Updated: Dec 9, 2019
By Quilleran Cornwall
Published: November 11th, 2019
Now you’re settled into Japanese life, you want to travel around the country and see all that the land of the rising sun has to offer. If you’re going anywhere outside of Tokyo, then you’re going to want to have a Japanese driver’s license. Learn the quick and easy way to get your Japanese license!
Although Japan's public transportation system is one of the most efficient and comprehensive in the world, not everywhere in Japan is it convenient or cost-effective to ride the train. In many rural areas in Japan, the nearest train station might be kilometers away from where you want to go, and local buses may only run a few times a day. Taking a taxi is another option, but then a short ride of just 2km could cost over 1,000 yen! The best way to get around in the countryside is by driving yourself, and you can do this legally for up to one year with an International Driver's Permit (IDP).
International Driver’s Permit
International Driver’s Permits are valid for up to 12 months in Japan, but be forewarned that you must acquire one before arriving in Japan. After 12 months it will expire and then you must have a Japanese license to drive legally in Japan.
So how do you begin the process of getting your Japanese driver’s license? Let’s start with the easy way if you already have a license in your home country.
Your foreign license is not expired.
You have resided in the country of issuance for at least three months after obtaining your license.
You have a valid Japanese visa.
You are registered as a foreign resident at your local government office.
If all the above is true there’s a chance that converting your driver’s license to a Japanese one will be a breeze—that is, if you are from the following countries:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, Maryland (USA)
Converting Your License
You will need the following documents to convert your foreign license:
Your original driver's license.
An official translation of your original license.
A copy of juminhyo (residency certificate issued by your local city hall) to prove your current address.
Your residence card and passport.
A document to prove you resided in the country where you got your license for at least three months after it was issued. Your passport will usually suffice for this.
A photo for the application form.
Once all the paperwork is in order, you will proceed to take a vision and color blindness test. If you’ve passed those tests, congratulations! You now have a Japanese license.
If you can't convert your license...
If you do not have a driver’s license issued in the above territories (most Americans included, aside from Maryland residents), then receiving a Japanese license will be more difficult because you will have to take both written and practical exams to receive your license.
The written exam is not difficult compared to the practical test. Most testing centers nowadays will have the written test available in English, and compared with the Japanese version which has over 90 questions, the English version only has ten.
The practical test is an area of difficulty for foreigners, with many having to retake the test multiple times. One way to avoid having to take the practical exam is to go to driving school; however, depending on the school, tuition can start at upwards of $2,000.
We interviewed Corey, a 4th year American exchange student from New York, who currently studies in Yamanashi Prefecture. After 5 tries he finally successfully obtained his Japanese drivers license, and now enjoys a good drive in the countryside.
What has been your experience in getting your Japanese driver’s license?
"It was a pain. I had my international driver’s license when I first came to Japan, but that was only valid for one year. I started looking at getting a Japanese license and realized that the only Americans that can easily get their licenses are from Maryland! Of all the states in the U.S. why Maryland?
First I got my American license translated at the JAF [Japan Automotive Federation] and then went to take the written test, which is pretty easy. It was only eight questions and I was done in about five minutes. Next I sat through an interview where a police officer asked me about my driving experience in the U.S. and verified that I had had my license for more than three months before entering Japan.
The worst part is the practical test. For one, you have to memorize the route and if you make one mistake you fail. Most people fail their first time, but I’ve failed five times and heard stories of other foreigners failing up to eight times.
Word of advice:
The proctor for the practical test asked us if we had taken driving lessons from the driving school across the street, and when I responded, his tone completely changed from friendly to cold. A word of advice for anyone trying to get their license without going to driving school: take at least one lesson with the driving school before going out and taking the real test. That’ll cost you about $100. It may seem unfair, but it’s better than having to take the test over and over and over again."
What was the total cost of getting your driver’s license?
Corey says even retaking the test multiple times will still save you plenty of money.
"Well, I didn’t go to driving school which can be over $2000, but since I had to retake the test five times it’s cost me about $450. It took me probably three months longer than it should have, but between spending the extra cash and making a few extra attempts at passing I’d save the money any day."
Check out some extra resources to get you started!