Japan SIM Cards: A Guide to Staying Connected

Finding the right SIM card in Japan can be confusing and expensive for anyone unfamiliar with the language and options available. Local insider, Kavish, shares what he learnt that hard way and shows you how to stay connected.

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Shibuya Crossing Photo © iStock/martin-dm

Cellphone basics in Japan: Contracts for long-term travelers

Japan primarily has three main cellular operators — AU, Softbank and NTT DOCOMO. Using a primarily CDMA/3G and LTE based network means that Japanese networks have limited compatibility with certain international smartphones. 

Annoyingly for travellers, the three major network operators don’t sell stand-alone SIM cards. If you want in on one of these three post-paid networks, you’ll have to lock yourself into a mandatory two-year contract and purchase a SIM locked, subsidised phone. 

The worst caveat is that apart from the phones being tightly locked to the network, the SIM card itself is locked to the particular device. Previously, the providers would religiously refrain from unlocking devices even after the contract period has elapsed, leaving users with an expensive paperweight should they not renew their contract. 

However, based on recent ‘guidelines’ from the Japanese government, they have begun unlocking a LIMITED number of models. Also, breaking a contract early incurs an approximately ¥10,000 penalty. 

On the upshot, all the providers have insurance schemes for about ¥300 per month, through which they will replace or repair your damaged device for a negligible price.

Your monthly bill, depending on your data plan and phone instalment will run you anywhere from ¥4000-¥8000 per month (international calls can increase this). You will need a National Health Insurance Card and Resident Card to apply for a SIM card at any of the major providers. 

Prepaid Mobile Phone Options in Japan

Offered by providers such as B-Mobile (the most popular), BICsim, OCN (my choice) and Y!Mobile, these SIMS are fantastic for anyone looking for more freedom in the smartphone department. 

These do require an address within Japan (they mail the SIM card to you), a working knowledge of Japanese (or a friendly Japanese person) and a credit card to sign up for these services. 

While the SIM cards can be purchased from locations such as BIC Camera in Japan (where they cost ¥3000), they can be purchased for only ¥300-¥400 or so on Amazon (JP). Personally, I use OCN, a network owned by the parent company of DOCOMO (and thereby utilising the extensive DOCOMO network). A sub ¥2500 bill gets me 5GB of high-speed data, with the option to make phone calls at added cost. International calling rates are also half of what large companies such as AU charge.

Tourist SIM Cards in Japan

Travellers can bag themselves a “Tourist SIM” at any airport in Japan. These are usually valid for anywhere from a week to a month. 

However, for a cheaper option, do check out Sakura Mobile, since they offer great deals on tourist SIM cards with free shipping thrown in. 

Another option is  eConnect, which will cost anywhere from ¥3,000 upwards.

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