Getting My Japanese Driver’s License

Wow, it truly has been a while. Almost four months of no updates to this blog… To be honest, there’s been a lot going on since my last update. Getting my driver’s license was all I could think about for the last two months. But now that it’s finally over, I can take the time to write about my horrible experience.

To start off. If you don’t know by now, I live in a placement that requires someone who can drive- not just for work, but also just to live easily in the village. Before I came to Japan, I went to a local AAA to get my International Driver’s Permit, or IDP for short. This little book allows you to drive in any of the listed countries (in my case, Japan) for one year. Before the expiration date of your IDP, you are required to convert your home country’s license into a Japanese one. This is so you can continue to drive legally in Japan. Here’s where things get a little haywire.

If you are from a country like the U.K., Australia, Canada (just to name a few), the process for getting a Japanese license is fairly easy. Basically, you bring in a bunch of documents to your prefecture’s license center and get your license then and there. No big problems really.

Now, if you’re from somewhere like AMERICA, then you get to go through the rigorous stages of a written and practical test. Why’s that? To make a long story short, Japan has pretty much set up agreements with countries like Australia that allow citizens of those countries to not have to take a driver’s test in Japan. (I think they look over testing procedures of those countries) In the U.S. however, DMVs are operated at the state level; this means each state has their own policies and testing procedures for allowing people to drive. In other words, attempting to set up an agreement with all 50 states is a big and lengthy procedure (I read somewhere that it was only recent that even Canada was able to pull this agreement with Japan, even with 13 areas); hence, Americans have to take the Japanese driver’s exam if they want to continue driving in Japan.

Now before I get into a recount of what I had to do, I want to start off by saying for the most part, I love Japan. I love the language, the unique characteristics of every region, most of the food, and the pop culture… I could go on. But when it came to having to get my license, I was bombarded with so many rules and procedures, so different from what I was used to back home, I couldn’t grasp the concept of why I needed to do what I needed to do, and why everything I learned beforehand was seen as “wrong.” I’ve always considered myself an open-minded person, but I was frustrated for the longest time and I think I understand why. This wasn’t a test to show the Japanese police officers how good and safe of a driver I was. It was a test- solely a test. And I think that’s what I will never understand about this experience. To me, it was pointless to do these certain moves when on the actual roads, common sense alerts me to not do said moves because they can endanger others around me. I realize that other countries may have different testing procedures, maybe even some are very similar to the Japanese driving test, but as an American who took their driving test based off of general safety and common sense, having to essentially relearn the rules of driving greatly frustrated me because they didn’t make sense. Especially when you apply them on the main roads where clearly, not even Japanese people follow them. (I’ve ran into so many occasions where I saw someone driving so absurd, I thought to myself “how the hell are you allowed to drive on the roads?”)

Anyways… I hope this will give you a good idea on how converting an American license to a Japanese one is like. Do keep in mind procedures may be different depending on what prefecture you live in. I live in Nara prefecture, so there is only one license center, located in the middle of the prefecture in Kashihara city.


The Written Test

I prepared documents to bring to the license center in late April (You can refer to Japan Automobile Federation for additional information and procedures). You will need:

  • Translation of your home license (done at JAF center or by mail)
    • JAF application, filled and signed
    • Scanned copy of your home license, front and back
    • 3000 yen
      • Ask for genkin kakitome at the post office
    • A stamped return envelope for your completed translation (less than 400 yen)
  • Driver’s license from your home country
  • International Driver’s Permit
  • Residency card
  • Passport
  • Small passport-like photo
    • These you can get at photo booths specifically for business oriented things like passports and licenses; try looking for the option that has ‘driver’s license’ (運転免許)It costs a little less than 1000 yen for a sheet

When I got all of my documents together, my supervisor scheduled for me a day to go to the license center to take my written exam. The center is only open weekdays, so you will more than likely have to take nenkyuu (paid leave).

A word of warning! Unless you can understand Japanese relatively well, I would highly recommend having with you either your supervisor or someone who can speak and understand Japanese. I barely managed to get through the interview portion with the Japanese I’ve learned, but I can only imagine that the process will be much smoother if you had someone there to help you. The interview portion isn’t too bad, you’re just asked about your driving experience back in your home country. You’re then given an eye check and the written exam. The written exam only has 10 questions, relatively simple to answer. Just don’t get too hung up on the goofy English translations. I was told you needed 8/10 to pass but maybe that was the officer having a brain fart because others have said you need 7/10 to pass. After I was told that I passed (9/10), we scheduled for the soon-to-be most excruciating part of the test…


The Practical Test (UGHHHHHhh)

After you pass the written exam, you will get a form titled 「技能試験予約表」. Don’t lose this sheet and ALWAYS bring it with you whenever you take your test. This is pretty much your scheduling form for taking the exam.

