Obtaining a Japanese Driving License

International Driving Permit

If you intend to drive in Japan based on foreign license, you must obtain an International Driving Permit (国際運転免許証, kokusai unten menkyoshou) before arrival.  Once you arrive in Japan with one, you are all set for a year (unless you plan on driving a motorcycle or scooter). It is valid for 1 year from the date that you arrive in Japan. If you stay for over a year, you will have to get a Japanese license if you plan to continue to drive.

Note that there are some countries, such as France, Germany, and Switzerland, that issue international permits which are not recognized by Japan. If you have a license from one of those countries, it is possible to drive for one year with an official Japanese translation of your license. You can apply for this at the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). Information can be found here.

Converting Your Foreign License to a Japanese License (Cars)

If you are in Japan for over a year, you will need to get a Japanese driving license. You can only use an IDP in Japan for a maximum period of one year from the initial date of entry (arrival in Japan), or until the expiration date on the permit, whichever comes first. If you don’t have a license from your home country, cannot prove that you were in that country for at least three months after getting the license, or in the rare case that the driving center does not approve of your documents, you will need to take driving courses here in Japan. These can be time consuming and are very expensive. Luckily, most people will be able to transfer a foreign license into a Japanese one.

Some countries and states have agreements with Japan that make it very easy to get a Japanese license. People who have received Japanese licenses in the past also fall under this group. All you have to do is go to the prefectural driving license center (hereinafter Menkyo Center) with your documents, take an eye test, and fill out some paperwork. To see what additional documents you might be required to have based on your home country, please check out this document provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department website.

As of February 20, 2023, the list of countries/states that have these agreements in place are:

South Korea
State of Hawaii, USA*
State of Indiana, USA*+
State of Maryland, USA*
State of Ohio, USA*
State of Oregon, USA*
State of Virginia, USA*
State of Washington, USA*
New Zealand
Czech Republic
Europe (cont.)

* does not apply to other states in the United States of America
+ only the driving test is waived; the written test is still required
For more information, please check this website here. (Japanese)

You need to have a license from one of these countries, but you do not necessarily have to be a national of the country your license is from.

If you don’t have a license from one of these countries or states, the process is a bit more complicated. In addition to all of the same documents, you will need to take a written test and a practical driving test. The written test, which is offered in English, Japanese, and Chinese, is very easy. It consists of ten true or false questions. The driving test is more difficult and often takes multiple tries to pass.

It is a good idea to begin this process at least three months before your International Permit expires in order to accommodate waiting time for the JAF translation and crowded times at the Menkyo Center as many other recontracting ALTs and foreigners are also trying to get their licenses.

Follow these steps:

STEP 1 – Check that your home country’s license meets certain specific criteria.

  • It must say “date of issue” or “issue date.” The date of issue must be at least three months prior to your arrival in Japan.
  • If your home license uses a different term to refer to the date you received your license or if it does not include this information at all, you will need to obtain a letter from the licensing center in your home country (state/province) stating the date when your license was issued.
  • If you renewed your license within three months of coming to Japan, you will need to obtain a driving record or letter from the licensing center in your home country (State/Province) stating the date when your first driver’s license was issued.
  • If you received a license for the very first time within three months of coming to Japan, you will not be able to convert to a Japanese license and will need to obtain a Japanese license from the start (i.e. by attending driving school) in order to drive in Japan.

STEP 2 – You will need to get your home country’s license officially translated into Japanese.

  • This can only be done at your country’s consulate or the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). In Kumamoto, it’s easiest to go with JAF. The translation costs ¥3000 and you can get it by mail through the Fukuoka branch. You can either complete the online application form here or download the paper form here (Japanese site) and mail it in if you don’t have a credit card.
  • By mail (takes one week): send the application form, copy of home license (front and back, in color, and blown up so it is easy to read), and the ¥3500 fee plus ¥392 return postage by genkin kakitome (現金書留, registered mail for cash) from any post office to the Fukuoka JAF office. The Kumamoto JAF office cannot process translation requests by mail.
    Fukuoka JAF office: 5-12-27 Muromi, Sawara-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 〒814-8505 (〒814-8505 福岡市早良区室見5-12-27)
  • In person at the Kumamoto JAF office: take the application form, your home license, and the ¥3500 fee to the JAF office. It is located where Dai 1 Kuko Dori (#1 Rd to the Airport) passes under the Kyushu Express way. While same day service used to be available, recently people have been asked to return in a few days to pick up the translation. You can also request the translation be mailed to you (for an extra cost). However, most likely they will just be mailing it off to Fukuoka to be translated, so you might as well skip coming to the Kumamoto JAF office and mail your documents directly to the Fukuoka office.
  • If you had to get a letter from your home licensing center, you will likely need to pay to get that translated, as well. Call JAF (096-380-9200) to inquire about the process and fees. JAF can only do certain translations, so you might have to go through your consulate.

