I have literally just arrived home after a long day of bureaucracy and all its side effects of frustration, visiting several offices and clerks, waiting in lines, being asked to provide several (in)significant documents, paying all kinds of fees, struggling with language barriers, etc.
In short: I just spent a day getting my Japanese driver’s license.
But I have no misconceptions about it: I know this was an efficient, relatively painless way of obtaining a Japanese driver’s license as I actually managed to deliver all the required items to all the appropriate officials in an organized and timely manner. I never thought that I would actually manage to get my driver’s license by the end of the day – but it happened!
So I figured I might share some pearls of wisdom that I learned today so that anyone out there might get their Japanese license in an equally (and relatively) painless way.
Let’s start from the beginning. You will first want to check how big of a hassle it is transferring your current license to a Japanese one – not all countries are equal as some nationalities are required to do a driving test while others are not. This site will tell you which countries’ citizens need to do an actual test and which can merely convert theirs into a Japanese driver’s license.
As a Finnish citizen I could “easily” convert mine so I decided it was worth the bureaucratic torture to get mine – just in case I might need it. But I have a Mexican friend who had to take a driving test as well as a written test – of which he failed the written test as he was not able to understand the English used in the test. The story does not yet reveal how big of an issue this will prove to be for him.
The best tip I can give you is to ask a Japanese friend (or anyone who speaks impeccable Japanese) to come with you and help you deal with this mission. I could not have done it without the help of a friend. Save your time and nerves! Afterwards you most likely need to buy your friend (and yourself) a stiff drink though.
So now that you have checked what you need to do in order to obtain a Japanese driver’s license you can make that choice: is it worth while to get a local license if you are not sure you will actually need it. I am not sure how much money and time are required to pass a driving test as well as a written exam, as I did not need to go through that procedure but personally if I would have had to jump through those hoops, I would have just left it there. But since, as a Finn, there was a promise of a relatively easy way to convert my license, I decided to go for it.
But before I could even think about applying for my Japanese driver’s license I needed my current, valid license translated into Japanese. In order to get an official translation you do not just go anywhere for a translation, you need to head to JAF, The Japanese Automobile Federation, where you will fill out some paperwork, hand over your residency card, your current driver’s license, wait at least 30 minutes and pay 3000 JPY for the joy of it. Then you get to walk out and head to your next destination, where the real fun begins.
And this is where it really starts to pay off having that Japanese speaking friend with you!
An important fact! You do not have to have a current, valid driver’s license from your home country, but it is imperative that whatever country your license is from you can prove that you have lived there for more than 3 months. (Ie. your passport needs to have proof of the length of the stay.)
Each Japanese city has a driver’s license centre where you will now have to take all following items:
- the translation of your current, valid driver’s license from JAF
- a valid residency card (the credit card sized ID card)
- a certificate of residency (an A4 piece of paper with your personal details on it which you get from your ward office)
- a passport
- a recent picture, size 3 x 2.4cm
- ~5000 JPY in cash
- a hanko/inkan (your personal stamp with your name written in katakana)
- proof that you have lived in the country of your current, valid driver’s license for at least 3 months
To make your visit at the driver’s license centre go smoothly make sure that your address is correct in all the documents – in case you have moved around a lot as I have in Japan this could come and bite you on your backside as the officials are extremely
anal particular about details.
I almost ended up having a huge problem at the driver’s license centre as I renewed my passport only a month before leaving to come to Japan: hence according to that passport I had only lived in Finland a month even though it is my home country officially. So I had to prove that I had lived in Finland for more than 3 months since acquiring my Finnish driver’s license.
Luckily I have learned my lesson from all the previous tribulations of bureaucratic nonsense in Japan and I had with me my Bachelor’s Degree from back home, which proves that I have lived in my home country for several years.
But for that second when the officer told me that I need proof and was starting to look for a number for the Finnish embassy, I could feel the cold sweat forming as panic was hitting me physically. I did NOT want to make another trip to the driver’s license centre and its gloomy presence merely because of a stupid formality. So taking all my relevant AND irrelevant documents totally paid off this time. I highly recommend this strategy to anyone not wanting to waste their time in the wheels of bureaucratic inefficiency: be prepared for anything! If you got a document proving anything at all, take it with you.
A handy tip for those venturing out to the driver’s license centre: make sure to check when they are open. This seems obvious, but I was shocked that the counter which deals with converting licenses was only open 90 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes (!) in the afternoon. So planning your day around it really is essential.
So after I had to queue up a few times to answer several different questions and to write my name (and make my Japanese friend write me name in katakana) my documents were accepted. This only means your documents have been accepted to be processed, they could still deny you the privilege of having an actual driver’s license.
So I paid for the application processing fee, 3000 JPY and then waited some 20 minutes for my picture to be taken. The picture they require you to bring with you goes into your application, not your actual driver’s license. They will happily charge you 2000 JPY for a picture that is mandatory and will take at least an extra 30 minutes of your day and seems totally irrelevant since you already brought in a perfectly valid picture. After your picture is taken, which you wait for a small eternity, while the actual taking of the picture is done in approximately 5 seconds, they send you away to wait once more.
After 3+ hours of waiting, queuing, trying to pose for a decent picture, getting my eyesight checked and proving my existence, nationality, state of residency and numerous other things, I finally was given my Japanese driver’s license. At that moment I imagine it is like childbirth: you forget all the pain that was associated and merely keep staring at the little thing, holding it in your hands while smiling with relief and a sense of accomplishment.
All in all it took me literally all day, from 10am to 4pm, to get this done and that can be considered a successful day in the belly of the beast. (Can you tell by now that I am not a fan of bureaucracy…)
Now I am determined to make use of my license… And simply rejoicing the fact that I do not have to do this again – in at least the next three years!