Are you tired of tourist spots in Japan? Are you planning to have a road trip to Japan? You can experience more hidden gems and see Japan from different angles while driving. If you plan to move away from the main touristic destinations, it can be somewhat challenging to reach some spots without a car. Also, if you are planning to live in suburban areas, consider getting a car. Your life will be much easier! This guide will explain everything about international driver's license or Japanese driving licenses and what to do in the worst-case scenarios.
This article is a subsection of our ultimate guide Life in Tokyo
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Converting International Driver's License into Japanese Driving License
Getting a Japanese license can be stressful, but you will need to do it if you want to drive in Japan. Having a Japanese driving license can not only open opportunities to travel but also finding a job. If you are just visiting Japan and intend to stay less than a year, you can obtain an International Driving License (IDP) in your own country. Note that, not all countries are eligible to drive in Japan, read further.
If you live in Japan for longer than one year and you are not on the list of affiliated countries with Japan, you will need to get a Japanese Driving License. You can convert your home country's license into a Japanese driving license. You will need to take a driving and written test. You can take driving lessons before the exam, consult with your local Driver's License Center. I suggest you take the driving classes and practice some exam questions because even a professional driver with long experience can fail the exam.
The first step would be to receive an official translation of your International Driver's license. You can get it at Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) or in your country's embassy. Then you will need to make an appointment at the local Driver's License Center. If you do not speak any Japanese, I suggest you bring Japanese speaking friend or translator. When you go to take the examination at Driver's License Center, you will need to bring documents with you. Also, expect to pay around 4,000-5,000 yen for taking exams and card issuance.
Are there any tips on how to pass the exams?
Take driving classes before the actual test. The Japanese way of driving can be different from your country. For example, in some countries, it is enough to make a one-time side check when you turn right or left. In Japan, you have to double-check and move your head fully on the side. Read the manual Rules of the Road many many times. Lastly, ask about your friend's experience and watch Youtube videos. Get prepared before the exam day, so you will be less stressed on exam day!
Getting a Japanese Driving License from a Japanese Driving School
If you do not have a driving license, you can consider attending a Japanese driving school. It can be more complex and stressful than converting your license, yet it is possible to do. I had chosen this way to get my Japanese license because I was living in Japan at that moment. It took me around four months to complete the classes and receive a permit. Usually, it takes up to 1-4 months, and it depends on your own studying pace.
Studying in a driving school in Japan can also be very expensive. On average, the driving school package will cost around 250,000 yen. The package price includes textbooks, driving lessons, and lectures. Some schools provide discounts for currently enrolled students. Also, if you consider taking mechanical transmission (MT), it can be more expensive than automotive (AT). Also, note that price can vary on season and location.
Do you have to speak Japanese? Well, it depends on the area you live in. You can find English-speaking instructors in the main areas, but I lived in the countryside, so I took it in Japanese. At that moment, my Japanese was between N4-N3 levels. Probably you could consider taking Japanese classes if you do not have an opportunity to study in English. I could understand everything that the instructor told me because usually, he would draw directions on the map or just say “go straight” or “turn left.” When I was taking lectures, it was hard to understand some parts of the class. Nevertheless, it was not so hard because the instructor was showing a lot of videos. Also, note that the instructor might ask questions. Furthermore, I suggest purchasing the English version of Road Rules.
Studying in a Japanese driving school can be a different experience from other driving schools overseas. The program has two main parts: lectures and practical driving lessons. Also, the program has two stages: driving inside the school and in the city. You will need to achieve the specific hours in driving and lectures to move to the next stage. Once you finish, you will need to take a written test and then a driving test. You can choose to take the computer-delivered exam in English or Japanese. Furthermore, you will have a chance to practice tests before the actual exam. When you pass all exams, you will be granted a learner’s license permit that will permit you to drive with an instructor in the city. The process will be the same as in the first stage. You will need to take lectures and driving lessons. Once you are done, you will need to take the final driving examination. If you pass your driving examination in school, you will graduate from a driving school. After all these procedures, you will need to take the very final test in the Police Station (menkyo senta). You will need to pay for the written exam around 2,000 yen. Moreover, you will choose the language between Japanese or English, and you can retake it until you pass.
