Mike Ferrier

I beat code into submission.

Living in Japan: the Cellphone Situation

I love Tokyo, but it can be a nightmare to navigate. It has the same problem that any ancient city has, which is that the people laying out the streets made things up as they went along.

Compare Manhattan’s carefully planned and easy to use grid system…

… with Tokyo’s sprawling labyrinth of streets:

The upshot of this is that, when in Tokyo, bring a GPS. Luckily, just about everyone now has a GPS-enabled map in their pocket on their smartphone. So all you need to do is bring an unlocked phone, get a data plan, and you’ll be good to go.

As for which cellphone provider to use, there are plenty of MNOs and MVNOs to choose from, but the problem with the big three MNOs (Docomo, KDDI, and SoftBank) is that they all want you to buy a new handset from them, enter into a multi-year contract, and buy full package Voice + SMS + Data plans. Blech.

In this post I’ll be focusing on the excellent MVNO B-Mobile as they seem to offer the best prices on both short- and long-term data plans.

I’ve found MVNO data plans generally come in two flavors:

  • Low speed (usually 30kB/s or less) - good for things like email and data-based messaging, not-so-good for data heavy stuff like web. Also explicitly blocks “streamed” services like music, video, and Skype.
  • High speed (3G/4G/LTE speeds) - as fast as the network you’re on can go, and usually allows streaming services (check the fine print).

If you’re staying in Japan for a month or less, it’s generally a good idea to just get a visitor’s prepaid SIM card. That way you can sidestep the paperwork that goes with getting a longer term plan. Trust me, it’s just easier.

For prepaid SIM cards, 1 GB of highspeed will run you about 4,000 yen or you can get 14 days of unlimited low speed for the same price — info here. Heads up though, the 1 GB of data expires 14 days from the day it is shipped, so if you screw up on the address or can’t get it working, the clock’s still ticking. An alternative to consider is Econnect Japan. Their 1 GB prepaid plan is slightly better than B-Mobile’s as it’s the same price but your prepaid data lasts 30 days instead of B-Mobile’s 14 days.

Compared to long-term data plans, prepaid data plans are kind of expensive. So if you’re going to be here for a month or more, you’re going to want a recurring subscription data plan. There’s one caveat, though: there are government regulations on these longer-term plans in order to curb cellphone fraud. Basically, providers need to verify your address through a call from you to them on a Japanese cellphone or landline, or through them mailing you a confirmation code to a Japanese residential address. So if you’re staying in a hotel during your stay, you may have to employ some creativity (e.g. using your hotel’s landline) to fulfill the requirements.

For long-term plans, B-Mobile seems to have the best prices and widest variety of deals right now. Since my wife and I both wanted data we opted for the PairGB SIM which is kind of a great deal: you buy the two SIM cards for 3,150 yen and then you sign up for a monthly subscription: 2,970 yen for 2 GB between both SIM cards per month. $15 per month for a GB of data with no contract? That’s a good deal no matter what country you’re in.

You have three options for purchasing:

I went with the Yodobashi option. Make sure you get the appropriate SIM format for whichever phone you have. We each have an iPhone 4 so we got the Paid GB Micro SIM format (“マイクロ” is Japanese for “Micro”).

Eventually, you’ll have the B-Mobile SIM card(s) grasped firmly in your hot little hands. They’ll actually be Docomo SIM cards as that’s who B-Mobile is reselling, and they’ll look something like this:

That silver thing is the SIM card pop-out pin that you got with your iPhone. You did remember to bring it with you, right? Don’t worry, an unbent paper clip will work too.

Now simply follow the instructions inside the package and go to the appropriate activation URL. Do your best to stumble your way through the Japanese forms (the automatic page translation in Chrome helps a ton) and when you finally finish, it tells you at what time the cards will be activated (about 45 minutes from the completion of the form in our case) and also that a confirmation code is being mailed to your address.

Now you can put the SIM cards into your phone. Be sure to enter the correct APN settings for the product you bought, as they’re different for each product. A list can be found here.

A good habit to get into is to reset your “cellular usage” meter each month so that you can keep tabs on how much data you use. You can get there in iOS from the Settings app -> General -> Usage -> Cellular Usage. It looks like this:

The logged-in area of B-Mobile’s website will also tell you how much you’ve used up so far in the month. Also there you will find how many days left you have to enter the confirmation code. You remember the confirmation code, don’t you? The one they mailed you? If you don’t enter it in 30 days, they’ll cancel your subscription.

A word of warning: my SIM cards didn’t work out of the box for some reason, and I had to call the B-Mobile English help line a bunch of times to get it fixed. By some separate but equally mysterious glitch I couldn’t get through to that line through Skype, so I had to use Melissa’s Japanese crap phone. Considering her phone was like $20 and it saved my ass, I’d also recommend getting one if you’re spending more than a month here. A post on that coming up soon.

Hope that helps you out, and feel free to ask questions in the comments.