Photo:Toshihiro Gamo on Flickr

Going Mobile: Getting the Best Cellphone Deals in Japan

For newcomers to Japan, one of your earliest priorities will be setting up a new cellphone as soon as possible.

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, being unplugged from your smartphone for even a few days can seem like an eternity. Thankfully, Japan's various cellphone companies have a variety of options available to new arrivals. However, as with anything that involves a medium to long term commitment to pay monthly fees, the pitfalls and potential scams are numerous. To the uninitiated, acquiring a cellphone contract in Japan can truly seem like a minefield of confusion and financial danger.

Thankfully, this 9 year veteran of Japan is here to help you navigate this precarious venture. So join me now as we dive into the world of Japanese cellphone contracts.

First, an important preamble. This article is aimed at people who are coming to live in Japan for at least one year. If you’re here for less than that, then most if not all of the options I list here today won’t be available to you. I will cover temporary cellphone arrangements in a future article. Also, as technology rapidly evolves, so too do the contracts and expenses around its use. The information I give here is, to the best of my knowledge, correct as of April 2015. I accept no responsibility for any money you might lose from getting a cellphone in Japan. As in all financial transactions, always exercise caution, restraint and common sense. If a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Now that’s out of the way, we shall begin.

The cellphone market in Japan is considerably narrower than you may be used to in other countries. Although other smaller firms have emerged in recent years, the bulk of all service contracts in Japan (around 90%) are held by the “big 3”: Softbank (formerly Vodafone Japan), Docomo (an affiliate of NTT Corporation) and AU (the mobile subsidiary of AU KDDI Corporation). The smaller market has both positive and negative points, as we will see later.

Photo : jpellgen on Flickr

As soon as you arrive in Japan, you will immediately notice that smartphone use here isn’t quite as universally popular as it is in Europe and the US. A number of Japanese still like to use the “flip-open” phones first made popular in the early 2000s. This has created a two-tier system in Japan’s mobile market, where you can choose a cheap monthly contract based entirely on phone calls and emails, or you can be a bit more extravagant and for a higher monthly fee get yourself a top of the range smartphone.

Photo : jamesjustin on Flickr

In most cases, you will not need to pay any cash on the day you get your phone. Usually, the cost of your phone will be spread out over the entire contract period, usually 2 years. For example if your phone costs 70,000 yen, you can expect to pay out just under 3,000 per month over your 2 year contract term. In many cases, the showroom price of the phone will be reduced, if you commit to the 2 year contract. Please note however that if you cancel the contract before your pre-agreed term is up, the full cost of the handset will be levied in your final bill and all discounts will be void.

In addition to the monthly cost of your phone, you will also have to pay a number of other charges. Call charges usually aren’t included in the monthly package and are charged separately. Within the monthly package you will have a data subscription fee (usually in the range of 5 or 6000 yen per month for unlimited data) as well as insurance against damage and loss (500 yen), line rental (approximately 1000 yen per month), mobile email subscription fees (500 yen per month).

Photo : David Nelson on Flickr

With all these charges taken into account, a typical smartphone contract with any of the big 3, depending on your data limit and the phone model will range from 7-10,000 yen per month. However, if you instead opt for one of the aforementioned “flip-open” phones, you can expect to pay in the region of 4-5000 yen per month, all in.

Another important point to note. Although Japanese cellphone firms will use the term “Packet-Hodai”, meaning unlimited data, quite liberally the reality is that the data is not unlimited at all. Rather, once you go beyond 7 GB of internet data in a single billing month, your cellphone’s internet will be throttled. In other words, your download speed slows to a crawl, making a simple task like loading a video on youtube take several minutes. The firms do offer an additional data allowance, but for a greatly inflated fee.

Getting around this problem is quite easy though. All modern smartphones have wi-fi capabilities, and free wi-fi access is becoming more prevalent across Japan, especially in urban areas. Set your phone to connect to an open network whenever it finds one, and you’ll soon find that your monthly data usage drops off considerably.

Photo : Nicolas Nova on Flickr

Many people these days prefer to buy their handset on their own and then take a subscription package for a sim-card only. This gives customers greater flexibility and also makes it easier to break the service contract if you aren’t satisfied with your level of service.

At the moment this is very difficult to do in Japan. AU insists that all new subscribers must purchase a phone handset. Docomo and Softbank are a bit more flexible, however the contracts they offer to sim-only subscribers have far less favourable terms for the customer than are afforded to those who purchase a new handset. New handsets are locked into their parent network, meaning an AU phone can only be used on AU, a Softbank phone only on Softbank, and so on. Technically speaking, unlocking or jailbreaking a cellphone without the consent of the network provider is illegal in Japan. And as always, such unauthorized procedures would void any warranty on your phone.

The methodology behind these restrictive policies is of course to lock customers into the 2 year contract as much as possible. However that could all change soon.

From May 2015, all new cellphones sold in Japan must be sim unlocked. This means that even if your new phone is from Docomo, you could switch it over to AU or Softbank if you so wished. This is aimed at reducing the huge wastage that comes from people replacing their phones every two or three years, even if they don’t really need a new one.

The full impact of this new policy will not be known until later this year, but it is hard to see how this can’t be a good thing for the consumer.

It is hoped that this new policy will also lead to a number of smaller firms offering cheaper deals on internet access and phone calls, and perhaps finally smash the virtual monopoly of the big 3.

In the meantime, next time you go shopping for a cellphone, I recommend taking a native Japanese speaker with you to help you understand the contract. Make sure you fully understand every facet of the contract before you sign it, especially how much it will cost to get out if things don’t live up to expectations.

Photo : jpellgen on Flickr

Before you can get a phone, you’ll also need your ID card, issued upon arrival in Japan, and a functioning Japanese bank account.

Above all else, be careful. Remember, if a deal looks too good to be true, it usually is.

Good luck.

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