A Japanese driver’s license may seem unnecessary to anyone living in a large city. Places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya have great public transportation systems, so driving is easily avoided. On the off chance you can’t get to your destination by train, there’s definitely a bus within walking distance of where you’d like to go.
But public transportation accessibility drops off considerably outside of major cities. If you’re in a smaller city or town, sometimes there’re only a few buses a day. In some particularly rural areas, you may be several kilometers from the closest bus stop and it may only come once a day for commuters. Your IC card may not work in these places.
If you live in rural Japan, or if you’re looking to visit it, driving will probably be your best option for getting around.
The Basics of Driving in Japan
I highly recommend brushing up on Japanese driving laws before getting on the road. Kyushu has a good summary online, but the Japanese police department has a more comprehensive version. You can obtain a full version of the road laws in English from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), but it costs 1,404 yen.
Driving laws vary by country and ignorance is no excuse. For instance, turning at red lights in Japan is prohibited unless it’s specifically authorized. Driving with any amount of alcohol in your system will be grounds for license confiscation. Signage may be very different from what you’re used to.
The switch from right to left can be problematic, especially for older drivers. Expressways have high tolls to discourage individuals from driving long distances alone. These tolls vary, but I’ve personally had a 9,000 yen toll payment when I drove from Saitama to just north of Sendai.
Japan also has hazards that may not be present in your home country. Particularly narrow streets, cyclists, motorbike traffic, and a lack of pedestrian walkways combine to form a hazardous driving environment. If an accident (koutsuujiko: 交通事故), should occur, fault is on both parties. The police will determine fault percentage.
A particularly startling rule in Japan is that if a strong earthquake hits and requires you to leave your car, you must leave your car unlocked with your keys in the ignition. This is so emergency workers can both check your car quickly for survivors and move the vehicle if needed.
Driving culture is substantially different. Many find that Japanese drivers, even in large cities, tend to be more conscientious than in their home countries. It’s customary to “thank” other drivers who are polite (like letting you merge into their lane) by using your emergency flashers briefly. They may also give a small honk of their horn to thank you.
In areas with lots of snow, such as the Tohoku and Hokkaido regions of Japan, roads may be temporarily closed by heavy snowfall. Make sure you know how to put chains on your tires if you live in one of these areas or plan to visit in winter.
Driving Temporarily with an International Driving Permit
If you’re already licensed to drive in your home country, you can look into obtaining an International Driving Permit (IDP). While most countries honor IDPs, you should look into seeing whether or not your country issues them.
Tourists will need to obtain an IDP before being able to rent a car in Japan. You cannot obtain one in Japan, so you need to apply for one before coming to Japan. A list of countries that accept IDPs, as well as an application form for US citizens, can be found here.
In Japan, the IDP is considered a temporary solution until you can obtain a Japanese driver’s license. You can only drive with one for a maximum of one year starting from the date of entry into Japan, or until the permit’s expiration date, whichever comes first. You will need to keep your foreign license with you as well.
Converting to a Japanese License
The application process is called gaimen-kirikae (外免切替). Your license from your home country must be valid at the time of application. You must also prove that you stayed in your home country for at least three months after receiving your license, so I don’t recommend renewing it right before you leave. Most driver’s licenses have a date of issuance, so obtaining proof shouldn’t be a problem.
You will need a formal translation of your license from your home country. Some embassies and consular offices provide these translations, but I know the American embassy does not. I obtained my translation from JAF for a reasonable cost of about 3,000 yen.
Required documents vary depending on your prefecture. Some require your residency certificate (juminhyou or 住民票), your passport, your license from your home country, a certified translation of your license, and two Japanese-style passport photos (these photos are used for your application, not your actual driver’s license).
When I applied, the Saitama office required me to bring my passport, my residence card, my American license, and the translation of my license. I don’t think I needed to bring any photos, since they took my photo there, but I have heard of people needing them. You will need to have a specific amount of pictures depending on the prefecture you are applying in. Areas like Nara or Kanagawa require just one photo, but other places like Oita Prefecture requires two. Please prepare accordingly.
The process splits at this point and I’ve divided it into two categories.
Countries with Bilateral Agreements with Japan
At the time of this article, the countries with bilateral agreements with Japan are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Kingdom of Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United State of America (States of Hawaii, Maryland and Washington only), and Taiwan
The US states of Hawaii (joined on January 1st, 2019), Maryland, and Washington also have independent bilateral agreements with Japan. Why just these three, and not all of the US? They are some of the few states that have mandatory driving school requirements to obtain a license. Most US states do not have this requirement or they allow exemptions for certain situations, which does not fit Japan’s strict standards.
If you have a license issued by one of these countries or states, you do not need to take the written test or the practical exam. You will need to visit your local license center with the previously mentioned required documents.
