20 Feb Japan’s 2023 Best Budget-Friendly SIM Cards and Mobile Phone Contracts for Foreigners
Last Modified on February 20th, 2023 at 11:03 pm
Category: Finance, Living
First things first. And the first thing you will probably grab after your plane has touched down on Japanese soil is your smartphone. The device is the lifeline for almost everything – abroad and in Japan. There are many free WiFi spots in Japan, but they are less common than in some other countries. Logically, a quick, easy, and cheap internet access is a must.
However, in Japan like everywhere else, choosing a mobile phone contract can be a daunting task, with a wide range of options for contract lengths, data allowances, and prices. To list all options would go beyond the scope of this article. But we would like to help you select the most reasonable and inexpensive options for the time after your arrival and later on.
Some of you may be lucky and arrive with a reasonably priced roaming option from the foreign provider of your mobile phone connection. If not, you better quickly get yourself either a prepaid SIM card or a full contract from a Japanese provider to lower your costs and facilitate your daily life.
Until you have obtained the residence card, we suggest using a prepaid card (either with voice calling or without) which you can even order before your arrival. Once the immigration office issues your residence card, you can buy a prepaid SIM card or sign a contract here. Only rarely, you are not asked for your residence card.
If you have a SIM-free smartphone, I recommend using one of the low-cost brands of the major carriers NTT Docomo, KDDI (main mobile brand: au), and Softbank. These options are explained below. (The other popular choice is a package contract for a new smartphone paid in monthly installments including a SIM card. To check such offers out, please go to the outlets of NTT Docomo, KDDI, Softbank, and Rakuten.)
Buy a pre-paid SIM card before arrival
To have a smooth start, you could get yourself a Japanese SIM card before your departure to Japan. We recommend ordering it abroad – where they are often cheaper than in Japan – and having it delivered to your home address outside of Japan.
After arrival, you insert the card into your phone and activate it via the airport’s free WiFi, so you have internet access immediately. Many of these cards use the 4G network either of NTT Docomo or of Softbank. When you open Whatsapp for the first time with the new card, the app will ask you if you want to use the new number. Then select “No” and you can use your Whatsapp account with your foreign number as usual.
We suggest buying a pre-paid SIM card with an unlimited data volume for periods from 8 up to 31 days with fees starting at $25. This way, you never have to fear that your data volume is used up (and your internet access is automatically slowed down to a crawl).
One reliable service company to order such pre-paid SIM card online before your departure is Japan Experience based in Paris. (We heard that in rare cases their cards may have problems with Android phones, though.)
However, most such prepaid SIM cards offer no voice calling (except with a messenger service like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Discord or a phone app like Skype). If you want voice calling, we found the offers of Modal convenient. This company has cards with a data and voice combination for either one, two, or three months starting from 7,500 yen.
Get yourself a long-term SIM card in Japan
Once the immigration office has issued you a residence card (which also doubles as a visa), and if you want to continue using your current smartphone, you can purchase a long-term SIM card, either pre-paid or with monthly payments.
Confusingly, there are hundreds of such SIM card offers, in Japanese called “kaku-yasu shimu” (low-cost SIM). They are available as pure data cards or include voice calls. For example, for 3-4 GB data volume providers charge you from 900 yen monthly upwards. In addition, there is often a set-up fee of about 3,000 yen.
One easy way to get such SIM cards: You visit a store of the electronic goods chain BIC Camera and get their “BIC SIM”. You need to bring your residence card, your passport, and a (Japanese) credit card. The salesperson will check whether the card works with your phone. You can cancel after eight weeks every month. These SIM cards are valid indefinitely.
Another provider often mentioned is “JP Smart SIM”. The main advantage is that no Japanese credit card or bank account is required. You sign up online and pay the set-up fee and the fees for data/voice use in cash at a konbini store. Also, the provider does not care about the duration of your visa (in contrast to the two-year contracts of major carriers which include a new smartphone). JP Smart SIM has a data only and data + voice option. Anecdotally, the setup can be confusing. You can call their service (based in Kyoto) for support in English, but it will use up some of your data allowance.
