How to Switch to a Japanese Driver's License
Are foreign driver's licenses valid in Japan? Can I use my international driving permit here? And how can I convert my foreign driver's license to a Japanese driver's license?
The quick answer is, to drive legally in Japan, you must have one of the following:
an international driving permit (IDP) in the Geneva convention format (no translation needed)
a foreign driver's license issued by one of the countries under bilateral agreements with Japan (certified translation required)
or a Japanese driver's license
If you don't have (1) or (2), you must switch over to a Japanese driving license.
In today's article, we cover the two types of international driving permits, countries with bilateral driver's license agreements with Japan, plus how to convert your foreign driver's license to a Japanese driver's license.
Can I use my international driver's permit in Japan?
There are two major international road traffic treaties that most countries are signatories of: the Geneva Convention (1949) and the Vienna Convention (1968). These two international treaties encompass the licensing system, road signs, and ethical provisions for driving a motor vehicle in most countries worldwide.
Japan ratified the Geneva Convention treaty in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, joining more than 100 signatory countries. However, it did not sign the Vienna Convention, which currently has around 70 signatory countries.
Left Image: China Issued IDP under the 1968 Vienna Convention — Right Image: US issued IDP under the 1949 Geneva Convention.
Critically, these treaties stipulate that IDPs will be mutually recognized with countries under the same treaty. Therefore, only IDPs under the Geneva Convention are valid in Japan.
A significant difference between the two types is the validity period of the permits. Permits under the Geneva Convention expire a year after the issued date, whereas permits under the Vienna Convention expire in three.
With a Geneva Convention IDP, you can drive in Japan for up to a year from the date of landing here or one year after the issue date of the IDP, whichever is shorter.
Can I use my foreign driver’s license in Japan?
Some countries have entered bilateral agreements to ensure travelers' and residents' convenience. These bilateral agreements make domestic licenses valid between partnered countries.
Japan has this type of bilateral agreement with 7 countries that have driving license systems that are on par with Japanese standards:
With a foreign license from a bilateral agreement country, you can drive in Japan for up to a year from the date of landing here or one year after the issue date, whichever is shorter. The only requirement is to carry a certified translation of the license when you drive.
3-points to check your driving status in Japan
To summarize what we’ve covered so far, here are the 3 points to determine if you can drive in Japan using your foreign driver’s license or international driver's permit.
Your IDP is issued by a country under the Geneva Convention in the format indicated by the said treaty.
Or your foreign driving license is issued by Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia, or Taiwan.
The IDP or foreign driving license does not exceed the period of validity.
You have stayed abroad for more than 3 months prior to entering Japan with your IDP.
Refer to this English PDF hosted by the Metropolitan Police Department for more detailed information about the expiry dates.
If your license does not comply with the above points, that's OK. You can still drive in Japan—so long as you convert your valid foreign driver's license to a Japanese license through the following process外免切替= gaimen kirikae, which consists of verifying your documents, plus an aptitude, written, and driving test.
Certain countries are exempt from taking the written and driving test
During the license conversion process, license holders must take an aptitude, written, and practical driving test.
However, the lucky license holders from the following 28 countries and 5 states are exempt from taking the written and driving tests during the license conversion process:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and the following USA states Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Washington.
License holders of these countries and states can skip the written test and driving test outlined in the following section.
License holders from all other countries must complete all the steps in the following section.
Step-by-step how to convert your license to a Japanese driving license
The license conversion process only applies to valid driver's licenses. Furthermore, you must be 18 years of age or over*, and you must be able to prove you have stayed in the country that issued the license for at least 3 months (90 days) in total after obtaining (or receiving) the license. *16 years of age or older for a standard motorcycle license, 20 years of age or older for a medium-sized license, and 21 years of age or older for a large-sized vehicle.
What follows is an outline of the steps to convert your foreign driver's license to a Japanese driver's license.
Step 1. Get your license translated into Japanese.
Step 1 can be done at your country's embassy or consulate in Japan, by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), or by other services authorized by the National Police Agency. JAF will translate your document for 3,500 yen (includes stamp fee for mailing license back). This will take approximately 2 weeks to complete. For details from JAF, check here.
Step 2. Submit required documents.
Once you have completed step 1, submit the following required documents to the Driver's License Center in your city. Check here for a list of every center in Japan (Japanese site).
A valid foreign driver's license.
Japanese translation of the license.
Current and expired Japanese driver's license(s), if any.
An official copy of your "jumin-hyo" or Certificate of Residence, indicating the "honseki" or registered domicile, or nationality (in case you are a medium-to-long-term resident in Japan under obligation of resident registration).*Photocopies are not accepted.
