Guidelines to obtaining a Japanese Driver’s Licence
By Akilah Bel & Catherine White
Obtaining a Japanese driver’s licence is par for the course for driving in Japan. Whether you are lucky enough to come from a country with a driving agreement with Japan, for example, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada or New Zealand, which means you don’t need to take the aptitude or driving test, or whether you hail from a country that needs to take the tests, there are still several steps that you need to take. Although there are a plethora of sites giving detailed information, and a previous article from former Hiroshima JET Vivien Tsuong on taking the driving test, we’ve decided to update the information to reflect recent changes. So let’s take a look at what we need to do to complete a 外国免許切替え gaikoku menkyo kirikae (foreign license exchange).
First, and most importantly, you should try to obtain a copy of the “Rules of the Road“. It is available in English from the JAF for a nominal fee or in digital format on several ebook platforms. See: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/road.htm
Even though most of the information in it is common sense, it is still a good idea to familiarise yourself with Japanese traffic laws and how they might differ from your own country. Don’t rely on pulling the gaijin card, i.e, feigning ignorance because you didn’t know something, to escape traffic violations.
Where can you exchange your licence?
In Hiroshima prefecture, there are two main driving centres at which you can exchange your licence; the main office, located in Hiroshima city or the East office, located in Fukuyama city.
Hiroshima Driver’s Licence Centre 広島運転免許センタ
Ishi-uchi, Minami 3-1-1
Higashi Hiroshima Driver`s Licence Centre 東広島運転免許センタ
Seto-cho, Saboku 54-2,
**Note** this telephone connects you to the main office; you need to ask to be transferred to the East Office for the Fukuyama Branch.
Both offices handle gaikoku menkyo kirikae (foreign license exchange) business Mon-Fri from 8:30am-9:00am or 1:00pm-1:30pm (holidays excluded).
Be prepared to spend the entire day at the office, so you may need to use nenkyu or daikyu (vacation days) to complete the process. Also, please note that as the main office in Hiroshima is often extremely busy and only three foreign nationals are allowed to take the driving test in the morning and afternoon respectively, waiting times can be very long. While the Fukuyama branch is generally less hectic, the same three foreigners per session rule is adhered to, and at peak seasons, primarily March through April and June through August, it is more difficult to schedule appointments. You should therefore aim to start the licence exchange process as soon as possible to avoid difficulties with securing a Japanese licence before the expiration of your IDP (International Driving Permit).
Obtaining a translation of your Driver’s licence in Japanese
A translation of your license is an integral part of the driver’s licence exchange process. There are two ways to obtain a translation of your licence.
- OFFICE VISIT
You will need:
- Application Form
- Original driver’s licence
- ¥3,000 (issuance fee)
Take these items to the office located at:
Japan Automobile Federation (JAF)
2-9-3 Kogokita Nishi-ku
Registration: Monday to Friday 9am-5pm
- BY MAIL
- Application Form**
- A clear photocopy of your driver’s licence (front and back in colour)
- ¥3,000 (issuance fee)
- ¥392 (return postage)
Since you are going to be sending money via mail, a special envelope is needed. I asked one of my JTEs to write the message for me in kanji and showed it to the clerk. I paid the money in full and a special slip of paper went inside along with my items. They used a special envelope called a 現金書留封筒 genkin-kakitome futo (cash registration envelope) and it was sent as registered mail 書留郵便 kakitome. The fee for both of these was less than ¥1000. Mail these items to:
Japan Automobile Federation (JAF)
2-9-3 Kogokita Nishi-ku
**Note** Don’t forget to include your Japanese address as the return address on the application form.
Please be aware that whether you are from a country with or without an agreement, you will have to provide proof that you lived in the country where your licence was issued for three months consecutively after the licence was issued. Usually passport entry and exit stamps are used to confirm this information, but if you do not have these stamps, you will need to take other forms of documentation to prove this, for example tax statements, bills or some kind of official documentation issued from the country where the license was issued.
Also, it might be a good idea to brush up on the names of countries in Japanese. While they were going through my passport, they made a note of each country I had visited. I have never been so happy in my life that I had switched to a new passport before coming to Japan. My list was relatively short, but I had no idea how to write Trinidad in Katakana. We spent a good ten minutes trying to work it out. Another important tip is to be prepared to explain how long you’ve had your licence and how the renewal process works in your country. I was asked detailed questions about how I was tested for my licence and had to explain that it consisted of a written and driving test, but no physical health exam.
Furthermore, my licence states the initial date of issuance, but not how often it was renewed. I therefore had to explain, the renewal procedures of my country. All of this was written on the licence application form and added to my file, so if your Japanese speaking ability is not the strongest, try to take a friend with you to help. Be warned, initial paperwork can take over an hour or longer, so just be patient.