Before you take the practical test, you can buy both A and B course maps from the green windows, each 100 yen. Yes, there are two possible courses, and yes, you must memorize them to the best of your ability. Most of the testers will not tell you where to go and which way to turn. I highly recommend buying both and doing your best to memorize both courses before the date of your test. You won’t know which course will be chosen until the day of your test. If you pay attention to a chart on the TV or in the police office, the section beginning with 西 will show what course is held for foreigners. Otherwise, you can always ask. You’ll have a bit of time to try and walk the course. Alternatively, you can come at 8AM where the center will be open and you’re free to walk the course. The windows will remain closed until they open at 8:30AM.

Despite doing a lot of research and trying to apply stupid course rules when I was on the main roads, it took me six times to pass the driver’s test. I started my first test in late May and it wasn’t until late July that I was able to pass. I’ll do my best to recall what happened and what I was told I needed to work on…

1st time: I managed to finish the course but was told that I wasn’t going far left or right enough when I was turning.

2nd time: I was driving along a straightway towards a stoplight. When I got very close to the stoplight (close to the point where if I needed to brake, I would have had to literally slam the breaks to stop) the light immediately turned yellow as I was going through it. I thought it was fine. (After all, how many people do you see actually do that on the real roads?) I failed right then and there. Apparently, it’s totally fine to slam on the brakes to stop, even past the stopping line? Cried because I didn’t even finish half of the course and was driving for less than 5 minutes.

3rd time: While I was attempting to avoid an obstruction in the road, I went “too far over” the center line and failed. Got depressed.

4th time: Finished the course but was told I wasn’t merging far left or right early enough before turning. Depression deepens.

5th time: Finished the course but was told I wasn’t merging far left or right early enough before turning. Cried because I knew I was doing my merges and checks frequent and often. Questioned myself what the heck was I doing wrong and just wanted to pass.

6th time: Think I annoyed the tester by going slow in the beginning since he told me 「センパンヤさん、スピードアップ。」“Ms. Sengpanya, speed up.” (despite being told by my JTE’s, Vice Principal, and Supervisor that going slow around corners is OK); Missed a turn later in the course but managed to get back to the correct route. Exaggerated A LOT (as told to me by my Vice Principal) and literally did checks at every turn. Passed.


Acquiring the License

The tester handed me a form and told me to go pay for it. This was when I knew I passed because I wasn’t told to reschedule for my next attempt. I was shocked because I didn’t think I would pass but at that point, nothing mattered to me other than I finally did it and I never had to deal with another cranky police officer again. After paying, I was then sent to the opposite side of the center where strangely, the atmosphere felt… gentler. Trevor noticed this when a police officer called my name to go over some paperwork and that he seemed in a relatively better mood than the police officers on the other side of the center. I then had my picture taken and maybe less than 10 minutes later I received my Japanese license. Handed over to me by a very friendly and smiling worker.



This was honestly the worst experience I’ve had in Japan. The only license center in the entire prefecture is more than two hours from my place. In addition to that, the only time frame for foreigners to take the test is set at 8:30AM. This meant having to wake up at 4AM and leaving by at the latest, 5:30AM to make it in time for the windows to open. The last two times, we unfortunately got stuck in traffic so we spent almost three hours on the road instead of the usual two. During this entire procedure, I’ve used more than a quarter of my paid leave in order to get up north and spent more than 20,000 yen (roughly over $200) trying to get my license. I never thought something so tedious could overwhelm me to the point where I admitted that I wanted to go home (back to Minnesota) after failing my 5th time. However, I am so happy that it is over because I can now finally drive with peace of mind knowing that I don’t have to endure through this again. I’m also incredibly grateful for the JTE’s and Vice Principal who took the time out of their schedule to help me practice driving, to bring me to the village police station in order to get more detail and information on this lengthy event (my Vice Principal didn’t know what the procedure was like for an American and felt a great deal of sympathy for me), and to share with me the many rules and tips that helped me finally pass my 6th time. I didn’t think I would get the help I received, and it was more than enough to help me relax and feel confident to go back to the center one last time.



3 thoughts on “Getting My Japanese Driver’s License

  1. Matthew says:

    Sounds like an absolutely awful experience. When I did JET, way back in 1999-2002, we didn’t have to get a Japanese license, the international driving license was enough. Like you, I needed a car to get to work. Anyway, congrats on passing, and persevering !


    • Sara says:

      Thank you! It was definitely the most stressful part of living in Japan. I heard they only get stricter every year too, so I’m glad it’s over and done with!


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