Ultimate Guide to Japan's Driving Test

By Claire Madsen | July 8, 2021 

So you’re thinking about taking the driving test in Japan. Have you been driving in your home country for 20 years and just want the convenience of a car? Or are you a first-timer in the driver’s seat? Either way, getting your license in Japan is a big step to take, and you’re going to need to take some time to prepare before you’re ready to get behind the wheel.

For more info on living in Japan, check out our extensive article series on Life in Tokyo.

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    Do I need a driver’s license in Japan?

    The first thing you’re going to need to ask yourself before going out to take the driving test in Japan is whether you even need to get your license. Japan has an amazing system of public transportation and cross country trains, especially in the big cities.

    Short-term residents

    If you’re only going to be in Japan for a few months or less, it is definitely not going to be worth all the trouble. Depending on your current license situation, it may take you many weeks to months to even get through the process. Unless you are in a position where you can easily convert your license or you have the International Driving Permit, I wouldn’t bother. You can check what other countries’ licenses are accepted and learn more about the International Driving Permit here.

    Long-term residents

    For those of you planning on staying in Japan for a much longer time, I recommend taking the time to really think about it. If you live in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka and don’t travel outside of those areas often, odds are getting a license won’t be all that beneficial to you. If you live in a much more rural area or travel a lot, it may be a better investment. Weigh the time and money it’d take for you to get it over the convenience of being able to drive before rushing into anything.


    Still deciding about living in Japan long-term? Also check out on BFF Tokyo: 
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    What about getting a scooter or motorcycle license?

    The driver’s license may seem like too much of a hassle or you might be more interested in driving a motorcycle or scooter around. Either way, getting these kinds of licenses is much easier compared to a driver’s license. There are multiple types of licenses or permits depending on the type of scooter or motorcycle that you want to ride. For a scooter or bike with displacement of under 50cc, you need a gentsuki menkyo (scooter license). You can see a more detailed explanation on the process for getting a gentsuki menkyo here. For larger bikes, there are three licenses: small (limited to under 125cc), regular (limited to under 400cc), and large (no cc limit). I also want to note that the general driving license also allows you to drive scooters (under 50cc).

    Benefits of taking the driving test in Japan

    You may be wondering if getting a driver’s license is even worth it. This definitely depends on your situation, but there are plenty of benefits to taking the driving test in Japan. Once you have your license, you have the freedom to drive across the country and explore more remote parts of the country on your own schedule. Think of all the new experiences you could have! Plus the license lasts a minimum of 3 years for first-time drivers or those with traffic infractions on their record. Experienced drivers and people with exceptional records don’t have to renew their licenses for 5 years.

    For some ideas on what to do with your newfound driving freedom, check out our article on the Japanese National Holidays 2021 or our Ultimate Guide to Summer Festival in Japan.

    Drawbacks to driving in Japan

    What’s the catch? Well, getting your license is a long and arduous process for a lot of people. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who can simply use the license from their home country and easily convert, you’re going to have a bit of work to do to get your license. Then, if you decide to buy a car to drive, you might be paying more than you’re used to. You’re not paying more for the car itself, which you can get for relatively cheap, but for the upkeep fees. Every two years you’ll be required to get shaken, or a vehicle inspection, which can cost you the equivalent of over $1000 USD. Keep your financial situation in mind before getting all gung ho about a car.

    japan driving test highway truck

    Do I need to take the driving test in Japan?

    So luckily if your home country has an agreement with the Japanese government, you may not need to take the driving test in Japan! 

    Which licenses are accepted in Japan?

    If you have a valid license from Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia or Taiwan, you should be able to drive in Japan for up to one year without taking a test! All it requires is a bit of documentation, like a Japanese translation of your license. You can get that from the embassy for your home country or the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). For more details on exactly what is required and how to go about applying for it, check the JAF website page for it here.

    If you can’t use your country’s license directly, you may still be able to get it transferred over to a Japanese driver’s license. As long as you’ve got a valid license from a country you can prove you stayed in for more than three months after getting the license, you can apply. Licenses from a lot of countries in Europe as well as Canada and Australia will allow you to skip the written and practical driving test in Japan. That’s a huge time and money saver. Unfortunately for Americans, only licenses from Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington are included in this test exemption. If you’re from another state you’ll have to go through a written and practical exam.

    Can I use the International Driving Permit?

    Okay, so maybe you can’t use the license from your home country. But what about the International Driving Permit? Yes, Japan does recognize the International Driving Permit. If your country agreed to the 1949 Geneva Convention, it is valid. As long as you’ve gotten the IDP before coming to Japan, you can use it for up to one year continuously. You cannot get one issued to you in Japan. If you go back to the issuing country for at least 2 months, you can use a new one for another year. However, it may not be widely known outside of areas with a high foreigner population.

