Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Licenced to....sit in a traffic jam

One of the pleasures of living in Japan is the ease of living a car-free life. Not that it's impossible anywhere, but here it is positively convenient, and the savings on taxes and car maintenance fees are substantial.

So, after 8 years of not even wanting to drive, a couple of days ago I went and got a licence. The motivation was actually the chance discovery that the rental fee in the USA (where I'm going on holiday) is much cheaper for Japanese residents than UK ones, as the former get the loss damage waiver insurance thrown in for free. I have no idea why this is the case, but am not going to complain. Although I already am a Japanese resident, my licence is a UK one and a check with Avis head office confirmed my fears that this would be a problem. Since there's an automatic swap system between UK and Japanese licences I thought I might as well just go and do it.

I'm writing this post partly for the benefit of future applicants, so I should ensure that Google indexes it prominently as a description of how to exchange a UK driving licence for a Japanese driving licence.

It only took me a day from start to finish, but the process was a little more fraught than I had anticipated. First I went to the local JAF office (Japanese version of AA) to get an official translation of my UK licence. This went very smoothly and only took 30 minutes, barely long enough for me to have coffee and pancakes in the Denny's opposite.

I was in the Kanagawa licence office before 11am. In fact I was so early that I had to make my own sign-up sheet to make sure of my place in the queue for the 1-1:30 time slot. They were limiting the number of applications to 12 people that day. My local office in Kanagawa is also open 8:30-9:00am for anyone who has got the translation ahead of time (that can be done by post, it takes about a week but I didn't have time for that). I had a good book and was well prepared for waiting.

Eventually 1:00 rolled around and they opened up reception. I think there were only 12 gaijin applicants in total, some of who only came in after 1:30 - they were still processing people so had not shut the window.

The first problem was that in line with all the advice I had received, I had brought my current and previous (when I came to Japan) passport, but they also wanted to see the one that I held when I first got my driving licence which was more than 20 years ago! Thinking quickly, I told them I hadn't had a passport at that time (well it could have been true). This only got them asking about my first trip abroad, how old I'd been and where I had gone...I was bluffing pretty badly here, trying to work out what the first trip on my previous passport might have been (back in 1995 or 1996!), while explaining that it was all too long ago to remember, but they either believed me or just took took pity on me and took my documents and told me to sit down and wait. For the record, I now realise that my first overseas trip was age 3, on my parents' passport, but I didn't even remember that under duress and thinking in Japanese. Probably just as well!

Then half an hour later they called me up again and started asking again about my foreign trips and in particular my comings and goings while living in Japan. Apart from the fact that I simply couldn't remember in detail, my confusion of saigo and saisho (last/first) added to the confusion. Eventually I managed to persuade them to bring my passport over which had the relevant stamps in,and I pointed to my last trip...and then they were all confused because the passport showed that I had registered to use the automatic gate system at immigration but had a manual stamp. IME the automatic gate is usually either non-functional or has no benefits anyway, as the normal queue is quicker, so although I registered once when I had spare time at the airport, I've not used it since. I wonder if the guy was on secondment from immigration or something, and had visions of being dragged away in handcuffs and deported. Incidentally, there is nothing remotely controversial or dodgy about my visa status during my time here, so I really have no idea what they so worked up about.

Lots of other people also had to deal with various queries about dates on licences and passports. It seems they have some pedantic bureaucratic requirements but I didn't see anyone actually getting sent away so maybe it's more a matter of working out what to put on the forms than determining the legitimacy of the application. There is some requirement to have lived in the country where the licence was issued for a certain period of time, but whether that time has to be immediately adjacent to the date of issue is not entirely clear.

After that, it was suddenly all plain sailing, and they were very helpful and cooperative. The only testing as such was a trivial eye test and some routine questions about health, which were translated into English. I guess I was the only one of the batch of foreigners to actually get a licence that day, as I got mine just before 4:30 and they seemed to be winding down. I think most of the others had some sort of test to do too, either written or driving.

A lot of the others had come with a Japanese friend, but the form filling and questioning was not really very hard and the staff did their best to speak easily and use English. Of course it might have been another matter if I'd had to do a test, but for what I had to do, a smattering of conversational Japanese would be fine. It would certainly be daunting to attempt it fresh off the boat though.

Although at the time it seemed like an arduous and unpleasant experience, it was actually only 7h30 from start to finish, including getting the translation, and at the end I had a real shiny new freshly printed licence card in my hand. I doubt there are many other countries in the world where that would happen, especially for a virtually mute and illiterate foreigner. Japanese bureaucracy isn't always that bad. The American man behind in the queue me spent the entire time gurning to his Japanese wife about how awful the process was, but I bet he doesn't work for JAMSTEC. All I needed was my passports, UK licence, one passport-sized photo, gaijin card, and ¥7500 in total for the various fees.

Now I just have to find somewhere that's worth driving to!


Steve Reynolds said...

"Now I just have to find somewhere that's worth driving to!"

If you make it to Colorado, please stop by and visit.

EliRabett said...

Eli thinks that what was going on is they were trying (in an inept fashion) to figure out if you had a second license from somewhere else you had lived for a long time.

Having gone through this earlier in life, your next step is to renew your UK license by mail if they took it. Almost as good as having two passports