Prepaid and Cheap Data SIM Card Options in Japan

Ryo Seven

japan sim

There’s that moment when you land in Japan for the first time, get through the baggage claim and and ride the train into the big city. Maybe you stand in Shibuya crossing delaying traffic, or  pointing at a random photo on a menu, hoping the waiter gets what you’re trying to order. And when it arrives, the first thing you think is “I need to post this to make my friends envious.” Alas, you have no data because it costs more than your rent to post a status containing a single emoji. Well fear not, fellow Cheapo, help is at hand!

Prepaid Cards

Firstly, you may have noticed that if you wander into a SoftBank or DoCoMo store with your iPhone you’ve brought with you, they’re not willing to sell you a SIM for it. The official reason is something to do with worldwide mastermind criminal networks communicating to each other exclusively through Japanese phone networks and not at all anything to do with wanting to lock you into a 24-month contract, charging you a trillion million yen for the privilege and then making your life hell for two years with substandard services. Not to mention that even if you were rich and stupid enough to do this on a holiday, you wouldn’t be able to do so as it requires Japanese residential status. Take that, criminals!


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This is where MVNO SIMs save the day. MVNO, which stands for “Google it, please”, is your path to getting online in Japan. They’re not strictly their own carriers, like Verizon or Virgin Mobile, but they are using networks in Japan, like DoCoMo and Au.

For the purposes of this article, it’s not really worth pointing out individual SIM card deals as these change every day, but pointing out a few companies that might be of use. That’s in case you’re reading this in the year 3000, where Tokyo Cheapo is second only to Google on your brain-based web browser (but for some reason you still need a SIM card).

Note: Before we start, I cannot stress enough that for most of these SIMs, you must have an unlocked phone. And, while Android-based phones seem to be ok from experience, a lot of these seem to be more iOS device friendly for some reason. Regardless, your phone should be SIM FREE and unlocked for any network.

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Another thing, you might want to check what format of SIM you need. This should be listed on your phone manufacturer’s page. If you really can’t work it out, your local phone shop should be able to help you with that. Try to get this info before you set off.

Free SIM cards for Foreign Tourists

What may be for a limited time, Saitama Prefecture is offering free 3-gigabyte SIM cards to foreign tourists that are to be used within 30 days. All you have to do to get your hands on this cheapo delight is visit Saitama via a tour group or spend a night at one of the following hotels.

HotelAddressTelephoneURL
HOTEL NEW SAITAMA2-44-17 Minami-Urawa, Minami Ward, Saitama City, Saitama
+81-48-884-2111
http://www.new-saitama.com/
PALACE HOTEL OMIYA1-7-5 Sakuragicho, Omiya Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture+81-48-647-3300http://www.palace-omiya.co.jp/
RAFRE SAITAMA3-2 Shintoshin, Chuo Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture+81-48-601-1111http://www.rafre.co.jp/
URAWA ROYAL PINES HOTEL2-5-1 Nakacho, Urawa Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture+81-48-827-1111http://www.royalpines.co.jp/urawa/
URAWA WASHINGTON HOTEL2-1-19 Takasago, Urawa Ward, Saitama City,Saitama Prefecture+81-48-825-4001http://washington-hotels.jp/urawa/?ppc=ov

One thing to keep in mind though is the cost of traveling to Saitama (just north of Tokyo Prefecture) and staying at one of these hotels versus the price of just buying a SIM card. If you’re sticking around the Tokyo  area for awhile or were planning to visit Saitama anyways, make your way there at the beginning of your trip so the free SIM is worthwhile. If you’re only in Tokyo for a few days or a week, you might be better off just paying for a SIM and not losing a day out of the city (no shade to Saitama).

If you have any inquiries, you can contact Saitama’s Tourism Division by email at kanko-kokusai@city.saitama.lg.jp or by phone at +81-48-829-1365.



Short-term SIM options

I’m here for a week and just need to update my status everydayyyyy.

