I have lived in Tokyo all together for about 3 years and though I love to drive I have never had a good enough reason to go through the somewhat painful process of getting a Japanese license. However, now that I have decided to Miyakojima (a small tropical island near Okinawa with no rail system), I finally have enough reason to go and get it. I am writing down my experiences and the things that I have learned to make it easier for those who have not yet obtained it.
Please note that this guide will apply for all foreigners who want to obtain their license in Japan, but will focus on the steps an American must go though. According to JapanDriversLicense.com (a company to help foreigners complete the application process and pass the tests), the following countries are not required to take either the written or the driving test to obtain their drivers license: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom.
Since driving licenses are decided at the state level in the US and each State has it’s own requirements, Foreigners holding a US drivers license or license not from one of the above countries are required to take both a written and driving test to obtain a Japanese license.
Before going through the steps I recommend you take the time to consider if you will really need to drive. The train systems are great in Tokyo and most of the large cities in Japan and driving or owning a car can be more of a pain than a benefit. Consider the following questions:
1. How long will I be in Japan? If it is less than a year, then I would recommend you get an international driving permit. Much easier to obtain and allows you to drive in Japan. This is not an option for people staying in Japan for more than one year.
2.Where will I live? If it’s Tokyo, Osaka, or another large city then a car is not necessary. If you live in the country then it might be more appropriate. To own a car in Tokyo, you must register a spot to park it, pay high prices for registration, gas is expensive, and roads are congested. Not to mention that the major highways have tolls.
3. Do I plan to travel? If you plan to travel in Japan then you may want a license. As you start visiting more remote locations of Japan such as Hokkaido or Okinawa you will definitely need a car. If this is the case then getting your driver’s license is just preparation for your trip.
4. Am I allowed to drive? When I was a student at Waseda University, we were not allowed to drive in Japan due to past problems. This may not only apply for students attending certain universities, but to employees at certain companies as well. I suggest you check with your school or employer.
Okay, so you’ve gone through the questions and decided you want to get your license in Japan. The first thing to do is prepare your documents.
1. Translate your license- The first thing you will need to do is get your drivers license officially translated into Japanese . This is easily done by visiting a JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation) office. JAF is basically the AAA of Japan. You can find a list their offices here. You will need your drivers license, fill out an application form, and pay 3,000yen. I also recommend your take your alien registration card as well. Most of the time your license will be translated while you wait. It took about 30 minutes when I went. Very basic Japanese should get you by with no problem. if you are concerned then you might look at JapanDriversLicense.com. I believe helping non-Japanese speakers are their specialty.
2. Collect your documents- Before going to the driving center make sure you have all of your documents.
- Driver’s license
- Japanese translation of your drivers license
- Alien registration card
- Copy of your driving record if you were in your home country for less than one year after your current license was issued. (You can still apply without this, however you will be given a beginners license. Meaning you must display a beginner’s sticker when driving and start out with less points)
3. Locate and visit your local driving license center- For those living in Tokyo and holding an American driver’s license or for anyone else that is required to take both the writing and driving test, can only apply at the Samezu or Fuchu centers. You can find contact info here. My local ward told me to go the the nearest on and I was told I could not apply there. Maps can be found here (Samezu, Fuchu).
4. Applying- Now is where the waiting starts. I chose the Samezu office which is located about 15 minutes by bus from Shinagawa station. Upon arrival let the information center know you want to change your license to a Japanese license and she can direct you to the correct place. this was counter 27 on the 2nd floor at Samezu. Go to that counter and let them know you want to apply for a Japanese license. They will give you a number and ask you to wait. Please note that these offices are only open from 8:30am-11:00am and 1pm-3:00pm. Arrive early at ether one of the sessions to cut down your wait.
5. Submitting your documents- They will eventually call your number and you will be asked to submit all the documents you have collected. Once they have everything they will ask you to wait once again. If everything checks out, they will call you and let you know the next steps you need to take. They give you back your application form along with a numbered list of things you need to do.
6. Getting your picture- There is a picture booth located on the first floor. Pay 600yen and use the English instructions if necessary. Once you receive the pictures, cut out a small one using the tools provided and stick it on the application form. There is a small yellow “peel off” to stick it on.
7. Checking your eye site- Located down the hall from the picture booth is room 1 where they test your eye site. Look through the lens and tell the lady which direction the open part of the circle is facing. They will also do a color test to make sure you are not color blind.
8. Pay your fee- Return to the 2nd floor at window 25 and pay 2,400yen. They will mark your application as paid.
9. Submit your completed application- Return to the original window and resubmit your application. After a short wait they will call your name and you will take a 10 question test on a computer. It is a yes/no test and very easy. I managed to score 10/10 so nothing to worry about. You can find a practice test here. If you pass the test you will be asked to make a reservation for your driving test.
10. Making a reservation-Go room 9 on the first floor and tell them you would like to make a reservation for your driving test. They will take your application and explain about the test day. They will also give you a card that you can use to make a reservation. Simply stick the card in the machine and choose the date and time. There are two possible times to take the test. 8:30am and 1:00pm. If you pass the test at 8:30am your license will be issued at 1:00pm. If you pass it at 1:00pm, your license will be issued at 4:00pm.
11. Take the driving test- You are asked to show up 5 minutes before the test time at the same room. Stay tuned for part two as I will be giving more information on the things I learned from the driving test.
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