Who Needs to Covert to a Japanese Driver’s License?
This guide is designed for foreign driver’s license holders who need to test to convert their license to a Japanese one. Some countries have an exemption agreement with Japan, but American license-holders must test. Some of the information below is specific to the Kyoto license center, where I tested, but nearly all of it will apply no matter where you test.
According to Japanese law, anyone who is in Japan for more than three months is required to get a Japanese license to drive legally. The standard of measurement is that if you are in Japan long enough that you are required to have a Residence Status and Residence Card, then you are required to get a Japanese license to drive.
If the police follow the letter of the law, you can be charged for driving illegally on an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) if you have a Residence Card, even if it is within your first three months in Japan! Enforcement is rather spotty, which has led the US Embassy to conclude that the law is not specific. I have heard that you can usually get away with driving on an IDP for one year. After that, however, you run a higher risk of being charged for driving illegally. Once you are charged for driving illegally, you may not be allowed to test for your driver’s license, since you now have a driving violation on your record, so it’s really best to take the test early, if you know you’ll be staying in Japan for a while. Besides, many jobs in Japan will require a Japanese Driver’s License as a prerequisite, so the license will open more opportunities to you.
Cost (Time and Money) of Converting your License
In most locations, including Kyoto, converting your foreign license, or 外国免許切り替え(gaikoku menkyo kirikae), is a two-day process. Between days one and two, I highly recommend taking a lesson to learn the secret test-taking techniques, no matter how highly you rate your driving ability. My own recollections from my lesson are below, but in terms of memorability and confidence, they are no substitute for the practical experience.
The testing process should cost under ¥10,000, unless you live far from the license center and the public transportation fees are high, plus the lesson cost. It gets a lot more expensive if you fail and have to pay the testing fee again. If you can find a nearby and relatively inexpensive place to take a 1-hour lesson, you will potentially save yourself a lot of money, but more on that later.