That’s fine, you can now set yourself up the second you land at an airport (well, at least after you clear customs). U-Mobile, Japan Travel SIM, B-Mobile and Ninja SIM (more on the last two in a bit) have got you covered. U-Mobile has a vending machine installed at Narita Airport for those who want the authentic stereotypical “you can buy everything in vending machines here!!!” experience, which look a bit like this…

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 14.17.54

… and come in 7-day and 15-day versions. At the time of writing, they are limited to a certain amount per day of high speed data, after which it drops to 200 kbps (aka: SLOW) until midnight.

You may have also spotted these guys at the nearest convenience store once you’re in the Arrivals hall.



image4

The Japan Travel SIM, a new service from an emerging MVNO giant, IIJmio (I’m not even going to bother with that acronym) offers a pre-paid service—the difference being it lasts for 1-3 months depending on your package. Better for the slightly longer duration traveller, but also for a short-term heavy user as the data can be up to 2GB, which might be useful for those hammering Skype every few minutes. The packaging also opens up to an idyllic Japanese scene, the likes of which you will never actually see in Japan.

package

For the slightly more prepared, B-Mobile has you covered. These guys will post a SIM to an airport pickup point so you can grab it straight away, or even to your hotel. It’s currently good for 14 days with 1GB data (to give you an idea, an average Instagram photo is just under 1MB) and it is rechargeable directly from the phone!

If you would prefer an extra 16 days to use your phone for a marginally higher price, another option is Ninja SIM by Biglobe. Like B-Mobile, they have both airport pick up and hotel delivery options.

The sites in the links above are in English, and activation and instructions are also in English. What more do you need?

Do be aware of one thing. These are usually data-only SIMs, meaning you can’t call or text or even receive phone calls. Although, if you’re still doing that you’re probably one of those people who prints out emails and puts them in a filing cabinet.

Oops. Just ignored everything you said and went straight into town. Sawwy.

No worries. Look for a Bic Camera (Shibuya and Shinjuku have a few) or Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, (the Electric Town) and grab yourself a plethora of SIMs, which will look like this…

image6

The ones that best serve the English-speaking language market are BMobile and OCN.

Once you’re in the shop, say to the staff :

シムカードを探しています。私に合うのはどれですか?

Shimu ka-do wo sagishiteimasu. Watashi ni aou no wa do re desu ka?

…and that should lead you to the area above. Oh yeah, and you can probably say it in English as well.

As you can tell, some of these aren’t necessarily for the traveler, which brings me to…

SIM options for longer-term stays

I’m going to be here a while, actually…

OK, now you get to play with the cool kids for real. BIC SIM, IIJmio B Mobile and DMM have this covered extremely well. If you’re going to be in Japan for a while, for example for a full holiday or working holiday visa, you should seriously consider these options, particularly if you have an unlocked phone. BIC SIM have in-store support, so I am going to focus a little more on them, but don’t let that bias you. Pretty much all of these are better than the huge monopolies that have previously financially crippled users here.

image5

Being an MVNO, you don’t have to be locked into huge long contracts and you can cancel within the month if you’re not digging the service or coverage in your area. I’m taking an average campaign price here, but if you compare 2,500 yen for 10GB of 4G data a month, as well as a set amount of Voice and SMS, compared to, say, SoftBank’s offering of 7,000 yen a month for less data, you can see why one may be inclined to use an MVNO.

Once you get the SIM you should get a number attached to it. Simply pop it in your phone (make sure you get the right sized SIM!) and you should in most cases, be able to set up on your phone. The monthly contracts require credit cards or a bank account, so have that information at hand. You can cancel online and while the sites are in Japanese, you can use Google Translate on Chrome to translate the whole site!

If you’re playing the field and checking various MVNO’s, remember to request an MNP. This will allow you to move your number between services, for the one relative that still insists on calling you on the phone.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re going to stay in a place where you know the address beforehand (e.g. friends, family etc) you can order a lot of these directly from Amazon.co.jp and have them ready to go when you arrive. Some of these do need to be activated from a landline or a Japanese phone, but you can use a payphone in most cases. BIC SIM can be activated in store for you, which makes it even easier!

Alternative solutions

Wait a minute, this is TokyoCHEAPo, not TokyoEXPENSIVEo, you want me to pay actual money for a service?

Not at all! You can be super cheap about data and use free wifi from teH eVil Corporations. First up, Starbucks, a coffee chain which I understand is quite popular with the kids, has free wifi, providing you register in advance at the link above. Then, just pop into a store and away you go!

