Converting a License in Japan

One of many Toll Booths

In 2007, I had become a legal driver in Japan. It only took 3 hours at the office, and 4 hours of travelling. My journey began almost a month before I actually headed to the Driver’s License Office. I had to go to the Japan Auto Federation to get a translation of my Driver’s License. This is mandatory. The Canadian embassy, which is closer to my home, doesn’t do it, so I had no other choice. I was well prepared. I had my money, my application, my Canadian license, and all the photo copies they required.  All of the information you need on what to bring is available on JAFs website. It only took about 15 minutes to get it and it was very simple and easy. The next week, I was supposed to head over to the licensing centre, but there was one major problem I have a motorcycle license.

Having a motorcycle license or an extra license other than a regular car license is a hassle when converting a foreign license to a Japanese one.  If you have a license without a lot of information, you will have to contact your home licensing centre.  I had to get a statement from my provincial license office stating the dates of when I obtained my car license, and my motorcycle license.  Both dates are different for myself, and can be different for other people, so they must know these dates.  I contacted the licensing office and after a few transfers and a lengthy explanation, I had my request processed. The letter only took two weeks to get to me.

My first trip to the Driver’s License Office was an adventure. There is only one office in Tokyo, located in Samezu, south of Shinagawa Station.  I got onto the right trains, and yet, I didn’t. It takes roughly 3 transfers to get to the License Office from my house. I made my way out, but as I was inexperienced with this particular train line, I made a terrible mistake.  My intention was to take the local train, as only the local train stops at Samezu Station.  I made a mistake and took an express train which went well past the station I wanted to visit.  I ended up adding about 40 minutes to my one way trip.  Once out of the station, I started to wander around until I found the Driver’s License Office. It’s not easy to find the Samezu Office and I got lost several times but I eventually got there. Once inside, I had to ask the front desk where to go, and I headed straight for the counter where I could convert my license. It’s located on the 2nd floor of the office, in the back corner. I got my number and waited. About 10 minutes or so later, I got called and gave all my details. Here’s the biggest problem, my passport is relatively new and after about 20 minutes of them counting how many days I’ve been a valid driver, I wasn’t “experienced” enough based on my passport. Since they couldn’t verify that I was in Canada before my last passport expired, I didn’t qualify for a regular license.  I would have to carry a beginner’s mark for the next 3 years. Since my old passport wasn’t returned to me, I had no way of confirming my residence in Canada before the issuing date of my passport. I was told that I would have to come back AGAIN, just to get my beginner’s mark taken off. I had to bring a copy, and original of my university diploma. This was bureaucracy at its best.

After the hassle of talking with the officer and understanding what I have to do, I finally get approved to get a license. I was told to go downstairs where I have to take an eye test, then come back up and pay for my license. It costs about 8000 Yen for a new license. I have to go to the special cashier’s window where I pay and in return they give me some stamps to prove that I paid. They proceed to place the stamps on the application form to prove that I have paid and I head back to the original window where I started my application.  Back at the first window, I’m told to wait again.  This is the story of the day.  Go here, wait; move here, wait; hold this, wait, and so on. Finally, they call me back and tell me to go downstairs, again, and then I can pick up my license. I go down, get my picture taken in under 2 seconds, and then I head up to the 3rd floor. The final procedure is where I have to wait as they print out my license and verify the information written on it. I get my license and finally, I can go home. I spent about 2 hours waiting and about 10 minutes of doing something. Thankfully, I caught the right train home.

A few days later, I head back. I have a copy of my diploma, my original, my license, my passport, and my Canadian License. I didn’t get lost this time as I knew where to go, and I figured out which train to take. I waited in line, as always, and one worker was kind enough to help me.  He looked at my documents and, gave me a number. I waited until my number was called, and I talk to a different worker, and the same guy. At first, he couldn’t help me as he was working at a “different window”, yet in the same room.  He just sat around doing almost nothing until the other worker was free. The worst part of it all was that he ended up doing my work anyways. They started to look at my documents.  They told me to sit, then they called me, then they told me to sit again, and then they called me.  This happened a couple times, and I had to tell them the date that I started University and the date that I graduated.

Park near Misawa

Finally, a third guy calls my name, and he brings me to the 4th floor. He takes my documents and license and we head upstairs where he makes me sit down on a chair in the hallway.  He leaves for about 5 minutes before coming back saying that I should go back down to the 2nd floor. The only reason he brought me up to the 4th floor was so that I knew he had my license, which he was holding.  At least that’s what I thought.  I found it even more confusing for the fact that my passport, Canadian License, and university degree were still on the 2nd floor at that time. When we get back down, it took less than 2 minutes before he called me back and showed me my documents. He told me to check the address on my Japanese License. All okay. I took everything and went home. This trip took 1 hour of waiting, and 3 minutes of exercise.

Overall, converting a foreign license into a Japanese license is a great exercise in patience.  You will definitely learn the meaning of bureaucracy.  Hopefully those who need to convert their license can learn a little about it here, and avoid any and all of my mistakes.  It’s very hard to say what will happen, of if things have changed in the last two years, as of writing this.  If there is any tip I can recommend, bring a magazine to read, or a nice book.  You’ll need it to survive all the waiting you’ll have to do.  iPods would be good as well, but you might need to be aware in case they call your name or number.

To read more about Converting a License in Japan (2008), please visit the following posts on Dru’s Misadventures:


JAF Information:
JAF Application Form (English):
JAF Rules of the Road (Guide to driving basics in Japan):