Cellphones (keitai) are more common than land lines in Japan, and most young Japanese people do not bother purchasing land lines. Japanese mobile phones operate on a 3G network, which provides them advanced capabilities from internet access to GPS navigation. The major Japanese mobile service providers are NTT DoCoMo, KDDI´s AU and Softbank. Of these, DoCoMo is the most popular.
Each provider offers its own incentives to customers. KDDI is known for offering extensive rebate packages, for example. Rates vary depending on service provider and time of day. Check with providers for exact prices.
Cellphones in Japan provide every option imaginable, short of making coffee. You can watch TV and go online, and they come with a nifty “touch” function that can be used to access websites or maps directly by tapping your phone against the transmitter. They can also be used as electronic wallets, and just like IC cards, be used to take the metro, purchase anything in some retail stores, and even drinks or cigarettes from dispensers in the street. People send each other emails rather than text messages, but make sure to choose a slightly complex email address, or you might start to receive spam within a few weeks!
Mobile contracts for foreigners in Japan
As a foreigner, buying a contract phone from a major provider is not easy. After spending years watching foreigners leave Japan without paying their bills, mobile companies have begun to require alien registration cards and Japanese bank accounts from foreign customers.
However, contracts are by far the best option. If you already know which network most of your friends are with, you should choose the same, as calls within the same network are usually free. Unfortunately, in Japan you cannot use phones from any other country, and you must therefore buy a new one. It is very rare to find cheap, second-hand phones, so be prepared to pay a lot of money (at least 10,000 yen). However, should you choose to pay it all in one go, the company might offer you a large rebate – ask about this option or you might find yourself paying the difference at the end.
In order to set this up, you can choose to go either to a network store, or head over to the large stores selling all kinds of electronics. They generally have an interpreter just for the foreigners, in order to explain the contracts (although the Japanese will often tell you to be wary of them - for no particular reason).
Prepaid phones are more readily available, as long as you can prove that you are living in Japan (your alien registration card will do). These phones afford you excellent control over your calling expenses, as you buy your own calling minutes for a few thousand yen at a time. Prepaid phones do not, however, offer the incentives that come with many of the contract phones.
Like fixed line bills, mobile bills can be paid automatically from a Japanese bank account or in person at banks or convenience stores.
Renting a mobile phone in Japan
If you are staying in Japan for less than 90 days, you will probably have to rent a cellphone.
There are several options available. If you own a phone with a SIM card you can sign up for an international roaming plan, take the card with you to Japan and then use it in a rented phone. This allows you to keep your phone number and SIM card while in Japan, but international roaming rates are very expensive.
If you have a 3G phone, you can bring your phone to Japan and rent a Japanese SIM card. Make sure to check compatibility with the phone company before you leave. Not all 3G phones and SIMs operate on the same frequency. Renting a Japanese SIM card will provide you with a local Japanese number and the accompanying tariffs.
Japanese phones can also be rented online or at major Japanese airports. This is probably the best option for many foreigners since it guarantees network compatibility and eliminates roaming charges. Rental plans are available from companies such as Rentafone Japan and Softbank, and a variety of rental periods are available to suit different customers´ needs.