Tip: The examination questions are usually tricky, but try to memorize the one you are unsure of. If you did not pass the first time, the same problems could come to the next exam. Usually, there are 3-4 different exams, and there is a high chance of receiving the same exam questions. For more details, watch Micaela's Youtube video:
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International Driver's License in Japan
1949 Geneva Convention
If you plan to visit Japan for a short time, you can obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in Japan. You can get an International driver's license in a country where your license is issued. Moreover, not every government issues the same permits. You have to confirm whether the International driver's license of your country is recognized in Japan or not. Also, consider that the Japanese are extremely strict with international regulations, and you can be punished if you drive with the wrong IDP. If your IDP is issued by a country affiliated with the 1949 Geneva Convention, you can freely move to Japan. You can find a checklist of countries that signed the 1949 Geneva Convention. Do not confuse it with the 1969 Vienna Convention. Japan is not affiliated with the 1969 Vienna Convention. Therefore, the International driver's license issued under the 1969 Vienna Convention cannot be used in Japan.
Furthermore, you can get an International driver's license from the age of 18. Usually, it will take a couple of hours to days to make the International driving Permit. It depends on where your IDP will be issued. Once you receive the document, you can drive to Japan for one year (since the issue of the form). Consider converting your driving license to the Japanese one if you are considering staying longer than one year. In case of re-issuing the IDP, you will still be unable to drive. If only you stayed abroad for more than three months and then came back to Japan. Moreover, you have to keep your original driving license, International driver's license, and passport always with you. Note that your license should be non-expired when you are getting the international license permit.
Other Country’s Driver License
Furthermore, some countries do not require the issue of an international driver's license. Instead, you have to provide a Japanese translation of your licenses, such as Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia, and Taiwan. You have to receive the translation from the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF) in Japan. In some cases, your local Japanese consular service can issue the translation. You can check out the list of JAF offices nearby your home. Due to pandemics, the issue of license translation can be delayed. Also, if you live far from JAF offices, you can use a mailing service. The translation will cost 3,000 yen. If you consider mailing, it will cost extra 500 yen for a postage fee. Once you receive the translation of your driving license, you can drive for one year in Japan. Every time you drive, you have to keep your license, translation, and passport with you. If a police officer stops you, he/she might ask for a passport to check the day of arrival. For more information, read official information on JAF.
If your license is not falling under the 1949 Geneva Convention or another country’s driver’s license, you cannot drive in Japan. Consider contacting your local Japanese embassy or consular services to ask for more information.
Renting a Car with International Driver's License
So now you got your International Driving Permit or Japanese license, you are ready to drive. Are you considering renting a car in Japan? In some cases, renting a car can be a cheaper option than public transportation. Also, it is more convenient. The transportation system is not efficient in every part of Japan. Simply because it is not so populated and most people own cars. So if you travel to Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kyushu, or Okinawa, consider renting a car.
There are many rental car options. Japan’s leading car rental companies are
All these companies have English websites for more information. You can make reservations online. However, in some cases, car drop-off places, the assistant might not speak English. In this case, you can call the call center. Usually, there will be a person who speaks English.
Also, note that Japanese cars are all right wheeled, and roads are on the left side. It can be challenging to drive on the opposite side, but you will eventually get used to it. It is important to note that the car display’s main alert signs can be different from your car back home, depending on the vehicle. Furthermore, most of the cars will be Japanese brands like Toyota, Nissan, or Honda. If you are looking for a European and other foreign maker car, it can be slightly more expensive. Rentals usually provide various car sizes: mini/compact (4-5 people), standard (5 people), large (5 people), minivan (6-8 people), and SUV (4-7 people). You can also rent camping cars. It is excellent for extensive rides.
When you rent a car, you will need to make a payment with a credit card. Also, you will need to sign the rental agreement and go through the car checklist. Observe the car for scratches and damages. Usually, Japanese companies will not try to scam you but be on alert.
The average rental price for one day (24 hours) ranging between 6,000-30,000 yen. If you consider booking a small car, you will pay between 5,000-7,000 yen. For regular or hybrid vehicles, the price will be 10,000-16,000 yen per day. For full-sized cars (family cars), the cost can reach 27,000-30,000 yen.