Go for a budget brand of the major carriers
The three traditional major mobile phone providers in Japan are NTT Docomo, KDDI with their mobile phone brand “au”, and Softbank. Each of these providers offers a range of contract options, including postpaid plans and prepaid SIM cards.
After the government of then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga applied official pressure in 2020 on the carriers to lower their (high) prices, these carriers all gave in and introduced cheaper plans for their main services. Separately, each carrier launched a budget brand that offers even more affordable mobile phone plans. Their main limitation is that you often have to pay for phone calls extra under certain conditions.
One important recommendation: Always look out for “campaigns” – due to the fierce market competition, the budget brands often conduct promotion campaigns where you can earn cash points or do not have to pay any set-up fee or the fee for taking your old number with you.
Here are the main requirements to apply for any of these contracts:
- You have to be 20 years or older (if not, you need a personal guarantor);
- a bank account in Japan or a Japanese credit card,
- sometimes foreign credit cards are allowed, too;
- a valid ID (residence card, passport),
- sometimes with a required remaining period of stay and validity.
The budget brand of NTT Docomo is “ahamo”. Docomo is the largest provider with (arguably) the best network in Japan in terms of coverage. You get a data volume of 20GB per month (with 550 yen per each 1GB extra) for 2,970 yen (including tax) on the 4G and 5G networks. Local phone calls are free for up to 5 minutes per month. After this, you are charged 22 yen per 30 seconds. If you do not use the data volume fully, it is transferred to the next month (one-time). Another benefit: You can go to any Docomo shop to get a contract.
KDDI, the second-largest provider in Japan, offers a similar data-communication plan called “povo”. It is only available online and works with “toppings” – for example, you get 1GB of data in 7 days for 990 yen or 20GB data in 30 days for 2,700 yen (unused data cannot be carried over).
Voice calls are 22 yen per 30 seconds, unlimited calls up to 5 min for 550 yen per month or unlimited calls for 1,650 yen per month. KDDI also has a sub-brand “UQ Mobile” available at the company’s retail stores with more data and voice options including the usage of 5G connections.
Softbank, the third-largest provider in Japan, offers two budget brands. One is the data-only plan “LINEMO“ affiliated with Japan’s messenger app LINE. As a result, the data usage in LINE is not counted against your allowed data volume. Prices are similar to other budget brands. 20GB of data per month cost you 2,728 yen (including tax).
The other Softbank budget brand is “Y!mobile” for which you can sign up in Softbank’s retail stores (in contrast to LINEMO . The “Y” stands for “Yahoo”, a popular internet portal for news and services. There are three different plans with variations in data and voice call usage.
Finally, the fourth major carrier RAKUTEN is a low-cost brand itself. This provider belongs to the Rakuten Group of internet services. It started as a brand with a virtual network (in cooperation with KDDI) and began building Japan’s fourth network only in 2018, operations started in April 2020. Where coverage is not perfect, your phone is automatically switched to the “au” network of KDDI.
Rakuten offers just one simple price plan and charges you by your data volume. If you use only 1GB per month, it will cost you 980 yen. 20GB will set you back by 1,980 yen. It is the only network that offers you unlimited data usage – and this for a rather cheap 2,980 yen. You can conveniently sign up at their retail stores all over Japan.
Other budget brands with similarly low prices are mineo (pronounced my-neo) and BIGLOBE Mobile (with free usage of 100,000 WiFi hotspots all over Japan).
Did I promise too much? The choices are overwhelming! But I am sure you will find the SIM card and contract provider that will make you a happy smartphone user in Japan.
The author: Martin Fritz, a long-time Japan resident, writes mainly about economics and finance in Japan for newspapers and magazines in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
Disclaimer: While we do our best to present the correct information, we are not responsible for any mistake and its consequences. This post was originally published on Feburary 20, 2023. Please be aware that the world is constantly changing.