Cell Phones in Japan

Mobile phone display racks at an electronics store.

Japan is a leader in mobile phone technology and use. In addition to calling, email and messaging, Japanese mobile phones were some of the first to widely adopt features such as internet browsers, games, cameras, televisions, electronic wallets, train passes, gps navigation and music players.

The biggest Japanese mobile phone companies are NTT Docomo, au by KDDI, and Softbank (formerly Vodafone, and before that J-phone). There are also a few smaller carriers, some of which provide specialized services such as prepaid voice and mobile internet to residents and travelers.

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Do foreign phones work in Japan?

While most newer mobile phone models can be used in Japan, many older phones may not work due to different technologies. Most importantly, there is no GSM network in Japan, so GSM-only phones do not work. The following are needed for a handset to work in Japan:

  • For Voice - The handset must be compatible with a Japanese mobile phone network (typically 3G UMTS 2100 MHz, 3G CDMA2000 800 MHz, or LTE band 1). Most modern 3G and 4G phones are compatible with one or more of these networks. Compatible handsets may be used via international roaming (check with your home provider for details) or a rental or prepaid SIM card from a Japanese carrier (unlocked handsets only). Alternatively, phones with wireless network (Wi-Fi) connectivity can use internet based telephone services (voip), such as Skype, when connected to a Wi-Fi network.
  • For Data - Phones that work in Japan for voice (see above) can also receive and send data (such as emails and web content) via international roaming or a rental/prepaid SIM card, but note that the cost for data transfer can easily skyrocket without an appropriate data plan. Alternatively, phones with wireless network (Wi-Fi) connectivity can take advantage of the numerous paid and free Wi-Fi hotspots found around the country. See our internet page for more details.

Do Japanese phones work outside of Japan?

Many phones that are sold in Japan can operate on 4G, 3G and GSM networks (only in certain countries) with the appropriate international roaming plans, although some of their advanced functions will likely not work overseas. This means that a person with a handset and service provided by a Japanese mobile phone carrier can use their phone when traveling outside of Japan.

Although some Japanese carriers will unlock certain phone models, it still may not be possible to use a Japanese phone with a foreign service provider due to network differences. In addition, many Japanese phones are designed at a hardware and software level to work with a particular carrier. As a result they are not fully interchangeable even between Japanese service providers and some of their features may not function when used off the network they were intended for.

There are phones to suit every style, but most of the display phones are non-working plastic samples.

How to get a mobile phone in Japan?

Rental Phones and SIM Cards

Renting is the most economical way for the average traveler to get a phone, and typically requires a picture ID and a credit card. Many companies have kiosks at the airports, while other companies will mail a phone to your hotel or to your home. You can return the phones at the airport or through the mail depending on the company.

The fees for rental phones vary and usually consist of the rental fee (typically 200-500 yen per day for regular phones, 500-1500 yen per day for smartphones) plus a usage fee that includes calling, messaging, mobile data, etc. Calling rates are typically 40-100 yen per minute for outgoing domestic calls while all incoming calls are free. International rates vary depending on the country you are dialing to. All of the companies at the airports offer same-day rentals if stock is available, while some give discounts for advanced reservations.

Prepaid Phones and SIM Cards

Due to past criminal abuse of prepaid phones, phone sellers are required to verify the identity and place of residence of their customers. Typical proof can be in the form of a Japanese driver's license, a Japanese passport or a residence card. Some stores will accept foreign passports along with a hotel address as verification.

Prepaid phones and SIM cards start around 2000 yen. Credit, which is used for outgoing calls, email, internet, etc. depending on what features your phone supports, must be purchased in advance. With most companies, incoming calls are free and outgoing calling rates are comparable to those of rental phones. Not all prepaid phones or SIM cards support mobile internet.

Credit can be bought at cell phone stores, convenience stores or online, and is typically valid for 60 days from activation. Phone numbers remain active as long as you have valid credit in your account, but will expire after three months to a year without use.

Subscription Plans

With subscription plans you pay for your usage at the end of a monthly billing cycle as opposed to prepaid phones where you buy credit before you use it. Phones may be free or subsidized although that typically requires a 2 year service contract. Alternatively, the phone may be purchased at full price in which case service can be available on a month-to-month contract.

All the latest and most advanced phones are available with subscription plans and the selection of handsets is huge. Subscription plans are only available to residents and require a residence card and a Japanese bank account.

Guide to Telephones in Japan

Last updated: May 8, 2015
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