How to Exchange your Existing License to get a Japanese License

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So you’re in Japan, maybe you have lived here for a couple of months ? or even a couple of years? (like me), its time to get a Japanese license (aka 外面切り替え or Gaimen Kirikae). You can do this easily by exchanging your existing one. Of course, there may be many reasons for this too. For example, you might want to take a rent-a-car to get out of the city, participate in Mari-Car with your friends or even need to drive for your job. Of course, you are able to use an international license for the first year of your stay in Japan. However, following that you need to register for a Japanese license, which makes more sense and is much more convenient from our perspective …

In any case, we are here to take you through the process of exchanging your home country’s license for the Japanese variety. Furthermore, we hope to eliminate a lot of the confusion to make the process as simple as possible.

The Preparation Stage

Firstly, for this process, there are basically 2 groups of countries. In one group you can perform a simple transfer, and if you are in the other where you are required to undertake a knowledge and driving test. If you’re lucky enough to fall into the prior, then the documentation and preparation required are not as onerous. If you fall into the latter group, then there is a bit more effort and time required.

For those countries without the need for any kind of examination, let’s call it ‘Group 1’. Providing you can prove 3 months of residency in your home country from the time your license was issued, you should be able to exchange your license relatively fuss-free. The countries in this category are as follows:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, or The USA (Maryland or Washington only).

For any country not listed above, let’s say this is ‘Group 2’. Then, you will still be required to prove 3 months of residency from the time you initially received your license. Moreover, you will need to take a driving and knowledge test.

After determining the group for your country, you will need to arrange a certified translation of your license. You can either walk into your local JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) branch office and request a copy. Alternatively, you can fill in the necessary application form and mail this in with the required documentation and save yourself the journey.

Getting a Translation

You will need the following documentation to apply for a license translation:

  • a photocopy of your current native driving license (both sides, preferably in colour)
  • a completed application form (available from the JAF website)
  • 3,000 yen fee required for organising the translation documents; and
  • in some cases a copy of your residence card (for particular countries, please check the JAF website for further details)

If you are sending the application in via mail, you will need to arrange a 3,500 yen (3,000 yen issuance fee + 500 yen return postage) registered postal cash envelope. You will also need to ensure the return address matches the details on your application form.

The JAF website states the translation usually takes up to two weeks to arrive. Sometimes this may be quicker depending on the amount of work or your specific country of origin. It personally took me and my friend about 4 days to receive the official translation in the mail. We walked into our local JAF Branch office, and it was much quicker then we expected, Yet, I suspect it may not always be this fast.

Required Documentation

Once you have obtained your official license translation from JAF, its document collection time. You will then need to ensure you have the following documents when you apply for your new Japanese license. The required documentation includes:

  • Your official JAF License translation (of course!)
  • Your current native country’s license from (original copy)
  • Proof of at least 3 months residence in your home country since license issuance
  • Your current passport (original copy)
  • Your current Japanese residence card (original copy)
  • Juuminhyo or ‘住民票’, which is a document confirming your residential status in the ward that you are currently living. You can obtain this from your local city ward office. For Koto-Ku ward, this costs 300 yen and was a simple and painless process that took about 10 minutes.

You should also arrange a photo for your initial driver’s license application. For example, there are probably photo booths available within the premises of your local license centre. You can find these close to many train stations too. Please note the license centre will also take another photo within their premises for your actual Japanese license.

Furthermore, if your license issue date is not written on your home country’s license, you will need to confirm this via other means. For example, Australian licenses do not have an issue date. Instead, they need to provide a copy of their official driving required, as this confirms the issuance date.

The Driving and Knowledge test

For those individuals who fall into ‘Group 2’ and are required to take a driving and knowledge test. Basic details of the two examinations are outlined below:

Knowledge test – this is comprised of 10 questions, and you will be required to select either true or false of each question. The test is available in English and to pass you will need to answer at least 7 out of 10 questions correctly. Please note there is a sample test available here.

Driving test – this is a driving skill test performed in a closed loop course. These courses are located at the License Centre.

The Exchange Process

So you have all your required documentation and are now you are ready to apply for the transfer. You will need to locate your local License Centre, and take all your documentation with you for them to check over. It is strongly advised that you bring either a Japanese friend or someone fluent in the Japanese language too. The main reason being that the staff in these offices tend to only speak Japanese. The can also get very specific and technical in their questions related to driving history, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

I would also suggest arriving at the License Centre as early as possible. Some of these offices even have quite strict operating hours (by the minute), thus the earlier the better. Moreover, the entire process can take upward of 2 to 3 hours, which is why I would recommend going in the morning if possible.

When you first arrive at the exchange counter, the staff will request that you hand over all the necessary documentation. They will perform an initial check to ensure you have provided all the necessary information. They may even ask you a few questions about the information provided, especially if they feel something is not clear. Once they are satisfied, they will take the documents and review all your information before providing approval to proceed with the transfer. This initial check can take upwards of 30 minutes, so make sure you bring some form of entertainment to help you pass the time.

After they call you back to the counter and assuming everything is in order, you will be able to proceed to the next stage. The office staff will direct you to a machine to select an identification number. You will need this later to confirm your license once you receive the final physical copy.

The Final Steps…

So the light at the end is finally visible, and that elusive license should soon be within reach.

At first, you will need to take an eye test, to ensure your eyesight is satisfactory for driving. This may appear simple at first, but I feel it was not that easy to understand, so feel free to use the guide below as a reference.

As per the chart below, they will ask you to identify where the gap in the circle is. Correspondingly, you will have to say either ‘Shita, Migi, Ue or Hidari’ according to the corresponding signal. They will also ask you to identify one of the four colours listed below ‘Akai, Midori, Aoi or Kiiro’, so hopefully this chart will help prepare you for what you need to say.

After your eye test, they will confirm if you are wear glasses or contact lenses. If you do they will mark this on your application, so make sure to wear them everytime you drive.

Finally, they will take a photo for your official license. They will ask you to sit in a designated seat and direct your face towards the camera. Once you have completed the process, you will then need to wait for your final license.

Get Your License

There will be a specific area to collect your official license. Unfortunately, this procedure can also take upwards of an hour so ‘patience is a virtue’. For me personally, it took approx. 90 minutes to receive my first physical Japanese license. Hence, the aforementioned form of entertainment will again come in handy.

Once the staff call your number, you will then be able to collect your license. You will need to key in your original identification number to confirm you are the correct license holder, and then you are free to go and drive throughout Japan.

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