How to use your driver’s license in Japan
It is becoming more common, especially among experienced travelers willing to go off the beaten track, to try renting a car 🚙 in Japan during their travels. Even though the nation’s train 🚅 network is wide and ensures ease of access to all Japanese regions, covering the vast majority of touristy destinations, some countryside locations can be hard to access without a car.
Spurred by the increase of tourists in Japan, English-speaking GPS systems have become widespread and are available for renting. However, some advance preparation is needed before driving a car on the archipelago. For example, it is wise to learn some Japanese words and expressions to cope with some possible unpleasant situations.
International driver’s license
Japan has two rules on driving as a tourist. Some foreigners who possess a valid international driving permit are able to rent a car and drive on Japanese roads; however, foreigners from certain countries will have to have their driver’s license translated by a Japanese entity allowed by law.
Here is some more information on the designations of each country regarding driver’s licenses:
Valid International Driving Permit (IDP)
Foreigners can drive in Japan for a maximum of one year if they have a valid international driving permit. This cannot be requested or passed in Japan; it must be done in the home country in advance. It can be issued by the home country’s automobile federation for a fee. This was made possible thanks to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, and it is valid for travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, India, Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong for example.
Translating a driver’s license to Japanese
However, citizens of some countries will be required to provide a translation of their driver’s licenses made by the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF), an entity specified by law. These countries are France, Switzerland, Belgium, Monaco, Germany, Estonia, and Taiwan.
It is impossible to rent a car without this document, which is only available through the JAF. Citizens from the above countries are required to apply for a driver's license translation through the following process since November 2022:
- Fill out the application form (using instructions) only available on line, from within Japan;
- Pay on line the ¥4,000 (~US$29.59) fee by bank card 💳 when applying;
- Wait for the notification of delivery (it can take up to 2 weeks);
- Go to a 7/11 konbini only to print the translation on a security paper (usually 2 sheets, with an ¥20 additional cost per sheet to pay at the konbini).
Some offices are allowed to collect the documents for translation but not to do the translation. You will then have to wait about one week to get the translated document (List of the JAF’s 50 offices in Japan – open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.).
It is also possible to process the translation of a driver’s license via postal mail, but a Japanese address is required so JAF can send back the translation. The JAF does not send to foreign addresses and also does not receive mail from foreign countries. For this process, you will need to add:
- A proper recto-verso photocopy of the original driver’s license to be translated;
- ¥4,000 in cash (issuance fee);
- A postal envelope with ¥500 (~US$3.70) for the return.
You will likely receive your translated driver’s license one to two weeks after the JAF received your application form. This process is impossible to do by email.
Converting your country's license or taking the driver’s license test in Japan
For some expatriates, it is possible to convert the home country’s license into a Japanese license (外面切り替え gaimen kirikae). For this, along with documents the applicant must provide, the applicant must pass several necessary tests, depending on the home country, to check the following: skills, traffic laws, and, eventually, driving. The general opinion is that the whole process does not seem very complicated, except maybe the driving exam, which depends on the examiner.
Obtaining a real Japanese driving license involves a higher level of difficulty compared to the other methods described earlier. It is rare to obtain it on the first try. Reserved for +18 years old, it requires at least 31 hours of driving in automatic cars and 33 hours in manual cars, with sessions of two to three hours maximum for each. Applicants can only drive on a specific circuit before the first driving and traffic laws exam. Passing this exam is rewarded with a temporary license (仮免許 kari-menkyo), which gives the right to continue training on the road. Even after passing the final driving exam, the applicant must still take the traffic laws exam, which must be done in the residency prefecture as some details can vary from one prefecture to another.
The Japanese driver’s license works on a system of points, and after a first-year probational period, it is valid for three years before requiring renewal. If all points are taken, the traffic laws exam must be passed again, and if the applicant fails, his or her license will be revoked. After five years of driving without any traffic offenses, it is possible to obtain a golden sticker on the permit, which gives a discount on insurance. Japanese people must renew their licenses every three years, but this does not seem to be very strict, as suggested by the numerous car accidents linked to elderly drivers.