Most of the Japanese rental agencies will provide discounts for more extended rental periods. Some rentals allow having one-way rides or different drop-off places for an extra price.
Tip: if you speak some Japanese, try to search in the Japanese language. Sometimes the price varies from 1,000-2,000 yen (per day) depending on the language search you choose. You can also use Google Translate. If you have any trouble, you can always contact the rental company by phone. Most of the company’s call centers have an English-speaking service.
When you rent a car, always purchase insurance. Usually, most Japanese rental car agencies already include insurance. Nevertheless, check out the company’s website’s insurance coverage policies or ask them for the document. Some insurances will have minimum coverage from accidents or fraud. I suggest you have a complete coverage package to avoid trouble.
Most cars are equipped with GPS service. Usually, it is spoken in Japanese or English languages. If you have problems with setting the interface language, ask the assistant in the car rental office. Investigate how to use a car and GPS before you leave the office.
Child shelter seat
If you travel with a child, you can rent a baby seat for the extra cost. Often they provide three different sizes. It will cost around 1,000 yen for rent.
ETC device and card
Are you planning to travel on the highway? Japan has the Electronic Toll Collection System (ETC). When you enter the highway toll, you can choose how to pay: person or contactless with an ETC device. It can be annoying to stop every time and pay in-person. Paying with ETC can shorten your time, and you do not have to keep coins around you. Most rental companies provide ETC devices for free, yet if you do not have an ETC card, you will need to rent it for around 300-700 yen. Once you return your car, the company will print out the receipt you will need to pay for.
Winter tires and ski rack
If you plan to visit ski resorts in Japan, you will need to have winter tires and maybe a ski rack. If you rent a car from evergreen places like Tokyo, Kansai, or Southern regions, you will need to pay extra for winter tires. In other cases, if you rent a car from snowy places, the car will be already equipped with winter tires.
Check out this Youtube video on how to rent a car in Japan:
Buying a Car in Japan
Are you planning to move to Japan for a long time? Making decisions on how to find an apartment in Japan can be challenging, but buying a car can be even worse. You have to decide whether you want to buy a brand new car or a used one. If you choose to brand a new vehicle, you can go directly to the dealer shop and get a car. Also, dealer shops give you a chance to have a driving test. Are you deciding to pay the full amount at one time or get a car loan? There are many types of car loans with a small interest rate, but it can be very problematic to get a loan in Japan if you are a foreigner. Japanese banks are being very strict with providing loans to foreigners, yet it is possible.
There are many places to buy a used car in Japan. You probably have noticed a lot of used car dealer shops around the city. It is common to buy a car, but you have to investigate the marketplace before car purchase. The used-car showrooms set a higher price than car auction prices. Simply, many people do not know the approximate car price and do not have access to the auction to check prices or buy directly. If you are looking for cheaper options, check out Yahoo Auction, Mercari, and Facebook Marketplace.
Registration process and Insurance
You had purchased a car, what should you do next? The first step is to register your vehicle in the Police Department. You will need to fill the document shako shyomeisho (proof of parking), or in Japanese, it is 車庫証明書. You will need your ID card, stamp (inkan), and map of your area. You will need to draw the place where you will park a car. The documents will be done around one week or less. The next step will be to go to the Land Transport Office (rikuun kyoku), where you will need to fill some forms. You will need to bring a Proof of Seal Registration Certificate (inkan shyomeisho) and a Power of Attorney Certificate (inin jyou). You might need to change the number plates if the car was registered in a different district.
Apart from shaken, you will need to pay the annual tax on the car. The automobile tax price depends on the shaken certificate of vehicle and curbs weight. It can range between 30,000-80,000 yen for passenger cars. The rule of thumb is the bigger the vehicle is, the more you will pay a tax.
Lastly, consider getting car insurance. It can save a lot of costs if you get into an accident or your car gets stolen. There are many companies making car insurance, consider the one that suits your preferences. If you do not speak Japanese, some insurance companies have English-speaking staff.