Sign up? That’s WAY too much work. 

OK, well, the richest company on Earth, Apple, happens to give out free wifi at various store locations with no login needed. And if there’s not one of those near you, the good ol’ Tokyo Metro provides free wifi.

AND if your home internet provider is part of the FON network, you can use your own home internet login and passcode on a FON hotspot, which are practically everywhere in Tokyo.

That’s not taking into account cafes and restaurants which also offer free wifi.

OK, calmed down now. Carry on.

It is worth pointing out a few other alternative solutions.

pocket-wifi
Photo by Greg Lane

First up, if you have more than one device that requires the net, or a few of you are travelling together, you may want to consider a portable wi-fi device from a rental provider like these from Japan Wireless or Japan Experience. Rates can be as little as 500 400 yen a day, which, when shared between a few people is quite cheap. You can pick them up and drop them off at airports for convenience and they appear, from the ones I’ve seen so far, to have unlimited or very generous data allowances.

AND FINALLY you may be pleased to know that a lot of mobile networks outside Japan are offering cheap roaming packages. For example, data is free in Japan for  T-Mobile USA customers on one of their plans. That means you don’t have to do anything at all other than bring your phone.

So what are you waiting for? Get on that plane and

SOFTBANK DATA ALLOWANCE EXCEEDED. Please pay ¥8,000,000 to continue.






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40 Responses to “Prepaid and Cheap Data SIM Card Options in Japan”

  1. Tariq Sheikh

    “Although, if you’re still doing that you’re probably one of those people who prints out emails and puts them in a filing cabinet.”

    Well slightly long term visitors might need a traditional phone number for education/business/restaurant reservation etc. I am happily using OCN Mobile One with calling and sms service, for only 1600 yen per month.

    • InvestBitcoinGuide.com

      You can circumvent it by taking an ip number in 050. It works pretty well and is accepted almost everywhere.

  2. So useful! Thanks!

  3. Thanks a lot for this amazing article! I wish I had read it before going to Softbank last year. I went there wanting to buy one of those cheap prepaid phones they used to sell, but got told that they were “out of stock”. Then I was tricked into applying for a 2-year, 7000yen/month contract just to get a smartphone that I could use in Japan (mine was locked). I was told that it was their cheapest contract….
    Anyway, my previous stupidity aside, I would like to point out one tiny thing.
    To have access to the sim cards in this article, you need an unlocked phone. In some countries (ie France), almost nobody has a unlocked phone because we get them through phone network companies and they only sell you locked phones.
    So if you’re a French person in Japan and you want to follow this article advice, you need to order a new, unlocked phone on Amazon. These are quite expensive… the lowest price for a new smartphone is 70 euros..

  4. What about renting a mi-fi unit? That’s what we did on our last trip to Tokyo. Rented 2 mi-fi’s and figured each person would pair up with another. Was able to upload to social media. Used Google Hangouts for calls and messages. Worked great.

  5. Virginia Sorrells

    Thanks for this. Has anyone found an appreciable difference in speed or other features between these options?

  6. REAL Cheap

    Hi Ryo!
    Thanks for the informative article. I just have one question: What about us REAL Cheapos with nothing but rarely used flip phones (a few phone calls and texts a week). Is there a SIM card you can recommend for such nonsense!
    Thanks for your time.

  7. Ryo Seven
    Ryo Seven

    Howdy RealCheap! Sorry for the delay in responding!

    It all depends. If you’re living here, I strongly recommend a Docomo FOMA contract, which will set you back around 2000 yen a month but is generous with it’s voice offerings if your family is also on docomo (i.e. free unlimited calls to other docomos). I haven’t used this personally, so you may need to purchase a phone with the contract.

    I can’t quite tell if you’re a tourist or not, but if not, you may want to consider b-mobiles http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/kd/plan.html lineup. They have cheap monthly plans for about ¥1290 a month. They don’t usually set these up for travellers, but a friend here might be able to sort out a month or two for you and cancel at the end. You can just order the SIM in this case.

    Hope that helps!