JAF Kumamoto
6-30-30 Nagaminehigashi Higashi-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto-ken
Phone: 096-380-9200

JAF Fukuoka (for requests sent by mail)
5-12-27 Muromi, Sawara-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 〒814-8505
Phone: 092-841-7000

STEP 3 – You will also need to prove that you were physically present in the country where the license was issued for more than 3 months after it was issued.

  • The simplest way for most people to prove they were present in their home country is to provide university transcripts or a reference letter from a previous employer with dates that show you were in your home country for at least 3 months after you got your license. Though the Menkyo Center prefers an original, it is possible to use a photocopy of your transcripts or a reference letter from your JET application if it has an official stamp of authentication (genpon shoumei, or 原本証明) from your Contracting Organization. (In order for your CO to give you an official stamp of authentication, however, they need your original transcript.) Finally, if you use a reference letter, this must also be translated into Japanese (doesn’t have to be an official translation, though).
  • Make sure that documents you use provide a start and end date, for example, the date when you started studying at your university and when you graduated. If your university transcript is multiple pages, provide all pages with a stamp on each one. The Menkyo Center may not use your document as proof if it only contains one date.
  • Passports are also acceptable if your home country stamps the dates when you enter and exit the country. However, by practice, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom do not commonly provide exit stamps.
  • The Menkyo Center no longer accepts pieces of postmarked mail as proof of being in the country of license issuance. It does accept utility bills, receipts from being admitted/discharged from a hospital, etc. if they clearly show the necessary dates (must be original or with genpon-shoumei).
  • Make sure the dates on your documents sync up with the issue date of your license. For example, if you have gotten a new license since leaving university, your university transcript will not be sufficient since the dates on your transcript will be before the issue date of your new license.

STEP 4 – Make an appointment and go take the test!

  • The Menkyo Center can only take 2-3 non-Japanese residents a day, so make sure to ask your supervisor to call and make an appointment for you. The Menkyo Center has recently been dealing with more and more requests for foreign licence transfers, so they recommend calling very far in advance.
  • The number is 096-233-0116. Make sure your supervisor has your passport and foreign license in hand when they call, as the Menkyo Center will ask for the date of issue and date of expiry on both items.
  • Applications for transferring licenses are only accepted between 9:30AM and 11:00AM Monday – Friday. The license transfer process is called 外国免許切替 ( gaikoku-menkyo-kirikae) in Japanese. Reservations can be made up to 3 months before your international driver’s permit is set to expire.
  • The driving test for motorcycles is only conducted on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  • If you wish to be able to drive manual cars in Japan, you will need to indicate this when you are checking in. If you pass the driving test while driving a manual car, you will receive quaifications that states you are allowed drive either manual or automatic vehicles on your Japanese license.
  • You cannot attempt more than one driving test in one day.
  • When you go to the Menkyo Center, bring the following documents and items:
    • Original driver’s license and certificate of the issue date (if it is not shown on the license)
    • Official Japanese translation of original driver’s license by the Japan Automobile Federation
    • An official document showing that you have been in the country that you received your driver’s license from for at least three months after issuance. The best and easiest is a college transcript. If providing copies of documents, make sure they have a stamp of authentication from your Contracting Organization.
    • International Driving Permit (if you have one; to prove that you didn’t drive to the Menkyo Center without a license)
    • Residence certificate (住民票, juuminhyou) issued within the last six months; available from your local city/town hall for 300 yen, or if you have a hardcopy of your My Number card, 200 yen at the convience store
    • Residence card
    • Two photographs (3cm x 2.4 cm), which can be taken at the Menkyo Center (Note: You may still be requested to have your photo taken for your license in the case that you pass so dress appropriately.)
    • Passport
    • Inkan
    • Pen or pencil/eraser for the written test
    • Money (2,550 yen application fee + 2,050 yen issuance fee + 700 yen photo booth fee + extra just in case. You will have to pay the application fee every time you take the test, but the issuance fee only when you pass)
    • Japanese speaker (Highly recommended if you do not speak much Japanese. Chances are no one at the Menkyo Center will be willing to translate for you. However, the Japanese speaker will not be allowed in the car with you during the driving test.)
  • When having your documents reviewed, you may be asked by the Menkyo Center staff about the driving test you took in your home country, particularly its difficulty and whether you can draw a map of the route. Be prepared to share some of the specifics of the test.

