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I'm "the" IT guy for the Tokyo branch office of a much larger European firm, so I often have to assist visitors from overseas offices with their Japan mobile phone woes.  I never understood why sometimes their Blackberries just wouldn't work in Japan.  Well, after some research, I think I now know.

Much of the Western world uses a mobile phone technology called GSM.  Japan is both literally and figuratively an island (a common Japanese theme), so it does not--or should I say did not.  Japan has historically used another mobile phone technology called CDMA.  GSM does exist in Japan, but it's relatively new compared to GSM in other countries.  In other words, Japan has no "legacy" GSM network, so older 2G GSM phones / SIMs (like older Blackberries) just won't work.  It has to be 3G GSM or newer.

Compared to other countries Japan can be a pain in the arse mobile phone-wise.  Japan loves provider-locking stuff, so the big providers won't just sell you a SIM.  You may be able to get a "disposable" or "rental" phone at the airport, but I've heard mixed success stories on this.

I have heard that BMobile can help.  They will sell visitors short-term SIMs for data-only access.  You won't have a Japan phone number, but you can use something like Skype to make and receive voice calls.  The only caveat is that your phone must be provider unlocked.  If your mobile phone is provider-branded (e.g. "O2"), it must be able to accept and use SIMs from other providers.  It depends on the country.  Some like Japan love provider-locking everything.  Others don't.  Still others can't because the government made it illegal.  If you're from one of those countries, you're awesome.

If you're going to reside in Japan, you're in a totally different boat because you have the requisite resident card and bank account to get a proper mobile phone contract.  They'll most likely make you get both the phone and the SIM under a 2-year contract.  Japan has 3 main mobile phone providers:

  • AU (KDDI)
  • Docomo (NTT)
  • Softbank

Softbank is traditionally known as the provider most aggressively marketing towards us foreigners.  They have an English website, and many of their big-city shops (e.g. the Roppongi one) have staff that speak English better than I do.  The iPhone they sell is the GSM model.  AU is the other provider that sells the iPhone; however, theirs is the CDMA model.

Softbank has long enjoyed this English-speaking niche, but I've heard that the other 2 are quickly catching up.  This is good news for us because it means Japanese companies are taking notice of our market.

A Few Money-Saving Tips

  • The provider may sign you up for trials of a bunch of useless services when you first contract with them.  Refuse all but the base required stuff if you can (unless you use all that stuff).  You probably can't as it's part of their "campaign."  If so, then cancel all that junk via the provider's customer portal website.  Sometimes you have to wait until the trial finishes.
  • Providers have complex plans especially for voice service.  You may want to compare your phone habits with your current plan options.  If the 2 strike dissonant chords, you may want to seek more harmonious options.  For example, I did some pretty advanced arithmetic to figure out that Softbank's double white plan was costing me more than their standard white plan.  I'm not a big phone talker, so this was my particular case.  Again using Softbank's customer portal website, I switched to the standard white plan and now enjoy a slightly lower monthly bill.
  • Japan is good about giving you flat-rate unlimited data, but their voice service is a rip-off.  If you're a big phone talker, consider using a VoIP service like Skype instead.  The billing is often much easier to understand, and you may save some yen.

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