One common concern for many foreigners coming to Japan is the ability to get (or speed in attaining) portable communication. Many countries have many different kinds of internet coverage, voice calling plans, etc. and the experience may be very similar or different in Japan depending on someone’s country of origin. Most commonly, of course, people new to Japan hope to have service as soon as possible, at service as speedy as possible, and at the lowest cost possible. Here is a guide to mobile phone consideration as of 2016.
For over a decade, there have always been 2-3 major carriers controlling their own private high speed cell phone network, and 1 or 2 budget carriers controlling a lower speed network and leasing higher speed service from a major carrier’s network. In essence, the costs and reliability of any of these networks have been comparable. Some may have had slightly different rates or fees or billing dates, but for the most part people just went with the carrier that supported the specific phone of choice, or stayed with one company to collect and use loyal customer rewards.
Then, in 2014, there was a big shake-up in the market. DoCoMo, the largest carrier in Japan, opened its network up to be leased by other private companies. For only the cost of manufacturing SIM cards and licensing payments to DoCoMo, any company can become a mobile carrier in Japan with the reliability of the biggest carrier. There are now 10-20 such companies, mostly already involved in telecommunications, which now market SIM cards to be used in DoCoMo branded or SIM-free smartphones and data access devices. This service is VERY stripped down… No store, no customer service, and payment only possible by credit card. However, there is only a monthly commitment and no need for the 2 year contract required from major carriers, and the cost is far, far less. The base rate for 3 gigabytes of 4G speed data per month and unlimited use at lower speeds can be less than 700 yen. To add SMS service (required for the near-ubiquitous LINE social network in Japan or any service requiring cell phone confirmation) is usually 100-150 yen more monthly. One more option will include a phone number with the service, starting at around 1,500 yen per month. With this installed in the phone, service is functionally identical to a “standard” cell phone carrier. This may not be needed for phone service, though; with solely the data plan, VoIP services are possible, with the two most popular in Japan being SmarTalk and 050Free. These are services that provide a real phone number (with area code 050, reserved for VoIP accounts) that can call and be called by any phone in Japan other than toll-free, operated through their own smartphone applications or compatible VoIP clients. Of course, any smartphone on any plan in any country can use these services to save money on phone calls to and from Japanese numbers, and these can even be used as a “local” number for Japan by anyone outside of the country.
For many people, though, a “standard” phone carrier contract and contract has remained preferable and especially for people with little Japanese ability, the support of a major carrier can be very helpful, if not necessary. Here is a list of benefits that each possibility may provide. While the benefits of the budget SIM card may seem to make it an obvious choice for many people, please make sure you fully understand the benefits provided by a specific cell-phone plan, the efforts required to set up the budget SIM card, and your own specific needs.
Benefits of a standard cell phone/data plan through a major carrier
- Ease in setting up. Go to a shop, pick out your phone, and all is done for you.
- Non-smartphone options are available.
- You don’t have to have your own phone or buy it separately.
- Typically 7GB of highest speed connection is standard in the operating cost.
- Customer service available in-shop in branches nationwide.
- Some form of English customer service.
- Warranties including phone replacement.
- Bill payment possible by credit card, bank transfer, in-store, or convenience store.
- Cost benefit for calls/texts to people using the same cell network.
- Family plans and student discounts may be available.
Detriments of a standard cell phone/data plan through a major carrier
- 2 year contracts, with potentially huge fees due if cancelling early.
(Paying off the phone cost, penalties, etc.)
- Cancellation only possible in-person.
(Leaving the country without cancelling may leave you stuck with bills due for life!)
- Requirement of certain residency status in Japan. Even some people with 1-year visas have been rejected as they cannot guarantee to be in Japan for the entire length of the contract.
- The phone basically becomes impossible to attach to another carrier if you’d want to keep it when leaving the country.
- Lots of hidden fees and taxes not shown on the advertised price. Almost everyone, foreigner or Japanese, ends up paying a little more than expected due to some fine print in the contract.
Benefits of a budget SIM card
- Any compatible phone can be used, any time, just by switching the SIM card in and out.
- Very little risk of loss. Only the cost of the SIM card and perhaps one month of service cost is lost if not satisfied.
- Much less unwanted junk mail in your e-mail or at home from mobile carriers.
- Anyone with a credit card can buy one; it is even possible to order online and have it sent to your home country so that it can be used from your moment of arrival in Japan.
- The difference in cost may allow saving as much as $500 per year.
- Prices of budget SIM service and the data allowances tend to get better over time for customers, and the opposite trend is the case for carrier service.
Detriments of a budget SIM card
- If buying a SIM card in a store, Japanese reading and writing proficiency may be needed to set everything up, unless using a Japanese friend or a detailed 3rd-party online guide, if it exists. (Some companies are expanding to English support, though, such as Asahi Net, http://asahi-net.jp/en/, if ordering online. After this writing, others may also begin to offer this support.)
- Payment is only by credit card.
- While typically as good as DoCoMo’s service throughout the year, in times of very high data use (such as in a natural disaster), the leased networks are more likely to be restricted if necessary.
- Very low or no customer service.
- You must have/buy your own phone, and there is no way to do final testing before committing to the purchase of the SIM card.
- Base high speed internet is set at 3GB/month (either in that month or in an proportional amount each day) before restriction to 2G speed (although this can be improved to 5 or 7GB monthly fairly cheaply, and some carriers offer unlimited high speed data usage at 2,000 yen per month).
- If only a data plan, the voice connection on VoIP can range from poor quality to better-than-phone quality at seemingly random times.
- Some services, such as online coupons, require a cell phone e-mail address only provided by a major carrier.
With the above points in mind, if either option still seems possible for you, here is an estimated cost of your cell phone and coverage, not including call charges:
|Type of phone
||Base cost over full contract length
|Non-smartphone, major carrier
|Non-smartphone, budget carrier
|Smartphone, major carrier
|Smartphone, budget carrier
||Budget SIM, data service only
|Budget SIM, full service
||Initial cost of phone and 500-3,000 yen to buy the SIM card (if 2 years service, 36,000-48,000 yen)
|Budget SIM, data service only
||Initial cost of phone and 500-3,000 yen to buy the SIM card (if 2 years service, 12,000-36,000 yen)
If you have no specific preference regarding phone type and just need a phone number, and if you have the ability to attain a DoCoMo or SIM-free smartphone and can sign up for a VoIP service to get a 050 number, the very bottom option is your best one by far. If you need the security or prestige of a 070/080/090 phone number separate from the data connection, but otherwise need no support as a customer, a budget SIM with voice support would fit your needs. If you don’t care as much about cost, know that you will be in Japan for at least two years, or need the support (especially English support) of a larger company with physical store locations, go with the carrier that has the phone you would like as part of its lineup.
General phone notes in Japan:
- It only costs money to make a call or e-mail, and is free receive them.
- While data use is monitored and provided, it is no longer very common to have any included “minutes in a phone plan” or anything similar through a carrier.
- In general, cell phone calls made on a standard network is very expensive. 10 yen per every 6 seconds is common. Anyone caring about costs tends to use SmarTalk or a similar app, or may even choose to use a payphone if possible if having particularly expensive service.
- If wishing to buy a SIM card and wanting to buy a phone, most electronics stores now carry SIM-free phones, but only for the limited number of manufacturers with sales penetration in Japanese stores. Many more options are in online retailers like Amazon.