How to Get a Driver’s License in Japan as a Foreigner

How to Get a Driver's License in Japan as a Foreigner

While the transportation system in Japan is good, you may want to drive a car in Japan.

As an expat, your international driving permit (IDP) will be valid for one year only. After that, you will need to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.

In this article, we will guide you through everything you need to know about getting a driver’s license here, including how to convert your home country driver’s license to a Japanese driver’s license.

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Short Term Solutions to Driving in Japan

While I call this a “short-term” solution, your international driving permit (IDP) should be the first step for anyone coming to Japan who wants to drive.

You need to get this prior to your arrival here. For Americans, it costs only about US$20, and you can get it easily through AAA services.

Please remember to order it 6 months in advance of the date you plan to use it, and you will need to already have a driver’s license from your home country.

The age qualification is 18 years or older, and it can be used for up to a year in Japan.

This gives you plenty of time to practice and get used to the roads before you apply for your actual Japanese license.

It is worth noting that Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Estonia, and Monaco can use their own countries’ licenses freely in Japan.

They do not have a limit on how long they can use it, and do not need to obtain an IDP or a Japanese driver’s license.

However, they still need to have their driver’s license translated to Japanese through the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) website.

Converting Your Home Country’s License to a Japanese Driver’s License (Gaimen Kirikai)

Many countries already drive on the left side of the road and have reciprocal agreements with the Japanese government.

The process for people from these countries begins with a simple step called the Gaimen Kirikai (a driver’s license transfer), although stricter rules do apply for certain countries that do not use a Latin alphabet.

In total, 25 countries are allowed to take this route, and are exempt from the written test and the official road proficiency test.

The countries included are: Iceland, Ireland, the U.K., Italy, Austria, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Korea, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Finland, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Monaco.

For now, I will outline the step-by-step process for the lucky expats from one of these countries.

Step 1: Prepare Paperwork

To convert your driver’s license, you will first go through the license transfer (Gaimen Kirikae) process at the local driver’s license center and submit your application.

Here is an access list of driver’s centers in Tokyo. You can search in Google Maps to find your local driver’s license center.

Please gather these documents in preparation, but do not forget to check your local area’s process, as the requirements can be slightly different.

Here’s what you normally need:

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  • Your home country driver’s license that clearly displays the date of issue and expiry date. This will need to be officially translated by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). The translation costs about 4,000 yen and can be ordered online via the JAF website. It takes 2 weeks to do it.
  • Juminhyo (Certificate of Residence), acquired from your local ward or city office for about 300 yen.
  • Your residence card
  • A passport as a second form of identification
  • A proof of stay in your home country for at least three months after you initially obtained your driver’s license.*
  • A professional photograph (A 3 cm x 2.4 cm photo taken within the last 6 months)**

*This proof of stay is a bit tricky, so let me give you some advice.

You will only need documentation that is compatible with the dates your home country license was issued.

For instance, college transcripts, past pay stubs from your home country, utility bills with your name and address, credit card bills, loan statements, or even entry stamps to your home country in your passport.

** For a professional photograph, it is advised that you do not smile in your photo, as this is not customary in Japan; it must have a white background, and glasses are not allowed.

Step 2: Aptitude Testing, Brief Interview, and License

As you are exempt from the written traffic rule knowledge test (the multiple-choice test), and you do not have to take the official driving tests, you are only required to take the basic aptitude test. After your document screening, you will first be interviewed in Japanese.

The questions are about how you acquired your driving license and how much experience you have driving.

You will then take a short eye test to make sure you can see close/far distances and that you can discriminate between different colors.

When these tasks are finished, you will be issued your Japanese driver’s license. The fee for the final issuance is 2,050 yen.

What If You Are Not on the Excluded List: The Written and Practical Test

The paperwork you need to present at the driving center is the same as Step 1 in the previous section.

The notable difference is the mandatory written and practical driving tests, which are both time-consuming, and require some studying on your part.

In most cases, Chinese, Brazilian, and most Americans need to go through this extra step to get a license here.

Step 2: Make an Appointment for Your Test Day

You must first contact your local driving center to make an appointment for your test.

The proctors of the exam often have a busy schedule (with multiple driving tests done in blocks of time), so you will want to do this at least a month in advance.

If you do not have the confidence to do this in Japanese, it is advised you find a friend or hire a translator to help you.

Step 3: Take the Written Test

Your first task prior to taking the written knowledge test will be a video that you have to watch, covering a wide range of topics related to driving in Japan.

Once this video has been viewed, you will take your written test.

Please familiarize yourself with this first test a few weeks if possible.

