The Comprehensive Guide to SIM Cards in Japan: Short and Long-Term Options

Japan is an eclectic mix of traditional and modern landmarks, anime-fueled pop culture and exquisite cuisine, it’s no wonder it has become known as a leading travel destination, attracting over 30 million ​people this year alone. There’s something for every type of traveller from tourists and backpackers to expats and digital nomads.

Although Japan develops some of the most advanced technology in the world, free WiFi access is surprisingly limited, even in urban centres such as Tokyo and Osaka. Hotels, hostels and AirBnb will often provide free Wi-Fi for their guests but the moment you step out, you’ll be hard pressed to find Wi-Fi hotspots when you really need them.

Having access to the Internet is important for many travelers, whether it's to stay connected with friends and family back home, using social media or simply finding your way around with Google Maps. Many travel-savvy individuals know that to avoid expensive roaming charges, it’s best to pick up a local SIM card either before travelling or after arriving at their destination.

What’s a SIM card?

A SIM card, also known as a Subscriber Identity Module, is a small chip that can be inserted into your cellphone or tablet which stores identification information that points the device to a specific mobile network. Without a SIM card, most phones would not be able to make calls or connect to internet services.

All SIM cards allow users a certain amount of data and depending on the phone plan will offer different services such as free calling between certain hours. There are are SIM cards that offer voice capability (Data+Voice) and ones that don’t (Data-Only). Having voice capability simply means that you have a Japanese phone number and that you are able to make phone calls and send SMS.

However data-only SIM cards without voice capability can still make calls to other phones by using VOIP, also known as Voice Over Internet Protocol. This simply means that through using internet applications such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype, you can still call friends and family. It’s important to note that phones without voice capability are unable to make or receive traditional calls.

SIM cards come in a variety of sizes, the three most common being standard(15 x 25mm), micro(12 x 15mm) and nano(8.8 x 12.3mm). Your phone will use only one of these sizes with more recent models using smaller SIM cards.

Short-Term SIM Cards Options

For those that are planning on staying in Japan for less than 3 months there are a number of affordable SIM card options that are easy to buy and set up. In terms of network operators, there are three big players in Japan - Softbank, Au and NTT Docomo. Most recently these companies have been offering selected prepaid SIM cards to short-term visitors, however some of the best deals can be found amongst MVNO options.

MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which simply put is a company that piggybacks on the network provided by a larger operator. The benefit of using these smaller companies is that they can offer more flexible data plans to suit specific groups of customers, so you’re more likely to find a plan that fits your needs. It goes without saying that each MVNO has its own advantages and disadvantages, some offer cheaper prices per data cap while others offer faster speeds and some may have hidden fees.

Check out the chart below to find the perfect plan that suits your unique needs.

Description IIJmio Nippon SIM for Japan Sakura Mobile B-Mobile Mobal
Plan Japan Travel SIM Nippon Sim for Japan Sakura Travel SIM 5GB 10 Days Japan Unlimited SIM 30 Day
Data 1.5G 2G 3G 5G Unlimited
Price ¥1,990 ¥3,200 ¥3,500 ¥1,980 ¥7,500
30 days 14 days 30 days 10 days 30 days
Internet Speed Fast Average Fast Average Very Fast
Additional Data (Top Up) 1,500 yen for 1GB Not available 1,500 yen for 1GB 500 yen for 1GB (Unlimited)
SIM Type Data Only Data Only Data Only Data Only Data + Voice
Other Features Includes a Brastel VoIP phone card for calling. Free Incoming Calls. Unlimited LTE data available for 10 specific apps (​Go​ogle Map, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Messenger, Whatsapp, Skype, LINE, Wechat, Kakaotalk) Online Top Up Feature *SIM card must be returned after use. Online Top Up Feature Includes a Japanese phone number (Softbank). Free Incoming Calls & SMS
Available At BIC Camera AEON Malls Family Mart Tokyo Tourist Information Centres and more Dependents on the country it is purchased from. Check out the ​Nippon SIM website for more details. Online Only B-Mobile Amazon and selected electronic stores in Japan Online Only

*​All the plans mentioned above offer full English support, are shipped worldwide or are available for pick up at major airports in Japan. Do keep in mind that these are only a handful of the available plans at each MVNO. Check out their websites for other flexible prepaid plans and visitor SIM cards.

How much data will I need?

The amount of data you’ll need throughout your trip in Japan will depend on how much you depend on your phone. Most travelers will use a fair amount of data mainly to find their way around on the streets of Tokyo or for using the public transport system. In general, about 2 to 3 GB a month is more than enough for the average smartphone user.

iPhone users can track how much data you have used by going to Settings > Cellular > Current Period. There’s an option to reset it to track it by weekly or monthly amounts.

Android users can do the same by going to Settings > Data usage. Some devices allow users to check by specific dates.

Tips

Make sure your phone is “unlocked” before purchasing a SIM card.​ If you have purchased your phone through a specific network provider and have a contract with them, it may be locked to that service provider. An easy way to check if your phone is unlocked is to borrow a friend’s phone on a different work and insert their SIM card into your phone. If no error message appears, then you are good to go! There are ways to unlock smartphones, both through your provider and other companies for a fee.

