In today's post we will cover the when, where, and how of driver license renewal in Japan.

Disclaimer: This guide is only intended to be a general outline. The exact procedures can differ from prefecture to prefecture.

When to Renew
The date for renewing (koshin 更新) your drivers license (unten menkyosho 運転免許証) can be found on the colored bar to the left of your photo. The date is always printed in Japanese Emperor years (nengo 年号) so make sure you know the equivalent Western calendar years (or use an online converter). 

The time between renewals is based on the color of your drivers license (indicated on the bar with the expiration date) which is in turn based on your driving history as well as your age. The categories are as follows:
  • Green- Beginners (shoshinsha 初心者) license. This is the first license you get regardless of whether you have converted your foriegn license or started from scratch. It is valid for 3 years, always expiring a month after your birthday. 

  • Blue- A standard license. This can either be a regular license (ippan untensha 一般運転者) or, if you have more than 3 penalty points on your license and/or have been given a citation more than one time you are classified as "driver with violations" (ihan untensha 違反運転者). This license is good for 3 years if you are over 70 years old or have less than 5 years of driving experience. 4 years if you are 70 years old and 5 years if you are under 70. If you are a driver with violations, it is only good for 3 years regardless of age.

  • Gold- An exemplary (yuryo untensha 優良運転者) drivers license. This license is for drivers who have no record of violations for 5 consecutive years. In addition to simplified renewal procedures, drivers are eligible for insurance discounts.This license is good for 3 years if you are over 70 years old, 4 years if you are 70 years old, and 5 years if you are under 70.
All licenses expire one month after your birthday.

One of the nice parts about the Japanese license system is that they will always send you a postcard (koshin renrakusho 更新連絡書) listing the dates you can renew your license, where and when you can do it, the type of class you need to take (see below), the total cost, and what color your new license will be. Make sure not to throw this away! You will need it for your renewal.

Also, remember to change the address of your license when you move! Failure to do so means your post card won't come and you won't be able to complete the renewal process.

Finally, don't wait until the last minute! Go just one day over the expiration date and you will have to get a license again from scratch. If you find yourself extremely ill or happen to be going abroad, you can petition the authorities to have your license renewed a bit earlier or later, but this is not always successful.

What to Bring
Here are the essentials:
  • Your drivers license
  • The renewal notification postcard
  • Glasses (no contacts)
  • A 3cm x 2.4 cm picture taken within the last 6 months (not necessary if you renew at a drivers license center)
  • Your alien registration card (gaikokujin toroku shomeisho外国人登録証明書) (*)
  • Your seal (inkan 印鑑) (*)
  • Money
  • A black pen
The points marked with an asterisk are not required in all prefectures. Some places in Tokyo are known to look at your alien card while others don't ask for any ID at all. In my case, my personal seal was also not necessary. Play it safe.

If your address changes from the time your notification post card arrives to the time you go to renew your license and you have not already changed it at your local police station, you can use your alien registration card or any post marked utility bill, public service receipt, etc. as proof of address.

Where to Go
There are several places where you can complete the renewal process. Drivers License Centers (unten menkyosho senta 運転免許証センター) are the best bet since they tend to offer smooth service, weekend hours, and you don't need to bring your own pictures. With a few exceptions, license are issued on the same day the renewal is completed.

The other option is the police station (keisatsu-sho 警察署) or specially designated police boxes (koban 交番). Police stations that operate near Drivers License Centers may not handle renewals. Police stations rarely offer weekend hours and don't always have the ability to issue licenses on the same day so you may need to come back a second time. Also, you need to bring your own license picture (although there usually is a photo machine in the lobby)

The facilities where you can get your license renewed are written on the notification post card in addition to the reception hours (uketsuke jikan 受付時間). For weekend hours at Drivers License Centers, make sure to check with your local prefecture police since some operate only on Saturday and others on Sunday. If the prefecture has more than one center then there is a good chance that only one will keep weekend hours at a time. 

Finally, license renewal generally needs to be done within your home prefecture. The exception to this rule is for drivers who hold gold licenses. Gold license holders can renew licenses at Drivers License Centers outside of the prefecture (called keiyuchi shinsei 経由地申請). This simply means that you complete all the necessary procedures at the out-of-prefecture license center and they will then post the information to your home prefecture. You will have to wait a week or more for the authorities in your home prefecture to send the license back to you in addition to paying extra fees for the processing and postage. 

The renewal process does not require any reservations. The only caveat is that you can only do it during the dates printed on your notification post card (usually a month before your birthday). 

If you decide to go to the Drivers License Center during weekend hours, its best if you go as early as possible since staff is kept to a minimum and the parking lots tend to fill up very fast. People may start queuing up an hour before the doors open. 

Step 1 The exact order and procedures may be different where you live but for the most part the day will start with an employee checking you have your license and post card. Next, they'll ask if you need a change of address form, then photocopy your license.  

Step 2 You will be given a self assessment medical exam sheet (kenko shindan-sho 健康診断書) and a sheet to enter your your 8-digit license PIN number (ansho bango 暗証番号). Some prefectures offer these forms in languages other than Japanese.

Step 3 Pay at a separate window and the employees will either stamp your post card or take it away from you and give you a receipt and possibly other paperwork.

Step 4 Eye check. Involves pointing to where the opening of a small circle is. If you have insufficient vision or need lenses you may be asked to check your peripheral vision and depth of field vision at a separate station.

Part 5 Photo. This only applies to people going to Drivers License Centers. Make sure to sit perfectly (and I mean perfectly) straight and don't smile.

Part 6 Wait in another area for your name to be called and hand over your PIN number, medical form, license and any other paper work. This is where things get interesting since you will be required to attend a safety lecture (koshu 講習) corresponding your license class. In my case, they gave me a colored chip and told me to sit in a large lecture room. The lectures are as follows 
  • Beginner license holders- 2 hour mandatory safety class. Usually consisting of a video and and a retired police officer telling accident horror stories. Don't fall asleep!  
  • Regular license holders- 1 hour mandatory safety class. 
  • Driver with violations- 2 hour mandatory class (sometimes lumped in with the beginners) 
  • Exemplary driver- 30 minute safety course.  
Some prefectures are particularly strict about making you check attendance (even during bathroom breaks) while others don't really seem to care as long as you hang out for the whole class. 

Part 7 Get your attendance slip stamped etc. and head to the next area. This is where you get your new license and hand your old one in. Often times your old license will be handed back to you with holes punched in it.

Part 8 (optional) Go to the IC license kiosk (little ATM-like terminals), scan your license, and enter your new PIN to make sure the info on the IC chip matches what is printed on your card. You can also fill out the organ donor information on the back of your license if you so desire.  

And that's it. You are free to go home, kick back, and drink a cold one, content in the knowledge that you won't have to wait in another driving center for at least 3 to 5 years.  

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