How-to Guide: Drive as a foreigner in Japan.

Whether you want to own a car or just have the possibility to rent one when traveling around Japan (especially recommended in places like Okinawa), it is advised that you check the rules beforehand, to avoid any legal issues in Japan. Here is the guide, written from personal experience, about getting a Japanese driver’s license in Japan, as a foreigner.

Do you need a Japanese driver’s license?

I. I’m just a tourist visiting Japan / staying less than a year

If you’re not planning to be a medium to long-term resident in Japan, it is possible to avoid getting the Japanese driver’s license:

If you’re from: Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Monaco, Slovenia, Switzerland and Taiwan, you are allowed to drive in Japan if you possess an official Japanese translation of your foreign license. It can be easily obtained at the Japan Automobile Federation office, all around Japan — here is the Tokyo one. It costs 3.500 JPY and usually takes a day to be prepared.

If you’re from somewhere else, there might be an agreement between your country and Japan, and you just need to obtain an International Driving Permit before coming to Japan. Here is a list of all the countries that have such an agreement, according to the Japanese police website.

Please keep in mind that those methods are not recommend if you’re not a tourist.

II. I am a resident in Japan

Disclaimer: This part is mainly written for the people who are in possession of a foreign driver’s license issued by one of the following 28 countries:

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the states of Hawaii, Maryland and Washington (US).

The reason is that if you hold a valid driver’s license from one of these countries (or american states), you can get a Japanese license without having to take written or practical exam.

If you’re from another country like China or the US (except the 3 mentioned states), although the rest of the process that I will describe below is basically the same, you will have to pass a written and a practical exam, in order to be issued a Japanese driver’s license.

The process is pretty basic: you will need to gather the documents listed below and bring them all to a driver’s license office.
Here is what you need in order to acquire the license:

  • you need a valid foreign driver’s license — it kind of makes sense but you will make everyone’s life easier if you show up with a valid license, not an expired one.

Once you have all these, you can go to a driver’s license center. There are three main centers in Tokyo (Koto, Samezu, Fuchu) and I recommend the Koto Driver’s license center if you belong to one of the 28 countries listed above, as people from other countries can’t go there. You better go there from the early morning (it opens at 8:30am) if you’re hoping to be done around lunch time.

I also recommend that you bring a Japanese friend with you if you can’t speak basic Japanese.

Once in the center, you will first need to head to a counter to start the application. They will gather your documents and make you wait a couple of minutes. After that, they will ask you to head to the payment counter. It costs 4.600 JPY for a normal driver’s license — cash only.

After you’ve paid, you will be asked to proceed to the eye examination booth, followed by the picture booth (the one that will end up on your driver’s license).

Finally, they will ask you to go up to the waiting room to wait for your license to be created and issued. It should take between 1 and 2 hours on a normal day.

To be honest, I was expecting the process to be much more painful but it went quite smoothly and I got a driver’s license that lasts for ~2.5 years. I also felt lucky that I did not have to take any written test, as it appears to be a bit challenging for some people.

More about the author — Baptiste Delannoy

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Writing how-to guides for foreigners in Japan, based on personal experience. From getting an internship/job to driving or renting an apartment.

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