Whether it’s for Google maps to find your way around, messaging your supervisor by LINE, or having a translation app handy, your cell phone is an indispensable tool for living in Japan. Few places offer free public WiFi in Japan, and you will be required to have a phone number as a JET. Therefore, it is important to get a phone plan soon after your arrival in Japan.
In short: buy an unlocked (“SIM-free”) cell phone that will work in Japan (check if your device will work here). Then, purchase a SIM card (i.e. a plan with data, voice, and text) from either Sakura Mobile, Mobal, or Link Mobile Rental (or if your Japanese is sufficient, from IJMio).
Applying for a cell phone plan in Japan can be confusing at first. However, there are many cheap and convenient options which offer English support.
The “Big Three”
These companies have physical stores all over Japan (including Shimane) and offer online support in English, although store staff will most likely not speak English. They also offer payment by bank transfer, so you don’t need a credit card.
For JETs who want a phone quickly—and prefer convenience over price—a plan from one of the “big three” companies is sufficient. In fact, your Contracting Organization (CO) may not even know that other options exist. Your work supervisor can take you to a local store to set up a phone for you. Please note that these three companies probably won’t allow you to use an unlocked phone from your home country.
Caution! Many Shimane JETs have had bad experiences buying phone plans from the “big three” companies. Common complaints are: hidden fees (including expensive cancellation fees), spotty connections in rural areas of Shimane (when using SoftBank), limited English support, and apathetic staff. Therefore, the PAs recommend one of the options below.
There are smaller companies than the “big three” that offer cheaper phone plans with a wider variety of options for data, SMS, and calling. Some of these companies offer services entirely in English. The PA-recommended companies are:
- Mobal (SIM card only plans)
- Sakura Mobile (SIM card only plans)
- IIJMio (SIM card only plans or SIM card + phone plans)
- Link Mobile (SIM card only plans)
Except for IIJMio (which also offers a SIM card + phone plan), these companies require you to have your own unlocked phone.
Mobal offers a convenient SIM card plan, English customer service, and no contract, meaning you can cancel at any time with no cancellation fees. They offer worldwide free shipping, so you can order your SIM card before even arriving in Japan. (Special offer for JETs can be found here)
- Full English support
- No cancellation fees nor minimum contract term
- “Unlimited data” (7 GB, 20 GB or 50 GB of high-speed 4G LTE/month plans; speed slows after that)
- JET discount: ￥3000 activation fee → ￥100
- Various payment methods (foreign or Japanese credit cards, debit cards, in-cash at convenience stores, or PayPal)
- ￥65/min international calling to: Australia, Canada, China, Finland, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, USA, UK
- No phones on sale—you must provide your own unlocked phone (must support 3G UTRA band 1 or 4G LTE band 1)
Sakura Mobile boasts 100% English support. They offer various payment methods as well as up to 60 minutes free of international calling, depending on the plan.
Sakura Mobile Pros
- Full English support
- “Unlimited data”
- Multiple voice + text + data SIM card plans (from 3 GB to 20 GB per month)
- Various payment methods (e.g. foreign or Japanese credit cards, debit cards, or in-cash at convenience stores)
- No fixed contract nor cancellation fees
- Up to 60 minutes free of international call/month (depending on the plan)
- ￥30/min international or domestic calling when using the “Sakura 691” app (otherwise ￥62/min for international calls)
Sakura Mobile Cons
- No phones on sale—you must provide your own unlocked phone (must support 3G or 4G band 1, and preferably band 19 as well; check compatibility here)
IJMio offers the cheapest prices of all the companies on this list. They have a variety of plans, and you can also buy a phone along with the SIM card like a conventional company. However, the sign-up process and customer support are all in Japanese.
- Cheap plans (e.g. “Minimum Start Plan” voice + SMS + 3 GB data is only ￥1600/month)
- Offers SIM card + phone set plans
- Plan customization available at any time (e.g. to add more monthly data)
- Minimum 1-year contract
- Only payment by credit card
- Limited English support (English information here)
Link Mobile Rental
Link Mobile Rental is a relatively new SIM card service created just for JET Programme participants. You can apply for the SIM card through their website, and pick it up at the JET Programme Tokyo Orientation when you first arrive in Japan; this is the fastest option for getting a cell phone plan.
Link Mobile Rental Pros
- 5 GB, 20 GB and 50 GB plans, including unlimited domestic calls and SMS
- No credit card required; monthly payment made at convenience stores
Link Mobile Rental Cons
- Plans start at ￥3,780/month for 5 GB data
- No international calling or SMS
Bringing a Phone from Home?
If you wish to bring your current phone to Japan, first check here to see if it is compatible. Next, make sure your phone is unlocked (“SIM-free”). Most phones sold outside North America are automatically unlocked; for phones in North America, make sure to check with your service provider.
Buying a Phone in Japan?
If you wish to buy a SIM-free phone immediately upon arrival, there is usually a limited stock of SIM-free phones available at large shopping malls such as AEON. A decent smartphone will cost anywhere from ￥30,000 to ￥70,000, so be prepared with a credit card or enough cash. If you are on a budget, try Yahoo Auctions, or your local Off-House for second-hand options.
If you wish to change providers while in Japan, you can request for an MNP (Mobile Number Portability) Number from your existing provider and use this upon signing up for a new provider. It may cost around ￥3,000. Be sure to check the fine print for your plan to avoid cancellation fees.