It’s easy enough for visitors to get by in Japan with only a LINE account or other SNS platform to communicate with others. However, for anyone staying longer than a couple of months, there are times when a phone number is required, even if it’s just to purchase a commuter pass or to send a bank transfer.
Thankfully, nowadays, most services available in Japan allow you to purchase service without a phone attached to the contract. You can arrange for a standalone SIM card which you can use in an existing phone. However, making sure that your existing phone will work can be a complicated process.
Not only does your existing phone need to be unlocked or SIM-free, but as network frequencies can vary region-to-region, it needs to be compatible with networks in Japan. Generally speaking, iPhones are the most compatible (due to their universal nature), with popular Android phones not far behind. Of course, however, every device is different. If you can confirm that your phone meets the proper requirements, all you need now is a SIM card with a service plan! Most providers will explain what their particular requirements are. Scroll down for more information on these options.
An alternative would be to purchase a phone with your service. As you’ll see, there are many inexpensive methods to find an affordable phone with a cheap service plan. Many of our recommended service providers sell devices at very reasonable prices. Additionally, by purchasing your phone along with the service, you’re sure to have a phone that will be the most compatible with your selected plan.
Next, pick your provider!
There are three major network providers in Japan: SoftBank, au, and Docomo. The plans they sell directly are expensive and aren’t incredibly accessible to shorter-term residents, so instead, we’ll focus on MVNO providers. These are brands and providers which piggy-back off the same networks as the big three, but offer the service at heavily discounted rates. Some of the most popular options are:
LINE Mobile is a network provider owned by the same company as the LINE chat app that is known and loved by millions in Japan. Their plans are unique for allowing unlimited use of LINE, other SNS sites, or your favorite Music provider (each depending on the plan you choose) without counting against your data usage limit. They are very cost effective for those looking for no-frills plans, starting as low as ¥500/month at the time of this post. If you also need a device, they sell a small variety ranging from ¥660~¥3,010/month for phones. More information can be found on their website (Japanese).
IIJ Miofone is a service from Japan’s first Internet service provider, Internet Initiative Japan. Known for its cost-performance, Miofone has a decent selection of Android devices for sale with its service plans and also offers plans utilizing each of the three largest mobile networks. They have frequent sale campaigns for their offerings, such as a ¥300/month plan for 4 GB/month of data with telephone service. Check out their website (Japanese) to see their latest campaigns. Minimal information in English is available.
If you watch YouTube in Japan, you may be familiar with Mineo for their funny ads. While not the cheapest option on the list, they offer one of the largest selections of devices for sale with their plans. If you’re particular about the phone you use, it would be a good idea to see what they offer on their website (Japanese).
Y! Mobile is probably the largest provider on this list, partially due to its ownership by one of the three largest overall providers, SoftBank. They also offer decent prices and possibly the most extensive selection of phones to choose from, although they are not the most inexpensive plan on the list. See their website (Japanese) for more information.
While one of the most expensive options available, Sakura Mobile’s offerings still come in at a reasonable price and, for those who aren’t as comfortable with their Japanese, have the added benefit of offering their service and support entirely in English. They also provide solutions for short-term visitors. However, they do not sell devices for purchase. More information about their offerings can be found on their website.
Keep note of a few things.
As you may have noticed, aside from Sakura Mobile, each provider’s website comes in only one flavor: Japanese. Filling out the applications online and agreeing to the contracts for plans from each of these providers will usually require some level of Japanese comprehension. IIJ Mio does offer minimal explanation of their offerings, but in case you need support or have any other questions not already answered, it will take someone who knows Japanese to help. If you don’t feel comfortable proceeding without support in English or another language, consider Sakura Mobile’s offerings, or consider visiting one of the three larger providers (SoftBank, au, and Docomo) which offer English-speaking support at some of their physical locations.
Identity verification documents will be required for you to register with the providers. These documents include, but are not limited to, items such as your passport, residency card, documentation verifying your address, and a debit or credit card (domestic or international).
Most of these offerings are on a contract basis. While terms vary in length, it is not unusual that some of these offerings require a cancellation fee of some sort should you need to cancel your plan before the expiration. Please keep this in mind when signing up.