Until recently Japanese Phone & SIM providers have operated in isolation from the rest of the world. To get a phone required a lot of paperwork for a 2-year contract with expensive monthly costs. Not to mention the punitive fees should you try to break your contract early or change providers. Luckily things have changed!What follows is a simple guide to getting your phone up & working in Japan.

Choice, Choice & More Choice

Until recently the 3 x Big Carriers (often referred to as network providers) ruled the roost- namely Softbank, AU & DoCoMo. Even today no matter which phone or SIM you use you will still be using one of the Big 3’s network but it’s less likely you will deal direct. Why? The emergence of operators who piggyback on the main networks has led to an explosion of choice and much better value for money.

Referred to as MVNO’s (Mobile Virtual Network Providers) these operators include: Mobal, BIC SIM, B-Mobile, IIJMIO, Rakuten, Mineo, Nifmo, Sakura, Nuro, etc. Most of the subscriber growth for the Big 3 now comes through these MVNO’s.

Any downsides to all this choice?

The majority of MVNO’s utilise DoCoMo’s network which can get a bit crowded- leading to slower data transmission speeds & poor voice quality. At the time of writing only Mobal & B-Mobile use the Softbank network which almost guarantees you actual carrier quality.

First Question: Do You need a Phone?

Assuming you have a fairly up to date iPhone or Android smartphone that is SIM unlocked then you should be able to use your phone in Japan. If your handset has 3G/4G compatibility you are generally safe. If not most conventional (2 year!) contracts in Japan offer Phone & SIM bundles. However purchasing an upgraded handset would free you up to choose to work with whatever company suits you best & possibly save you a lot of money. If you do opt to purchase a handset in Japan ust make sure any smartphone device you purchase in Japan has an “English” language setting. Amazon Japan is a good starting point for current handset pricing.

SIM Choice: Voice & Data or Data Only?

Do you need a phone number? The answer to this question will inform your next decision. In Japan it’s often a requirement that you have a phone number for work, to sign-up for online shopping, to rent an apartment, to sign a contract, to keep in touch with your boyfriend/girlfriend and many other reasons. You don’t get a phone number with a Data SIM. On the other hand if you can survive in Japan with just a Data SIM you will likely save some money.

  1. Yes- I need a SIM with a Phone Number- and Data!

What you need to know!

– With the exception of Mobal, Data & Voice SIMs have a minimum contract or termination fee (sometimes charged upfront as an activation fee). Depending on the provider contracts can be less than 2 years.

– You first purchase the SIM Card and you then choose your Plan. SIMs cost around 3,000 yen and there is a vast amount of Plans to choose from. For most people anywhere between 5GB-7GBs of monthly data is sufficient but you might not be most people!

Recommended Providers

Mobal– Offers an Unlimited Data SIM with Softbank Phone Number that can be purchased online with free worldwide delivery or free collection in Japan. There is no contract or termination fee. SIM Costs: 3,000 yen (inclusive of shipping) and Monthly Plans range from 1,000 yen (voice only) to 4,500 yen (teachers/students/interns) to 6,000 yen per month. English language support – Passport ID only- Payment by Debit/Credit Card or Paypal.

Rakuten Mobile- You will need to navigate a Japanese website but Rakuten offer a 1-year contract (with over 10,000 yen fee if you leave the contract early). Monthly costs range from 2,322 yen for 3GB or 3,197 for 10GB. SIM Cost is 3,240 yen and you will be required to produce your Residency Card (with address) at the time of contract.

2. No- I Only Need a Data SIM

Now you have to decide whether you want a prepaid “one-time” use Data SIM- ideal for usage periods of 7 days to 30 days- or a long-term use Data SIM. For the best prepaid SIM options in English use the SIM Card Geek portal site – you can have your SIM shipped free before you travel (and even purchase your Suica Card in advance). Click HERE for details

Long-Term Data SIMs

Expect to pay about 3,000 yen for the actual Data SIM. On the plus side Data-only SIMs rarely have minimum contracts or contract cancellation fees.

Recommended Providers

Mobal– While this company don’t actually promote their SIM as a Data SIM if you don’t use the phone you don’t get charged any extra (incoming calls are all free!). That gives you Unlimited Data per month from anywhere between 4,500-6,000 yen monthly and you get a phone number as a bonus!

Sakura- Up-front Activation sign-up fee of 5,400 yen with a minimum 3-month contract. A 7 GB monthly data plan costs 5,378.40 per month

In Summary

Japan is not as tricky as it used to be. But you still need to know your requirements are. Be conscious of payment methods, daily usage limits for data, connectivity speeds and contract fine print.

The good news is that even without any Japanese language or a Japanese residency card or a Japanese bank account there are options- things have indeed changed for the better.

Your Mobile in Tokyo