Obtaining a driver’s license can be an expensive and frustrating experience, and doing so in Japan is no different in that regard. But for many foreign residents in Japan, transferring their home license into a Japanese one can be a fairly simple and inexpensive procedure, while for others it’s an advisable course given the limited validity of an international license here.

For foreign residents who use an international driver’s license in Japan, the rules are clear. You can drive legally with this license for one year after you come to Japan, provided your international license remains valid within that period. After that time, if you plan to stay in Japan, you’re expected to convert your home country license into a Japanese one.

The meaning of “one year” is taken as one year from the traveler’s first date of entry into Japan, or until the license expires. You cannot renew your international license after one year unless you leave Japan for over three months.

These restrictions on the use of international driver’s licenses, in their legally enforceable form, are relatively recent, however. This has led to some confusion among the foreign community as to how they might drive here without incurring the expenses and linguistic challenges associated with studying for and sitting driving exams in Japan from scratch.

The above system only came into force in June 2002 with changes to the Japan Traffic Act. These changes were specifically designed to curb abuse of the international license system.

Up until June of 2002, it had been recommended as no more than a guideline that anyone staying in Japan longer than 12 months apply for a Japanese driving license. It was not a requirement and there were no penalties if you chose to continue to drive using a (constantly renewed) international driving permit. Since obtaining a Japanese driving license is assumed to be fraught with difficulties, this is what most foreign residents chose to do.

However, the changes to the Japan Traffic Act changed this guideline into law. Under the 2002 changes, an individual who leaves Japan and returns within 3 months with a reissued international license cannot use that license in Japan. Before the law was changed, if somebody left and came back to Japan within the three months, the date of re-entry was considered to be the date of entry. Thus, driving on a renewed international license was possible with just a quick trip home.

Another reason for the confusion surrounding the use of international licenses arises from a failure on the part of authorities to make adequate information on the change available in English. This was likely because the changes were targeted mainly Japanese drivers.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, the original intent of the changes to the law was to stop Japanese citizens who had lost their licenses from quickly getting an international license overseas, which would then allow them to drive legally in Japan.

However, even now with a valid international license, foreign residents or visitors can experience problems. Police in Japan are trained at the national level, but jurisdiction is established at local or prefectural level. Thus, local police can arbitrarily decide things like whether or not to recognize an international license as valid in the first place, even though there is a national policy on their validity.

For foreign residents who wish to convert their home license to a Japanese one, there are several hurdles that must be overcome — though the number depends on where your original license was issued.

The first step in converting your license is to have your valid home country license translated into Japanese. This is done through the Japan Automobile Federation and requires the foreign license, a hanko, and about 3,000 yen.

The actual process of converting the license is carried out through the prefectural Driver and Vehicle Licensing Center. This involves passing applicable examinations, often including a written test and a practical road test. Before you can take the test you must be able to show that you have resided in the country where your overseas license was issued for at least three months (e.g. documents such as a passport indicating period of stay). Driving tests cost around 5,000 yen a time. Japanese is invariably the only language spoken at these centers, though written exams are available in English.

Foreign applicants often complain that they have been treated unfairly during the exam, but it is a fact that virtually nobody passes on the first attempt, with some having to take the test as many as 10 times before they are given the license. This can be especially frustrating since each test usually takes up a full day.

The good news for some, though not all, is that the requirements for a road and written test vary depending on what country your original license was issued in (not your nationality). Japan has a series of reciprocal agreements with over 20 countries that allow people with licenses issued in those countries to forego the written and driving tests and simply provide the relevant documentation and perform an eye test in order to get a Japanese license ( See accompanying box for a list of the countries).

Moreover, those with German, Swiss and French licenses need neither an international license nor a Japanese license, but can drive indefinitely in Japan on their home country’s license as long as they have a Japanese translation of the original.

However, foreign residents from the U.S., China and Brazil, among others, are required to take both a written and road test. The Japanese government states that the road safety records of countries be as good or better than those of Japan in order for agreement to be reached on waiving testing requirements.

More importantly, perhaps, that any such agreement be reciprocal is pretty much essential. In the case of the U.S., testing requirements for foreign nationals are even more strict than those of Japan.

For those who decide to chance driving on an invalid international license, there is an additional incentive for converting the home license sooner rather than later.

According to www.japandriverslicense.com, Japanese law states that driving without a valid Japanese driving license can land you with a hefty fine and a prison term.

Furthermore, if somebody obtains a Japanese driving license after being caught driving without one, 12 points are automatically deducted (from a total of 15) when they receive their new license. For somebody caught driving with an invalid international license who then converts to a Japanese one, something as small as a parking ticket would see their points exhausted and their Japanese license taken away for two years.

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