*Further information can be found here: http://www.japandriverslicense.com/.
*Tips from an ALT from the Netherlands:
The process took me 3 months (and another ALT from France at least 1 month), people should not do this last minute. Although there seems to be an unwritten rule that the Menkyo Center isn’t accepting applications of licenses expiring within 3 months, they’ll process your application. I started in December and got my license in April. Secondly, the proof of physically being in the country for three months can be quite difficult as the Menkyo Center is quite picky on the ‘evidence’. The thing that worked quite well for me was to contact my embassy and let them make a letter, saying that I was physically present in the Netherlands for three months. I think I could have saved 1 to 1.5 months if I had done this right away instead of using it as a last resort.

Scooter Licenses

Your International Driver’s Permit does not entitle you to drive a scooter in Japan. You MUST obtain a special scooter certification. If you have a Japanese automobile license, you can use that. To get a scooter certification, please follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Menkyo Center (免許センター, menkyo-sentaa) near Kumamoto City between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on the day you wish to take the scooter course. No appointment is necessary. If you are late they will make you come back another day.
  2. Register for the day’s scooter course. You will have to fill out a bit of paperwork (in Japanese) for this.
  3. Take a written exam, in English, consisting of 46 questions plus two picture questions each divided into three parts. (If you want to take the Japanese version instead, all the kanji have furigana written over them). In order to pass you need to get 45 or more questions correct. The “Rules of the Road” can be found here (a digital download version is also available): http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/road.htm
  4. Take an “aptitude” test. This is nothing more than a vision test. Bring your glasses if you wear them for driving.
  5. Bring with you these items:
    • Residence Card
    • Residence certificate (住民票, juuminhyou), available at your municipal hall or at combinis with your “my number” card.
    • A passport-sized photo (3cm x 2.4cm). If you can’t get one beforehand, or forget, there’s an instant photo booth at the Menkyo Center where you can get these done for ¥700.
    • Something to write with. There are, apparently, no pens or pencils at the Menkyo Center, so bring your own.
    • The total costs of the course, registration, tests, etc. will be roughly ¥10,000. Best to shoot a little higher in case a few extra fees pop up.
    • Glasses (if you wear them).
  6. If you don’t pass the test, you will be given your passport sized photo and Proof of Residence (住民票, juuminhyou) back.

It is recommended that you bring someone to interpret if your Japanese isn’t very good.

Renewing the Driving License

Depending on how long you stay in Japan, you may need to renew your license. You can do this within a month before or after the expiration date (your birthday). You will be sent a reminder 30 days before your birthday. When you go to renew it, your driving record will be checked. If it is clean, a renewed license will be valid for five years. If you have caused an accident or been caught breaking traffic rules, a renewed license will be valid for three years.

When you go to renew your license, you will need the renewal notification you received, your driver’s license, and inkan. It will cost around 3,000 yen if nothing is on your record. You will be required to take an eye test and attend a traffic rule lecture (in Japanese). This should take about two hours (future renewals, if there are no violations on your record, are shorter).

If you don’t renew it within the renewal period, you can still renew it if you take an aptitude test and attend a traffic rule lecture within 6 months.

Reissuing a Driver’s License

If your license is lost or damaged, you must go to the Menkyo Center to have it reissued. You will need 3,350 yen, plus a 3cm x 2.4cm photograph and inkan. If it was lost, you will need a report issued by your local police station. If it was damaged, just bring the license.