Cell Phones

Advantages

Social communication in Japan is almost entirely conducted on cell phones (keitai), so it’s practically mandatory to sign up for one. Plus, with a Japanese cell phone, you’ll be able to:

  • Send and receive e-mails (by far the cheapest way to communicate)
  • Access the internet: weather, news, Google
  • Use GPS maps, train schedules, and more
  • Take and send photos and videos

Note: In Japan, even conventional (non-smartphone) cell phones have these features!

Disadvantages

Cost: Probably the biggest disincentive to getting a keitai is the amount of money the little metallic rectangle ends up extracting from your bank account each month. A basic plan will probably be about 5,000 yen per month, and if you use the internet often or have a smart phone, that amount can extend up to 10,000 yen or more. Make sure you understand the basics of your plan and any hidden charges that exist.

How to get a Phone

Obviously, the difficulty of all this depends on how well you can communicate with the person in the shop. The most important thing is a clear idea of what you want before you approach the shopkeeper. It is a good idea to pick up some brochures and ask your senpai first about what brands, models and features they think are best. And make sure to check with your predecessor about what service they used since some service providers have better service in certain areas and some have no service at all in various locations. When you do go get a phone, you will need top take the following items with you to the shop:

  • hanko (personal stamp)
  • Residence Card
  • Bank book (or relevant bank information)

Most major streets are littered with keitai shops. However, keep in mind that phones sold by service providers (Docomo, au, Softbank, etc.) may be more expensive and there is less selection to choose from. If you’ve got time, head for the more general home electronics stores, where you can compare service providers and find a good deal.

Types of Keitais

Bi-lingual Phones: Every keitai maker has a few models that come with a bi-lingual option, a feature that is undeniably handy for those just starting out here. That said, the Japanese only models are often not as confusing as you might expect, especially one that have pictorial interfaces.

0 yen vs. 10,000 yen: Every company has plenty of 0 yen cell phones to choose from. These are often last season’s models – while they may not be as exciting as the new models, they still usually have many more features than their Western counterparts, and they are recommended if you are just looking for a basic phone and don’t need lots of extra features. The expensive models often have excellent cameras or are smart phones.

Smartphones: Every company offers smartphones, either Android or iPhone. These have more expensive pricing plans but offer excellent features and basically can be used as mobile computers. If you’re the type of person who has to have a smartphone, you know who you are.

Companies to choose from

There are three major companies in Japan, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Sales and offers are changing nearly constantly, so it would be impossible to cover them all here, so checking at an electronics store or at the websites is probably the best way to decide. Note that all companies offer smartphones and phones with English displays.

DoCoMo

The grandfather of Japanese cell phone companies, owned by NTT (the national telephone company). It still has an over 50% share of the market, but has fallen in recent years due to strong competition. Coverage is good throughout most of Japan, but may be somewhat weaker in rural areas. Offers Android smartphones.

AU

AU has the second-largest share of the market, and is notable because of its major efforts to provide coverage to rural areas. Services and pricing similar to DoCoMo. Offers Android smartphones and iPhones.

Softbank

Softbank is the underdog of the Japanese cell phone world, notable for their affordable plans for regular phones, and because they were the first provider to offer the iPhone. However, coverage is mediocre in rural areas.

Willcom

Not a “major” cell phone provider but worth a mention, Willcom is a provider with simple, discount cell phone plans for people frustrated by the expensive and confusing cell phone plans offered by the major providers.

Service plans

The type of service plan you should choose depends on how you expect to use your phone.

Three things you should consider:

  • How often you expect to make calls (minutes per month)
  • How much you expect to use cell phone email (often used for daily communication in Japan)
  • How much you expect to use data/the internet

Describe your usage pattern as above to the shopkeeper, and they will help you figure out the right plan for you.

There are a range of plans: from discount plans for people who rarely make phone calls, to unlimited plans for frequent callers. The same principle applies to email and data. For each, try to pick the plan that approximates your actual use. Note that if you end up going over your plan, the per-minute/per-data rate is quite high.

Also note that if you get a smart phone, you are basically required to purchase the unlimited data plan, or else your data fees will be through the roof!

A confusing array of questions will crop up at the contract-filling-in stage. A good portion of the questions will relate to what extra features you want (e.g. ringtones, etc). The answer to almost all of these questions should be NO. Unfortunately, at times these “add ons” are mandatory until after your first bill. Be sure to cancel any extra unwanted features as soon as possible.

