For a long while, the idea of getting a Japanese driver’s license was enigmatic for me. I had heard lots of rumors of how difficult it was and of the complications imposed on you when you actually did get one (apparently for Italians, once you get your Japanese driver’s license your Italian license is revoked). And so when it came time to get mine, I was admittedly very anxious. But to my surprise, while the process was a bit cumbersome, I was pleased to discover it was very manageable.
Before diving into the process, I should probably mention getting a driver’s license is different depending on which country you are from. For example, if you are from Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, or South Korea, you are not required to take any tests. (US citizens of either Maryland or Washington are also exempt from taking the test.) Furthermore, if you didn’t have a license in your home country for more than 3 months before moving to Japan, you will have to go through an entirely different process altogether.
So to clarify, I am a US citizen, I had been driving for almost 10 years before moving to Japan, and I live in Tokyo. So in my case, I simply converted my US drivers license into a Japanese one. The remainder of this post will outline the steps I took to get there, the necessary documents, and what I experienced each step of the way.
Step 1: The Documents
The documents you will need are as follows:
- Valid foreign drivers license
- Residence card
- A Japanese translation of your foreign license (more on this follows)
- A residence certificate (Juminhyo) (also more on this follows)
- Passport + A document proving you lived in your home country for at least 3 months while you had your license
- A photo
Most of this is pretty straightforward if you live here. Your residence card and passport are documents you must have while living in Japan anyway. Hopefully, you still have your foreign drivers license and it is not expired. As for the photo, this can be taken at any of the photo booths found in most large stations. There is also likely one at the drivers licensing center you will be going to. Perhaps the trickiest parts here are the translation and residence certificate.
Your residence certificate can be found at your local ward office. You must be sure to go to the ward office associated with the ward you are a resident of. This may sound silly, but living between two wards can be a bit tricky, so be sure to double check! The cost for me was something like 300 yen. And because I went during a weekday while everyone was working, the wait time was pretty minimal. (I advise you do the same, but in my experience, even during peak hours ward offices aren’t too bad.)
There are two places for you to obtain a Japanese translation of your foreign driver’s license:
- Your Embassy in Japan
JAF happened to be closer to my apartment, so I went with them. When you go for the translation, be sure you set aside a good half day. The process will take anywhere from 2-3 hours so bring a book or plan to do something nearby. (their website claims that the translation can take up to two weeks, but I haven’t heard of anyone having to wait that long.) You will need to bring your residence card, your foreign driver’s license, and a completed application form for the Japanese Translation . Once you bring all of the required documentation, the translation will cost around 3000 yen as of the writing of this post.
After you’ve put together all of the documents for your Japanese driver’s license, you will need to make a trip out to a Driving License Testing and Issuing center. It’s very important that you verify the center you visit is a Testing and Issuing center as some do not provide these services.
Here, a bit of Japanese comprehension will go a long way. For me, the staff did not even attempt to speak English. Most of the employees wouldn’t even slow their rate of speech. If your Japanese isn’t up to snuff though, don’t worry, just be patient and keep asking them to repeat themselves. There is no penalty for asking too many questions. At this point, you will simply be going from window to window filling out paperwork, submitting paperwork, waiting for verification, and at some point making a payment of about 1800 yen. Also, during the visit you will be required to take an eye exam, so make sure to have your glasses or contact lenses if you need them.
One problem I ran into while I was handing in all of my paperwork was that my passport had been renewed just before I moved to Japan, and so I didn’t have proper documentation showing I had lived in my home country for at least 3 months prior to moving to Japan. This caused a huge fuss. I found that the staff were very quick to dismiss me and assume I had absolutely no way of obtaining such a document on the spot. However, after a very stressful exchange of words and a lot of google searching, I found I could print out my driving history from my state’s driver’s licensing center website, which did the trick. If you take anything away from this, it’s to be sure you have that proof BEFORE you get to the center.
It was pretty interesting going through this stage. It almost felt like I was doing a small stamp rally:
going from floor to floor to the various counters and making a small exchange, to then move on to another window on another floor. In any case, once you’ve finished the process, you will be scheduled for the next leg of the journey, the tests.