    You can learn more about the IDP with our Guide to the International Driver’s License in Japan.

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    What if I don’t have a license in my home country?

    If you don’t have a license in your home country, you’re going to have to go through the process from scratch like a Japanese person would. Unfortunately, that means a longer written exam and stricter test behind the wheel. You’ll need to pass both a written and practical exam at an accredited driving school to get your learner’s permit, then another set of tests for your actual license. These tests are longer and more rigorous than the ones for converting a license. You’ll also only have six months after getting your permit to get your license before it expires.

    How does Japan's driving test compare to the U.S.'s?

    If you have an American license, you’re more than likely going to have to take a driving test in Japan. Again, only Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington have a straightforward conversion agreement with Japan. We’ll go over the biggest differences between driving in Japan compared to the U.S..

    Traffic laws

    One of the biggest differences about driving in Japan that you probably already know is that you drive on the left side of the road. That means that everything in the car is also flipped. That’s a big enough change on its own, but the roads and parking in Japan are also different. Unless you’re in a rural area, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of pedestrians and bicycles, which may not have been the case where you’re from in the U.S.. Due to the high number of trains, all cars are expected to stop and check that there are no oncoming trains at every railroad crossing. When parking in Japan, it’s also customary to back into the spot, which can be tough if you’re not used to it.

    Of course, traffic signs may also be different. For a complete list of Japanese road signs and what they mean to prepare for your driving test in Japan, check here.

    What are the laws around drinking and driving?

    In Japan, it is illegal to drive if you have had any amount of alcohol. This extends to bicycles as well. Even passengers in the car with a drunk driver can be charged and fined or worse. Just take my word for it, don’t drink and drive in Japan, it’s not worth it.

    street japan bicycke japan driving test

    Anshin kakunin (safety checks)

    One of the biggest pitfalls many foreigners face when taking the driving test in Japan is that they don’t do enough safety checks. The driving test in Japan is less about checking your actual skill and more about making sure you know the rules of the road there. So you’re going to have to make exaggerated checks of your mirrors, look around and pause before turns, that sort of thing.

    Driving a manual vs an automatic

    Maybe you’ve heard how common manual cars are in Japan and you’re worried. Though it’s true that you may see them more than you would in other countries, most people still drive automatic.

    Will I have to know how to drive a manual for the driving test in Japan?

    You might still want to know how to drive a manual even if you don’t have to. You can just drive an automatic for the exam, but your license will reflect that, and you will only be allowed to drive automatic vehicles. For most people that probably won’t be an issue, but if you know you may drive a manual one day, it’s probably better to just go ahead and do that from the jump. If you want the manual-car-privileges-included license, you’re going to have to drive a manual for the exam.

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    The Mini-Ultimate guide to passing the driving test in Japan

    Now that you’ve decided you’re going to take the test, I’ve got all the info you need to know.

    How long will it take me to go through the process?

    This definitely depends on how much time you have to spare and how much you have to do. If you’re between jobs and have complete free time, you could probably get the simple test done in a couple of weeks. If you need to go through the entire process of starting by getting your permit, it’s going to take quite a bit longer. You’d essentially have three parts to get through: getting your permit, getting the required driving hours in, and getting your license. 

    Also remember it will depend on your specific circumstances. If you don’t pass the driving test in Japan on your first try, you’re going to have to reschedule. And often that next appointment is weeks away, so every setback could majorly change your timeline.

    How difficult is the exam?

    If you fail, it’ll take longer. Fair enough, but is the test even that hard? You might be worried after hearing all this that the exam is going to be really difficult. It may be harder to pass than the one in your home country, but it’s definitely not impossible. As long as you’re prepared properly, you should be able to pass.

    Is it hard to pass the driving test in Japan on my first try?

    You might be surprised, but people fail their first driving test in Japan quite often. A lot of foreigners say that passing on your first try makes you the exception to the rule. That’s just a testament to how much you have to prepare for the test, and a reminder not to get too discouraged if you fail. The test itself is not that hard, the proctors are just extremely strict. Any small misstep could cost you getting your license. So focus on staying cool under pressure and doing everything exactly as you practiced for the best chance at passing.

    Do I need to know Japanese to take the driving test in Japan?

    You can take the driving test in Japan without a high level of Japanese, but I would say it is definitely to your benefit to know Japanese. If you take the test in Japanese, the biggest hurdle is going to be reading the kanji. See our Guide to Japanese Reading and our Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips.

    What Japanese level do I need to be?

    The driving test in Japan, specifically the written test, will use a lot of high-level vocabulary and grammar. If you plan on taking the test in Japanese, I recommend that you be at least at an N2 level to do it comfortably. If you want a guide on how to level up your Japanese from intermediate to advanced, I recommend checking our Advanced Guide to Learning Japanese or signing up for affordable lessons at Japan Switch.

