Driving in Japan

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. The exact boundary between “resident” and “not resident” is unclear. In practice it seems to involve more than simply visa status or length of stay in Japan and is determined by the police.

We have heard from several Americans who were told by the police that using an International Driver’s License for more than a year, or using one after exiting and then returning to Japan, or using one when you are residing in Japan, or after you have obtained an Alien Registration Card, or after 90 days in Japan, or using a license obtained by mail while you are in Japan, is illegal. In two instances, following accidents, Americans were charged with driving without a license, a serious offense. Driving without a license may also void your insurance coverage.

Read what the Japanese Police have to say about International Driving Permits and “To Foreign Nationals who drive vehicles in Japan.”

Obtaining an International Driving Permit

An international driving permit issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automoile Touring Alliance 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) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) as theonly authorized distributors of IDPs.

There are, however, many scams on the Internet charging significant fees for licenses and/or making false statements. Read what AAA, AATA and the Department of State say before you put down any money.

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?

The Embassy learned from the Superindendent of the License Division of the Traffic Bureau of the National Police Agency (NPA) to learn that prior to June 2002, Japanese law had allowed foreigners bearing international driver licenses to drive indefinitely in Japan.  As of June 2002, however, 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 prove that they obtained the international permit at least three months before re-entering 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. Citizens of 27 countries and regions, including the State of Maryland, are exempt from taking everything but the eye test. Some of these countries met the exemption requirement because the NPA examined their domestic traffic safety record and determined that it was at least as good as Japan’s. Other nations exempt Japanese license holders from a driving test.  Effective January 4, 2016, the exemption applies to the holders of a license issued by the State of Maryland.  Other U.S. states are not exempt from the driving test requirement.

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 on “Transfer of Foreign Driver’s License to a Japanese one.”  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 (PDF 400KB) in the Tokyo area.

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 alchohol 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.

Emergency Assistance

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.

Resources
  • For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, please see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs home page.
  • For specific information concerning Japanese driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax and mandatory insurance, please contact theJapan National Tourist Organization.
  • In addition, information about roadside assistance, rules of the road and obtaining a Japanese drivers license is available in English from the Japan Automobile Federation.

Other Useful Links