Hey everybody, as you guys may have noticed, I was abroad in Japan for approximately 11 months (until July 2013). One of the biggest questions I have been asked by prospective visitors to Japan, as well as fellow students who will be study abroad, is how to handle for cell phone service. Well, here’s everything to my knowledge about cell phone service in the land of the rising sun that I am aware of. And just as a heads up, for the land of technology, getting your cell phone to work is a royal pain in the ***
One thing to note is that Japan has very restrictive laws with regards to getting a cellphone plan. Unless you are a long-term resident, or on some sort of extended visa, it is impossible to simply purchase a sim card and use it for when you are here. It’s quite annoying, but can be worked around by renting a sim card for your trip here (alternatively, you can use T-mobile’s new free International roaming, but this is also short term). Note that this is for short trips (1 week to 2 months), and should NOT be used for long term visits. For long term visits, there are two options: go Prepaid, or sign a contract.
Sign a contract
As you might be expecting, signing a contract isn’t all too different from what you experience in other countries. You sign a contract with a phone company, purchase a phone, and pay a monthly fee for phone service. For foreigners, there is the added barrier of requiring your foreign residence card, your passport, and other forms of identification before getting service. And what makes this even worse is that while there is a 1-year contract, which is bad for students studying here for only 8-9 months. If you want to sign a contract, you need to be willing to break the contract at some point in time. This involves a fee which is usually around 10,000-15,000 yen, and even if you do this, the phone you purchased (e.g. an iphone) can’t even be used back at home in the USA. It is forever locked to Japanese carriers, and they don’t provide any way to unlock them. It truly is a pain in the *** to get going, and there’s a ton of rules to keep in mind. Nevertheless, if you are interested in pursuing this, it can’t hurt to bring your own unlocked Smartphone from the USA. NTT Docomo allows you to use unlocked phones on their network.
The non-contract option is getting a Softbank prepaid cellphone, which provides for both phone calls and texting ONLY (No internet). Texting/SMS in Japan is usually done though email, so you will get a dedicated softbank email upon purchase. You need your residence card and passport for to get the phone, and the entire process takes roughly 45 mins to 1 hour to setup.
Note that prepaid means you are not on contract. There are plans with contracts as well, but considering you may only be here for 1 semester (and the shortest contract being 1 year long), you’ll probably need a prepaid plan. Unless you’re willing to pay an early termination fee (usually well more than $100), prepaid is the way to go.
Prices are about 6000 yen for the phone itself, and a 3000 yen deposit (for cell service) that lasts for 2 months. For unlimited texting/messages, 300 yen is deducted from the 3000 yen deposit per month. Phone calls also use up parts of that 3000 deposit, 9 yen per 6 seconds (wtf?). Incoming calls are free of charge.
Smartphones from USA/elsewhere:
If you have a GSM smartphone (AT&T and T-mobile only, or unlocked iPhones from Verizon), you should be able to use it with your Softbank prepaid plan. You must unlock your smartphone via your carrier (or jailbreak, root, etc), and afterwards you need to move your sim card from your Japanese cellphone to the smartphone. Note, Softbank does NOT sell sim cards separately, so you need to buy your phone initially and swap the sim card out. Also, you might need to cut down your simcard if your phone uses micro/mini-sim cards (the newer iPhones use mini/micro, as well as newer Android phones). You can find instructions for to cut sim cards via Google or YouTube. Be careful when cutting though, you usually only get one shot. x_x
Continue reading if you want to read more about specific settings needed for smartphones in Japan.