Whether you’re planning a short-term or long-term stay in Japan, you’ll want to get your hands on a mobile phone as soon as possible after arriving. Tokyo is a bright and bustling city but it won’t be easy to make friends and stay in touch if you don’t even have a cell phone to call or text. Depending on the length of your stay, there are a number of options for service plans and cell phones in Japan.
Options are limited for students coming on a tourist visa, though there is no real reason to sign a long-term contract with a service provider if you’ll only be staying for a few months. There are four standard options for short-term students:
1. Prepaid cell phones
SoftBank is the most foreign-friendly provider in Japan; it is also the only provider that offers pre-paid mobile phones. The only thing you need to bring with you is a passport. To get a pre-paid phone, simply walk into any official Softbank store (not a kiosk in a mall or electronics store) and tell the staff what you’re looking for; even if you don’t speak Japanese, almost all Softbank stores have at least one English-speaking staff member. Prepaid-phones cost anywhere from 4,000 – 7,000 yen (about $40 – $70), though prices vary depending on models and service options.
It is free to receive calls and unlimited text messaging can be added on for a small fee, though making calls to non-Softbank phones can be expensive. You can add minutes to your phone via the SoftBank website , bank transfer, or prepaid-phone cards which can be found at most convenience stores.
2. Pre-paid data-only SIM cards
For students with an unlocked smart phone, this is the most convenient option to use your cell phone in Japan. B-Mobile offers pre-paid SIM cards that run on the Docomo network, so be sure to check that your phone supports the appropriate GSM frequencies before purchasing a SIM card. Keep in mind that these SIM cards are data only, which means you won’t be able to make or receive regular phone calls. Find out more about pricing, delivery, and service options on the Bmobile website.
3. Rental phones
Rental phones are another affordable option for short-term visitors not planning on staying more than a month in Japan. The only requirements for renting a phone are a picture ID and a credit card, and fees are typically 200 – 500 yen ($2 – $5) per day for regular phones and 1,000 – 2,000 ($10 – $20) yen per day for smart phones. While this is a bit steep, there are special deals and discounts for anyone who pre-orders a rental phone before arriving in Japan.
Finally, you might be tempted to skip all this and just bring your current phone to Japan and use a roaming plan from the service provider in your country. Do not do this unless your parents are millionaires and you are coming to Japan on a private jet.
Regular subscription plans and contracts are available to those staying on a student visa, though certain restrictions apply. Depending on the length of stay, most foreigners in Japan will be required to pay the entire cost of the phone up front, which can be quite expensive if you are planning to get a new smart phone. This is at the discretion of your service provider.
To subscribe to a phone plan you will need a Japanese ID (Zairyu card), passport, and a Japanese bank account (bring your bank book). Though it might be more expensive up front, almost all Japanese people and long-term foreign residents take this route as it offers the most features and is less expensive in the long run.
If you have an unlocked phone from your home country that happens to run on the same GSM frequencies Japan uses, you might be able to purchase just the SIM card from Docomo or Softbank. There are also a number of independent SIM card providers offering both data and voice plans; though it may take a bit of research and hunting around, these can be the most practical and affordable option for anyone with an unlocked cell phone in Japan.