The different provider types
In Japan, there are two different types of network provider: The “Big 3”, and MVNOs.
These offer different advantages and disadvantages in the way they frame their contracts. Which type is best suited to you will depend on:
- Your financial situation
- Your expected monthly usage
- The type of phone that you want
- Your payment method (certain companies will only accept payment by credit or debit card)
Make sure you read the small print, and if possible have a Japanese speaking friend go with you, if you can’t read Japanese legalese.
|The Big 3
Advantages of the Big 3: Softbank, AU and Docomo
Until a few years ago, these were the only cell phone network providers in Japan. As such, prices, contracts and general terms and conditions were near identical. This changed in 2015 when laws around telecom regulations were changed, allowing new players to enter the market. Find an explanation of contracts as they are now here.
However, brand loyalty is a big thing in Japan, so despite prices remaining somewhat higher than you are probably used to elsewhere, many customers still use Softbank, Docomo and AU.
Reduced start up costs
When you first come to Japan, chances are that money will be tight, at least until that first paycheck comes through. The Big 3 offer the opportunity to pay up the cost of a new phone over a two-year contract period. For example, if you buy a new iPhone for ¥80,000, that fee would be broken up over 24 months, meaning a monthly cost of around ¥3,300. This is, of course, just the cost of your phone; network access, data, and calls will all cost more.
Once everything is added in, you are looking at around ¥10,000 per month, depending on your chosen call plan, the amount of data you use, and the phone model. (Note that some phone models are exclusive to a particular network). In many cases, you won’t need to pay anything on the day you sign up. Your first payment will be due a month or so after, which hopefully will take you past your first pay day.
However, if you only have a one-year visa, you will not be able to pay for your phone by installments. You’ll need to pay the full amount upfront, or use a credit card. This varies, not only from provider to provider, but also sometimes from branch to branch, so if you get declined for an installment plan in one shop, you may want to try a few others before you give up.
Upgrade every 2 years
Having the option to upgrade to the latest model every 2 years when you renew your contract is another big plus point. Typically, the monthly cost will remain the same, or perhaps only increase by ¥500 to ¥1000 per month.
Provide exclusive apps and services
Each of the Big 3 providers also has a number of accompanying services, apps and offers available exclusively to members. For example, AU offers reduced cinema admission every Wednesday, as well as the use of an AU pre-pay Mastercard. Docomo offers excellent early warning apps for disasters and emergencies, as well as discount offers for a number of department stores. Softbank has a variety of tie-ups with numerous commercial and retail partners too, to allow them to offer customers a number of special deals.
Unfortunately, almost all of these apps and services require at least intermediate Japanese ability to fully utilize. Also, some people object to having all of this obligatory bloatware from service providers taking up memory on their phones. Docomo apps can in some cases consume up to 30% of your phone’s ROM memory.
Home internet and TV bundling
As major telecom providers, AU, Softbank and Docomo also offer home internet services. If you decide to use the same provider for your home internet and your phone or tablet you can make a saving on your monthly bills.
Advantages of MVNOs
An MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) operates in much the same way as any other telecom provider from the customer’s point of view. However, unlike Softbank, AU and Docomo, who each have their own network which they are responsible for maintaining, MVNOs rent space on these networks from the Big 3 for a flat fee, in a sense piggybacking on the 3 main carriers’ networks. Additionally, much of their sales are conducted online, via credit and debit card, instead of in person at a shop, reducing overheads by a long way.
Lower monthly costs
An AU customer will typically pay around ¥8000 per month (plus whatever the cost of the handset itself is) for unlimited calls and 10GB of data per month.
Compare this to OCN, an MVNO that runs on the Docomo Network, where unlimited calls (provided you keep the individual calls to less than 5 minutes a time) and 10 GB of data will cost around ¥3,500 per month. The drawback to this is of course that you need to buy a phone handset yourself.
In short, once you are set up, an MVNO will cost you about half of what a contract with any of the Big 3 will.
Greater choice of services and providers
With MVNOs, you can choose from a wider range of providers and contracts. If you’re always on LINE, did you know that the makers of this app launched their own MVNO, Line Mobile, back in 2016? In addition to the low monthly costs of an MVNO, Line Mobile also offers exclusive stickers and other content for your phone.