Know the size of the SIM card that fits in your phone. As mentioned before, it’ll often be one of these three sizes, standard(15 x 25mm), micro(12 x 15mm) or nano(8.8 x 12.3mm). You can contact your provider to find out the size of your SIM card.

Network compatibility. ​ Make sure to check that the unlocked phone you bring from your country is supported by the radio frequency bands used in Japan. This is explained in more detail at the bottom of this guide.

Download a VOIP application​ before​ travelling to Japan. ​Apps such as WhatsApp, Skype or Tango are completely free and allow you to call, video chat and message via an internet connection. Also it’s important to let your family and friends know that you’ll be only reachable through that application, as regular phone calls will not be able to come through.

Some SIM cards require a PIN.​ SIM cards sometimes come ‘locked’, and can only be unlocked with a PIN that’s written on the packaging the SIM card came in. ​Don’t throw the packaging away!​ SIM cards that are locked usually need the PIN everytime the phone is restarted. It’s best to keep it safe in your wallet.

Long-Term Options

For those that are planning on a long-term stay or are already a resident in Japan, having a phone with not just data but with a phone number too is essential for daily life and business. contact number is often required for job applications and renting an apartment.

There are two options for long-term SIM cards. One is to sign up with one of the three main network providers -SoftBank, au or Docomo - all which require purchasing a brand new phonlocked by the carrier along with the SIM card. In addition, these companies also ask for a two-year contract with a high penalty fee for early termination to prevent their customers from switching to other providers.

The majority of Japanese residents are signed up with these network providers as almost icoto Japanese modern culture.

However, a much cheaper option is to sign up with an MVNO company that offers Data + VoSIM cards specifically for those planning on staying in Japan for longer than 3 months. Pricecan range from ¥2,300 to ¥7,000 which is a stark contrast to the usual ¥7~11,000 monthly phone bills that come with signing up to one of the larger network providers. Check out the chart below for the best options available on the market right now.

Description Line Sakura Mobile Mobal u-mobile JP Smart S
Data + Voice Plan コミュニケー
ションフリー
Mini Plan Voice + Text + Data Plan U-mobile 通話 プラス JP Smart Data
Data 5GB 3GB 7GB 5GB 6GB
Calling Rates ¥20/min ¥40/min ¥29/min ¥40/min ¥40/min
Monthly Price (excluding tax) ¥2,220 ¥2,980 ¥4,500 ¥1980 ¥3280
Minimum Contract Length 12 months None None 6 months None
Contract Cancellation Fees ¥9800 None None ¥6000 None
Other Fees Administrative Fee ¥ 3000 Sim Card Fee ¥400 Activation Fee ¥15,000 None Administrative Fee ¥3000 SIM card fee ¥340 Contract Commission Fee ¥3000
Payment methods (Japan Issued Credit Card Line Pay Credit Card Convenience Store Debit Card Credit Card Paypal (Japan Issued) Credit Card (Japan Issued) Credit Card Convenience Store
Other Features Roll Over Data Unlimited LTE Data for LINE, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram Apps Add On Features Available English Support Student Discounts Available 30 Free Calling Minutes No Japanese Address Necessary for Sign Up English Support Discounts available for committing to 6 months with Mobal Unlimited Free Calls to Mobal/ Softbank SIMs Unlimited Free 3 Minute Calls. English Support First Month is Free
Available At Yodobashi Camera BIC Camera K’s Denki Online Only Online Only Online U-NEXT Stores Online Only

Tips

A Japanese address is required. ​With the exception of a few selected MVNOs, a physical address in Japan that can be verified with official documentation such as a residence card (在留カード) is necessary for purchasing a Data+Voice SIM card.

High-speed data won’t always be available.​ Since MVNO networks are ‘renting’ the network provided by larger telecommunication carriers, particularly in crowded areas, internet speeds may slow down. This will be due to the main carriers prioritising customers who have paid premium prices for their network. If you’re the type of person that regularly likes to watch YouTube on their phone, Y-mobile or UQ Mobile are recommended. They are not true MVNOs as they are owned by Softbank and AU respectively and don’t throttle their data speeds. The only negative point is that you’ll still be required to sign a 2 year contract with them.

Sign up during promotion periods!​ During April and August, a number of discounted phone plans are often offered to first time customers. LINE is known to give away Line Points to customers switching over to their company. These points can be used to pay for your monthly phone bill.

Network Compatibility

This applies to both short-term and long-term foreign residents in Japan. Before purchasing or signing up to an MVNO carrier, it’s recommended to check that your unlocked phone will be supported by the radio frequency bands used in Japan. Mobile networks and carriers in Japan use 5 UMTS bands, 9 LTE bands, and 2 CDMA bands.

A quick way to check whether your phone is compatible, is to either go on FrequencyCheck.com​ or contact the MVNO company directly. Keep in mind though that SIM cards offered for long-term residents may have limited English customer services.

Sakura Mobile offer a compiled list of phone models and tablets that are supported by their network, ​here​.

Smartphones and applications have taken the world by storm since their first conception. Whether it’s messaging and calling friends and family, figuring how to get to destinations on Google Maps or uploading photos of your latest adventures on social media, phones have become an essential part of everyone’s routine.

Make the most of your time in Japan by saving some of your hard earned money and choosing a SIM card and phone plan that works for your daily and travel needs.

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