Americans cannot drive in Japan with only a U.S. drivers license. Persons found driving in Japan without a legal license are subject to fines, arrest and possible deportation.
“International Driving Permits” are not a medium-to-long term substitute for a Japanese driver’s license. You cannot obtain an International Driving Permit at the Embassy. You cannot renew your U.S. license at the Embassy.
International Driving Permits (IDP)
“Residents” are expected to convert or obtain a Japanese drivers license. Persons using an international drivers license who are resident in Japan can be subject to fines or arrest. Driving without a license may also void your insurance coverage.
Read what the Japanese Police have to say about International Driving Permits.
An international driving permit issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA) is required of short-term visitors who drive in Japan.
IDP’s must be obtained prior to arriving in Japan. They cannot be obtained in Japan.
Note that IDP’s are not intended to replace valid U.S. state licenses and should only be used as a supplement to a valid license. In other words, you must also have a valid U.S. state license in addition to an IDP to drive in Japan.
Follow these links to learn more about getting an IDP:
International Driving Permit (IDP) Scams
You can obtain a valid IDP only from an automobile association authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue IDPs. Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic (1949) authorizes the U.S. Department of State to empower certain organizations to issue IDPs to those who hold valid U.S. drivers licenses.
The Department has designated the American Automobile Association (AAA) as the only authorized distributors of IDPs.
International Driving Permits should cost only US$20, though they are sold online for as much as US$300.
Why Do Americans Have to Take a Driving Test?
Foreigners are only able to drive on an international driver license for up to 12 months. After that, foreign drivers must apply for and receive a Japanese driver license. Long term foreign residents in Japan who attempt to avoid taking a driving test by continually renewing their international driver license abroad every 12 months will now be required to be abroad for more than three months in order to use an international permit that they obtain abroad. A new international permit obtained during travel abroad that is less than three months will not be valid for use in Japan. Note that tourists and others coming to Japan for short stays may still drive with an international license obtained at any time before their arrival in Japan.
The driver test consists of hearing, eyesight, written and practical/road test components. You may be exempt from the driving test, depending on the state that issued your license. Please contact your local licensing bureau for more info.
Converting to a Japanese License
For Americans resident in Japan, it is possible to convert a valid U.S. drivers license to a Japanese license. This cannot be done at the Embassy. The required translation of your U.S. license also cannot be done at the Embassy.
Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department website at “Transfer of Foreign Driver’s License to a Japanese one.” (PDF). Although this information applies to residents in Tokyo, the basic information is helpful to residents outside Tokyo.
Follow these links for information on converting your license, including sources to help with the translation of your U.S. license. Please note that these links are to for-profit private organizations, and are provided here for your information only. Inclusion of Non-U.S. Government links or information does not imply endorsement of contents.
Follow this link for the locations of license bureaus in the Tokyo area.
The Embassy cannot assist anyone with establishing proof of residence in the United States to meet the foreign residency requirement for issuance of a Japanese driver’s license. You may consider contacting the driver’s license issuing authority in the state that issued your current U.S. license for any records that they might maintain regarding your license issuance. All questions on requirements should be directed to your local licensing bureau (Japanese only).
Driving in Japan
Driving in Japan can be quite complicated and expensive. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs. Highway tolls are assessed at about US $1 per mile. City traffic is often very congested. A 20-mile trip in the Tokyo area may take two hours. There is virtually no roadside parking. In mountainous areas, roads are often closed during the winter, and cars should be equipped with tire chains.
Roads in Japan are much narrower than those in the United States. Vehicular traffic moves on the left. Turns at red lights are forbidden unless specifically authorized.
Japanese compulsory insurance is mandatory for all automobile owners and drivers in Japan. Your U.S. auto insurance likely does not provide coverage in Japan; check with your insurer.
Accidents and Liability
Japanese law provides that all persons who drive in Japan are held liable in the event of an accident, and assesses fault in an accident on all parties. The police may determine, for example, that a given accident was 80% the fault of Driver A, and 20% the fault of Driver B. Fines, penalties and the like would then be split the same way, i.e., 80-20.
Drivers stopped for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol will have their licenses confiscated. Persons found guilty of “drunken, speeding or blatantly careless driving that results in death” subject to up to 15 years in prison, tripling the previous maximum sentence. Japanese police are also permitted to contact financial institutions directly to determine an offenders financial status to combat evasion of payment for traffic violations.
The National Police Agency (NPA) oversees the administration and enforcement of traffic laws. Further information in English is available on the NPA’s web site.
Within Japan, please dial 110 for police, and 119 for ambulance.
For roadside assistance, please contact the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) at 03-5730-0111 in Tokyo, 072-645-0111 in Osaka, 011-857-8139 in Sapporo, 092-841-5000 in Fukuoka, or 098-877-9163 in Okinawa. Service is usually only available in Japanese.
Here is some information on how to call for help.
Other Useful Links