If you live in Japan, you might be paying too much for a Japanese cell phone contract. I recently switched to a Japanese MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) and couldn’t believe the difference in my monthly bill. What if I told you that your monthly bill could go from 4000-5000 yen ($40-$50) to something around 1600 yen ($16)? That’s some major savings. I’m going to talk about the current major carriers, the differences, and how to switch to an MVNO.
Updated 9-10-2016 (Mentioned that Biglobe lets you pay without a Japanese credit card)
Japanese MNVO companies buy the rights to use a major carrier’s network and repackage it as a service to customers. Most MVNOs do not operate retail stores or have to spend as much money to operate, so they can afford to pass the savings onto consumers.
Before we get into the Japanese MVNO business, let’s talk a little bit about the major players in the Japanese mobile industry.
The Major Carriers
There are three major players in the Japanese mobile industry. You’ve got NTT Docomo, KDDI AU, and Softbank. Each company has its own brand image and types of customers they target, but I’m going to quickly give you a rundown of the three main carriers.
Docomo is the big dog in Japan when it comes to mobile. It was formed from the major telecommunications company NTT and has about 45% of the market. It has the most widespread network and coverage, which means if you travel a lot or go to areas with spotty reception, you’ll probably want to make use of Docomo’s network.
Commonly just called “AU”, this company has tried to brand itself as an innovative cell phone company targeted at the younger generation and families. It has about 29% of the market.
I’m going to talk the most about Softbank because it was the mobile company I was with the longest. It has an interesting history due to its founder, Masayoshi Son who is known to be a high risk taking entrepreneur, a rarity in the Japanese business world. Softbank wasn’t even a mobile carrier until 2006 when it purchased the carrier “Vodaphone” and rebranded it into Softbank.
The only reason Softbank gained any market share was because it was the exclusive carrier of the iPhone when it was released in Japan. After the iPhone 4S was released, Softbank was no longer the sole carrier of iPhone. Of course, now all major carriers offer the iPhone, so Softbank’s uniqueness as a carrier has been diluted.
Softbank has 25% market share as of March 2015, which is quite an achievement considering it took over the declining Vodaphone business and turned it around.
Policies for non-Japanese customers
I wanted to quickly mention this because it’s important for any foreign nationals living in Japan that have cell phone contracts. I don’t know the policy for Docomo, but Softbank and AU have strict rules about letting foreign customers pay off the price of their new phones.
You must have at least 2 years on your visa in order to qualify for monthly payments on a new phone. This was most likely instituted because a high percentage of foreign customers would get a new phone and return back to their countries, leaving Softbank to foot the bill. However, the visa situation for everyone is different and not everyone can guarantee that their visa will have 2 or more years on it when he or she goes to renew or get a new phone at a carrier. I was personally burned by this experience, despite being a customer for five years.
However, the visa situation for everyone is different and not everyone can guarantee that their visa will have 2 or more years on it when he or she goes to renew or get a new phone at a carrier. I was personally burned by this experience, despite being a customer for five years.
I have heard AU is not as strict as Softbank and only requires a 1 year or greater visa to give foreign customers a monthly payment plan on new phones. If you have to go with a major carrier, it might be worth looking into either AU or Docomo’s visa policies.
Switching to a Japanese MVNO
All right, so you are sick of paying high fees every month to one of the three main carriers and want to save some money. What do you do?
First, you need to know if your phone/smartphone is SIM locked. If it is locked by the carrier and you cannot unlock it, that phone can only be used on the network to which is it locked. That doesn’t mean you can’t use an MVNO, though.
For example, if you have an iPhone that you bought from AU, that means you cannot use it with an MVNO that uses the Docomo network, BUT you can use an MVNO that uses the AU network. Does that make sense?
If you have an AU or Docomo phone, there are plenty of options for you when switching to an MVNO. There are no Japanese MVNOs that support the Softbank network*, so you’ll need to change over to a phone that works with the Docomo or AU network.
*Update: SoftBank has a smaller mobile company called Y! Mobile which promises cheaper prices, but they’re a joke. It’s better to leave Softbank and head to an MVNO that uses AU or Docomo’s network.
Using your existing smartphone
If you have a phone that uses the Docomo or AU network, life is easier for you. A SIM free phone is even better. All you need is to confirm that your device will work on your chosen MVNO and use their SIM card in the device.
Buying a used smartphone or non-contract phone
If you’re switching to an MVNO from Softbank or want to buy a better smartphone that will work on an MVNO, there are some options. You don’t need to buy from a carrier to get a phone.
You can buy SIM free iPhones directly from the Apple Japan website. These phones will work with any Japanese MVNO and are guaranteed to be problem free. If you’re an Android fan, you can purchase new Android phones through Amazon Japan. However, new phones can be expensive and because MVNOs are all about saving money, there is another method we can consider.
