Buying a SIM card in Japan: 9 Essential Questions
Particularly if you are planning a long-term stay in Japan or are already a resident, mobile phones equipped with local SIM cards—essential for everything from talking to friends, checking directions, making reservations and solving a myriad of language issues—are an everyday requirement. With so many options it might seem tricky to decide which plan is best for you. Here are some important things you need to know before buying a SIM card in Japan.
9 Things to Know Before Buying a SIM Card in Japan
What is a SIM card?
A SIM card is a small chip that can be inserted into your mobile phone which stores information about your network. It is a quick way for a network to identify your device and ensures that the customer can connect to services they pay for, without a lengthy setup.
No personal information is stored on SIM cards, although you can store contact information and numbers for contacts. This has become less common since the introduction of smartphones.
Are there different types of SIM cards?
All SIM cards allow users a certain amount of data depending on the plan they have. However, there are SIM cards with voice capability and SIM cards without voice capability. Having voice capability simply means that you have a Japanese phone number and that you are able to make traditional phone calls.
Even with a data-only SIM card without voice capability, you can use what’s called VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol, which is just another fancy way of saying that you can make calls through various internet applications rather than through a traditional phone line. Be aware that phones without voice capability are unable to either make or receive traditional calls.
What do you need to buy a Japan SIM card?
Buying a SIM card in Japan is possible with the correct identification. You will need to provide proof of address by showing your foreign residence card, a Japanese driver’s license or, if you have one, your Japanese passport. By design none of these options are available for short-term visitors, but for those with a visa of more than 90 days it is possible to purchase a SIM card.
If you use your own device it must be unlocked by the carrier and use the same frequencies as used in Japan.
Which Company Should I Choose?
If you plan on staying in Japan for more than two years, then you should definitely consider buying a Japanese SIM card. signing up for a contract through one of the major network operators like DoCoMo, SoftBank or AU is an option. Unfortunately this carries some expensive downsides.
If you decide to leave midway through your contract there will be a termination fee. Calls, SMS and internet usage will cost extra and the free minutes, texts and data are not as generous as elsewhere. You cannot use your current phone with a SIM card from one of these companies.
The alternative is using a SIM card from services providers like UMobile, UQMobile, Sakura mobile, Rakuten Mobile and CDJapan. There are many more options available; it all depends on what you need.
What is the Average Price?
Data and voice SIM cards start at around 2,100 yen for a 5gb data cap, often requiring a minimum 12 month contract period. Calls costs from around 35 yen a minute, but this varies significantly by company. Text services are often included with these plans but you will still have to pay for each text.
A data only Japanese SIM card might not require a minimum contract length and prices for a 5gb data cap are lower, around 1,300 yen. Text services cost around 200 yen a month, but this varies.
Where Can I Buy a Japanese SIM card?
Japan is awash with electronics stores that offer a variety of SIM cards. Most will check your handset to make sure it is compatible, and they will offer a variety of price plans. This is a good option for those who can speak Japanese, or those shopping with a friend, but can be somewhat daunting for new arrivals.
The best option for versatility and price is online, either from a store or directly from the company. This can present challenges for those without a Japanese credit card as some stores do not accept international credit cards, but this offers the widest selection at the best prices.
Convenience stores offer a limited range of cards at a premium and will not let you test the SIM cards before you purchase. Consider this a last resort unless you know exactly what you want.
Is There English Help Available?
While Japanese customer service might be legendary, not being able to communicate with staff is a major hindrance when it comes to electronics. None of the major Japan SIM card retailers offer English language support and the best you can expect from online stores is a quick machine translation.
For Long Term Residents
For Short Term Residents, Traveler
Now I Know about Buying a SIM Card in Japan. When Should I Consider Rental?
Rental services will provide a SIM card, usually up to a month, at which point you will have the option of renewing your service or sending the card back. Rental is a good option either for those who are staying in Japan short-term (less than 2 years), those who are planning on residing here long-term but don’t yet have the necessary documentation, or tourists.
What about Pocket WiFi?
A few companies offer pre-configured mobile WiFi routers in lieu of SIM cards. These allow you to turn them on, connect to the hotspot using the provided details, and surf on any WiFi enabled device. Whether using a tablet, laptop or phone, a hotspot will ensure a quick and easy connection to the internet.
This is ideal for those looking to use multiple devices at once or who want the easiest possible setup, but require charging and if you forget it for whatever reason, you will be without internet.
Japanese SIM Cards Make it Easy to Stay Connected
If you make and receive calls then you will need a voice and data plan. If you are an avid internet user then buying a data only SIM may be the ideal solution. One or two year contracts for both options tend to be less expensive. Consider whether English language support is important for you, and whether you have multiple devices.
For those without a phone, you can find more information about Japanese mobile phones: plans, coverage and services here. With some patient research you will find a plan to best suit your needs.