioned above, you might not be able to get a Japanese driver’s license easily.
I hard that you should transfer your driver’s license into a Japanese one within your first year in Japan. If you don’t, then you’ll have to take the Japanese test after all. So, I was really worried that I couldn’t obtain a license easily. :(
Yet I tried.

I’ll tell you about the process now.

Japanese dog driving a car??!! Japanese driver's license!

 

Step 1: Get a translation of your driver’s license:

First of all you’ll need a translation of your driver’s license. Like mentioned earlier you can either get it at your embassy or (much better) via JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation).
I did the latter. It’s much cheaper, too! It’ll cost about 3000 yen and will take 20~120 mins (depending on the type of your license and nationality).
In my case it took almost an hour. I suppose that English driver’s licenses are much more common and thus can be done much quicker. Co-workers from English-speaking countries confirmed that.

 

Step 2: Driver’s License Center (運転免許試験所 or 交通センター)

Find out where the closest center is (just copy and paste one of the above Japanese terms and add your city’s name to it).
Then, I’d suggest calling there first. In my case I had to make an appointment before coming, but I’m sure it’s not like that everywhere.
Also, confirm with them what you need to bring, but it should be the following:

  • translation of your driver’s license
  • ID (most likely your residence card)
  • your passport (or anything else that will prove that you have driven in your home country for more than 3 months)
  • a passport sized photo for the license
  • a lot of time and patience

 

Interview, eye check and watching a video:

At first somebody will interview you.
I’ve heard from others what kind of questions they were asked and each time it seems to be slightly different.

In my case it all started with a completely irrelevant questions anyways.
*Officer checks my passport, knows that I’m German*
*checks my ARC (*nowadays residence card), knows that I teach English*
*hears me talking in Japanese*
He: “Uhm, how many languages do you speak?”
Me: *enumerating*
He: “Uh, I only speak Japanese ..”
Me: “Oh, ok.” *lol*

Anyways, so the questions of the interview will mainly be about how you obtained your license in your home country.
Was there a written test? How many questions were there? How many correct answers were needed to pass?
How many driving lessons did you have?
How long did it take overall to obtain the license?
What are some of the traffic rules in your country? etc.
I think you get the idea.

My interviewer seemed to be surprised that in Germany we start to drive on actual roads RIGHT AWAY!
It seems to be different in Japan.

After the interview he took my ID, the translation and my passport and I had to wait for about 40 mins.
Next, they checked my eyesight.
Then, I was taken to a separate room to watch a video about Japanese traffic rules which took about 20 mins.
It was quite hilarious!
“In Japan we drive on the left side of the road.” …. Say what??!!! *lol*
“Do not try to bribe Japanese police officers! Japanese officers take their duty very seriously!” (the cartoon pictures accompanying it were just too funny!!)

After that I had to fill out some forms, they took another photo of me (for what did I bring mine again??) and after paying 4500 yen, I finally got hold of my driver’s license!
All in all the process took about 2h – which seems to be the standard time.

 

The result:

In short: You can obtain a Japanese driver’s license (*if you’re lucky enough to be from one of the countries mentioned earlier) in about 4h for about 7500 yen! (* back in 2011)

Japanese driver's license, shoshinsha mark, inexperienced driver sticker In the end I was told that I have to put a green/yellow sticker on the front and back of my car for 1 year. It’s called “Shoshinsha mark” (初心者マーク), showing other drivers that you’re still inexperienced. (more about the different car stickers here)
I don’t have a car and I don’t intend to buy one any time soon, but I possibly need the license for my future job(?!) and I also want to be able to rent cars when traveling! (Edit: From 2012-2014 I did own a company car and also used a lot of rental cars.)

Another good thing about having a Japanese driver’s license is that it can be used as ID, so you don’t have to show your residence card! I already did today when opening a new bank account!

And that’s how I obtained my Japanese driver’s license.

At that time I wasn’t aware yet that I would need to renew my Japanese driver’s license regularly …

If you’re a tourist in Japan, then you still need a driving permit for Japan. You can’t drive with your country’s license here. It’s not that difficult to obtain such a driving permit. Also, driving in Japan is not that scary. Sometimes a rental car is the best choice.

40 Comments

  • Your experience getting a license was different than mine. I’m Canadian, so I am also lucky to have an easy way of changing from a Canadian license to a Japanese one. I was required to submit my driving record for the previous 5 years (translated, of course), and it was actually blank. No problems. There was no interview and no video. I did have to answer a few simple questions like when I got my first license, how long I’ve been driving, etc, but only about 3 or 4 questions. Everything else was pretty much the same, except I had to wait 5 hours.

