The Y Plate
Glad to hear that these articles are somewhat helpful in you PCS preparations. I have gotten a lot of questions regarding driving overseas. First off, make sure you and your dependents have a valid US drivers license that hasn’t expired or does not expire while overseas. Some people make to mistake to show up with an expired license and it was a complete pain in the ass to renew while overseas. They will also not issue you a SOFA licenses without a valid non-expired drivers license.
I have only experience in driving in Japan. The process of getting a driver’s license for the Japanese is a incredible investment in time and money, costing them thousands of dollars. However for the service member and dependents it is a joke. You just show up, take one written test, and show your valid US state license. You end up with this little laminated paper card you can drive in all of Japan with.
Regarding cars, all SOFA status people get these Y plate cars that Americans sell to Americans over again till they eventually don’t pass inspection and are crushed into tiny cubes. You cannot leave the island until the car is disposed of or you some someone to sell it to. This leads to very interesting market dynamics where you can just carry around $2000 in cash and make some good deals with desperate people that just have to unload a car to get on a flight tomorrow. I have been on both sides of this transaction, and it feels like pawn stars when you offer $300 for a Honda fit and people are so desperate to unload this thing, and they do!
In Japan cars come in two varieties: yellow plate Kei Cars with a “A” designation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kei_car or real cars with white plates with a “Y” Plate designation. You can also check out Okinawa bookoo and see what’s available http://okinawa.bookoo.com/ . No rush in getting a car since your sponsor will be driving you around the island that first week for you to get a car. There are used car dealers that will sell a car with a warranty which is sometimes going to be more expensive and then you can buy from a private party. Title transfers take 15 mins and are very cheap. You could get a car for $1,500 and drive it the same day.
The Kei cars are tiny and would never pass any sort of collision standard in America. They also have tiny engines that are 660 cc that are hilarious when you want to accelerate up a hill. These cars are very versatile and will fit in most small parking spots and the smaller road ways here on island. They are also cheaper in taxes and road tax. I personally didn’t get one because I find them to be incredibly novel and unable to move any sort of luggage to the airport. Also I think they are incredible death traps that have no stability or safety at all. Here is what my old sponsor wrote to me about cars here (keep in mind this was 2013):
You can look on Okinawa yard sales (also called Bookoo) to see what vehicles are for sale but the site changes every week and right know everyone is moving so the inventory is high and you will see some vehicles priced for a quick sale in a market where supply is greater than demand. Most people will arrive in July and the inventory will drop and the price will start to climb some. I know you arrive in August and I can’t really say what will be available then but you can always look at the off base car lots. The car lots are about twice what you will find from military members who are moving. They do the JCI for you (they don’t usually charge for this) so it is good for the full two years but since it is only $200-300 anyways it is not always worth the extra $2-3K that they charge. All cars are due in May for road tax so even though they pay for it you it is actually paid on any vehicle you buy, no matter who you buy from. Some will offer warranties that last for 6mo-1yr but only cover parts typically. Unfortunately there is no way to test drive any of the cars from the dealerships because they can’t do the JCI until you buy it and they can’t be on the road without JCI. I think this is partly why they offer the warranty just in case there is a problem with the car. The dealerships get the cars from auctions on mainland Japan and I haven’t heard of too many problems with them.
There are some links below to off-base dealerships that sell used cars to military members. They all speak English and they list prices in US dollars so you don’t have to figure out the exchange rate. There are some dealerships that will finance the cars at little to no interest for 1 year but they won’t budge on the list price if you aren’t paying cash.
Just to add, when I sponsored someone in 2015 the yen had dropped making the dealership cars more affordable then private party sales. Also keep in mind they don’t take $100 bills at B.C motors outside of Kadena. You must bring them $20 bills and they count it all out by hand, no joke. Also if you end up using the dealer, make sure your sponsor gets his or her $50 for the referral bonus! A lot of dealerships have this bonus, and if they are a good sponsor, they should at least treat you to lunch for buying from the dealer.
The dealership buy depends on how comfortable you are with auto maintenance and repair. I bought my car private party and have not had a problem in my 3 years. I did all the shop work at the car auto shop bays on Kadena. I recommend you stick with common Japanese cars where parts are readily available. The biggest problems is people who are insistent on driving Volkswagens or Jeeps (or worst BMWs and Mercedes) that have to wait weeks for parts to arrive when something breaks.
Ask your sponsor to send you the study guide for the written driver’s test well before you get to Japan in order to quickly pass the test the first time. Also make sure you get your international drivers permit offered by AAA so you can rent a car and drive while on vacation to other countries. Even the remote island of Ishigaki required the international permit just to rent a car. Not all places recognize your CAC and SOFA driving permit as valid. A country like Korea require this permit as well as your US Drivers License just to rent and drive a car. I got the photo taken for free at combat camera on base and sent it in for my permit.
The final bit of advice regarding driving overseas is to get a letter from your insurance company to get a 10% discount on your Japanese insurance.
Hope that helps!