You must take an eye and physical test before your Japanese license will be issued. Eyesight requirements may be stricter in Japan than in your home country. Some tests also ask for color identification (such as green, yellow, and red. FYI -in Japan, a green light is actually called “ao” in Japanese, which translates to “blue.”), so make sure you know those words in Japanese. I can legally drive without glasses in the US, but Japan requires I wear glasses.
Countries without an Agreement
In the event that the issuing entity of your license is not listed, don’t worry too much. You probably won’t have to start from scratch. Most likely, you’ll just be required to take the written and practical exams in addition to the vision and physical tests.
Some exam centers allow you to take a practice run on the course first. I recommend signing up for this if the option is available. It’ll help get rid of the surprise of the course, which can alleviate some of your testing anxiety.
I should probably also tell you that it’s pretty rare to pass on your first try. This seems to be especially true of tests taken at private companies that offer driving courses (hint: they may be financially motivated). As such, my first recommendation would be to take your driver’s license exam at the prefectural office instead of at a private company.
You can also pick your office. I chose the Saitama office because there would be fewer applicants than at the office in Shinjuku and I wanted shorter wait times. I think more rural offices may have slightly more relaxed standards, but this is my personal opinion.
No License in Your Home Country?
If you don’t have a license in your home country and you want to get a Japanese driver’s license, you’ll need to first be a resident of Japan. Tourists cannot get a Japanese license.
The process is, overall, much quicker than I thought. It can take as little as 1–2 months to obtain your full license. However, it is incredibly expensive. Driving courses usually cost around 300,000 yen, but the tuition varies depending on the school.
It is expensive, but driving courses are mandatory in Japan. They include formal driving instruction, classes on driving laws, and CPR training.
There are some schools that offer courses in English, but these are clustered in major cities. However, most exam centers provide test options in English. The wording of the test questions can be quite convoluted.
Is Driving in Japan Worth It? Absolutely!
Getting my Japanese driver’s license opened a lot of doors for me. It’s a rare enough certification that it can boost any job application and I was hired at two different positions because I had a license.
You can see parts of rural Japan that you may not have been able to otherwise—I was able to visit Hiraizumi, Yamadera, rural Nagano, and Mount Zao as a result of having my license.
Have you recently obtained your Japanese driver’s license? Did you have an exam story you wanted to share? Drop us a comment below!
Foreigners are only able to drive on an international driver license for up to 12 months. After that, foreign drivers must apply for and receive a Japanese driver license.How do I get a Japanese driving Licence? ›
You can download an application form from the JAF website and then head to the nearest office. You need your foreign license, a copy of your residence card, and the application form. The translation costs about ¥3,000 and takes about a week for the translation to be mailed to your residence.How much does it cost to get Japanese drivers license? ›
The average costs for driving schools are 240,000 – 330,000 yen for an automatic license and 250,000 -340,000 yen for a manual license. This includes such things as driving lessons, materials, lectures, the cost of a provisional learner's license, and the practical driving test.Does Japan accept US driver's license? ›
I will explain if anybody who has the driver's license issued by The United States of America is allowed to drive in Japan. Yes, all international driving permit (IDP) issued under the 1949 Geneva Convention and the specific format. To drive a vehicle legally in Japan, you will need a driver's license.Can US citizen drive in Japan? ›
To drive in Japan, an international drivers permit is required for US citizens. Although extra steps must be taken to get a permit, the process is relatively simple. There are different regulations and rules depending on the country in which you reside, so please check with your countries regulations and procedures.How hard is it to get a license in Japan? ›
You'll need to score at least 45 out of 50 to pass. Next, you'll need to pass a practical driving course at an accredited driving school on one of their on-site courses. Once you obtain the permit, you will be able to move beyond the driving school and do practical lessons out on public roads.How can an American get a Japanese license? ›
For Americans, it's a simple process. Download and fill out an application, bring it to a AAA office along with two passport pictures and a valid US driver's license, pay the $20 fee, and voila! Every country has a similarly easy process, so check with yours to see what you need to do.How long does it take to get a Japanese drivers license? ›
If you're commuting to a driving school, it usually takes about two to three months to complete the course. With an overall cost of about 300,000 yen and taking over two months until completion, some may think getting a driver's license in Japan is too difficult.Can you take the Japanese driving test in English? ›
The written test tests your knowledge of the basic safe driving and Japanese rules. It is available in English, as well as several other languages (varies by license center).Is driving easy in Japan? ›
Roads in Japan are in excellent conditions and easy to navigate. Most road signs are in both Japanese and English— though many warning signs like “Danger” are in Japanese. People in Japan are very well-mannered as you probably know, and that applies to drivers too.