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    Driving Related Vocab

    Even if you’re not planning on taking the driving test in Japan in Japanese, you’re still going to need some vocab just in case. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I recommend looking up any vocab for individual words you want to know.

    Japanese

    Romanization

    English

    自動車

    Jidousha

    Car

    表示灯

    Hyoujitou

    Signal light

    警音器

    Keionki

    Car horn

    運転手

    Untenshun

    Driver

    乗客

    Joukyaku

    Passenger

    車線

    Shasen

    Traffic lane

    標識

    Hyoushiki

    Sign

    横断歩道

    Oudanhodou

    Pedestrian crossing

    駐車

    Chuusha

    Parking

    Can I take the driving test in English?

    You can absolutely take the driving test in Japan in English. There are English versions of the written tests available in all 47 prefectures. Some people have reported that sometimes the translations can be a bit awkward though, so watch out for that.

    Other language options

    If you’re looking for another language outside of English, Chinese versions of the exams are available in Kyoto, Miyagi, Kumamoto and Wakayama prefectures. In Shizuoka prefecture, you can take it in Portuguese.

    How much money does it cost?

    Unfortunately, the driving test in Japan does have a fee, but it’s pretty reasonable. It costs ¥1,550 (~$14 USD) to take the written exam. The practical exam does not seem to have a separate fee.

    What do I need to know before taking the exam?

    All that theoretical info is good and all, but what do I actually need to know going into the driving test in Japan? If you’re taking the more extensive tests, keep in mind that you’re going to have to know everything a little better.

    Written

    For the written exam, you’re just going to need a good understanding of Japanese traffic laws. It’s as straightforward as that. For a full guidebook, you can get the Japanese rules of the road as an e-book or in print from the JAF in English, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish here.

    test taking students exam

    Practical

    If you’ve passed the written test, don’t get cocky. The practical driving test in Japan is where things get difficult. It’s much less of a test of whether you can actually drive safely, and much more about seeing if you follow all the prescribed steps in the correct order. You have to do safety checks around and under the car before getting in, make sure you turn your head fully before every turn, and stop behind the stop line. And that doesn’t mean stopping at the stop line, you have to be behind it just the right amount. So I recommend getting some sort of practice in a car with an instructor before going all the way to the testing center only to fail to get your license over something small. 

    Do I need to go to driving school?

    This all sounds like you’re going to have to go to driving school. But you don’t. If you’re confident in your ability to self study and you have someone to practice with, then you could be fine. I do think that the practice element of that is what’s most important. If you have a friend with a Japanese license who is willing to show you the ropes and talk you through the exam, that’d be your biggest asset. 

    On the other hand, if you have even a modicum of doubt, it’s best to at least book a driving practice lesson with an instructor before taking the exam. If you’re going to get your license from scratch by getting your permit, I do think starting at a driving school will save you time in the long run as you’d be more likely to pass.

    What level of Japanese do I need?

    Most driving schools in Japan are in Japanese, so you’d also need to understand Japanese to take lessons there. Just like with the exam, I’d recommend being at least at the upper-intermediate level to be comfortable taking lessons. Check our Top 20 Japanese Study Tips for ideas on how to study or think about taking online lessons at Japan Switch.

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    Are there English driving schools in Japan?

    If you’re not able to take lessons in Japanese but want to enroll, there are a few English-language driving schools in Japan. So you may need to travel a bit to be able to attend depending on where you are. Some of the ones I could find are:

    Tokyo Area:

    Nagoya:

    Kyoto:

    Where and when can I take the driving test in Japan?

    You can take the driving test anywhere in Japan. Just make an appointment at your local driver’s license center. There are three in Tokyo, and you can find their exact locations as well as directions here.

    How do I get my license?

    Once you’ve passed all the exams, getting your license is the easy part. All you have to do is listen to some safety lectures before you can get it. You get your photo taken and after a break, you can pick up your license.

    Do I need to pay a fee?

    There is a ¥2,050 (~$19 USD) fee for your license. All things considered, it’s not that bad.

    How often do I need to renew my license?

    If you have a standard license, you don’t need to renew it for up to 5 years depending on your driving record and whether you have had any demerits. Beginner licenses, however, must be renewed after three years. Whether you’re starting from scratch or just transferring your license over, you will be given a beginner’s license. 

    What is the points system?

    Those demerits I just mentioned? That’s a part of the points system. In Japan, you get demerit points on your record for every traffic infraction you commit. There are different levels of tickets and different consequences depending on your record. For instance, someone with a perfect record may only have a short suspension of their license for the same offense that would revoke the license of someone with a previous suspension. For a full guide on the different levels of infractions and their corresponding demerits and more, check here.

    Conclusion

    Whether you’re going for your license from zero or decided to just get the IDP issued, I hope I was able to answer some of your questions. Enjoy traversing the roads of Japan!


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