I have an unlocked cell phone, can I get a SIM card?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Yes but there are massive caveats and it’s a huge nightmare. Just get a new phone on a plan.

Basically, in my experience most Japanese people aren’t even aware that SIM cards exist. They just buy a phone on a plan, and use it with the one carrier for the whole time they have the phone.

None of the major providers will hand out SIM cards for phones, particularly for those purchased overseas.

Historically most Japanese phones were permanently SIM locked, and used a different frequency from foreign phones. This meant that even if someone went overseas, they couldn’t just switch their SIM out for a local prepaid one. Things have changed slightly with the advent of the iPhone, which uses the same hardware worldwide.

The Caveat

There is now at least one company that provides data and voice SIM cards called b-Mobile. They’re actually just reselling plans based on the Docomo network.

Please do not purchase a b-Mobile SIM thinking you can use Skype in place of a proper voice plan. Due to the problems below it is effectively unusable.

b-Mobile voice/data SIMs: Require that you provide a home address, which means they can take more than 5 days to activate.

b-Mobile data-only SIMS: Don’t require evidence of a home address, but don’t have a phone number and as such cannot make voice calls.

b-Mobile SIMs can be purchased through Amazon or at Yodobashi/Bic camera, but require activation upon purchase. Activation requires making a phonecall from a Japanese cellphone and typing in the number on the SIM. Staff at Yodobashi/Bic camera are not allowed to do this for you.

At this moment in time, they don’t offer nano SIMs (required for the iPhone 5 and all upcoming models of iPhone). You can purchase a SIM cutter though, to cut the larger SIM down to the correct size. Surprisingly, this actually works.

The author experimented with a b-Mobile SIM for a few weeks upon first arriving in Japan, but quickly switched to a new iPhone on a plan through Softbank. There are three major problems with b-Mobile:

1. Their data speeds are nowhere near what they advertise. The speeds they’re advertising are the “maximum” possible speeds, but their guaranteed speeds are as low as 312kbps (about 30 kilobytes a second). This is ok for mail/basic chat (ie. text based stuff) but nothing else. You could not use Skype/Facetime/other internet phone services at these speeds.

2. Because b-Mobile resell plans from Docomo, you get the lowest priority for data speeds to improve service for “official” Docomo customers. Some services like Skype/Facetime are throttled, meaning they purposefully slow them down even further, making them effectively unusable.

3. They are expensive. At the time of writing, a data sim with 1gb of data is about ¥3900. This 1gb is only valid for one month, and if you don’t use it all it doesn’t roll over onto the next month. Even if you could use Skype etc, you would quickly run out of data.

At the end of the day, besides for socialising purposes, the main reason for having a cell phone is so that your CO can get in contact with you. Having them contact you via mail is not good enough in case of an emergency. You really need a solid, reliable plan with voice capabilities. Making your CO wait for more than 5 days so that you can activate a b-Mobile voice SIM is also too long, especially if you are new to Japan. Your CO has a responsibility to look after you, and need to know they can contact you (and vice versa) if anything goes wrong.

Our final advice boils down to:

Just buy a new cell phone on a plan.

Tips

  • Monthly keitai bills are invariably drawn directly from your bank account. If you have just signed up for service, the first charge is likely to be a little expensive – this is because there are several initial handling fees. You may also be charged (depending on your service plan) for going over your amount of allotted minutes, making calls during peak hours, etc.
  • The large keitai companies offer an English version of their manual. Make sure to request one when buying your phone.
  • When setting up an iphone contract, Softbank will normally carry out an audit (shinsa) on you based on your bank account and visa status, even if you have never previously had a bank account or credit history in Japan. The reasons for this are not well explained in the contract the Softbank staff will draw up for you. Foreigners and Japanese nationals alike regularly fail these checks, meaning that you have to pay the price of the phone itself up front (ikkatsu-barai). The plus side to this is that your subsequent monthly payments will be much cheaper because you are no longer paying off the phone on a monthly basis. However, unless you have over 40,000 yen to spend so soon after arriving in Japan, you may have to wait until your first paycheck to buy a phone.
  • It is probably a good idea to get in the habit of leaving your phone in silent or vibrate mode all the time (マナーモード). Trust me, a day will come when you forget to turn your ring off and your keitai goes off in the middle of a class. Most schools disallow their students to bring keitais to class, and teachers are supposed to set an example by not doing so either. But so long as nobody knows you have one in your pocket, you can usually get away with it. Letting your phone ring on the train is also taboo.

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