Driving licenses issued by the authorities of Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Switzerland, and Taiwan are valid in Japan under the following conditions: 1. Your license is attached to a Japanese translation provided by the authorities that are stipulated by the applicable cabinet order.How long is a Japanese license valid for? ›
Japanese License Renewal
Japanese driver's licenses must be renewed every few years. The validity period of the license is 3 years for new drivers and for drivers who incurred penalty points on their previous license, and 5 years for drivers who avoided incurring points.
Visa Free Travel for U.S. Citizen Tourists
Passengers who have been fully vaccinated and boosted with vaccines approved by the Japanese government and who are arriving in Japan after October 11, 2022, will not require a pre-travel COVID-19 test.
In Japan, the legal adult age is 20. Japanese law prohibits individuals under the age of 20 to drink alcohol or smoke. Regardless of age, you must not force anyone to drink or smoke as it may cause serious health and social consequences.What countries is a US driver's license valid? ›
In Canada and Mexico, American drivers' licenses are generally perfectly valid. Many other countries may also recognize a U.S. driver's license, but only for a limited time.How long can I stay in Japan as a US citizen? ›
You must have a valid passport and an onward/return ticket for tourist/business "visa free" stays of up to 90 days. Your passport must be valid for the entire time you are staying in Japan. You cannot work on a 90-day "visa free" entry.Does a US ID work in Japan? ›
Legally speaking, there's only one legal ID for foreigners in Japan: your passport.What is Japan's speed limit? ›
Legal speed limits in Japan are “60km/h on normal roads” and “100km/h on expressways.” It is prohibited to drive a car at the speed exceeding the legal limit even if there is no traffic sign for speed regulation. Yellow solid line in center means “No Crossing.”Which country has the hardest driving license? ›
The most difficult tests to pass
In China, the theory test contains 100 questions and requires you to memorise 1,000 in total. There are then two separate practical assessments, followed by a final theory test. New drivers in Croatia must attend 70-100 hours of mandatory driving school before attempting their test.
This difficulty is because many Japanese traffic rules are distinct from those of other countries--even from those countries in which one drives on the left side of the road. The moment you have your license, you are out and about in the real world on real roads.
The easiest country for a foreigner to get a local driver's license might be the Philippines. Foreigners from most countries need only a valid licensed issued somewhere else along with a brief application and fee, typically in cash.Can an American get dual citizenship in Japan? ›
U.S. law does not contain any provisions requiring U.S. Citizens who are born with dual nationality to choose one nationality or the other when they become adults. Choosing Japanese nationality has no affect on U.S. citizenship. I am a dual citizen and wish to change my name to match my Japanese passport.Is it hard for an American to learn Japanese? ›
The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.Is Japanese residency hard to get? ›
To qualify for permanent residency within one to five years of living in Japan, you will need to score a minimum of 70 points. Those with a score of 80 points or higher are eligible to obtain permanent residency after just one year.Can I drive in California with Japanese license? ›
Yes. If you have a current valid driver's license from a foreign country, you can legally drive in California.What is the hardest Japanese language test? ›
The JLPT has five levels: N1, N2, N3, N4 and N5. The easiest level is N5 and the most difficult level is N1. N4 and N5 measure the level of understanding of basic Japanese mainly learned in class. N1and N2 measure the level of understanding of Japanese used in a broad range of scenes in actual everyday life.Is there a Japanese speaking test? ›
The JPT (Japanese Proficiency) Test has been developed for Japanese learners who do not speak Japanese as their native tongue. The purpose of the JPT (Japanese Proficiency Test) is to objectively measure and evaluate communication skills required for enrollment and employment in Japan.Is it easy to live in Japan without a car? ›
Transportation is expansive and efficient.
It is easy to live in Japan without a car. Trains and buses run regularly. The high-speed Shinkansen train, also known as the “bullet train”, moves riders throughout the country at speeds of up to 240-320 km/h (150-200 mph).
In Japan, vehicles usually drive on the left-hand side of the road. Be sure to obey any signs that indicate a speed limit. The legal speed limit is 60 km per hour on general roads and 100 km per hour on expressways.Can tourists drive in Japan? ›
Foreigners can drive in Japan with an International Driving Permit (IDP) for a maximum of one year, even if the IDP is valid for a longer period. After the one year period, it is not possible to use an International Driving Permit again unless you leave Japan for at least three consecutive months in between.
In essence, driving on the left has little to do with cars. Quite the contrary, it's all for the convenience of the samurai and Japanese road usage logic. You see, at the time of the samurai, city streets and footpaths were quite narrow. In addition, most samurai were right-handed and wore their katana on the left.What is gold license in Japan? ›
' This license is for drivers who have had 5 years or more with no traffic violations. It is valid for 5 years. Renewal of your license must be done within one month before or after your birthday in the relevant year. You will receive a notification when it is time to renew.
