Getting our Japanese Driver’s Licences

After having our international driver’s licences for over a year, they have now expired and in Japan that means that you either apply for a Japanese licence or you don’t drive. In most countries you can’t renew your international licence after one year and have to get your local licence instead. As we had summer plans to visit less populated areas of Japan with fewer public transport options, we decided, after some research, to try for our Japanese licences. Thankfully, being Australians, the process was fairly easy, albeit very time consuming.

Australia and a number of other nations have a licence agreement that allows the citizens to merely transfer their valid licence from their own country into a Japanese licence. This means, as per typical Japan, a lot of paperwork and waiting, but thankfully, not a difficult process. So if you are Australian, this is how the process went for us in Tokyo.

Pre-Drivers License Center Visit

  1. Ensure that your driver’s licence from your own country is valid. Without a valid licence you will need to apply from scratch and take the driving exams (which are very expensive).
  2. Acquire a ‘Japanese translation’ of your licence through JAF. Because of COVID-19 we were able to apply via mail instead of going through the process of visiting the branch office. To apply you will need to fill out the form and attach photocopies of your driver’s licence and resident’s card. The cost of the service is currently ¥3000 which you need to include with your application in a registered cash envelope from the post office (genkin kakitome futo). When you have completed your form and have your photocopies and cash, just pop to your local post office, ask for a document envelope and a genkin kakitome futo.
    This process was very fast in our case and we literally got the translation in the post the day after we’d sent it away!
  3. Head to your city hall and grab a copy of your resident’s certificate (juminhyo). This is an official certificate from your local council that proves your residential address. You can get this quickly by popping into your city hall and asking for ‘juminhyo’ upon which time you’ll have to fill out a form and wait to be seen. (Hot tip: we arrived at 8:15am, 15mins before opening time, and got straight in!) The juminhyo costs about ¥400 per copy (you only need one copy).
  4. Ensure that you either have a copy of your previous licences or a document stating your license history. Unfortunately, in Australia only Western Australia put the original issue date on their licence. Our licences were issued in QLD and only have the start date and expiry of the current licence.
    This is not an issue as long as you can prove (through your passport) that you lived in your country of residence for at least 3 months with your licence before coming to Japan. If you can’t do that then you will need to have your previous licence or a document from the transport department of your home state with your licence history on it.
    If you have lived in your home country for more than 3 months, but less than a year with your driver’s licence then you will be issued a ‘beginner’s licence’ which just means that you will have to put beginner’s stickers on your car every time you drive, but there are no other restrictions that we know of. It simply lets other drivers know that you are a ‘beginner driver’.
  5. Grab a passport photo of yourself from a photo booth (3 x 2.4cm). There are photo booths everywhere, particularly in major train stations. 3 x 2.4cm was the size that they asked for. The photo is just for your application so don’t stress about it. You will have a new one taken at the licence centre for your licence.

At the Driver’s License Center

Bring:

  • Passport
  • Home country driver’s licence
  • Residence Card
  • Japanese translation of your licence (from JAF)
  • Juminhyo (resident’s certificate)
  • Photo – 3 x 2.4cm
  • ¥4,600 – the cost of applying for and being issued your licence

We went to the Samezu Driver’s License Center in Shinagawa as it is the biggest licence centre in Tokyo and one of only 3 that issue licences to foreigners. At the centre you will be asked to go to the counter that issues licences for foreigners. Thankfully, in Tokyo we could get by with a little Japanese on our end because there was one staff member who spoke English who came to help if we weren’t understanding. We’re not sure what it would be like in other prefectures and it is recommended that, if possible, you take a Japanese speaking person with you.

The whole process from walking in the building to walking out with our licences took 5 hours, so make sure you don’t have any plans that day. The centre is also only open on weekdays so you will have to plan for that too. Additionally, you cannot leave the licence centre until you receive your licence because they take your residence card from you, therefore you are not legally allowed to go anywhere. There is a cafeteria in the Samezu Driver’s License Center so you can go for a wander to that when they tell you that the next process will be an hour and a half.

The process went a little like this:

  • Go to the counter and fill out application forms, hand over your stack of documents that you brought with you.
  • Go and sit down until you are called back.
  • Repeat this process until all of the appropriate forms are filled out and checks have been performed.
  • Get your eye sight tested. In this process you look into a large machine and identify the three coloured lights they show you: blue, red, and orange. Then, looking into the same machine, you are shown a series of circles with a break in them and you need to say where the break is (up – ue 上, down-shita 下, left-hidari 左, right-migi 右). You can also just show with your hand where the break in the circle is (point up, point down, etc.) if you can’t remember the words under pressure.
  • Get your photo taken. You are given a paper slip to give to the photographers and it’s a very quick process where you sit down, your photo is taken and you walk out again.
  • Head back to the counter and wait for them to call you.
  • They will then send you with your returned cards and documents to the issuing counter where you will wait with everyone else for your number to be called to receive your licence.
  • That’s it, you’re free to drive in Japan now! It’s a good idea to have a read up on the signs and road rules of Japan, which you can find here on the JAF website. Good luck and welcome to a whole new area of travel in Japan!

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