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Getting a Mobile Phone in Japan: Your FAQs Answered

Welcome to our ultimate guide for foreign residents on setting up a mobile phone in Japan in partnership with Sakura Mobile.

By 13 min read

After putting out the call for questions on our social media, it became clear that when it comes to sorting out a mobile phone here, many of us don’t really know where the FAQ to begin.

So, we’ve teamed up with the knowledgeable crew at Sakura Mobile to help you navigate the confusing landscape of Japanese telecommunications. By the end of this mega FAQ, we’ll have hopefully equipped you with enough information to find the deal that’s right for you.*

Whether you’re a Japan newbie still dazzled by the overwhelming choice of oversized phone cases, or a long-term resident simply looking to switch your trusty ketai to a better plan, here are the answers to your most frequently asked questions about getting a mobile phone in Japan.

Overview 

Handsets

Voice and Data Plans

Application Process

A quick tidbit about Sakura Mobile

Yaaaas team. The Sakura Mobile crew.

While it has one of the most advanced communication environments in the world, Japan, unfortunately, has very strict regulations and offers almost no flexibility to cater to the needs of foreign people. Sakura Mobile are here to change that. One of the first to provide MVNO solutions as a way to help foreign residents in Japan, we aim to contribute to a better communication environment for foreigners through our services, including long-term phone and internet plans, as well as rental SIM cards and pocket WiFi for tourists.


Overview

Who are the main mobile carriers in Japan right now?

The big three are Docomo, Au, and Softbank. As of now, Docomo has the largest number of users. Au and Softbank are in second and third place respectively.

What is an MVNO?

A telecommunication company with its own communication infrastructure, such as Docomo, Au, and Softbank, is called an MNO (Mobile Network Operator), while a company which rents an MNO’s resources to provide network services is called an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator). MVNOs often offer cheaper plans than the main mobile carriers.

Which network is best?

Docomo’s network has always been supported by the most consumers in the history of mobile phones in Japan. But you should still be careful — even if an MVNO says it uses Docomo’s network, some have extremely slow connection speeds. This is because they limit the amount they spend on renting services from an MNO in order to keep their own prices down.

What are the different types of contracts you can get? Which are the most popular now?

In conventional telephone contracts with MNOs, basically you’re required to purchase a phone and a SIM card at the same time. The phone is locked by the carrier, and in many cases, cannot be used with another carrier’s SIM card. About 90 percent of the mobile phone users in Japan are under these conventional contracts.

Docomo is one of the three major phone carriers in Japan.

On the other hand, MVNOs, whose rise was made possible by a legal reform in Japan in 2014, basically focus on SIM card contracts only. Some of them do sell phones too but just as an additional option. MVNOs offer two types of SIM cards: Voice SIM cards and Data SIM cards. Japanese people often choose a Data SIM card for their second phone, while foreign residents who stay in Japan for less than half a year use one as their main phone. Here at SakuraMobile, the ratio of Voice to Data contracts is now roughly two to one.

Both Voice SIM and Data SIM card plans through MVNOs are much cheaper than conventional contracts. For foreign customers, it’s by far a better option, saving money as well as time spent setting up contracts, and cutting through all of the bureaucracy. In actual fact, many Japanese people are starting to catch on to how much cheaper and easier it is to set up a phone with an MVNO too.

Why are traditional phone contracts with MNO’s so expensive?

If you ask us, it’s just that other service providers are too expensive. We have to say that their high prices are as a result of their strategy for bigger profits by selling the latest phones in the market and adding various optional functions such as voice mail, unlimited calling, call waiting and call transferring. In addition, they ask for a two-year contract with a penalty fee for early termination to prevent their customers from switching to other providers. This has often come under great criticism from both Japanese and non-Japanese customers.

What’s the difference between a data and voice contract? Which option is better value for money?

Data SIM cards do not have a phone number attached, so it’s impossible to make or receive calls. But instead of calls, apps such as Skype, FB messenger, and LINE are easy means of communication, which makes them a more economical choice for those who don’t make or receive many calls. On the other hand, Voice SIM cards are a better choice for people who need to have a phone number to open a bank account or make a real estate contract, or who are required to have a phone number at their workplace, in addition to data.

What does MNP mean?

MNP, or mobile number portability, is a system shared by the MNOs that allows you to keep your current phone number even when switching to a new contract with a new carrier. Sakura Mobile can offer this capability through our partnership with Docomo, with English-speaking support.

Handsets

What makes a device SIM Free? How do I know if my phone is SIM Free?

To know whether your phone is SIM free or not, it is necessary to contact the carrier or the shop you purchased it from. In general, most phones from the US and Europe are not SIM free, but are SIM locked. On the other hand, phones from Asian countries are, more often than not, SIM free.

Sakura Mobile | Japan SIM

Can I bring my phone handset from my home country and use it in Japan?

Some phones from abroad do not support the radio frequency bands used in Japan, but our support staff at Sakura Mobile can check for our customers whether their phone model is compatible with the bands in Japan.

I don’t have a phone handset from my home. Can I buy one in Japan?

Yes, you can buy one in an electronic appliance store like Yodobashi Camera, or online at somewhere like Amazon. The price can vary, but for something like a new iPhone 8 you’re looking at around ¥70,000 or more. Of course, second-hand phones come cheaper. Actually, if you let us know the model number, we can check for you whether it is compatible with our SIM cards or not. Plus, in the near future, we are planning to officially start providing phones as well.

