Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Converting a foreign drivers license to a Japanese license

UPDATED throughout based on comments pertaining to 1) getting a driving record from the country that issued your license and 2) requirements for holders of licenses issued by countries exempted from the tests (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland). Everyone is required to get a vision test and translation of their license. US drivers are required to also take a 10 question test and ~ 1 km driving test.

Here is a technological tangent for your Tuesday afternoon: converting an overseas drivers license to a Japanese license (外免切替) primarily from the perspective of a US license holder. My motivation for posting this is that, first, a license is an accepted form of ID for getting a mobile contract and may be a preferred form, especially if you are trying to sign up with softbank and want to pay via bank draft as opposed to credit card but can't show a utility bill (because, for example, you live in a university dormitory). Next, while there is a lot of information in English on the web, much of it is either a bit out dated, which left me wondering how much of it was still correct, or being provided by companies that want to sell you something. Finally, I found the driving test to be much easier to pass than what I read on the web. But of course, I am a "good driver." (Aren't we all? Has anyone met someone who actually admits to being a "bad driver?")

Since I recently completed this process, I'll share my experience and time stamp it December 2010. Be warned though, the information regarding the driving skills check, which is required for US license holders but not for many of the rest of you, is already out of date because the Samezu testing course is under construction from now ("mid December") for the next five years. Yes, every US license holder in Tokyo is going to Fuchu in Tama for the driving part.

I'll start with the essentials followed by my specific experience. It will require at least two days to get a license if you hold a US license. I took the driving test with 8 other people. 4 failed, 2 of them using automatic transmissions. For at least 3 of the passing people (myself included) it was the first time to take the test.

What to bring on Day 1
  • Valid passport.
  • One 3 cm x 2.4 cm photo taken within the last 6 months, showing your head and shoulders on a plain background to be used internally by the testing center - this will not be the photo on your license. (The clerks at Samezu have a cutter that will crop the larger-sized photo used in the ARC.)
  • Alien registration card.
  • Valid foreign license with an issued date at least three months prior to entering Japan. Leaving Japan for three months and obtaining a foreign license is acceptable.
  • Translation of foreign license obtained from the Japanese Automobile Federation or your embassy. (Many embassy's may not provide translation services, including the US embassy.)
  • Bringing an expired passport is highly recommended if the date on your license predates your currently valid passport and required if your current passport does not indicate that you have spent a total of three months in the country that issued your passport. (For Americans who may or may not get stamped in and out of the US, I am told they will add up the time unaccounted for by stamps and assign that to time spent in the US.)
IMPORTANT: Renewal of your foreign license can reset time calculation

You must prove that you actually spent three months in the country that issued your license. I assume the J govt is trying to prevent people from grabbing a foreign license while on holiday and skipping the full-blown process which is an absolutely horrific and expensive experience to which you never, ever want to be subjected.

I've had a driver's license now for over 20 years but as far as the Japanese government is concerned, I've only had one for about a third of that time because the US state from which my license is issued prints a new issuing date on the license with each renewal. If you ever plan to get a Japanese license but haven't yet, confirm whether or not this applies to you NOW. If it does and you renew prior to converting it to a Japanese license, you may be required to remain out of Japan for three months or be subjected to the above mentioned horrific and expensive process *. To add insult to injury, you'll have to display that green leaf newbie sign on anything you drive for the first year as well. (if you convert a license that is more than a year old, there will be a note on the back stating you are not required to display the beginner's mark "初心者標識免除".)

* NOTE: Several commenters mentioned that a driving history can be substituted if the date on your license reflects the latest renewal and puts you afoul of the 3 month rule. US license holders will want to obtain a driver's "abstract" from their DMV. Depending on the DMV, some will issue them online. However, it will likely need to be somehow certified, so one issued online and printed at home is unlikely to suffice unless you can convince the US Embassy to notarize it, which they will likely not do since they can't be sure it is real. The best way would be to obtain one directly from the DMV in person, through a third party, or through the mail. Needless to say, it is best to convert your license after arriving in Japan but prior to required renewal.