  8. I’m moving back to Japan in a couple of months. To anyone stubborn enough to ignore the great advice of this article, do not, I repeat, do not get Softbank or Docomo (although Docomo is the superior option between the two). If you really have to get yourself into an unnecessary phone plan because you really want that new Xperia or iPhone 17S+ Rose Gold SE, go to AU. And if you’re less inclined to participate in the phone wars, Y! Mobile and Willcomm aren’t terrible options either.

    • CheapoGreg

      Hi Brandon, Thanks for the comment – although I must heartily disagree! AU is as bad as Softbank and Docomo. They use exactly the same anti-competitive practices. Also, Y!Mobile is a subsidiary of Softbank – so the same goes for them. Your mileage may vary, but just about every MVNO in our article on the subject has better contract terms than the big carriers. https://tokyocheapo.com/business/japan-sim-card-options-data-voice/

      • Thanks for clearing that up, Greg. I’ve been duped for years then. I’ll know better when I return in a couple of months. Thank goodness I have an unlocked phone these days.

        • CheapoGreg

          No worries! You caught me when I was feeling particularly sore about AU because I had to cancel a “kodomo keitai” contract with AU last week because said phone went through the washing machine. They charged me 10,250yen to cancel the contract – more than 2 years were up but it had automatically renewed so they charged me the full cancellation fee.

          • I always believed AU was the “lesser of all evils” when it came to the big contracts. That’s awful that they put you through the ringer like that! Big phone companies always seem to take advantage of their most loyal customers. It never made sense to me. We don’t ask for much; reasonable amounts of data at reasonable prices without hidden fees and ghost charges. I’m so glad I stumbled upon TC. I’m not new to living in Japan but I’ll certainly be a deer-in-headlights because I’m new to living in Tokyo.

    • Wally Wang

      Omg I agree so much tho, when I first got in Tokyo I got a contract immediately with SoftBank to get an iPhone and regretted it pretty much the whole time after that lol

  9. Are there any of these MVNO SIM cards that don’t require a Japanese credit card? I tried to get one at BIC that was month to month but you needed a Japanese credit card which is a whole other issue…

    • CheapoGreg

      Are you sure? i got a SIM at Bic Camera just last week with a Hong Kong issued Mastercard. No problem at all. They might tell you that you need a Japan issued credit card, but just ask them to see if they can process the transaction. For the record, I got a Freetel SIM.

  10. Provided that I am resident of Japan is it possible to buy a voice SIM card without any credit card? I don’t want any contract, I’d prefer pay-as-you-go solution where I could just top up in a store or online.

    • Ryo Seven
      Ryo Seven

      Hmmm bit of a tough one. Some packages DO allow direct bank transfers online. Is that what you meant by topping up online?

    • Wally Wang

      You actually won’t have any problems as you can just recharge at the actual stores or convience stores etc. but honestly you should get a credit card on the go asap lol. Once you have your resident card you can legally obtain a local SIM card with a number, and voice functions. Otherwise if a non resident wants a voice sim then SoftBank and B mobile are now offering voice sims.

  11. Hi Ryo, thanks for the information. Do you know if you can get a MVNO sim card on a tourists visa? I will be looking for work and have a bank account from when I was in Japan last(never closed it). I was reading the information on the BIC site and it says you will need proof of identification. In my case I would only have my passport

    • Ryo Seven
      Ryo Seven

      Howdy Bryan!

      I believe you can get one from B-Mobile without a long term visa. Yodobashi camera should be able to help you with that one 🙂

      Thanks for writing!

  12. Victor Laszlo

    “These are usually data-only sims, meaning you can’t call or text or even receive phone calls. Although, if you’re still doing that you’re probably one of those people who prints out emails and puts them in a filing cabinet.”

    What an imbecilic thing to say. Negates anything useful in the article. So, we are to assume that the author no longer calls anyone or receives any calls? How lovely. I suppose in emergencies, you also rely on email or Skype to get help, to call an ambulance or the police or the fire department? Great tip, champ. Rely 100% on the internet for all of your needs. Brilliant.

    Fact: People do use phones for making telephone calls. What a surprise! Especially people who have real real jobs.

    In addition to that foolish assertion, there are lots of other bits of misguided information in this so-called guide. I’ll be sure to warn others away from tokyocheapo from now on.

