Daily Life & Schools

Using a phone in Shibuya
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Daily Life & Schools
Getting a Phone Contract as a Student
September 15, 2023  |  By Jeff Richards

When coming to Japan as a student, you want a phone for signing up for services like a bank account and internet and making accounts for popular websites and apps like Line. Cell phone plans in Japan used to be expensive and restrictive with locked phones, but things are much easier!

Here is a simple guide for getting a phone in Japan.

Should You Buy a Phone in Japan?

Nowadays, unlocked phones have become the norm rather than the exception, and carriers are more than willing to provide service if you bring your device, which makes bringing your current phone the simplest option. Just ensure it’s unlocked, and then it’s a straightforward process of inserting the SIM card or setting up an eSIM profile.

Of course, you can buy a phone in Japan. Carriers are usually more than happy to sell you a phone with their plan and may have some discounts, but you’re usually locked into using the phone until it is fully paid off, and there will be cancellation penalties. You can also just buy a phone directly from the manufacturer’s official website, such as Apple, Google, Sony, etc.

Keep in mind that using a non-Japanese smartphone requires some considerations:

  • Android devices lack FeliCa support, the contactless payment standard in Japan. This means you won’t be able to utilize your phone for train card functions or contactless payments like iD or Quicpay. iPhones, though, don’t have this issue, as international models support Felica.
  • International phones might not be optimized for Japan’s cellular bands. While your phone’s details will list the supported bands, this can be confusing due to different carriers using various bands. You’ll likely have enough bands for connectivity, but they might not be the most efficient, potentially leading to slower connections or connection problems.
  • Phones lacking Japanese TELEC communications certifications are technically prohibited for use in Japan. Although they might still function, using them goes against regulations.

Getting Internet ASAP

If you want internet access on your phone immediately, you can buy a prepaid data SIM. These are on sale at airport vending machines, or you can also buy them online at places like Amazon. These SIM cards usually have limited duration and data, and you don’t get a voice line, but it should be enough to keep you connected until you sign up for a proper plan.

Signing up for a Plan

Your school might have connections with phone carriers to simplify the process. If you prefer signing up on your own, you have four options:

1. Foreigner-Focused Plans: Services like Mobal and Sakura Mobile offer full English support and even allow pre-arrival sign-ups. These plans average around ¥4,000 per month.

2. Full-Service Plans: Major carriers like Softbank, AU or Docomo offer comprehensive plans. They’re more suitable if you need extensive support, insurance or family plans. Prices start at around ¥7,000 per month.

3. Discount Plans: Main carriers offer more economical plans, starting at approximately ¥3,000 monthly. Remember that phone calls may cost extra, and support is reduced. Rakuten, Povo, Linemo and Ahamo are popular brands for this option.

4. MVNO Plans: Third-party services like Iijimo, Rocket Mobile and Mineo resell data from larger carriers. They can be very affordable, starting at around ¥1,000 per month for limited data. These services have lower priority, leading to slower speeds during busy times.

Beyond foreigner-focused services, expect limited English support. Official carrier stores that offer full-service plans might have English speakers at central branches. Knowledge of Japanese will be helpful for other interactions, though they’ll usually do their best to assist or use translation apps.

What you’ll need to sign up

Here is what you’ll (usually) need to sign up for a phone contract.

  • Residence Card: Always keep your residence card with you. It’s proof of your registered address (and it’s the law). You’ll need a registered address for most services in Japan, including phone contracts. Be aware that some services might restrict sign-ups if your visa duration is too short. However, most students typically start with a one to three-year visa, so this usually isn’t an issue.
  • Bank Account or Credit Card: Before getting a phone plan, it’s recommended to establish a bank account, which enables direct fee withdrawals every month. Unfortunately, most banks require a phone number (and address) before opening an account. If you’ve already opened a bank account through your school, that’s great. If not, seek advice from your school if you encounter difficulties.
  • Non-Japanese Credit Cards: Many services in Japan don’t accept non-Japanese credit cards. You’ll only discover this when signing up and entering your card details. However, foreigner-focused services generally accept non-Japanese credit cards without issue.

These guidelines should provide a solid starting point for getting a mobile phone in Japan. Some mobile service providers also run special sign-up promotions, so keep an eye out for them!

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