"Is my (insert your country) driver's license valid in Japan?"
NO -- not for one minute, not even for a second. If you're going to drive, you'll need to get an international permit before you come to Japan, or else get a Japanese license when you're in Japan. The international permit will only be as good as your visa or a max of one year. Be sure to carry your home license and passport with you when driving on an international permit. Afterwards you'll need to return to your home country to get a new international permit or get a Japanese license. Officially you are supposed to get a Japanese license after a year of using an international permit.
For obtaining the Japanese license, if you've had your own country's license for at least 90 days before coming to Japan, you can use it in lieu of having to go to a Japanese driver's school (saving you up to 300,000 yen), but you'll need an authorized translation of your license which will take a couple of days (contact your embassy/consulate in Japan or the Japan Auto Federation [JAF]; cost: 3000 yen + 270 yen for postage) aswell as taking a written test (10 multiple choice questions, you need to score at least 70%; English and 7 other languages now available), driving test (citizens from the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy or Spain with licenses are exempt from the driving test), color recognition and eye test. Depending on the examiner, the driving test can be extremely picky and even experienced drivers can fail over and over again. For those staying in Japan long term, it would behoove you to get the Japanese license and take a couple hours for some driving lessons to prepare you for the test, especially if you are unfamiliar with driving and traffic signs in Japan. The whole process takes several hours and you'll need to sign up for it first thing in the morning (call for times), paying up to 5000 yen. (In large cities you may have to wait a few weeks for the driving test). Take your passport, photo (3cm x 2.4cm), and foreigner id card with you. To pass the tests you'll need to know what Japanese street signs mean and the examiner's directions in Japanese (right, left, stop, etc). No high speed driving or fancy shifting is necessary, but to be licensed for both auto and manual transmissions, you need to pass the test with a manual transmission. Assuming you pass everything, (if you don't you can come back again) you'll then be photographed for the license. Look good -- if you sneeze when they snap the shutter you'll be stuck with it for 2 years from your next birthday. Waiting until right after your birthday would be the most economical. Long term ex-pats with good driving records can eventaully get a license good for 5 years. A regular license allows you to drive a normal car or 50cc scooter. For any motorbike helmets are required at all times, and bike ignition locks are about as effective as jello -- be sure to use a chain or horseshoe lock as well.
NB: Different prefectures have some differences in procedures, requirements, etc. Before your test, check and see about anything else you may need, schedules, etc.
Applying for a Japanese driving license
When applying to change your foreign driver's license over to a Japanese license the following items are required:
1. A valid foreign driver's license no less than 3 months old
2. A Japanese translation of the foreign driver's license (Translated by JAF).
4. Foreign Residents Registration Certificate
5. An application form for a Japanese license
6. Photograph (3cm in hgt x 2.4cm in wdt)
How to Apply
Foreign residents are recommended to come to the General Traffic Center between 10.a.m. and 11a.m. Monday-Friday, for document screening. If everything is in order and the application has been received there are various tests (on site driving test, eye site test, physical co-ordination tests, etc.,) before the license is issued.
Also because the licensing system varies from country to country, required documentation for conversion to a Japanese license may differ. Please call the General Traffic Center to confirm what is required as well as the fee beforehand.
The General Traffic Center (Gunma Ken Sogo Kotsu Centar).
80-4 Motosoja machi, Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture.
Tel: (812) 7252 1010
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