Saving money on cell phones in Japan

Whether you have just arrived in Japan or are a seasoned cell phone user here, getting connected can be a daunting task. There is a plethora of cell phone providers with different prices, plans, and contract obligations. That can be difficult to navigate. Here are some tips, which can save the budget-minded person a lot of yen when searching for a good cell phone provider.

The big three

SoftBank, NTT Docomo, and au by KDDI are the three major cell phone carriers that provide all the physical infrastructure for the cell phone networks in Japan. These top-level providers compete against each other for customers in order to pay off their network investments. These three companies also sell network time and bandwidth in bulk to third-party providers known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. So no matter what company you buy your phone service through, your signal will be traveling on one of these three carriers. Understanding this can help when looking at options at your local electronics store.

Things to consider

The contract length of a plan often determines what options are available. If you need only a couple of months, prepaid options with an MVNO often do not require a contract. For example, Mobal can provide a SIM card with unlimited data and a Japanese phone number for up to 90 days for less than some companies’ monthly service fees. Rakuten Mobile also offers 30- and 90-day data packages. These SIM cards are good for short durations and can be purchased before you arrive or at the airport.

If you are willing and able to sign a contract, the contract length is often determined by whether you want a new phone. The big three offer 2- to 4-year contracts along with specials that provide the latest and greatest cell phones for “free” after their campaigned discounts. This is usually a good option if you desire the newest phones without the large upfront cost. Keep in mind, however, that the monthly rates for data and voice may be more than double what MVNOs offer for the same three or six GB plan. While it may look like you are getting a new phone for free, in reality you are paying a premium for the service.

Contract obligations

If you terminate a contract early, you are obligated to pay not only a termination fee, but also the remainder of the phone’s cost if you received one. Be sure to read the fine print and always ask about the early termination fee—some carriers do not charge one, whereas others charge over ¥20,000. Once your contract has ended, there is usually a window in which you can move your phone number to another carrier without penalty if you so desire. This is called mobile number portability (MNP). But you may save money over the long term by moving to an MNVO before your contract ends, despite the penalty imposed by the original carrier.

MNVO companies also offer phones that can be paid off over 1- to 2-year contract periods. Where MNVO companies stand out, though, is in their SIM-only options for those with an unlocked phone. These SIM options can be for voice and data or data only. For example, switching from SoftBank to YMobile can cut your phone bill by half and does not require MNP. It may mean you stretch the life of your phone, but the savings over that time add up significantly. If you are willing to do a MNP number transfer, carriers like Biglobe can save you even more if you have a Japanese credit card. Biglobe also offers shared SIM cards on their plans, which is useful if you have another device you want only data on.

For those looking to save even more, a data-only SIM card paired with a virtual Skype number may be worth looking into. If you do not talk a lot, this gives you the benefit of a Japanese phone number that can make and receive calls on multiple devices. Another option is a LINE SIM card that allows full use of LINE’s services with some limited data as well. This is a great option if you do not need a Japanese phone number.

If these tips have spurred you to consider changing your current cell phone plan, be sure to check out a great website called Tokyo Cheapo (https://tokyocheapo.com/). It explains phone options thoroughly and how to get the most from your hard-earned yen.


Published in the Spring 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “Saving money on cell phones”

Jared Jones has been serving and equipping the church in Japan since 2009. He looks for new ways to use technology and social media to spread the Good News. He and his wife Tara have six children and live in Takasaki, Gunma.

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