    I’ve done some driving in Japan. Easy to get used to driving on the left side, but not so easy to get through some of the insane traffic jams during rush hour on narrow roads.

    • Hello! :D
      Thank you very much for sharing your experience! :thumbup:
      Why did you have to submit a driving record? Is that common in your country?
      I suppose the requirements are slightly different for each country.

      I’ve never driven with a car that has no gears. I know automatic is gonna be much easier, but it’ll be weird. :mukatsuku:

  • Good for you! The experience does seem really not so bad, other than the patience bit, which one is known to need here even for just a renewal. Interesting you can use the license as proof of ID, like in the US [in France I think you always need your ID card,but I could be wrong].

    To me the problem about driving in Japan is driving on the left. I hated it in Britain, though of course I got used to it. It does take some getting used to.

    • As far as I remember showing your driver’s license ONLY is not enough in Germany either. We always have to carry around ID cards as well.
      Here in Japan, Japanese citizens are not required to carry around any sort of ID, foreigners are.
      This always gets interesting when you have a “half” (a kid with a foreign and a Japanese parent) who don’t look Japanese at all.

      Police officer: “Where’s you ID?”
      Half: “I don’t have it with me, I’m Japanese anyways!!”
      Police officer: “Yeah … sure. Please come to the office with me!!”
      Half: “HUUUH???!!!!” :shock:

      (* I don’t really like the term “half” …)

      I hope driving on the left won’t confuse me too much! (^-^’)

      • We always have to carry around ID cards as well.

        You’re wrong with that. It’s an urban myth in Germany. German law demands that we have to possess an ID card after a certain age (I think it’s 16), but we do not have to carry it around with us all the time. As far as I know, that was only true in pre 1990 West-Berlin due to the special allied status.
        However, anything else but an ID card or passport is usually not excepted as a means to authenticate in Germany though. Grr.

        PS: Bei dieser Gelegenheit: Du hast ein wunderschönes phantastisches Blog! Eine wirkliche Perle des Internets. Weiter so.

        • Hi there!
          I couldn’t find the passage in my post that you were refering to, but in Germany you always have to carry around your ID even if you have the German citizenship.
          In Japan, on the other hand, you don’t! Japanese people don’t have to carry around an ID, but foreigners have to.
          But how can the police tell whether you are Japanese or not? They still think they can do that by just looking at you, but it’s sooooo wrong! :(

          I wonder if they finally changed that, though?! Hmm …

          @P.S.: Vielen lieben Dank!! :D

  • As an American, I did have to take the Japanese driving test. However it was not that expensive, only about $200 (x2, as they generally fail you the first time just because they can. >_<)

    • On of my American coworkers said EXACTLY the same!
      a) it wasn’t that expensive
      b) you’ll definitely fail the first time :huh:

      I guess it can get quite expensive with all the driving lessons etc.??!!

      • Yes, the driving lessons are where the big expenses come up. If you don’t already have a license in your home country then you’ll have to go to driving school. The local driving schools have “specials” for the university students around here and the course only costs about 200000 yen, lol.

        • That’s crazy! Although I think that it’s quite expensive in Germany, too.
          And I have the feeling that it got more expensive since I took the test 12 years ago. :ehno:

          • (I hope this replies to the specific comment I selected xD)

            I had my driving lessons about 4 years ago and it cost me about 1500 Euro for everything. My driver’s school was a bit cheaper than normally because it was a bit outside the city and I also failed the first practical exam…byebye 100€ (;_;)/~ But other than that I just needed a common amount of lessons etc. So I think you can’t really get it much cheaper in Germany.
            It’s pretty expensive here, but it seems A LOT more pricey in Japan!

            I heard in the USA you can get your licence very easily and for like 200 Euro only. I’m not sure if that’s true though. *lol*

      • lol, but not everyone! My husband, brother-in-law, and I all passed on the first try. Different centers, different examiners for us too. But from what I’ve read on the US Embassy’s site, most Americans don’t pass on the first try. I can’t remember, but it’s like less than 10% or something…

  • I did not get the Japanese one as I can use the International one being from Austria. My friend did get it and got the tip to take just one hour of driving instruction before the driving test. You’ll be told pretty much everything they look for. For example she was told that if she just gets into the car without going around it first and checking if everything works fine (lights etc) you fail. If you sit down and don’t adjust the seat and the mirrors you fail. There’s plenty of that, but usually one hour is enough to know what they look for. The actual test afterwards should be easy after that.