Day 1 Procedure

You'll need to lookup the information for testing centers from your prefectural police department. Here is English information on license requirements (PDF) from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (J). While this is specific to Tokyo, the general requirements are applicable throughout Japan. As far as I can tell, holders of licenses from exempted countries must only do steps 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 (basically the translation and vision test), and this can be done entirely at the Koto testing center.

For US license holders, this is done at Samezu, because Koto only deals (as far as I can tell) with people exempted from the tests.
  1. Find the nearest JAF and obtain license translation, which takes about 30 minutes if they're not busy and costs 3000 yen.
  2. Go to nearest testing center ("rist" of testing centers from the NPA [J, excel] or google docs).
  3. This may differ between prefectures, but you basically get a number and wait to present your documents. If everything is in order, then you can proceed.
  4. Specify whether you will be tested on a manual or automatic transmission. (If you chose "AT" you cannot legally drive a car with a manual transmission.)
  5. Fill out application form
  6. Take a very quick vision test.
  7. Take a very simple 10 question knowledge check; 7 correct answers to pass. Questions are common sense like, is it OK to drink alcohol before driving?
  8. Schedule a driving test for the next available day at either 8:30 am or 1 pm.
You'll end up with a copy of the application form, an appointment card, an IC card (the function of which was never clear to me), and a few pages in English (perhaps other languages are also available) explaining what they expect you to do to pass the driving test.

What to bring on Day 2

For US license holders and everyone not from one of these countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

I did this at Samezu which is no longer possible. You must now go to Fuchu. There is no driving course at Koto.
  • Everything you brought on Day 1 except for the photo (because it is affixed to the application sheet).
  • The copy of the application sheet you were given on Day 1.
  • The appointment card and IC card you received on Day 1.
Day 2 Procedure
  1. Show up five minutes prior to you scheduled test time.
  2. Pass the driving test.
  3. Chose PIN for IC card on license.
  4. Have photo taken.
  5. Get license.
  • 3000 yen to JAF for translation
  • 2400 for Day 1 (and for each subsequent day if you fail the knowledge test)
  • 2100 for issuance fee (this is paid on Day 1 for people who don't have to take the driving test and on Day 2 for the rest of us. This becomes 2400 if you fail the driving test and must reschedule.) 
My experience at Samezu

I did the whole thing in two half days with zero preparation aside from reading the materials I was given during the first day. At the very least, I'd recommend people to check out this list of Japanese street signs (PDF) and be in general familiar with the rules of the road (such as no left turn on red). For me, there was no need to buy the study book, but I have several years of experience driving in Japan.

On the first day, I arrived at JAF in Minato-ku by 9:30 am, received the translation prior to 10:00, and was at the testing center in Samezu by 10:30. At the testing center, you wait first, fill out forms later, so immediately go to Window Number 26 on the second floor at the back of the building and get a number for the queue. If you don't get a number by 11 am, you'll have to wait until 1 pm to start the process.

You will become very familiar with Window Number 26. It is the busiest booth in the building. There is a sign that says so. I waited 40 minutes until my number was called, at which point I turned in all my documents and the clerk did a quick check before settling in to add up time spent in America since my license predated my passport and I didn't bring my old, cancelled passport.

An hour later I was called back and instructed to do the vision check, pay the 2400 yen fee at window number 10, just below on the first floor, and come back to Window Number 26. (DO NOT go to window number 25 and attempt to pay the application fee if it is between 11 am and 1 pm because there is a chance that it will be staffed by a clueless person that will tell you that you must wait until 1 pm to continue. This is not true.)

The vision check and detour to window number 25 took about 10 minutes. Not long after returning, I was called in to take my knowledge test in the room behind Window Number 26. As I walked in to the testing room, there was a guy who had just failed and was being admonished for not studying and wasting money since he'd have to pay the fee again next time he took the test.

The format was simple: There was a statement and you hit a "yes" or "no" button on the touch screen computer. "It is OK to drive after consuming small amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs." "No."