This written test, which mainly focuses on traffic rules and road signs, is quite short. It mainly focuses on nuanced traffic rules, basic road sign recognition, and common knowledge driving skills in Japan.

One way to study is to get a copy of the Japanese driver’s manual in English; it will help you understand what you need to pass. If you already have a foreign license and driving experience, this test is only 10 questions long.

The written test is given on the day of your physical driving test, and it costs 1,550 yen.

Alternatively, if your Japanese license is your first-ever driver’s license, then you will have to take a 50-question written test with a 90% or over correct answer pass rule.

Here is another sample practice test, so you know what kind of questions will be asked.

Step 4: Enroll in the Driving School (Optional)

Before taking the practical driving test, it is important to understand that most foreigners do not pass on their first or even second time.

I can tell you, even though I had been driving for 15 years in America, they failed me twice for very minor “misses” during the test.

So, while it may be expensive, one way to build your confidence before the test is to enroll in some driving classes.

This is just one school that offers classes, but these types of driving instruction classes are offered throughout Japan. They range in prices and services, depending on your level of experience.

If you already have your home country license and want to brush up on your skills, a driving lesson for about 45 minutes costs 10,000 yen to 15,000 yen.

However, if you need to attend driving school and are starting from scratch, this would be the sample price of enrolling in a school.

The great thing about these courses is they will give you ample time to practice your driving skills if you don’t have a car.

Final Step: Take the Japanese Practical Driving Test (Jitsugi)

The practical test is done at the driving center; they are the same place. You receive your license the same day if you pass the test.

If you do not pass, you are sent home without the license and have to reschedule another test.

The practical test itself costs from 4,000 to 6,000 yen and must be paid whether you pass or fail.

The number one piece of advice I can give you is to familiarize yourself with your test center’s driving route.

Your local test center will have maps online for you to review.

If they don’t, I found these copies of some driving center routes for you to take a look at. They are written in English and give detailed tips for each challenge you will be asked to complete during the test.

The courses vary by prefecture but have common obstacles like a mock train crossing, S curves, tight Z turns, and speeding zones that must be observed.

You will even be checked on how you inspect the car prior to driving. For example, looking around the wheel wells and checking the doors and mirror height.

The manual transmission tests often include a hill, and you have to make a special request if you want a manual transmission license; they differ from automatic licenses.

While some centers will allow you to take a practice run for a fee, some do not.

Classifications of Driver’s Licenses in Japan

Driver’s licenses are classified into three main categories based on the driver’s experience and driving record. The longer you drive in Japan without traffic infractions or accidents, the more the status of your driver’s license increases.

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Green License

The green license is given to beginner drivers who obtain their first full license; it is also the first license you will receive as a foreigner when you transfer your home country license.

It is valid for 3 years, and by law, you must purchase one of these stickers for your vehicle.

You can purchase them anywhere, and you should familiarize yourself with the meaning of all the stickers you will see before you start driving.

Blue License

Your next license will be your blue license, issued upon renewal, which I will talk about in the next section.

It also has a 3-year validity period.

Gold License

The highly coveted gold license is given to ‘excellent drivers’ with 5 or more years with no traffic violations, and it is valid for 5 years.

If you receive a gold license, it will also positively affect your car insurance, lowering it by a certain percentage.

Renewing Your Driver’s License

Renewing a driver’s license in Japan depends on your region, but generally, you will receive a notification about 5-6 weeks before it expires via postal mail.

Here is a breakdown in English from Kanagawa Prefecture.

The place where you need to renew the license will be written on the postcard.

You will normally need to bring:

  • your current license
  • your Hanko stamp
  • and the renewal fee (which also should be written on the postcard). In my case, it was only 3,000 to 4,000 yen to renew my license

For the renewal, you will undergo another short eye examination and have your photo taken. You can also take your own photo at a booth and bring it with you.

You should definitely take a day off work because you will have to watch a series of videos and participate in a lecture about driver safety. This could take up to 3-4 hours.

If You Do Not Already Have a License from Your Home Country

As I mentioned above, if you do not already have a driver’s license from your home country, you have to get one from scratch.

This means mandatory enrollment in a driving school, proof of graduation, and the long-form written 50-question exam.

On top of this, you must also pass the practical driving test.

The prices for school enrollment can be around 250,000 yen to 300,000 yen.

You typically have a window of 9 months to complete driving school, but many new drivers finish the courses in about 3 months.

From here, you will want to begin studying for both the written and practical exam.

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After living in Japan for more than a decade, I didn't just learn to speak Japanese; I got to know the culture deeply. My journey in Japan has been full of learning and exploring. It's helped me grow and given me lots of interesting stories to tell. I hope my writing helps others feel a bit of the magic I found in Japan.
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