Tip: If you borrow someone's car, you can get One-coin insurance (500 yen) for one day from any convenience store.
What to Do If You Stopped by a Police Officer?
If you get stopped by a policeman, stay calm. Sometimes they just make checks on the driver's identity. It often happens in Tokyo or other big cities, but it rarely occurs in rural areas. In this case, just provide a license and ID card, and you might need to give your car for inspection.
In other cases, you will be stopped due to a violation of road rules. If you over-speeded or cross the street at the right light, you can be in trouble. You will lose demerit points and will need to pay fines. You can pay the penalty in the bank or post office.
Japanese laws are very strict towards driving without a license and drunk driving. Recently, rules got even harsher. If you drive without a valid license, you can be fined 200,000 yen. Your license will be suspended and fine for up to 1 million yen or five years imprisonment in case of drunk driving. If you are a passenger and did not stop a drunk driver from driving, you will be penalized.
What to do if you get into an accident?
Are you a victim? If you are a victim of an accident, you should ask the opposite side to pay for your car repair and medical expenses if needed.
In case if you crashed someone's car, you should call the police and ambulance if needed. Nevertheless, if the accident is minor, you can negotiate with the victim not to call the police. You have to talk to the victim of a car accident. However, if the victim did not have any pain at the moment of the accident but experiences it at a later date, he/she can report it later. This can cause many problems because you will need to go to the police station for an interview and come back to the accident. Also, you will have to call your insurance company, if you have one. I suggest having car insurance that has full-coverage to avoid all the problems. Car repair and medical costs can be costly.
Be very attentive while driving, especially in the areas where pedestrians and cyclists pass. In Japan, there are many cyclists. Not all cyclists are careful, and some can use phones while cycling. If you bump into a pedestrian or cyclist (even if a pedestrian or cyclist passes on a non-designated area), it will be considered your fault.
Where can I find legal help?
If you do not speak Japanese and do not know much about Japan’s laws, consider finding a lawyer. There are few companies in Japan that have English-speaking lawyers.
Last things to consider
Road signs and rules
You might have noticed that Japanese road signs are a bit different from the ones in your country. Consider checking the road rules before you plan your trip. If you are currently living in Japan, you can get the Road textbook Rules on Amazon. I found it very handy when I was learning how to drive. Also, JAF is providing a lot of information in English and other foreign languages. You can check out quizzes to check your knowledge of road signs.
Japan has an excellent parking system. If you have seen the Tokyo Drift movie scene, you would be fascinated by parking lots in Japan. There are many kinds of parking lots: coin parking lots, street parking, parking garages, and monthly parking. If you consider driving around Tokyo, you will usually need to pay for parking. In Shibuya or Shinjuku, prices can be exceeding 400 yen per 30 minutes or 2500-4000 yen per day. In the outskirts of the main Tokyo area, parking fees get cheaper. If you are living in small cities, usually parking will be free of charge. Park your car only in designated areas. You can be penalized for illegal parking.
There are two types of gasoline stations: full-service and self-service. Usually, self-service is cheaper than full-service, but it is harder to find in the city center. Usually, self-service will be located outside of the central Tokyo area. You do not have to memorize a lot of things when you consider filling gas. There are three types of gasoline: regular (レギュラー）in red color, high-octane gasoline in yellow (ハイオク) and diesel in green color. You can either say how many liters to fill or name the specific price. Also, if you want to fill full gas, you can say mantan (満タン).
Driving license is expired
One day your driving license will expire. Usually, the license will be valid for three years, and then you will need to renew your license. You can renew your license one month before or one month after your birthday. Do not worry. You will receive the notification letter from the Driver's license office to renew your license. Also, do not forget to bring your driving license and identity identification. Be ready to pay around 3,000 yen for renewal. Watch this video. It gives the best tips on how to prepare for driving license renewal.
If you are considering moving to Japan, you should definitely think about getting an International Driver's license. It can be life-changing. You will be able to explore wonderful places away from Tokyo! Japan is full of scenery destinations worth seeing! Are you planning to stay in Japan for a longer time? Get a Japanese driving license! You can convert your International driver's license or get it from a Japanese driving school.
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