Also, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t care about watching live video, or playing games on the go with your phone, then both OCN and their AU network-backed equivalent UQ Mobile offer an unlimited internet contract for only ¥2500 yen with a download speed restricted to 500kbps. This won’t work for streaming video, but is adequate for web browsing, email and so on. Again, calls under 5 minutes are free.
You can probably use your old phone from your home country
Unlike contracts with the Big 3, where in most cases you will need to buy a new handset when you sign up, provided your phone is compatible, you will be able to pop in your new SIM card when you sign up to an MVNO and use it straight away.
Go to www.willmyphonework.net to enter your phone model number, and the country where you bought it, and you can check which Japanese MVNO networks it will work with. Almost all smartphones from abroad that are less than 5 or 6 years old will work on Docomo and Softbank powered MVNOs. AU runs on a different frequency and so is a bit temperamental.
Shorter contracts and less commitment
Whilst AU, Softbank and Docomo require a minimum 2-year commitment, MVNOs typically only require a one year contract, some even offer as little as 6 months. Also, if you do decide to cancel, this can be done online or over the phone. There’s no need to go into the shop and waste an hour as the staff beg you not to cancel.
Check which carrier network your MVNO of choice is using before you sign up. Once you know which MVNO you want to use, order one of their SIM cards online (Amazon stock most of the major ones) and follow the enclosed instructions to set up your account.
MVNOs typically only accept credit card payment, but some of them are starting to accept certain debit cards too. OCN accepts MUFJ Visa debit cards, as does Rakuten Mobile.
Buying a Smartphone in Japan
If you decide to go with an MVNO provider, you will need to either bring your old phone with you or buy a new one once you arrive in Japan.
Amazon should be your first port of call when searching for a new smartphone in Japan. While iPhones and higher range Android models such as the Samsung Galaxy Series and Sony Xperia aren’t much cheaper than you would find in a regular store, if you aren’t too concerned about brand and want to focus on the specifications, you can find a good selection of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese domestic phones with reasonably high specifications in the ¥20-30,000 range.
If you don’t mind buying second-hand, then you could probably pick up an iPhone from 2 or 3 years ago for a similar price. In all cases, be sure to confirm the exact model number before buying and run it through www.willmyphonework.net to make sure its compatible before ordering.
Avoid using Expansys.jp. Though their phones are targeted at Japanese consumers, they are all sourced elsewhere in Asia and are not designed for the Japanese market. They lack full Japanese functionality and are prone to breaking down when charged using Japanese mains power.
Video game and entertainment stores
An excellent resource for finding affordable smart phones from the popular brands is local entertainment stores such as Geo. In addition to video games, DVDs, CDs and comics, a number of these stores also sell second-hand smartphones at competitive prices. For example, the iPhone 6S Plus, which retails for around ¥70,000 at the Apple Store, sells for ¥28,000 in Geo. All phones come with a 3-month warranty.
One small point to consider: as these are ex-contract phones, many of them will still be locked to one of the big three providers. Depending on when the phone was originally purchased, it may be possible to unlock it but all you really need to do is buy the phone that corresponds to your MVNO. For example, OCN uses the Docomo Network, so any Docomo locked phone will work with an OCN SIM.
Facebook and local online sayonara sales
Particularly in Autumn, when many phone users will be preparing to upgrade to the latest iPhone, lots of people use local sellers groups on Facebook to sell their old phones. Typically, phones sold in this way will go for less than half price, however you have no real means of payback if something goes wrong.
Getting your phone repaired
If your phone is under warranty then undoubtedly the best way to get your phone repaired is to contact the manufacturer. There are numerous phone repair shops all around Japan, but most of them cater exclusively to iPhones and a few other select models. ICracked is one of the bigger ones, as well as iPhone Repair Factory. Both offer English-speaking services.
If you have an iPhone, then it would be a good idea to contact Apple directly in the first instance to get an estimate of the repair costs. You can then use this for comparison purposes when you ask your local repair shops for a quote. Note that if you get it fixed by a third party (i.e. not Apple), you’ll negate your Apple warranty.