    • Jonathan Brooks

      Wow – Victor, I haven’t seen your article on this topic, but it must be really incredible as only someone with such insight into the Japanese telecoms market could ever justify being so snide. You should have the good grace to accept that the author was focussing on people that use data for *all* forms of communication, and base your opinion on that. The author was *helpfully* pointing out that these sims are for data only, and suggesting there are plenty of VOIP services out there that allow you to make calls.

      Victor, I suggest that when you visit Japan you turn on data roaming, and spend 4 hours on the phone wishing old Granny Laszlo (yes I know that’s not your real name) a happy Birthday, because, you know, telephone calls in Japan are *really* cheap, especially when calling overseas. I look forward to seeing your reaction when you get home and open the bill.

    • Ryo Seven
      Ryo Seven

      Hi Vic! (Hope you don’t mind me calling you Vic!),

      I’m sorry the article didn’t reach your standards. We always strive to inform our users based on our experience, so we realise everyone has different needs!

      Just to clear up a few points of yours, all Japanese data SIMs have emergency calling on them in case you need the ambulance, police and fire services. The police can be called on 110 and the other two services can be reached on 119. (Luckily, I haven’t had to use them yet, touch wood!) Also, just in case you didn’t know, Skype can be used for emergency calling in Australia, Denmark, Finland and the U.K., if you ever visit any of those wonderful countries!

      If you were to use an overseas phone in Japan, you’d be able to do emergency calling on that for free!

      Regarding the other “bits of misguided information” you refer to, can you let me know which parts these are? We do always strive to keep our information accurate on the site, so if anything else needs explaining, let me know!

      I’m also incredibly sorry to inform you that on this occasion, your assumption mentioned in your comment was, sadly, incorrect. My workplace uses iPhones, so we’ve been using FaceTime audio for all calls and WebEx for group calls since 2009, in order to save a large amount of money (which goes towards our bonuses!) For my family, I personally use FaceTime and LINE to communicate with the ones that don’t live with me. For my wife, I tend to use the “real FaceTime”, aka talking! (Haha)!

      However, now I think about it, all of those are VoIP services, so you were right! I don’t “use the phone” and no one “calls” me (Haha)!

      Do write back and let me know about your job. It sounds fascinating! It sounds like you use the phone a lot. Are you in the call centre industry or finance, maybe? This isn’t my full time job (someday, I hope, haha!) but at the moment I work in the field of industrial design engineering for radiology equipment, mainly focusing on thin slice reconstruction for CT and MRI machines and implementation new imaging technology in order to speed up volumetric reconstructions for radiologists to perform diagnoses on (sounds boring, I know!) This job requires three telephone conferences between three countries a week! (phew!) We use WebEx for this and not only can we hear our co-workers, we can see them too using video calling!

      So, thanks for taking the time to write and hope to hear from you soon!

      All the best,

      Ryo

    • Wally Wang

      Do you live in Asia? Man I can’t remember the last time I made a phone call. Not a phone call in the sense of talking to someone but LINE is actually so integrated with every aspect of life even where I’m Living in Taiwan now, speak to my classmates, my boss my parents , landlord everyone has LINE. So I’m not really sure what your getting at but he’s suggesting sims for tourists in Japan. Having data does not at all limit YOUR ability to make phone calls, you can actually make more now as well as with video. Welcome to 2017 bud

  13. Razuwa Hanim

    Hi Ryo. Good info. I’m planning to get a data sim card during my short trip to Japan this Dec. But I’m not sure my iPhone6 is unlock or not

    • Ryo Seven
      Ryo Seven

      Howdy Razuwa!
      The easiest way is to get a friend who is on a different network to give you their SIM card for a bit. Eject the one from the tray using a paper clip and try theirs. If it connects without any fuss, you’re good to go! If you’re struggling to find anyone on a different network, go to your nearest phone store and ask for the cheapest pay as you go sim for a different network to the one you are on. If it doesn’t work then you won’t have wasted too much cash.

  14. hello…i came to japan last week and i need to get a sim which has both data and voice call function. I have a bank account .But i do not have credit card and it will take 3 three weeks for the card to get issued.
    Is ther any MNVO which gives connection with bank account and with no credit card.??? AU and softbank gives connection but i don`t want to pay so much money for that.

    please help.
    Thanks in advance

  15. Hey Ryo,

    Awesome article, just a few follow up questions.

