Getting a Cell Phone vs SIM Card in Japan

April 7, 2017

The first time I purchased a cell phone in Japan, it was 2006. I was on a one-year visa. The first iPhone hadn’t even been announced yet. Starbucks still charged customers for using their wifi. Having a phone with a web browser was considered above and beyond (and they didn’t even work that well). Still, I was able to walk into an AU branch with a Japanese coworker and purchase a one-year plan with a phone included without too much hassle. Of course, I needed my Japanese bank account information and my foreigner registration card.

When I returned to Japan this time around, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Obviously, the world had changed to become dependent on smartphones, but the country was still built around the same three providers: NTT Docomo, AU, and SoftBank. Lucky for me, I had my unlocked iPhone 5s from the US completely paid off and ready to accept a Japanese SIM card if need be.

Of course, my Japanese is functional, but I still needed a bit of assistance navigating technical lingo and if any problems arose.

First stop? SoftBank.

“Cell-mania” by Derek Dukes

SoftBank is the second largest provider in Japan, but it falls way behind NTT Docomo in terms of availability (and price). Nevertheless, I thought I’d try them first. Upon speaking to a representative, my friend and I discovered than not only did they not have a SIM card capable of fitting in a foreign iPhone – some bigger branches might have them, but not in Tochigi – but even if they had, I wasn’t eligible to buy one, or even a new phone with a contract. All smartphones were under standard two-year contracts, which weren’t available to foreign residents on one-year visas.

One-year visas are incredibly common for first-time teachers. JETs are usually granted three years their first time out, but still, having a major company limit the options to dumb phones is just bad business. With no option other than to live with just calling and texting, we decided to try NTT Docomo.

NTT Docomo is the most expensive option by far, but being the biggest provider in Japan means more resources. In this case, I was given the choice of a two-year contract or a one-year at nearly twice the monthly rate. Frankly, this didn’t bother me because at least I had the option of continuing to use a smartphone in Japan. LINE, Google Maps, and translation apps would all be accessible.

In my option, NTT Docomo is the way to go for newbie foreign residents of Japan, assuming you’re based outside of Tokyo. They will sign two-year contracts for phones or SIM cards even if you’re only there for a year (10,000-yen penalty for cancelling early).

AU and SoftBank are inflexible on 2-year contracts (won’t switch to one) and won’t even give foreign residents the option of paying more for twelve months of service. NTT Docomo, on the other hand, is flexible in nearly every regard… but you do pay for it. I’m forking over about 6000 yen every month for limited calling, texting, and 2 GB in data.

Granted, Japan is not a cheap country by nature, but if you’re willing to go without a Samsung Galaxy or iPhone, you’ll save a ridiculous amount of money each year. I guess I’ve gotten addicted to Google Maps and translation apps. Hopefully this won’t stymie my language skills.

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