5 Options for a Phone Plan in Japan

If you’e just moved to Japan (or if you’re responsible and like to plan ahead), one of your top priorities should be getting a working phone. The data options are indispensable, especially if you want to go exploring in your first few weeks and don’t want to get hopelessly lost, ending up at a convenience store trying to score some free WiFi. And you need a phone number for a lot of things, whether it be setting up a bank account or making reservations at a busy restaurant.

Here are some of the options you have:

1) Using Your Home Country’s Service
When I was living in the US, I had T-Mobile as a carrier. (Shout out to T-Mobile!) They have a plan for people who travel, where they’ve partnered up with a bunch of different service providers in a bunch of different countries to provide you with service. I don’t have experience with other phone carriers, so I’m not sure if any other phone company offers this as well. I used this both in Japan and when I visited Korea, and they have a website showing what countries you’ll automatically have service in.

This was really helpful for me in the beginning, because as soon as I stepped off the plane and turned my phone on, I had Softbank service. But, it’s quite slow. My phone says it’s connected to Softbank LTE, but I know that’s not true… And, you still have to pay your US phone bill, which becomes infinitely more difficult once you get paid in yen. So, it may be good temporarily, but not really for the long term.

2) Buying a Phone
This, of course, is the standard option that a lot of people go for. You pretty much go into any carrier’s store and choose a phone and minutes/data plan that suits your needs best. I can’t really help with which carrier is best because I didn’t do this, but each have their own benefits and pitfalls, so you’ll have to research that yourself unfortunately. The reason I didn’t go for this simple and straightforward answer is because it’s expensive. Like, really expensive. Like, you have to buy your phone upfront expensive. (And buying a $600 phone and not getting paid for two months hurts.)

The reason you have to pay for your phone upfront is because most companies that hire you will only give you a one year visa. (If you have a two year visa, you’re pretty much set…) And the cell phone service providers feel like giving a month to month contract to a foreigner who’s currently only legally allowed to stay in the country for one year (despite what your renewal intentions may be) is too much of a risk. So, you can get a two year plan with a one year visa, if you pay for the phone upfront. But, be warned that it’s a two year plan, so, if you don’t plan on staying past a year, you’ll also have to pay to break the contract.

You can try to convince a Japanese friend of yours to sign the contract in their name, but it’s still pretty expensive for a mediocre amount of data, and it’s a really big favor that you’d be asking of your friend.

3) Buying a Prepaid SIM Card

If you decide to bring your phone from home and it’s unlocked, this is probably going to be the best method for you. You can buy a SIM card and pop it into your phone and get service. I don’t recommend buying one from one of the big phone companies directly, though, because they can be really expensive and they’ll try to push you into buying a phone plan instead.

Instead, I suggest going online to buy a SIM card, or buying one from an electronics store like Yodobashi Camera. Some require a Japanese credit card, but there are a good amount that can be purchased with cash every month. Most are going to be data only, but you can also find some with both data service and a phone number included. The different SIM cards will have different service providers, but I’ve found them to be generally the same.If you don’t have a cell phone in Japan, or if the one you have isn’t unlocked, you should check out a second hand store. I’ve seen old iPhone 4s and 5s for under $100. If you don’t mind having a slightly older model, it’s cheaper than going through a traditional phone company.

4) Buying Pocket WiFi
This is the route I ended up going on because my phone isn’t unlocked. I’d recommend this if you don’t have Internet included in your apartment, or if you want the option to connect multiple devices or people. I connect my phone to it as well as my laptop to it when I’m at work. I pay about 4,200 yen a month for unlimited data, which isn’t super cheap… But, the service I use, Asahi-net, always offer promos, so I’m on a 6 months free promotion right now. My referral code is [] in case you want to go with this option. Plus, you could use an iPod touch or other device that can download apps, so you don’t really need a phone for this to work.

Getting a Phone Number
If you go with a data-only SIM card or pocket WiFi, you won’t have a phone number to go with your service… So, what I do is go through Skype. I bought a Japanese phone number through them, downloaded Skype onto my phone, and use that for my calling service. I don’t use it very often, so I bought the cheapest pack of credits (like $5) and I still haven’t used them all yet.The only problem you may encounter with this is that it gives you a prefix of +050 instead of the standard +81 of a Japanese phone number. This is to denote that it’s a online number. It’ll still fit in any online applications or whatever that you may fill in, but I’ve heard some places (like banks) are a bit wary about accepting these numbers because they can be used as the equivalent of burner phones. I personally haven’t had any problems with it in the numerous forms I’ve filled out or when I registered for a bank account, but I’ve read it happening online. So, it’s up to you!

5) Signing up for a Japanese SIM
This is similar to the prepaid SIM route, but you’d be going through a Japanese company rather than one that caters to foreigners. There are some advantages to this, such as getting your card for a fraction of the price, and having a Japanese phone number thrown in sometimes. But there are also a lot of disadvantages, like having to pay with a credit card (and generally you’d be using your credit card from home–unless you get a Japanese credit card–which can suck because exchanging yen is a bit of a pain), having to deal with a contract in Japanese, and getting denied because you’re foreign (which happens a lot at Bic Camera/Yodobashi Camera). If you go online and buy one, it makes things a bit easier, but I don’t have any recommendations for you unfortunately.

I am least familiar with this method, so I can’t provide too much information about it… However, I do personally know of at least two people who have gone with this route and really seem to like it, so it could be something worth looking into, especially if your language skills are pretty good!

I hope this helps you make a decision, or at least gives you a few more options to choose from! Let me know if you have any questions, or if you’ve found an even better method!

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