Cell Phones in Japan

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 companies, some of which provide specialized services such as mobile internet to travelers or low-cost plans for residents; but they typically use the same networks as the big three companies.

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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 is needed for a handset to work in Japan:

  • For Voice - The handset must be compatible with a Japanese mobile phone network. Most modern 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 SIM card from a Japanese carrier (unlocked handsets only). Alternatively, phones with wireless network (Wi-Fi) connectivity can use internet-based telephone services, 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 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.

How to use a mobile phone in Japan?

Rental Phones

Renting is the easiest 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 typically are around 200-500 yen per day for regular phones or 1000-2000 yen per day for smartphones. Additional fees may apply for calling, messaging, mobile data, insurance etc. Calling rates are typically 40-100 yen per minute for outgoing domestic calls while 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 advance reservations.

SIM Cards

SIM cards allow travelers to use their own mobile phones in Japan, provided the phones are unlocked and work on a Japanese network (most modern phones do). Most SIM cards available to foreign tourists are data-only and do not allow for voice calls (except when using internet-based telephone services such as Skype). Your device must be unlocked to utilize SIM cards.

Offers by the various companies differ on connection speeds, networks used and eventual data transfer limits. They are typically available for a specified time period (e.g. one week) or for a specified maximum amount of data (e.g. 3 GB to be used within a certain time period). SIM cards can be purchased at airports, selected retailers in Japan or via the internet for delivery to your home or hotel.

Subscription Plans (for residents of Japan only)

With subscription plans you pay for your phone usage at the end of a monthly billing cycle. Contracts are typically for two year periods, and early cancellations incur a cancellation fee. Handsets can be purchased in full or paid in monthly installments. A residence card is required to enroll into a subscription plan.

Guide to Telephones in Japan

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Page last updated: July 17, 2016