I didn't fail.

Honestly, I don't remember what the rest of the test consisted of, but there were tricky questions that attempted to confuse. Frankly, I understand why people spend so much money on driving school here. It is not to learn to drive but learn to pass the test, which is similar to the format of the USCG captain's license tests.

Next, it was on to station number 9, which is the registration area for the driving test. There were three slots still available at Samezu, two at 8:30 am, one at 1 pm. I chose the 1 pm slot. At this point, I received the IC card, appointment card, and the English study sheet.

Day 1 time at Samezu: 2 hours 15 minutes
Total testing time (vision, knowledge): 10 - 15 minutes
Casulty rate: Probably very low though did see one person fail.

On the second day, I got there a bit early at 12:30 for my 1 pm test. Prior to taking the driving test, an examiner detailed the course, though you do not need to memorize this because the examiner will tell you where to go. However, you need to know the Japanese for right, left, straight, and traffic light, as well as the numbers 1 - 20. ("Go right then proceed straight to number 3."). You will be asked to ride in the back seat while another person takes the test. If you are the very first person to drive, then you won't have the benefit of watching someone else go through the test first.

The examiner also explained in detail what we needed to do to pass, as well as what would cause us to fail. Not stopping at the line at stop signs and flashing red lights, running over a curb (and keep going), driving on the wrong side of the road, cross a yellow line, hitting something, running a red light/stop sign, i.e., the big stuff would fail you immediately. There will be other cars on the track at the same time.

Try not to get too nervous and do something dumb. Imagine the course is a real road.

To pass, do everything you would normally do (for the most part). Signal, check your mirrors and look over your shoulder when changing lanes. At a stop sign, look right, then left, then right again. Drive in the far left lane on four lane roads (two lanes each direction). On the (very) tight S curves, it is OK if you hit the curb as long as you back up (safely) and complete the turn without completely running over the inside curve or hitting the outside barriers that are simulating a wall or building.

The examiners don't care what you do with your shifting hand when not shifting, nor do they care if you put it in neutral or engage the clutch when stopped. When turning right from a two-lane road onto a four-lane road (two lanes in each direction), you may turn directly into the far left lane. You do not have to shout out stuff line "migi yoshi!" nor must you exaggeratedly sight out each stop sign, curve, or pylon with you finger.

On one of the outer straightaways, you will be asked to accelerate to 45 km/h. Aside from that, just go slow. In fact, you can't go too slow. Someone driving the AT car in front of me was going so slow that I caught up to them not even halfway though the course. This was mainly because they had, for unknown reasons, stopped at a green light. For about 15 seconds. They finally decided to go just before the light turned yellow, leaving me to wait out the long red light. I caught back up in the S-curves where this person came to a complete stop, again, in the middle of the "road." This person finally entered the S curves and drove them excruciatingly slowly.

This person passed and I resisted the urge to use the horn.

If you fail, your reward is to leave immediately after making another reservation and paying another 2400 yen. If you pass, you'll be there for another 3 hours while everything gets processed (until around 4 pm for the afternoon session) but you only pay 2100 yen.

Day 2 time at Samezu: 3 hours 30 minutes
Total testing time (driving): 5 - 10 minutes (time it takes to drive 1200 m with a very slow car in front of you.)
Casulty rate: 50% (4 of 8 failed; 2 passed AT, 2 passed MT).
First time pass rate: At least 75% of those who passed (confirmed with two of the three other people that it was their first time to take the test. One person had paid money for practice sessions.) 37.5% - 50% of total (3 to 4 people / 8 people total)


JAF foreign license conversion page (J)
JAF foreign license translation application (PDF E and J champuru)
JAF metro Tokyo location map (google map)

Tokyo police department information page (J)
Tokyo Police conversion information (PDF; E)

Prefectural testing centers
Links to all prefectural police departments (J)
List of all testing centers in Japan (as of 2008) (J) or in Google Doc format
Referring page (J) for the list of testing centers (for when the above link dies next time the file is updated since the NPA thoughtfully put the year in the file name). Click on link called "各都道府県警察等の運転適性相談窓口".