    • You’re quite lucky then.
      I guess for people like you who come to Japan to travel quite often, that’s the most convenient option anyways. :D

      Wow, thanks for mentioning that!! :heart:
      I hope some people will read it before paying too much money for lessons! ^-^;
      I wonder if it’s possible to take just ONE lesson despite having a driver’s license, just so that you can practice.
      However, I’m trying to force one of my coworkers to help me out here. :hihi:

  • Of course you can take a lesson even though you have a lesson. Why shouldn’t you be able to! But since you already have your Japanese license driving on actual streets makes a lot more sense :)

  • Interesting! Me being a German as well, had a slightly different experience in Saitama Prefecture (where I lived before).
    They did not question me at all about driving related experiences or how the whole system works in Germany. It was more like “what are you doing in Japan” casual conversation.
    And the surprise, that I am allowed to ride big motorbikes.. hahah

    For my case I also needed to go in the morning, submit papers etc. then wait 2 hours cause they closed over lunch time and then go back there to have eye check etc.
    Also I didn’t have any lesson much, no movie!
    Besides I was not told to put the sticker on my car. :thumbup:

    But a tiring day eating up all my energy.. That’s why my picture on the license looks very stupid. A veeery tired face.. :notamused:

    • That’s interesting! :D
      I guess they cannot afford to spend that much time in bigger offices like in Tokyo or Saitama.
      I guess they get quite a lot foreigners and also Germans, so they probably have heard about the German driver’s license and related tests many times.
      In my prefecture I might have been the first German (in a long time) to get a Japanese driver’s license *lol* :hihi:

      Were you still quite “new” in Japan at that time?
      That would explain why they asked you what you are doing in Japan and all.

      My photo looks horrible, too! :notamused:
      They don’t even wait for you to get ready. It’s like: sit down, smile, SHOT! x___X

    • Thanks for that comment!!
      I will got to Saitamas Center the week after next…
      I’m totally afraid and forced my boyfriend to go with me.. He has to call them for what I need, at what time we have to be there and to translate for me if they ask stupid (or not so stupid) questions.. When I’m afraid or tired I usually don’t understand Japanese anymore >.>
      When we get the same people as you, they will be surprised again.. Wieder eine Deutsche, die große Motorräder fahren darf…
      But after reading all this, I feel a little bit relieved. Thank you!

      • At least you have your boyfriend. I had to handle all these things on my own.
        But if I could do it all alone, then you can definitely do it with the help of your better half.
        Don’t worry and good luck! :D

        Let me know how things worked out for you! ^__^

  • Oh wow, if it’s that easy I’ll go in and get my license this year! (I’m from Canada). I thought I would have to take a test. Actually my Canadian license had expired and I just renewed it today when I came home for the holidays.

    • Well, if you think you need to drive, then you should definitely get a Japanese driver’s license.
      I didn’t need one in 4 years until NOW!!
      I drove quite a bit during my winter vacation and it wasn’t that bad at all. I’m glad I have the option to do it now and in my new job I’ll have to drive every day anyways.

      So you have to renew your driver’s license every now and then?
      The German one never expires! (o__o) :sweatdrop2:

  • Hey :)

    Vielen, vielen Dank für diese Info =D
    Das ist genau die Art Information, die ich super interessant finde, weil sonst nie jemand darüber berichtet. Es wird vielmehr angenommen, dass das jeder für sich alleine herausfinden muss und ich finde es klasse, da schon einen kleinen Einblick zu bekommen :thumbup:
    Ich bin jedenfalls ganz froh, dass ich sowohl einen deutschen, als auch einen spanischen Pass + Führerschein habe, der Prozess also ganz einfach sein sollte :)

    Danke!

    • Hallo Koko! :D

      Danke für deinen lieben Kommentar! Es freut mich, dass meine Beiträge anderen weiterhelfen. Das ist meine Intention, denn ich versuche, Informationen bereitzustellen, die ich damals selbst gerne gehabt hätte, aber erst mühevoll zusammenkratzen musste (^-^) :sweatdrop2:

      Ja, in deinem Fall sollte das wirklich kein Problem darstellen! :thumbup:

  • >If you don’t already have a license in your home country then you’ll have to go to driving school.