OBTAINING YOUR LICENCE
Countries with a Driving Agreement with Japan
For those of us hailing from countries with a licencing agreement with Japan, including but not limited to the UK, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand (see full list here) the steps for exchanging your foreign licence to a Japanese one are pretty simple. The most important thing to remember is to take ALL documents required with you. Forget one thing and you will have to leave and return.
Documents you will need.
- Home country driver’s licence
- Japanese translation of Driver’s licence
- Zairyu card (Residence card)
- Certificate of Residence (jyumin-ho) (obtained from City hall with your nationality written on it)
- Photos (3cm x 2.4cm) **While the centre does have facilities to take them on the day, it’s strongly advisable to take them in advance to be on the safe side. You can get them at most photo booths**
- Documents to prove you lived in the country where your licence was issued for three months consecutively after obtaining licence.
- Previous Japanese Licence (if you have one)
- Hanko (Personal Stamp)
- Money (take 6,000yen to be safe)
With these items in hand, go to one of the driving centres and ask at information for the gaimen kirikae. It is located on the second floor of both offices, but if you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask where it is.
Usually, there are employees standing at the entrance way to the registration desk and once you hand the paper work to them, they will point you in the correct direction. After that, you just wait and follow the directions given.
Non- Agreement Countries
The process for converting a driver’s licence requires taking a written test and a driving test. However, before going to the licensing office, there are several key documents you need to have to hand:
- Original Home Country Driver’s Licence
- Japanese translation of the Driver’s Licence
- Zairyu Card (Residence Card)
- Residence Certificate (jyumin-ho) (obtained from City Hall with you nationality on it)
- Photo (size 3cm x 2.4cm)
- Documents to prove you lived in the country for three months consecutively after obtaining licence.
- Hanko (Personal Stamp)
- Money (about 5,000 yen)
On the bright side, after all that initial paperwork is done you will be taken to do the written test. First, you will need to pay a fee of 2,200 yen. After that, you go to a room and take a very simple TRUE/FALSE test. The questions are pretty much common sense, but since you’ve also read the Rules of the Road, you will have zero trouble. The test is available in several languages, though I have to admit the English translation was not the best. Thankfully, it was not too difficult to discern the questions meanings since they were also accompanied by pictures. You have ten (10) minutes to complete ten (10) questions and everyone I’ve spoken to has finished way before the time was up.
Upon completion of the written test, they will check the answers and if you’ve passed, you will take your driving test immediately after. You will not have to pay for this test the first time, but every other time you return to take the test it costs 2,200 yen.
The driving test is where things get a little trickier. Though it is not a difficult course, it is quite easy for you to fail the test. As one friend stated, “Forget about how well you know to drive since the test doesn’t test driving ability. It tests your ability to do the allotted things on the driving test.” It is as simple as that.
There are several good sites with detailed steps on how to prep for the driving test, which are included in the previous article by Vivien Tsuong and in the Hiroshima JET Guidebook. So, I won’t go into details about all of them. They all mention observing other drivers taking the test with you if you can, but since I went to the Fukuyama branch in non-peak seasons, the first three times I took the test, I was the only person taking the test. Unfortunately, I couldn’t observe others driving, to see what mistakes I was making. I therefore took a lesson at a driving school to help. It was extremely useful and I would definitely recommend doing it if you can.
In addition, the invigilators of the tests always ask if you’ve gone to driving school. A negative answer seems to increase the number of times you have to retake the test. Another important point to bear in mind is attitude. Smiling, being polite, trying to use some Japanese goes a long way in helping you with the test. Finally, be prepared to fail the first time. Don’t be disheartened and keep a positive attitude while taking the test.
FAILING THE TEST
After you’ve finished driving, the invigilator will ask the others in the car to leave and tell you the mistakes that you made. Remember to be gracious and patient when they are giving their advice no matter how frustrated you are. They will also usually immediately tell you that you have failed. You can then go back upstairs to the second floor and schedule your next appointment.
PASSING THE TEST
Congratulations on passing the test. It was hard work, but well worth it. Similar to those who have failed the test, the invigilator will ask everyone to leave the car and give you feedback; however, they might not tell you immediately that you have passed. In my case, I wasn’t told that I had passed in the car. I found out I went back to the second floor and started preparing to make another appointment.
VISION AND MOTOR SKILL TEST
After passing the test, you are taken to another room where your motor flexibility and vision are tested. For the motor skills, I had to do hand and foot rotations followed by squats, nothing strenuous, just a little weird. After that, my vision was tested. I found it was a shorter version of the eye test conducted during teacher health exams in my city.
Upon completion of those tests, they took me to the photo booth, where my photo was taken. I had to select two four digit PIN numbers, although I am uncertain as to what they were for. After that, I paid for my license at the cashier, which was an additional 2,200yen. With the fee paid, I was issued a license. After that, it was time to skip merrily out of the licensing office to driving freedom.