Updated as of June 2021.
Search for smartphone plans in Japan and you’ll find yourself flooded with information – too much actually. The problem is that right now there are more than 20 different providers in the market with many of them only providing information in Japanese and even those which provide information in English are often thinking of short-term tourists in mind. In addition, recent government reforms in how much telcos can charge their customers has meant that much of the information offline is outdated.
So given all this, how does one choose the best company to provide for your mobile – especially given that our mobile devices seem to have evolved to be part of our bodies! We will start by explaining a list of factors that we suggest that you carefully check before entering any mobile contract – to avoid getting surprised by any hidden fees.
We will then go on to evaluate the basic types of carriers and their various advantages and disadvantages. We at MSA do have a recommended carrier though – GTN Mobile, which offers foreign language support, a lower price than major carriers and the stability of a major-career connection. More about that below (or click here to zoom there).
Factors to Consider
The way that Japanese plans work can be very different from those of other countries so aside from the obvious data limits and price, we suggest that you take the following as a checklist when you are asking about plans. You do not want to be caught off guard by some fine print that you were not told of after you signed the paper.
✔︎ Does it include a phone number for voice calls?
If you are living in Japan for many purposes you need a phone number – to rent, to register with your municipality etc. We therefore highly suggest getting a phone with a working number.
✔︎ The real price
Many companies advertise a lower rate for the first 3-6 months and many customers will sign contracts due to this discount rate. Of course we like discounts! But nonetheless be sure to be comfortable with the price you will be paying after the initial discounted period ends too.
✔︎ Does it have any special discounts?
Often special discounts apply if your home / dormitory internet is provided by the same provider – especially when it comes to the big 3 (Softbank, AU and Docomo). Other possible discounts include student and family (ie. bulk) discounts.
✔︎ Connection Stability
Many SIM cards on the cheap side of things are actually renting their connections from the bigger providers – which often means that their connection speeds and connection stability is inferior. You can’t really ask this directly so checking online reviews may be the only way of knowing about this.
✔︎ Is it possible to buy a phone at the same time?
Some providers will offer you an opportunity to buy a phone at the same time as signing your main mobile contract, sometimes at a discounted rate or with the possibility of paying with installments.
Be wary that this sometimes means getting the phone SIM locked though – which means being unable to use your own country’s SIM card without paying for an extra fee to unlock it or having a period of time where no other company’s SIM card can be used.
✔︎ Eligibility – length of visa, payment methods etc.
Be aware that even if you find the perfect plan for you given the above, you may end up going to a shop to be rejected. Why you may ask?
This is because many of the carriers may only accept foreigners with more than 2 years in their visas. In addition, many carriers may only offer limited payment methods – you may be rejected if you try to pay with a foreign credit card.
So… how do the options compare?
The above are a checklist that you should always bear in mind when you are thinking of signing a mobile phone contract. But so how do the major players measure when it comes to these conditions?
The following is a table to give a rough comparison of the various options on the market.
|Big 3 Carriers||Budget SIMs (格安SIM)||GTN (Recommended)|
|Examples:||Softbank, AU, Docomo||Rakuten Mobile, Y! Mobile, UQ Mobile etc.||-|
|Price||~ Roughly￥2000 / month for 1GB basic plan||Roughly ¥3000 / 20GB.||￥1480 / month for 3GB monthly before discounts.|
|Foreign language support||AU/Softbank : At a portion of shops.|
Docomo: Through call with interpreter.
|Largely in Japanese. Minority do support - such as Sakura Mobile and Mobal (but may be more expensive).||Yes.|
|Connection Reliability||Best||Highly variable on provider and may get slowed.||Equivalent to Docomo / Softbank stability|
|Eligibility||Rejections common depending on visa length.||If there is no minimum contract, usually okay as long as remaining visa length is more than 3 months.|
Often require Japanese credit card.
|Ok as long as remaining visa length is more than 3 months. Convenience store payment option for those without credit card.|
|Ability to transfer existing number||Yes||Depends on provider.||Depends on plan.|
|Notes:||Often have package discounts (if you use their home wifi) and perks such as being able to use their affiliated pubic wifis.||Perks dependent on carrier. Some have unlimited data for Youtube / Netflix for example. Be sure to check.||Japan-issued VISA credit card (EPOS Card) can be applied for at the same time.
* See below for more extra services that GTN offers.
In summary you can see the following:
The big 3 are clearly more expensive (even double for the same data amount) compared to the other options. They do offer connections which are the most stable though. Their prices can also be lowered through student discounts / packages with home wifi but even then you are looking at maybe a premium of 1000 yen / month more than the cheaper options.
The budget SIMs clearly are much more accessible price wise and offer quite good data plans in addition. However, the reliability and extra perks of each service is highly variable so if you are opting for this be sure to check for connection reliability as well as whether your credit card / visa allows you to choose your preferred option.
GTN is however, MSA’s recommended provider – read on to find out why.
GTN Mobile and How to Apply.
GTN is our preferred option as it combines a relatively low price, a stable connection as well as foreign-friendliness. Customer support is available in 7 languages and after signing up you can receive your new SIM card in your mailbox within 3 calendar days of your registration without going to the shop. Depending on the plan, you can choose to move from a current Japanese number too!
In addition, GTN has also the following services which are very applicable to foreign students. Click here if you just want the mobile though!
Japan-issued credit card (GTN EPOS Card)
One other reason why we are commending GTN is that at the same time as applying for the mobile service, you will be able apply for GTN’s EPOS Visa card service. This is a Japan-issued credit card with zero annual fees and since it is VISA, it will also be usable in most other parts of the world too. Applying for an EPOS card allows you to receive a discount with your mobile plan too.
Even though Japan is a (still) a very cash based society, having a credit card at hand can help a lot regarding things like online payments.
You can apply for this card at the same time as your mobile plan if you are within Japan. If you are reserving a GTN mobile plan before coming though, you will have to apply for the credit card after entering Japan.
Please note that the screening process for the credit card is different from that of the phone so qualifying for one does not immediately qualify you for the other.
Benefits for those needing to phone / send money home
Other benefits which foreigners may enjoy with GTN include:
Discounted international calls
GTN has a special service where you can make international calls for around half the typical cost.
Sending money to overseas prepaid cards
GTN also has an additional service which allows you to charge an overseas prepaid SIM card from Japan.
This is available for more than 150 countries in the world.
Home Internet / Mobile Wifi Router Option
GTN also offers a home internet option for those who want a stable internet connection at home too! Applying for this with or while having a GTN mobile subscription gives you discounts.
For their home option (GTN Hikari), applying for it while using GTN Mobile gives you a monthly discount. You can apply for it here.
GTN also has a portable wifi router option for people who want high speed internet wherever they go without worrying about data. This is provided at a discounted rate for GTN mobile users too.
Please note that there are some restrictions for super heavy users though! This service can be applied for at the link in the next section.
How to Apply!
If you wish to apply for GTN’s service, access this link here! In addition, we have also spoken to GTN and they have offered a 1000 yen Amazon coupon to support all your studies and work in Japan if you sign up for a GTN Mobile plan!
Just input this coupon code during your registration to indicate to them that you came through MSA: MSA200304. You will receive a 1000 yen Amazon coupon through email at a later date.