    Even if you don’t have a valid foreign license, you don’t have to go to driving school to get a Japanese license…but it helps.

    My Florida (U.S.) drivers license expired about a year after I came to Japan (in 1990) but I transferred it to a Japanese one before it expired…so I’ve have a Japanese license for much longer than I’ve had a U.S. one.

    In fact, if I visit America, I need an International License so that I can use my Japanese license to drive in America (since I haven’t had a U.S. license for years).

    On your Japanese license you’ll see a colored strip. A green strip means “Beginner Driver”, a blue one means “Regular” license, and a gold strip means “Safe Driver”—which makes car insurance cheaper.

    • Oh wow, I guess I’m lucky that my German driver’s license doesn’t expire then, huh?
      Sounds annoying! :sweatdrop2:

      Thanks for the additional information.
      Obviously I have a green strip at the moment. :hum:

  • Great site! Getting a car in Japan is definitely a trick. One thing to be aware of, once you have your license you’ll be required to go to follow up lessons every few years. I got my “green” license about two years ago, and had to go to another two hour class and do some other paperwork to get it upgraded to “green”… in a few more years I’ll have to go back for the “gold” Mostly its just a way to keep Japanese drivers aware of the rules and to hound on the dangers of driving while intoxicated, etc… There’s no grey in a lot of Japanese laws.

    • Hello Benjamin!
      Thank you so much for your comment and compliment about my site! :D

      I’m far away from the “gold” one and probably will leave Japan before I’m eligible to get it.
      Actually I think it’s a good system. In my home country, Germany, you’ll keep your license forever unless you break the traffic rules a few times. There is no expiration date.
      During my interview I could clearly see that they were surprised about it! :hihi:

      On the ohter hand, rules are quite strict in Germany as well. I’d say similar to Japan. Yet we have much more car accidents. Possibly mainly because of our stupid Autobahn (highway without any speed limit …).

  • Thank you for sharing your experiences and congratulations on getting your license!

    I, too, recently switched (免許切り替え) my German license to a Japanese one. More like frosch in Saitama, here in Chiba I was not asked any questions and didn’t have to watch a movie or anything like that. Apparently it really differs from prefecture to prefecture and/or city to city if and what hoops they make you jump through before giving you the license. One way or another, it is a typically Japanese over-bureaucraticized process – albeit not as expensive as it is for our American friends, as we don’t have to take lessons or tests of any kind.

    In case you’re interested, you can find my story here: http://http://blog.nihonnikonni.com/2012/01/25/von-einem-der-auszog-in-japan-auto-fahren-zu-durfen/ (in German)

    • Yes, I guess just like with immigration offices where it depends on the officer in charge, it’s the same here. It’s not the same everywhere – which just makes it impossible to give people good advice about what will happen or what they have to be careful about.

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us! :thumbup:

  • You’re lucky to be from a county that allows the license to be transferred easily. Being an American is a disadvantage in this regard.

    For Americans, it might be worthwhile to consider getting a scooter license, which is somewhat easier to obtain. It’s just a paper test and no road test. I got it in a single day. You can’t drive a car with it, obviously, but a lot of times a scooter is all you need to get around. It also doesn’t require much in the way of insurance, parking spots, and all the other hassles that go along with owning a car. It could be a good option for some people.

    • I guess I was lucky indeed.
      Probably I wouldn’t have gotten a license if I had to do an actual driving test and whatnot.

      That’s a good advice!
      However, when it’s stormy or rainy, I still prefer having a car! :hihi:

  • My experience.
    It took one day, they accepted my German license, translated it themselves, passed me through a vision test, gave me a 2 hours lesson in a rather large class and that was it.
    It turned out that owning a car in Tokyo without owning parking space there was somewhat a significant problem, because rentable parking space mostly was turned into a construction site soon. And wild parking was severly prosecuted. That was in Showa era.
    I really loved my little old Cub though, the best bike for Tokyo at all. It was cheap, years later I paid ten times more for getting caught speeding in a car in Shikoku having forgotten both my licenses in Germany.

    • How many years ago did you obtain your license then?
      I guess things changed a little nowadays?! :D

      I’m not sure if I’d want to have a car if I were to live in central Tokyo.
      I even lived without a car in my previous, rather small city.
      But now I live in the deepest inaka and without a car, I couldn’t even get to work.

      Ouch! ;P

  • Well, I had a similar experience and by reading some of the responses I get the slight impression that women get treated differently, …. how come?