Getting your license converted to a Japanese license is not as intimidating as it sounds. If you are from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, or the UK, you are exempt from the licensing exams. All you need to do is complete the paperwork.
Whether you are exempt from the exams or not, you will need to make an appointment at your local licensing center, or untenmenkyo center (運転免許センター). Depending on your prefecture, you may need an actual appointment, or they may give you a broad schedule. I was told to come any time within certain hours on certain days. If you have to take the exams, you may need to schedule those separately. Some centers do not allow you to do everything on the same day.
What You Need
Your valid license – If you do not have a valid license, you will need to go through the same licensing process as a Japanese citizen. There are driving schools that can help you, though they tend to be expensive.
An official translation of your license – You can get official translations through JAF, though some countries are not covered by JAF, so please check online before going to a JAF office.
Your passport – Your passport should prove that you lived in the country where you got your license and that you had 90 days in that country with the license. If you renewed your passport or changed information in your passport, you will need to bring in your old passport, too.
Your zairyu card – You need to make sure that you are at the licensing center for the prefecture where you live. For example, if you live in Northern Mie, you still need to go to the Mie licensing center in Tsu, even though the Aichi center in Nagoya may be closer.
Previous licenses – You need to prove that you’ve had your license longer than 90 days. They also want to cross check your driving history with your passport. If the license you have was renewed right before you came to Japan, and you do not have proof that you had a previous license, you could be turned away. In proving that you have an extensive driving history in your home country, you get the added benefit of not being required to display the beginning driver magnet on your car.
An official copy of your juminhyo (住民票) – This may not be entirely necessary as most prefecture licensing centers will be looking at your passport and other types of identification. Check with your licensing center.
Money – The average cost of a normal license is about 5,000 yen.
A Japanese speaker – If you do not speak Japanese, you may need to ask a friend to come with you. Most prefectures lack the resources to provide foreign language help. While most prefectures have language options for the written test, the practical exam and all the paperwork, instructions, and so on will be in Japanese.
At the center, make sure to ask and confirm where you need to go. Most centers have many different windows and counters. After your documents are all looked over, you may be able to schedule your tests. If you are from one of the exempt countries, you will simply get an eye test and your picture taken.
The Written Test
All of the laws, regulations, and other information on the written test can be found in Rules of the Road, published by JAF. At about 1000 yen, the book is informative and worth the price if you can’t borrow a copy. Some libraries or schools have English language copies.
Knowledge of both manual and automatic transmission is important for the written test, even if you are only testing for the automatic license. While the practical test will differ greatly, the written test was a short set of true/false questions that applied to both. For example, what gear should you be in or how should you avoid stalling on train tracks? If you don’t know, then you may want to check up on those rules just to be safe.
The Practical Test
Now, the practical test is neither intuitive nor easy, as blogger Kyle Von Lanken pointed out here. Out of the 20 or so that took the test that day, only 3 of us got our licenses. I attribute my success to extensively researching how to take the test. It really comes down to how well you take the test, not how well you can drive.
Each prefecture runs the practical test a bit differently. Some centers let you do a practice run, while others don’t. Some centers change the course regularly, while others have the same course every time. It all depends on the center.
However, be aware that almost all center’s courses feature the train crossing, an S curve, a Z with right corners (aka. The Crank), and a straight speeding zone. For manual transmission tests, you can be certain you will also have a hill. Knowing what the standard obstacles are will help you eliminate the element of surprise and any related anxiety. Some centers will allow you to practice these obstacles prior to your test, some only on a different day for a fee. If you lack an IDP and can’t practice on narrow roads, watching online videos may help.
Be aware that potentially any problem could be grounds for failure, even if it may not be. I have heard stories of people being failed for seemingly small transgressions, like not checking for imaginary pedestrians or cats under the car prior to getting in the car or if you go the exact speed limit, they can get you for going over by a hair.
I have also heard of people passing the test in spite of hitting curbs. While I can’t verify any of this, the internet is full of surprising failure and success stories that you can learn from. I erred on the side of caution and passed on the first try. It’s not impossible.
A Note About The IDP
If you are coming to Japan for only a year, you can use an International Driving Permit (IDP) if your home country issues them. If not, your country may have an agreement with Japan to use a translation of your driver’s license. An IDP is not meant to be a medium or long term substitute for a Japanese license. It also cannot legally be obtained or renewed in Japan, with renewals illegal in general.
According to the Tokyo Police Office, if you leave Japan while registered as a resident, and you return with a new IDP, that IDP is not valid. The office cites both Japanese and foreign individuals taking advantage of the system by using IDPs after having their Japanese licenses revoked.