Tokyo testing centers
Samezu location map (google map)
Fuchu location map (google map)
Koto location map (google map)


  1. Hmm, so the countries in that exemption list don't actually need to do a driving test, is that right?

    In that case, it's probably worth it for me to convert my license before I need to renew it. I never drive and we don't own a car so I don't really need it or anything, but if it's that simple then I might as well, just in case.

  2. Thanks for reminding me that I forgot to include the exemption list, which I just did (after putting it in English alphabetical order as opposed to the katakana order in the PDF).

    Yes, that is all you have to do. You can also do it at Koto, though I imagine Samezu will be less busy for the next five years. Wait, you're in Osaka, right? Never mind. Whatever. Anyways..

    Anyways, it will be that easy. The driving and waiting associated with the driving probably accounted for an hour on the second day, so add about 2 hours to the amount of time I was at Samezu on the first day for a rough guestimate of how long it will take you, assuming all things being equal.

  3. Super advice about navigating the S-Curves.
    I didn't know that you should back up if you hit the curb and it caused me to fail my first try.
    Somehow I managed to go through it without hitting any curbs on try #2...albeit VERY SLOWLY.
    I've been driving in Tokyo for 5 or 6 years now...still find the intersections that are only controlled by a signal on one of the streets (the other street just has a stop sign) confusing...
    ...other than that driving around town is great...super cautious drivers everywhere.

  4. The examiner explained in the briefing that we could back up if we cut it too sharp and started to hit the curb. Then he reiterated it when I decided to test out the theory ;-)

  5. "If it does and you renew prior to converting it to a Japanese license, you will be required to remain out of Japan for three months or be subjected to the above mentioned horrific and expensive process."

    This isn't correct. If your current license is not your first but only carries the date of issuance of that license (not the date you were first licensed) you can obtain (and get translated) a certified copy of your driving record to substantiate the three month requirement. Obviously this takes time and adds expense to the process, but it's well worth it.

  6. Technically you are correct. I should have stated that a driver abstract from your country will suffice.

    Getting it would be a real hassle and require a trip back to the US. Also, not to mention that the US has one DMV for every state and territory, each with their own rules.

    My point was that if you are thinking about converting to a Japanese license but your foreign license is up for renewal soon, it would be to your advantage to convert before renewal, as opposed to after.

  7. French driving license here. No written test, and no driving test to get a JP driving license. Just have to pay, and take the vision test (and wait a lot). 3 months residency in France can be proven with the passport.

    Also, license translation can be done at the french embassy (for french driving licenses only, obviously), and it's cheaper than doing it with JAF.

    So maybe it's that easy for all countries in the exception list above.

  8. Oh, I need to look back over that. I thought you guys still had to take the 10 question exam, but you didn't? Very simple then. No reason not to do it. It probably depends on the embassy. The US embassy is overwhelmed on any given day with the number of people needing services that they just can't do translations (and also probably don't want to take the responsibility as well).

  9. I have a British license and it was very easy for me. Got it all done in about 3 hours. I can't remember all the details - there was an eye test, forms to fill out, documents to bring. Nothing too unreasonable. No driving test and no written test though. I guess I'm lucky to be on that exception list. I wonder what the requirements are for a nation to get on that list.

  10. I haven't dealt with a US DMV directly but I did live in California for a year. I encountered some shocking drivers who claimed they had a license. It seemed that the standards for acquiring a license weren't as high as they are in other countries (and perhaps other states too). Would you agree with that or is my anecdotal evidence way off?

    I've never enjoyed driving as much as I did in the US though. It was so easy.

  11. That's the thing. Every where we go, the drivers are worse than where we came from. People in state/country X never use turn signals... ;-)

    The standards are pretty much the same throughout the US, though each state administers it's own testing programs. Large and congested cities in the US are known for having rude drivers - "road rage" and all that.

    So it is probably less an issue of actual skill and more an issue of manner.

