But if you’re a tourist in Japan, that information probably isn’t very interesting.
If you want to drive as a tourist in Japan, you obviously need some kind of driving permit.
It goes without saying that you cannot drive legally in Japan with your home country’s driver’s license! But be aware, the kind of driving permit you need to obtain differs depending on your nationality.
So, check carefully before travelling to Japan.
What do you need in order to drive in Japan legally?
No matter where you’re from, you’ll need your passport and the driver’s license issued in your home country.
In addition to that, you need one more document. Depending on your nationality that’s either an IDP or a translation.
Most nationalities can simply drive on an international driving permit (IDP) in Japan.
You have to obtain one before you visit Japan, it cannot be issued within Japan.
In most cases you can obtain it at your local automobile association. It’s really simple.
However, if you’re a citizen of Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland or Taiwan, you are NOT allowed to drive legally in Japan on an IDP! That’s because Japan only accepts international driving permits that are based on the 1949 Geneva Convention.
You still can drive legally in Japan, but you need a different approach.
Instead of an international driving permit, you’ll need a Japanese (!) translation of your current driver’s license.
Stop! You can’t just ask your Japanese friend to do this for you.
It must be an official translation either issued by the embassy of your home country in Japan OR by the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation).
This is more complicated than obtaining an international driver’s license, so plan ahead accordingly if you want to drive in Japan.
If you don’t need the driving permit immediately after arriving in Japan, you can go in person to one of the JAF facilities in Japan.
However, they state on their website that it might take up to 2 weeks until you’ll receive it.
(When I still lived in Japan, I got mine within an hour, but that was in the boonies.)
Another option is to send an accredited copy of your driver’s license and your passport to your embassy in Japan and then grab the translation in person once you’re in Japan.
If you’re very short on time and won’t be able to pick it up at the embassy, you could ask them to send it back to you.
To be honest, I’m not sure if all embassies are that generous. I just know that the German ones in Tokyo and Osaka offer it, so you’ll need to check with your embassy.
In my case, I paid around 50 € for the translation and shipping and around 8 € for the accredited copies I had to send to Japan beforehand.
Also, while researching I found that “Japan Experience” offers a service that will help you obtain such a translation easily.
I haven’t tried their service as it sounded quite expensive, but just wanted to mention that this might be an option worth considering.
All in all, this is more time-consuming, but also more expensive than obtaining an international driving permit, but it’s not like you have a choice.
How long will the driving permit be valid?
The IDP has a validity date on it, so that’s pretty self-explanatory.
As for the validity of the translation and thus your driving permit for Japan, I found biased information on the internet, so I asked the embassy directly. Apparently the translation is valid until your current driver’s license expires or the information on it changes.
This means you can use the translation again the next time you visit Japan, but you’ll probably need to obtain a new IDP every single time you come to Japan.
Be careful as rules are different for people who live in Japan!
No matter if you have a translation or an IDP with an expiration date, you can only drive legally with those for up to 1 year in Japan!
After that you are REQUIRED to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.
I read that some people used to leave the country for the weekend and came back shortly before the 12 months were over in order to keep their translation valid.
They closed this loophole by adding a “3 months out of Japan” condition.
So, if you live in Japan, leave before the 12 months are up and stay out of Japan for more than 3 months, then apparently your translation is still valid, otherwise it’s not.
If you’re a tourist, you can ignore all these regulations.
Important for you is just that as long as your current driver’s license didn’t change or expire, the translation will stay valid and the IDP will be good as long as the validity date hasn’t expired.
What if you actually have a Japanese driver’s license?
Personally I had to do a lot of research, because my case was a bit special.
I still have a valid Japanese driver’s license, so theoretically I could still drive in Japan.
However, my former Japanese address is written on it and as I don’t live in Japan anymore, it’s obvious that I cannot drive legally with my Japanese driver’s license anymore.
I also already had a Japanese translation of my current German driver’s license as I needed it to obtain the Japanese driver’s license back in the day.
As I’ve stayed far beyond the 12 months after receiving that translation, I figured that it wouldn’t be valid anymore and thus got a new one which should be valid until my German driver’s license expires or until I decide to move back to Japan. Phew!
I also doubt you can renew your expired Japanese driver’s license when outside of Japan, especially when you’re not a Japanese citizen. And I’m also quite sure that you cannot renew it while you’re as a tourist in Japan. But correct me if I’m wrong. ;)
Will the driving permit be accepted easily in Japan?
After all this research I thought I was good to go.
However, at the rental car office they had no idea what to do with the translation.
They had to browse through their manuals to see which nationality needs which documents.
And even after confirming it in their documents, they still didn’t trust the official translation issued by the embassy!
Eventually I got my rental car, but it took almost an hour!
Let me tell you that I’ve rented cars in Japan on a regular basis and not only in big cities, but also on remote small islands.
It was never an issue and never did it take longer than 5-10 minutes until I sat in the car and was ready to go.
But that was when I still had my Japanese driver’s license …
I’m just saying that if you’re unlucky and choose a rental car agency with uninformed employees, then be prepared to lose quite a bit of time.
I suppose if you hand over an international driver’s license, they won’t be as confused.
They’re probably just not used to translations as there aren’t many nationalities that need them.
On a little side note, I was worried that I would be confused driving on the left side of the road again.
After moving back to Germany, it took me DAYS to get used to driving on the right side.
It was especially tough when turning left. I also kept confusing wipers and turn signals.
But in Japan, within a minute, I was back on track.
Maybe it’s because I have more driving experience in Japan … or maybe it’s because I’m left-handed and driving on the left side feels more natural to me?
No idea, but I was glad that I had no issues at all driving in Japan again.
Ok, I hope this information was helpful.
I’m curious to hear what your experience is.
Did you have any trouble obtaining a driving permit for Japan?
Did you have issues getting a car at a rental car agency because they didn’t want to acknowledge your driving permit?
Let me know in the comments below.