Investigating Japan SIM cards? If you balk at the enormous monthly fees and hidden charges of the big mobile players like NTT DoCoMo, Softbank and AU, you might have contemplated going the “SIM-free” route—ditching your locked cellphone for an unlocked handset paired with a cheap MVNO SIM from one of the plethora of vendors that have seemingly popped up overnight.
The focus of this post is on longer-term SIM use in Japan. For an excellent intro to the whole mobile data scene, with an emphasis on Japan SIM cards for short-term stays, see our sister article Prepaid and Cheap Data Sim Card Options in Japan.
Introduction to MVNOs
MVNO stands for “Mobile Virtual Network Operator”, which means an operator that piggybacks on the network of one of the major players. For most, this means using NTT DoCoMo’s high-speed LTE network. In general, the offerings are so much cheaper than the cabal of three (sorry, but Y!Mobile is just SoftBank in disguise, with even worse service), that for saving money you should just change right now. This minute.
The problem is that there are so many different offerings that it can be hard to choose. BIC SIM, Biglobe, DMM Mobile, IIJMIO, Mineo, Nifmo, Mobal, Rakuten Mobile, Nuro Mobile, U-Mobile and UQMobile are just some of the companies that we know of—there are possibly quite a few more.
The two basic SIM types
Although there are different SIM sizes (make sure you know if your phone takes a nano, micro or standard SIM before ordering anything), SIM plans are divided into two different categories—data only, or data + voice. Just because you get data only, it doesn’t mean you can’t text using SMS—all the providers have an option for this (it costs a bit extra). However, without the voice option, you won’t be able to make or receive regular phone calls.
To save you the time of trawling through all the sites and all the fine print, we have prepared definitive comparison charts for data-only SIMs and data + voice. We even added sales tax, since every company conveniently leaves it out because well, it’s just so difficult to add 8% to everything right? Poor
Data + voice SIMs
Data + voice SIMs differ to data-only SIMs in that they have a minimum contract period and cancellation fees. Just like the data SIMs, they have a starting fee of approximately ¥3,240 (Sakura Mobile’s set-up is a little different). They all offer somewhere in the region of 40-47 yen/minute for voice calls and 3 yen for sending domestic SMS texts. Receiving texts (both domestic and international) is free.
All prices listed include 8% consumption tax.
|Provider||Data + Voice Plans
|Min. Contract||Cancellation||Free Contract Suspension||English
|7GB: ¥6,000 (students, interns & teachers ¥4,500)
Voice only (no data) ¥1,000
|No contract||¥0||✔||✔||Pricing info|
|No contract||¥0||×||✔||Pricing info|
5 hours/day: ¥3,456
|12 mths||Remaining mths x ¥1,000||×||×||Pricing info|
|12 mths||¥8,640||×||×||Pricing info|
|12 mths||¥9,720||×||×||Pricing info|
|12 mths||Remaining mths x ¥1,080||×||×||Pricing info|
|6 mths||¥8,640||×||×||Pricing info|
25GB (U-Mobile Max): ¥3,111
|6 mths||¥6,480||×||×||Pricing info|
|24 mths||¥10,260||×||×||Pricing info|
|12 mths||¥10,584||×||×||Pricing info|
Notes on above:
Mobal – Unlimited data, but throttled above 7GB. Domestic SMSes at ¥12 each. Free unlimited calls to ALL Mobal and SoftBank phones. Call rates to other phones can be reduced to ¥29/minute if using 0063 prefix while calling. No resident card or visa requirements. Student and teacher(!) discounts available.
Sakura Mobile – Includes 30 to 60 minutes of free local/international calls (depending on the plan). Although there are no cancellation fees, there is an all-in-one ¥15,000 “activation” fee, discounted to ¥7,500 for Halloween 2017. Flexible payment options. Student discounts.
Nuro Mobile – Formerly So-net (run by Sony). Nighttime plan also available.
Biglobe SIM – Also offer 20 and 30GB plans. Cashback campaign until December 2017.
DMM Mobile – Also offer plans of other sizes, and sharing is a possibility.
Mineo – Choice of DoCoMo or AU SIM, 1GB plan is available but speed restricted, voicemail included free. Might not be able to access the website from overseas.
NifMo – Also offer a mini 1.1GB plan.
U-mobile – Unlimited LTE plans are also available.
UQ mobile – Shorter contract periods are available, but data amounts go down and prices go up.
Rakuten Mobile – 20 and 30GB data plans are also available.
With some of these plans, it is possible to reduce call rates by using data-based apps. Although not explicitly stated above, many also allow data sharing with partners and family members. Note that other plans may be available in addition to those listed above.
As above, there are certain things that all plans share. For example, they all have a “starting fee” (they have different names for this) of roughly ¥3,240. Unlike data + voice SIMs, data-only SIMs often have no set contract period or cancellation fees. Also note that for the additional feature of SMS, you will pay a monthly fee (upwards of 130 yen a month), plus 3 yen per domestic message sent. Receiving SMS messages is free.
In terms of data volume, we decided to skip the 1GB level. While you might be able to get it to work, for a whole month we find it’s a tough limit. If you are after a 1GB plan, the cheapest we found was DMM mobile at ¥519, followed by NifMo at ¥692 (a 1.1GB card), U-mobile at ¥853 and Mineo at ¥864.
All prices listed include 8% consumption tax.
|Provider||Data Plans (Tax incl.)||English
|Monthly SMS Fee||Link|
|×||Ask on sign-up||Pricing info|
Unlimited data: ¥2,139
Notes on above:
Sakura Mobile – Activation fee ¥5,400. Unused data accrued to following month. Flexible payment options available.
DMM mobile – It may be possible to carry over unused data.
Mineo – Choice of DoCoMo or AU SIM. Website may not be accessible from overseas.
U-mobile – Reasonable, unlimited LTE plans are also available.
UQMobile – ¥2,139 plan restricted to 500Kbs speed (slow).
Rakuten Mobile – Unused data can be added to the following month. 20 and 30GB data plans are also available. Adding the SMS option allows IP calls using an 050 number.
With some of these providers, it is possible to split one data plan among multiple SIM cards—this is great for families/couples. Ask when applying. Note that other plans may be available in addition to those listed above.
One of the most frequently-asked questions is how to pay for a voice + data or data-only SIM contract in Japan. All of the providers accept Japanese credit cards, but unfortunately, some do not accept international credit cards. Both Mobal and Sakura Mobile are okay with international cards, with Sakura Mobile in particular offering flexible payment options such as paying by cash or credit card at convenience stores. For all the others, just ask at sign-up.
Japan SIM cards: In summary
As you can see from the above, there is lots of fine print with each of these Japanese SIM card plans. Things to look out for are daily maximum usage limits, connectivity speeds, payment methods (as noted, all accept Japanese credit card, some also accept direct debit from Japanese bank accounts) and age restrictions (some are restricted to 20 or over, while others are fine as long as you have a credit card).
If you’re looking for a good cheap handset, Kakaku.com is useful for a price comparison. If you’re trying to get a handset that’s not available in Japan, a good place to look is Expansys. The author of this post picked up a 3rd Gen Motorola Moto G from Expansys for ¥27,000, including postage and import duties.
More options for mobile internet connections in Tokyo
Watch our short YouTube video on getting hooked up with wifi in Japan:
While we do our best to ensure that the information given above is correct, prices and other bits and pieces are subject to change.
This article was originally posted on December 2, 2015. Last update October 30, 2017.
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