Life in Japan

Renewing Your Japanese Driver’s License

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:

Green License:

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.

Blue License:

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.

Gold License:

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.

Renewing Japanese Driver's License

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.

Renewing Japanese Driver's License Renewing Japanese Driver's License

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. smilie

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. smilie

 

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?

28 Comments

  • Hi!
    Thanks for sharing your experience!
    I got my japanese licence last year.
    Didn’t start with beginners green but with blue. And don’t have to use the “beginner signs” on the car. Renewal is after 3 years, so I have a lot of time left. Or perhaps.. One day before I got my japanese licence, the police stopped me during work. Now, a few months later, they called me but I couldn’t understand the officer. So perhaps they want to tell me, I got points and have to attend the safety lesson? I’m waiting for the next call..
    All that happened in Saitama. My renewal I have to do in another prefecture. Will share my experience then :)

    • Hey, Anika!
      Thanks a lot for sharing your story.
      How come you got to start out with the blue license right away?

      I remember the teacher said something about receiving points and then getting a postcard or a call, but I really can’t remember what exactly he told us. Sorry! T_T

      Well, as long as it’s less than 3 points, you’ll get the gold license next time! ;)
      Can’t wait to hear about your experience then! ^___^

      • Perhaps, it’s because I had my German licence for already 10 years? Or the people at Saitamas Driving Center are really kind!
        Although the police officer told me, he would call once again, I didn’t received a second call till now. And also no postcard arrived.
        So I will wait till the renewal if I get a gold licence or not ^_-

        • I had my license for over 10 years as well (actually for 14 years) by the time I got my Japanese driver’s license, so I doubt it has anything to do with that.
          But I’ve been in Japan for 4 years without driving before I applied, so maybe that could be a reason.
          Did you get your Japanese driver’s license shortly after you had moved to Japan?

  • I hear from friends in Okinawa that the license renewal process is quite different if you know the right people. maybe the mainland is different and all of the police and civil servants play exactly by the rules,,, or maybe not?! Cute cartoon illustrations in any case! :thumbup:

    I know the “getting-around-the-rules” happens here in the US because I saw it firsthand when a visiting oilman got a drivers license from the state of Texas even though he wasn’t a resident in that state. He just happened to know the governor of the state and went golfing with him. Usually those rules are just for us peons and the righteous pious few…LOL! At least you didn’t try to outrun a police lady on a scooter like Ken did (that must be worth 5 points or more fer sure) :ehehe: !

  • Hi Jasmine. Thanks for your interesting report on renewing the drivers license. I’m glad that we don’t have this here in Germany. Although I think it would be a good thing for older people to have a test if they can still drive their car. I remember sitting next to my grandpa in the car when he was driving in snake lines on the street and I was like “Whoa, omg! I hope I survive this!” And you know old people, they would always tell you “Hey, I can still drive.” :D

    • I see those elderly people and their driving style every single day here in Japan. Even without the orange sticker, I know how old they are.
      I agree that it makes sense for elderly people, but as long as young drivers don’t cause any trouble, I don’t see the point.
      I guess it’s also a way for the police to make some more money? After all, taxes are much lower here in Japan – compared to Germany.

  • As an Aussie in Japan it is quite easy for us to get a Japanese Driver’s License as our country has a special agreement with Japan. No practical or written test is required and it is just a matter of translating your home country license. You need your passport and must be able to prove that you have held your home country license for at least three months. All I had to do was take a basic eye test and got my new license straight away. I’m currently on a GOLD license.

    • The same goes for German citizens. I’ve described the rather easy process of obtaining a Japanese Driver’s License in our case here.

      That being said, we still have to renew our license like everybody else.

      Congratulations! I hope that one day I’ll be the owner of a GOLD license as well. I would have one, if I started driving in Japan right away. But I rode a bicycle in my first 4 years in Japan. ^__^;;

  • I’ve been thinking about getting a license lately, since I first moved to Japan when I was 18 I didn’t really have the time and/or funds to obtain one in Germany, so I’ll have to do the whole process in Japanese (I should be fine).