Class two driver's license is required to drive motor vehicles to transport passengers or to operate a duly designated driver service.Which countries can enter Japan without visa? ›
|Denmark*||Dominican Republic||El Salvador|
Yes, you can travel abroad as a green card holder — that's one of the many benefits of being a permanent resident. However, your trip must be temporary and you cannot remain outside the United States for more than 1 year.What is the best month to go to Japan? ›
The best time to visit Japan is during spring (March to May) and fall (September to November). This is when Japan is at its most vibrant, with delicate cherry blossom or bright red leaves adding contrast to the scenery.What age can you marry in Japan? ›
Who Can Get Married in Japan? Article 731 to 737 of the Japanese Civil Code stipulates the following requirements: The male partner must be 18 years of age or older and the female partner must be 18 years of age or older. A person who is under 18 years of age cannot get married in Japan without a parent's approval.Why don t Japanese accept tips? ›
Tipping in Japan is not customary. It is in the Japanese culture to take pride in your work. As such, employees have the highest standards when supplying a service and don't feel the need to accept tips to feel appreciated. Indeed, as stated in many Japan travel guide, attempting to tip staff can be offensive.What Japanese say before eating? ›
Before eating, Japanese people say "itadakimasu," a polite phrase meaning "I receive this food." This expresses thanks to whoever worked to prepare the food in the meal.How does a US citizen get an international driver's license? ›
- Can apply in person or by mail.
- Completed AAA IDP application.
- Two passport-sized photos.
- Driver's license (either in person or photocopies by mail)
- $20 IDP fee.
- Accepts check, money order, or (in person only) major credit cards.
Many countries do not recognize a U.S. driver's license, but most accept an International Driving Permit (IDP) that you can get from the AAA (American Automobile Association) before you leave. IDPs may not be valid the whole time you stay abroad and/or may only be valid with a U.S. or local license.How long can I drive with foreign licence in USA? ›
You can drive legally in the U.S. for one year using a driver's license from your home country and an International Driver's Permit (IDP).How do I change my International Drivers License to Japanese? ›
Japanese translation of your foreign driver's license
You must provide a certified translation of your license. This can be done only by an embassy or consulate of the issuing country in Japan, the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), ZIPLUS Co. Ltd. or the authorities officially designated（Taiwan,etc.）.
A non-US citizen must meet all requirements for obtaining a driver's license or identification card, i.e., all required documents, knowledge, and eye exam, as applicable. (For more information, view the section regarding a Regular Driver's License or Identification Card).Which countries driving license can be exchanged in Japan? ›
Driving licenses issued by the authorities of Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Switzerland, and Taiwan are valid in Japan under the following conditions: 1. Your license is attached to a Japanese translation provided by the authorities that are stipulated by the applicable cabinet order.Can a foreigner apply for driver license in USA? ›
What ID do non-citizen residents need to drive in the U.S.? If you are eligible to apply for a driver's license, you must get a driver's license from the state where you live. The residency requirement for obtaining a U.S. driver's license is different in each state.How long does it take to get a drivers license in Japan? ›
If you're commuting to a driving school, it usually takes about two to three months to complete the course. With an overall cost of about 300,000 yen and taking over two months until completion, some may think getting a driver's license in Japan is too difficult.Can I have 2 drivers licenses from different countries? ›
You have the drivers license of the country of your primary residence and that's it. Licenses are easily exchanged from one country to the other, but you cannot have both.What countries can you use a U.S. driver's license? ›
U.S. driver's licenses are valid in both Canada and Mexico. But many other countries do not recognize U.S. driver's licenses, according to the U.S. State Department. For those countries, you'll typically need an International Driving Permit.How can I get driving Licence in USA without SSN? ›
If you are legally present in the U.S., but ineligible for an SSN, you are exempt from the DMV SSN requirement. You may start an application for a noncommercial driver license or ID card, and once your eligibility status is veri-fied, DMV will complete your application.
Buying a Car From a Dealer
To buy from a dealer, you will need: Valid international driver's permit and foreign drivers license or Japanese driver's license.
Yes, visa free tourism resumed October 11, 2022.
Individual tourists may visit Japan starting October 11, 2022, subject to vaccine or testing requirements as further described in the U.S. Embassy's “Information for U.S. Citizens Traveling to Japan” webpage.
Registered vehicles of contracting states of the Convention at Geneva 1949 can be driven in Japan with their foreign license plates only if they have cleared customs using Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD).How long does it take to get an International Driving Permit? ›
Get A Valid IDP Instantly
The process will take about 10 to 15 minutes only while applying ITCA IDP online.
United States of America (Drives on the right)
The rules: You can drive in the USA against your Indian driving licence for a year, as long as the license valid and in English. If, for any reason, it is not, you need to carry an International Driving License (more on that below).