If you plan a trip to Japan, but even more if you want to live here, you might need a (rental) car.
However, you’re not allowed to drive a car in Japan with the driver’s license of your home country!
Depending on your nationality you might either need an international driver’s license or a translation of your driver’s license.
If you live in Japan, then both options will not work out in the long run. You need to get a “Japanese Driver’s License“. But don’t think you’re over with it, once you obtained the Japanese driver’s license. Actually, it needs to be renewed regularly!
I’ve had my Japanese driver’s license for 2 years now, so it was time to renew it for the first time.
I found the process quite interesting and want to share my experience with you. And if you ever need to renew your Japanese driver’s license in the future, at least you’ll know what’s ahead of you:
1. Three Types of Driver’s Licenses
There are different types of driver’s licenses in Japan depending on your age and “driving history”. Each type has its own color:
This is the license a beginner (初心者) will receive. It’s also the license you get when you transfer your foreign license into a Japanese one. It is valid for 2 years + until your birthday comes up. So, if you’re lucky, you can have that license for almost 3 years.
This is the regular license (一般運転者) which you’ll obtain once you renewed your “green license”.
Also, people who didn’t obey traffic rules and got more than 3 penalty points have the blue-colored license. But in that case it’s called “driver with violations” license (違反運転者).
The blue license is valid for 3 years.
Only people who have more than 5 years of driving experience without any violation of traffic rules will get the “excellent driver‘s license” (優良運転者) which is valid for 5 years each time.
The validation time differs if you’re over 70 years old, but as I doubt that this applies to any of my readers, I’ll skip those regulations. It would make things just more complicated.
Violation of Traffic Rules
If you were caught breaking the traffic rules or if you were involved in an accident, you won’t go through the standard process I describe here. No matter how old you are or how many years of driving experience you have, you will fall back into the “blue license” category. In extreme cases, your license might be taken from you for a long time or you might end up in jail.
Despite this strict system, I have the feeling that a lot of Japanese do not care too much about traffic rules.
Pictures used in this entry are copyrighted by the Japanese Driver’s License Centers.
2. Applying For A New License
The time frame for the renewal of your driver’s license is 1 month before to 1 month after your birthday. Shortly before that period starts, you’ll receive a postcard from the local “Driver’s License Center”. In big letters you’ll find the following kanji on it: 運転免許証更新 (unten-menkyoshou-koushin = renewal of driver’s license).
The postcard will tell you where and when you can go and what you have to bring.
Where To Go:
You can either go to the nearest “Driver’s License Center” and receive your new license on the same day (but expect long waiting times) or visit a local police department – which I did. In that case, you’ll have to wait about a month for your new license. In the meantime you are allowed to drive with your old one.
The application process took me less than 30 mins as there were almost no other people around. Living in the countryside can be great!
What To Bring:
You’ll have to take that postcard, your hanko (name stamp), a ballpen, current driver’s license, glasses / contact lenses (if used for driving) and some money with you.
I’m not sure if the amount of money is the same everywhere, but I had to pay a total of 4000 yen.
What To Do:
You pay the money and fill out the required documents. Then, there’s a short examination of your eyesight and they’ll take a photo for the new license.
They’ll hand out a receipt, some documents, information pamphlets and tell you when you can come back for a safety lesson and when to pick up your new driver’s license. If you didn’t apply at a police station, but went to a driver’s license center, you’ll have the lesson on the same day and can go home with your new license afterwards.
3. Traffic Safety Lesson: Sit, Listen And Learn
If you’re renewing your license for the first time – like me – you’ll have to attend a 2h-lesson. The length of the safety lecture depends on your “driving history” and “license level“:
- Renewing from green to blue: – 2h safety lesson
- Renewing from blue to gold: – 1h safety lesson
- Renewing from gold to gold: – 30 mins safety lesson
- In case of traffic rules violation: 2h safety lesson
Please note: If you choose to apply at a police department and not at a driver’s license center, you should wait about a month before you attend one of the lessons, so that you can pick up your driver’s license on the same day. Otherwise you’ll have to go three times: First time to apply, second time for the lesson and third time to get your new license.
The Lesson’s Content:
It seems that the lesson’s content depends on the teacher you’ll get. In my case we were briefed on new traffic rules for bicycles.
The Japanese driver’s license has the same format as a credit card. We were informed that there have been some changes recently. It’s thicker than the previous one, there’s an IC chip with all your information on it and on the back you can agree to donate your organs.
The teacher also told us how many points each party gets in case of an accident, but that was rather complicated.
I heard a lot of people just sit and watch videos for 2h, but we only watched a short video.
One thing that I found kind of hilarious is that it doesn’t matter whether you drive while being drunk or overworked. You’ll get the same amount of points!! It makes perfect sense, but I’m sure that this specific rule only exists in Japan!?
Another thing that I’ll never understand is “seatbelt rules” in Japan. When I moved to Japan in early 2008, you didn’t even have to use your seatbelt when sitting in the back of a car!! They changed that law in June 2008. Far too late if you ask me.
I often see little kids jumping and crawling around in cars, when in fact, they should sit in the back on a child seat, not able to move around. Japanese parents should act responsibly and think about the safety of their own kids!
On the other hand, people in my home country are allowed to drive as fast as they can on the highway. If you drive 200km/h+, and have an accident, it doesn’t really matter anymore if you have fastened your seatbelt or not …
4. Congratulations! You Are The Owner Of A Shiny New Driver’s License
After the lesson, you’re good to go. You’ll get your new driver’s license and if you obey traffic rules, you won’t have to come back until the next renewal in three years (blue license) is due. After that it’s 5 years (gold license) .
These rules seem to change over time, so in 3-5 years the procedure of renewing your license might be different. I can imagine that it also differs a bit from prefecture to prefecture.
The whole process, especially the traffic safety lesson, was very interesting for me.
However, I was the oldest in the room as everybody else probably got their license when they were 18 – and now, 2-3 years later, they renewed it. I obviously got my Japanese driver’s license when I was MUCH older.
I was also the only foreigner. The teacher spoke fast and with a strong dialect (typical for the Kansai region), but I managed to understand almost everything. I suppose the situation would be a bit different in bigger cities.
In the end, I got my new driver’s license and I (hopefully) don’t have to worry about anything for the next three years.
5. Regularly Renewing Your License – A Good Idea?
I hope you found this article interesting. I know that the majority of you doesn’t have to worry about renewing a driver’s license you don’t even have. However, for those of you who plan to live in Japan in the future, it’s important to know about these things.
I’d love to hear your opinion and experience:
- Was it completely different when you renewed your driver’s license?
- Do people have to renew their license in your country?
- Do you think renewing a license is a good idea or just a waste of money and time?