Voice and Data Plans

What are the different data packages and plans?

Providers might offer plans with 3, 5, 6, 7, 10 or 13 GB of data — it really depends. Sakura Mobile have 3, 5, 7, and 10 GB plans for both Data SIM and Voice SIM cards. For pocket WiFi plans, we have a wide range of data choices from 5 GB to over 100 GB.

The peeps at Sakura Mobile are here to help you!

How much data do I really need?

This completely depends on the person. Some people just make or receive phone calls and do not need much data. Others always try to communicate by data whenever possible, and avoid phone calls. If you only want to use social media and GPS, and don’t wish to stream or download content on the regular, around 3 – 5 GB per month should cover you. Since Japan doesn’t have free WiFi hotspots in abundance, people who use their phone a lot, for work or entertainment, might need more.

Which is the best value-for-money data plan?

This completely varies from person to person, but we can say that for our services the 5 GB and 7 GB plans are the most popular choices.

Can I make calls with these plans? How much does it cost?

If your plan includes calls, then yes! If you purchase a Voice SIM card with Sakura Mobile, it costs 20 JPY per 30 seconds for domestic calls. For international calls, the rate varies from country to country. Sakura Mobile offers a special discount call service called “Sakura691”. If you add a prefix number or make a call by using the Sakura Mobile dialing app, the rate is just 15 JPY per 30 seconds both for domestic calls and for international calls to many countries. Many of our customers really value this service.

How fast is the connectivity speed? Does it get slower as I use up my data?

With Sakura Mobile, the speed ranges from 2 to 30 Mbps, depending on the time and place. If you use up all your high speed data, you can still have a low connection speed of up to 200 kbps.

Can I tether another device to my phone?

Yes, you can! With the main carriers Softbank and Au you have to pay extra to tether a device to your phone. However, with Sakura Mobile, tethering is free. It’s simply counted as part of your normal data usage.

Will my Japanese phone work abroad?

It depends if your plan offers roaming abroad or not. Although our SIM cards do not offer data roaming abroad, it’s still possible to make phone calls.

Application Process

If I want to get a contract with Sakura Mobile, how do I apply?

Please apply on our webpage when all the documents are ready. This simple online application process can be completed in as little as five minutes, in English, whether you are in Japan or not.

I already have a phone contract here and don’t want to change my phone number. Can I use the MNP service with Sakura Mobile?

Yes. Sakura Mobile are enabled to accept mobile number portability. All you have to do is call your current carrier via their dedicated MNP hotline. There are different numbers for each carrier: Softbank: 0800-919-0157 (press 8 for English), Au; 0120-959-472 (English from the start), Docomo: 0120-800-000 (you’ll first need to speak to a Japanese phone operator, and then ask for an English speaking operator).

Alternatively, you can go to a store and ask for a “MNP yoyaku bango” and they will give it to you right there. You’ll just to need to show your ID but bring your hanko just in case (if you have one).

Once you have requested an MNP reservation number, head on over to this page. As you go through the process, we’ll double check if you if you want to keep your old cell phone number for your new contract. If you select “Yes, I want to bring my Japanese cell phone number to SakuraMobile”, we’ll ask you to input your MNP reservation number. Then when we activate your new contract you can keep your current digits!

Are there any age requirements?

Many contracts do impose an age limit of 21 or more. At Sakura Mobile, for customers who are younger than 20 years old, we request submission of a parental consent form, which, of course, is provided in English.

I don’t have a long-term visa with a residence card. Can I still apply?

While many phone contracts require at least two years validity left on your visa, with us, you don’t need this. If you would like a Data SIM card or a pocket WiFi, you just need to provide us with your passport. A Japanese resident card with your Japanese address registered on it is required for a Voice SIM contract. If you need a Voice SIM card, but your resident card is not ready yet, you can choose to come to our office in Tokyo or an airport counter (available soon) to pick up your Voice SIM card. This process of identification confirmation is required by Japanese regulations.

How do I pay for my phone contract?

You can choose from credit card, debit card or convenience store cash payment. So you don’t necessarily need to have a Japanese bank account.

Sakura-Mobile-kit2

Is there a minimum contract period?

Our long-term services, such as Voice SIM card plans, require a minimum contract period of three months, but we also offer short-term prepaid plans, if you don’t plan to stay in Japan for that long.

Are there any cancellation fees? How do I cancel my contract?

No, there aren’t. While major providers will often charge ridiculously high fees for cancelling a contract (sometimes up to ¥30,000 or ¥40,000), for us it’s just a case of  contacting our customer support by email anytime before the 25th day of the final month of your contract.

Are there any other hidden fees?

No, there aren’t. On the contrary, one of our great advantages is that we don’t have any hidden fees, which are often seen in other service providers.

I have questions about my contract. Who should I talk to?

Please talk to our customer support staff, who are well trained to respond professionally to email inquiries, online chatting and phone calls in English.

Awesome! Thanks for your answers. Anything else you want to tell us?

Right now, we’re running a special Spring Campaign where new customers can save ¥10,000 when they set up their contract with a cheaper “Activation Fee.” For more details of the campaign, check out our web page or drop us a message (see below). We hope to hear from you guys!

*And if that’s with Sakura Mobile — well, let’s just say you’ve made a pretty good choice.

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