    As you know I work at a Japanese kindergarten, so I see tons of kids not strapped in properly every day and it gives me the chills. They only drive around the country side, so maybe they think it’s alright, but they only need to hit the breaks very hard one time and their children will fly through the windscreen…

    • I really don’t get why Japanese parents seem so careless when it comes to safety within the car.
      Do they REALLY think it’s not dangerous at all? :( ….

      Oh, and good luck in obtaining a Japanese Driver’s License. Can’t wait to read about your experience! ^____^

  • I am from Poland and this is crazy because friends from Germany got the same EU driving license..but looks like Poland did not sign final agreement. Anyway to get my Japanese driving license I have to pass short test about 14 Q and driving exam like everybody else.
    On renewal (expiration date is always your birthday + 1 month so it is easy to remember) I was watching for 2h movie – mostly recordings from Taxi camera`s. There was lots of accidents and in my opinion Taxi drivers are very poor drivers – no surprise when average age is 65. Instructor asked not to sleep, play games on mobile phones, read books during the movie. Guy next to me was listening music all the time. At the end there was test – 20 questions. Of course only in Japanese, everybody solved it in 5 min, when I was reading 6th question…What I found out later, that test was just only reminder of rules, no need to put my name on it, just random fill in and give it back. That`s why everybody was so quick. After that speed run to make photo, pay renewal fee, register PIN numbers and after 15 min got my renewed driving license.

    • Hey, Marek!

      Yeah, only a few nationalities can have the easier / faster way of obtaining a Japanese driver’s license. I’m so glad that Germany is one of them.
      It’s such a waste of money and time if you have to go through the whole process in Japan. :(

      Thanks for sharing your own experience! :)

  • I am interested to know how to renew a Japanese driving license if you are living overseas and want to keep you license valid without coming back to Japan to do it?

    • Jas, that’s a very good question.
      Actually I want to know that, too. ;)
      I wonder if it’s possible even IF you return to Japan as long as you don’t have an address in Japan?!? (T_T)

  • Hello,

    I got my drivers license from Japan 2 years ago and it’s good for another year (LUCKY!!! ;D) but I have left Japan. I will be returning to Japan in a few years time and don’t want to have to go through the driving test again (got it on the first try but the timing in the area I’ll be living in is a little annoying). Do you need to prove residency when renewing your license? I want to make a trip out to Japan in January 2017 (H29) and want to know if it would be viable to renew my license even if I can’t prove citizenship.

    Thanks a million for the help.

    Leigh

  • Hey! Thank you for your article!
    I’m Canadian and same as Australia, it’s just a simple process without any tests WAHOO! My license is lost…. its been reported to the police — and looking at an old photo of it, it expires sooon… and I don’t particularly want to renew it quite yet (I just don’t have the money since we have a baby coming). Does anyone know what I do?

  • Hi,

    I’m a permanenet resident of Japan but have been away now for a couple of years. I won a place in Japan but do not live there currently. My license is due to expire in January next year. I will come back to renew it but wondering if I need to be listed as a domicile with the city hall to be able to renew?

    • That’s actually something I would like to know as well.
      If I ever move back to Japan this will happen to me as well and then I’ll use that chance to ask them about it and write a post about it. ;)

  • I am writing for a student in the US. She is from Japan and here for school but about to graduate and may stay in the states for a year or so. Her Japanese license expires before she graduates in May of 2017. Is there any way she can get her Japanese license renewed in the US or does she have to be in Japan?

    • Sorry Zina, I have no idea.
      But if she’s Japanese, she can easily just call her embassy or her parents and figure it out herself, right?
      I think she needs to be in the country.
      But even if it expries, it shouldn’t be a problem. She can always get a new one once she’s back in Japan and as long as she’s outside of Japan, she doesn’t need one anyway, right?

      Maybe she can get someone in Japan the permission to renew it for her (e.g. parents or friends).

      • Hi i am a filipino amd i have a japan license since 2009…but now i am a divorce and have a japanese boyfriend..we want to marry as soon as posible but saddess thing is
        We cant because of some documents neede…my problem is my license is about to expired nxt yr..how can i renew my license?!..i try to apply visa for our marriage arrangement but the japan embassy denied…so can i apply another visa for my license renewal next year?!…

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