    I will be moving to Japan soon for work for an extended period. This requires me to open a Bank account. To open a Bank account I need a phone number, but to get one of these sims I need a bank account. How should I proceed? And do the Data only sims cards come with a phone number attached to them (required for Bank account)?

    Thanks

    • Wally Wang

      Omg, it’s Japan. Your not going to find a spot where you wouldn’t be able to find a SIM card. Even in 7/11 you can find them. And to open a bank account your going to need more then a phone number your going to need visas paperwork etc etc. I moved to JP at 18 and literally had this stuff planned out so long before I arrived, get to work.

    • mrkirkland

      It’s a while since I opened a bank account but if that’s an issue, one work around would be getting VOIP number or “Skype in” number for Japan. You can use that as a (perhaps temporary) phone number for opening a bank account.

  16. – for crying out loud, how stinking complicated can they make it to obtain simple cell service ?? japan is light years ahead on the technology side but primitive on the service infrastructure; data plan with ABC, cell service with XYZ, limits on minutes used, contracts, gaijin cards, etc.. the company that first adopts the simple all inclusive pre-paid plan will clean house in japan. register your sim, enter your visa number and your off to the races. ..jeeeez.

  17. Nicole Sa

    I recommend GTN mobile. they are cheap, have several language support and a small shop in Shin-Okubo. I made sure their SIM works with my phone before I signed the contract in their office in Shin-Okubo. you don’t need a credit card or bank account because they also offer a conbini-payment option.

  18. I am also a GTN mobile user. They are very friendly for foreigners (good english and met in person to install my sim card and make sure it works), although they are lil bit more expensive than some of the other sim card services or data only.
    Speaking of which I just had a very frustrating day in Osaka, trying to switch to another sim card service for the better prices. I went to two BIC locations and a yamata denki to get a sim card and no one would sell me a sim card, instead trying to convince me that I had to buy a new Japanese phone or mobile hotspot or prepaid sim. Talked to 5 different sales people. They were all convinced that there was no way my phone could work with a Japanese SIM. So I ended up calling up GTN and continuing their service..
    I showed sales people the frequencies (bands) my phone could receive and the bands of the major Japanese cellphone services (they are the same) and they didn’t know anything about it and continued to be unhelpful. I felt that this was mostly because I was a foreigner (cellphone sale commission?). So just a warning to those…maybe ordering a sim on amazon would be better. I do have a friend who did get a very cheap sim contract from Bic for his Canadian phone tho.

    • budbudbadaf

      I had a similar experience to you as well. I was on b-mobile last year and decided i wanted to change to iijmio as it was cheaper so I went to BIC Camera so I could also get the free wifi membership. Once I got there they kept insisting that I needed to buy a “japanese phone” and that the sim wouldn’t work on my current “overseas” phone even though I had been using b-mobile sim for the past year!! After I got really angry, they conceded and finally sold the sim to me though.

      • Sad to hear. I also have a friend who got a sim from them by getting angry. Seems to be the only way :/ This is clearly discrimination. What can you do?

        • CheapoGreg

          I don’t think it’s discrimination. I think they’ve been instructed that overseas phones don’t have the right radio bands and they don’t want to have to deal with the returns. Many years ago I had the same problem trying to buy generic RAM chips from BIC. When I told them It was for a Toshiba laptop, they told me I couldn’t buy generic and refused to sell It to me! I’d suggest just buying the SIM without showing them your handset.

          • Haha maybe they have been yelled at by too many foreigners for selling them sim cards that don’t work. So now they won’t sell us sim card until we yell at them more than the previous customer who yelled at them for selling them a sim..
            Joking aside, why don’t they just ask me about what cell phone bands my phone can receive. Why don’t they advertise the cell bands that their sims do work on? They are supposed to be the experts. Why did they only try and push more expensive options on me?
            I have felt coerced by all the Japanese mobile sales people, besides GTN, to buy more expensive and unnecessary options and people should be aware that they are very cheap sim options available and that they work with pretty much all phones made within the last couple years.


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