There are a few ways to buy used phones in Japan. If you prefer to see the phone and have more assurance that it won’t break, you’re better off going to a real store.
You can usually find used phones at the rental shop GEO or other second-hand stores. The prices will be more expensive than buying used on the Internet, but you will usually get a money-back promise of a few months if something is not right with the phone.
This is the probably the most cost-effective way to get a used phone for a decent price. However, it is time-consuming and tedious to get everything set up if you’re not knowledgeable in Japanese or dealing with Yahoo Auction.
If you can do it yourself or have a friend knowledgeable with Yahoo Auction help you, you can get a used smartphone in great condition for a good price.
Which Japanese MVNO do I choose?
There are too many MVNOs to choose from, so I’ve chosen the three companies that I personally would consider signing up with. No need to research because I’ve done it for you!
The name is sort of strange, “eye-eye Jeh-me-oh” but don’t let that fool you. IIJMIO has a great reputation and is one of the top MVNOs to choose from. The prices are decent, but not the cheapest. IIJMIO uses Docomo’s network, so you can rest assured that you will always have a great signal or speed wherever you go in Japan.
IIJmio also has an app for both iOS and Android that lets you track your data usage and other information as well. Really handy!
Update: If you’re an iPhone user, I highly recommend IIJmio because they are the fastest to support iOS software updates compared to DMM and the others.
This Japanese MVNO is somewhat new but has quickly gained a good reputation for its service and prices. As far as I researched, DMM had the lowest prices for data plans. DMM uses the Docomo network and even has an app that you can use to check your data usage.
The unique thing about Mineo is it uses both the Docomo and AU networks. You have to choose which network to use when signing up to get the SIM card for your device, but it sure is convenient that this MVNO covers both networks. I really like the look of the company’s website and their prices were affordable.
The Switching Process
You need to get an MNP (Mobile Number Portability) number from your current carrier. All you need to do is go into a store and ask them to create one for you.
The MNP is a number that you give to a company that you are transferring to. This allows you to keep your phone number and take it with you when you switch.
Note: There is a fee for getting an MNP. AU/Docomo is 2000 yen while Softbank is 3000 yen. Also, if you are not in the month where you can cancel your account for free, it will usually be an extra 10,000 yen as a cancellation fee. It’s worth it, though because you’ll break even after a few months on a cheaper plan anyway.
If you don’t want to keep your number: Skip step one.
Either go to an MVNO’s website, order an application from Amazon, or go to a local place that has partnered with an MVNO such as GEO or AEON.
You are going to enter your registration information, select a plan, AND select the appropriate SIM card. There are three kinds of SIM cards, so know which one you will need. iPhones use nanoSIM cards, Android phones usually use MicroSIM cards.
In my case, I went to DMM Mobile’s website and applied there. I entered my MNP number and other registration information. If you want a new phone number, choose the new number option. After registering, DMM needs proof of identification such as a passport, driver’s license or residence card.
The best thing about this is you don’t have to make a copy or fax it. You can take a picture of your identification and upload it to DMM directly. After they check it, you’re good to go.
WARNING: For most Japanese MVNOs, you will need to use a Japanese credit card to pay your monthly fees. However, after doing some research I have found that Biglobe is one of the few companies that will you let you pay with a Japanese bank account!
After you’ve applied, you have to wait for your SIM card to be created. After the SIM card has been created, your account at your current mobile provider will be cancelled. This means that you might be without service for anywhere from a few hours to a day.
In my case, I went one day without phone access, but the SIM card arrived promptly the next morning.
Update on activation time: Japanese MVNO companies have come up with a way to activate your SIM card without having to make you wait a day or more for activation. Now after you receive your SIM card, you can have it activated in about an hour and working with your phone. This has been confirmed for DMM, IIJMIO, and Mineo. Others are probably now doing the same thing, but make sure and check!
Thanks to contributors “V” and Ian for confirming IIJMIO and Mineo’s new activation process.
There are two things you need to do: Insert the new SIM card into your device and also install the APN profile on your device. This is easy and can be done quickly. Most companies provide you with instructions, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting a step. WARNING: If you don’t install the APN profile, your device will not work on the cell network correctly. Please don’t forget this step!
Enjoy having a mobile plan that isn’t over priced!
After switching to DMM mobile, I think I made the right choice and am satisfied with the service and price. Switching to a Japanese MVNO involved a lot of steps, but it wasn’t difficult.
Update: After being with DMM for a few months, I’m pretty satisfied, but one big issue for me is the slowness to support iOS updates. With MVNOs, you have to confirm with them before you update iOS to make sure the network and everything still connects, etc.
DMM has been a bit slow (1-2 months lag time) before confirming the latest iOS update works on their network. IIJMIO has usually been the next day after Apple releases an update. If you’re an iPhone user, it might be wise to go with IIJMIO or another MVNO that updates quickly.
If you’re thinking of switching from your current carrier, it’s worth looking into. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or ask in the comments below.