  12. BTW, forgot to thank you for this in-depth rundown. We had a bit of a "changing of the guard" retirement exodus at work on one of the local U.S. bases, and many were unaware of the new rules. These guys have houses and lives rooted here in Japan. It used to be that as long as your U.S. driver's license had been issued at least one year prior to you trying to get a Japanese license, you could turn in your U.S. Forces Japan driver's license plus show stateside license, and just get issued a Japanese license (maybe some extra minor steps).

    A lot of these people are real expats - haven't spent enough cumulative time back stateside _In_The_State_That_Issued_Their_Driver's_License_ . To top it off, some states, like Hawaii, do not stamp U.S. citizens' passport UNLESS YOU SPECIFICALLY ASK FOR ONE. Without the stamps, can't even prove the time you did spend there, because it doesn't show where you went >.>

    So at the end of the day, these guys, who may have been driving in Japan for 30+ years, either have to pay for the ¥300,000 driving course - or spend three months somewhere in the States - then come back.

  13. I need to edit this post to reflect that if you get a copy of your driving abstract from your state DMV, that will suffice. Getting one could be a pain depending on your state, though. I asked specifically about the US that doesn't stamp us in and out. The guys at Samezu said they'd add up the time accountable by entry/exit stamps and assign the rest to the US, so it *may* not be a problem. But then again, a lot seems to depend on who you get at the counter. Best to do it all before you have to deal with any of the above.

  14. European licence drive, I went to Jaf, after I went to Police fill out application form, take a very quick vision test, photo and after 45 minute I had my new licence drive, total time 1.5 hours (Jaf+Police). ^_^

  15. This article seems very helpful, I've been meaning to apply for a Japanese License for a while. I have a quick question though that may seem really stupid, but do I need both parts of my license? i.e. the card and the paper counterpart? because I left the paper part in the UK, I could never really figure out what it was for. I have a still valid international license though, would that be enough?

    Anyway thanks very much for all the info!

  16. updated (finally) to include information from commenters primarily regarding 1) getting a driving record from the that issued your license and 2) requirements for holders of licenses issued by countries exempted from the tests (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland).

  17. Having an international license won't help you at all.

    As far at the two parts of a UK license, the short answer is I don't know because I am not familiar with UK licenses. Perhaps a UK driver is still watching these comments and can clarify 100% for you.

    I assume that you don't need it. If you don't need the paper part when you drive in the UK and when you applied in the UK for the intl license, then the chances are higher that you don't need it in Japan. If you can drive in Australia without the paper part, just the UK card, then increase those chances yet again.

    A quick trip to JAF, if there is one in your area, is perhaps in order.

  18. Sorry for such a slow reply but I finally got a round to sorting it out today and just in case any UK drivers stumble across this, it appears you do need the paper counterpart to your license as well as its translation to apply for the Japanese License.

    Also for anyone going to the Kanagawa Driving Centre in Futamatagawa, I don't know if this is similar at other centres, but you need to hand in your various documents between 8.30-9am or 1-1.30pm, if you miss these timeslots you will be asked to come back later. Also only the first 13 people who arrive at either time slot will be accepted everyone else will have to come back later. However I arrived at 12.30 and the sign up sheet was already available, it was removed very punctually at 1.30 though and two Korean gentlemen who arrived around 2 where turned away.

    Hope that helps. Thanks SBSdroid for all the info!

  19. Thanks for posting back with the update!

  20. While this article is helpful for those who already have overseas licenses - it should be pointed out that for anyone else, they have to take the whole drawn out testing procedure, and spend thousands of USD, plus lots of time. Even for those who followed the process above to "convert" a foreign license to a Japanese one, if you let it expire - even by one day - you won't be able to renew it, and you will have to go through the full procedure. If you are lucky enough to have a usable foreign license, make sure you renew your shiny Japanese one before the expiration date, or you will be in for a lot of work.

  21. I studied pretty hard before taking the driving test. I was fortunate to pass the first time. I've written up how I prepared and put together a map of the course that I hope will be helpful. This is for the Futamatagawa course.