Passport* or other form of official ID.
A document to prove that the address where you are staying is the one you fill in the application form.
A document that proves that you had stayed in the country or region where you obtained the license for a total of three months or more since you obtained it (e.g., passport).*Please bring all of your passports, including expired ones.
Applicant's photograph for application form (3cm×2.4cm).
Details of specifications and requirements for the documents above are discussed in-depth in this English PDF by the Metropolitan Police Department. Call the center you will apply to in advance if you have questions.
Once you submit all the necessary documents, the documents will be verified. Each prefecture's Driving License Center will have a different waiting period.
For example, in Akita, the process of verifying documents can take up to 10 days, after which the center gets in touch with you to make an appointment for aptitude, written, and driving tests outlined in Steps 3 to 5.
In Samezu, Tokyo, the document verification is done on the same day as the aptitude and written test. If you pass the written test, you are then allowed to book your driving test. The Samezu location is a popular center for taking driving tests, so the current wait time (as of the writing of this article) is 4 months between passing the written test and taking the driving test.
Other tips specifically regarding the Samezu location:
The "writing" test to assess basic understanding of Japanese traffic rules is done on computers.
Samezu opens at 8:30 A.M., and there are long queues to get in. Get there early and be one of the first in the queue if you're short on time.
Expect to wait after the initial application until you get interviewed and documents screened.
Basically, even though the order of the steps remains the same throughout Japan, the timeline and waiting process between each step will vary from prefecture to prefecture. Call and confirm.
Step 3. Take an aptitude (hearing and eyesight) test.
If the examiners find no fault in the documents and your answers, you will take an aptitude test and then a written test. If you are not confident in your Japanese skills, you may want to have a friend or a colleague accompany you as an interpreter for the whole process. For the eyesight test, you must have 0.7 or better (for both eyes) and 0.3 or better (for each eye).
Step 4. Take a written test to assess your knowledge of traffic rules.
The written test will check to see if you understand essential traffic rules. The general consensus from past takers of this test: If you don't study beforehand, you won't pass on your first try. JAF offers textbooks in many languages available for purchase.
The test itself is multiple-choice (answering either true or false), and you must answer at least 7 out of 10 questions correctly to pass. You can take the test in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and, of course, Japanese.
Here's a write-up in English that describes some of the sample written test questions.
Step 5. Take a practical driving test.
After you have successfully completed the written test, next up is your driving test.
Steps 2 through 4 can be completed within the same day at certain centers. But some license centers require you to book all appointments in advance or sometimes all tests must be held on different days, depending on the region or prefecture.
The test is conducted on a predetermined course set up on the premises, and some centers may allow you to practice driving the car before your test. There are some clear dos and don'ts and different techniques to pass the test. For example, exaggerated pointing, looking, and vocalizing to show you are checking all potential dangers.
Note: YouTuber Mellow in Japan created a simple instructional video on how to pass the Japanese driving test.
This video, according to commenters, has helped many pass the test on their first try. We recommend watching videos like this, or if possible booking yourself a few driving lessons beforehand.
According to the inquiries we made, an interpreter is not allowed in the car during the driving test. Therefore, you'll want to do thorough research on the test itself beforehand. Additionally, based on past experiences shared by expats, consider hiring an instructor for a 2-hour crash course, which will greatly increase your chances of passing.
Step 6. Receive your Japanese driving license.
Certain centers are unable to issue the driver's license on the same day. Therefore, it is recommended that you call the center in advance to determine when you can pick up your driving license.
The following are the costs involved in the gaimen kirikae procedure.
Obtaining a certificate of residence: 300 yen
Issuance of translation: 3,500 yen (when issued by JAF)
Driving test fee: 2,550 yen *for standard car
Issuance fee: 2,050 yen
If you fail the driving test, you must pay the examination fee of 2,550 yen for every additional try.
Note: Two Wheel Cruise provides a complete overview of his entire experience with converting his foreign license to a Japanese one.
In the video, he references “Driving in Japan & Passing the Driver’s Test” as being another key resource that helped him with the test itself.
To summarize, you can drive in Japan using your IDP under the Geneva treaty or foreign driver's license under Japan's bilateral agreements for up to 1 year in Japan (or until the IDP or foreign driver's license expires).
For driver's licenses from other countries, you can convert your license to a Japanese one at your city's Driving License Center following the steps outlined in this article. Additionally, if you need further help with explanations, TokyoMate Assistants can make calls on your behalf!
If you don't know how to drive at all, but are hoping to learn to drive in Japan, stay tuned for an upcoming article where we discuss the process of learning to drive in Japan from scratch.
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