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.


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