How to Switch to a Less Expensive Cell Phone Plan in Japan

If you’ve taken a look at your monthly expenses and are wondering where you can save money on recurring expenses, take a closer look at your monthly phone bill. It’s practically a necessity to have a working smartphone in Japan, but there is a wide range of services and options out there and you might be paying for more than you need. In recent years, MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) services have begun to offer very competitive and reasonable prices for mobile services!

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What is an MVNO?

An MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) is a wireless provider that does not own the wireless infrastructure that it uses to provide service to customers. In other words, these are companies that rent out portions of data/bandwidth from the larger wireless giants (AU, Docomo, Softbank), and repackage it to meet various consumer needs. Now you might be thinking, “How are they able to keep the monthly price so low if they’re using the same infrastructure?” Basically, since the MVNO company is not paying for the infrastructure and equipment upkeep, they are able to charge less for using their service. Now, the downside is that speed and reliability can be hit-or-miss since most often priority for using the bandwidth goes to those on the major carriers. That being said, if you are an average smartphone user you probably won’t find too much difference if you are located in a major city where there is plenty of cell phone coverage. However, your milage may vary depending how far into the countryside you live.

What are the price differences between a major carrier and an MVNO?

Here’s a look at some example cases of monthly costs depending on the service provider, assuming you are also going to purchase a phone at the time of signing the contract:

Unlimited plan, major carrier

  • Price: ¥10,186/mo
  • Data: 100 GB (speeds limited to 3Mbps after hitting the data cap for the month)
  • Voice: Unlimited domestic phone calls
  • Phone: iPhone SE 2nd generation 128GB
  • Possible discounts for bundling mobile plan with broadband internet
  • Signing up with the partner points card earns extra points for redeeming for a variety of goods

12 GB data + voice plan, MVNO

  • Price: ¥5,256/mo
  • Data: 12 GB (speeds limited to 200kpbs after hitting the data cap for the month)
  • Voice: 10 yen/30 seconds
  • Phone: Used iPhone XS 128 GB

While these are just two specific cases, they highlight the general differences between going with a major carrier versus an MVNO. A major carrier will tend to offer better speeds and services, but at a higher price. But if you just use your phone to read articles and check up with social media during your commute, you might not necessarily need all that bandwidth, and might be better served by saving some money by switching to an MVNO.

There are different plans and phones that you can consider that will affect the total monthly fee. One factor that seemed fairly consistent in our research is the availability of newer smartphones is different between major carriers and MVNOs. MVNOs in general don’t seem to have the latest smartphones available for purchase directly. However, if you buy a sim-free smartphone you should be able to then just purchase a sim card from the MVNO of your choice, which will most likely also bring down the monthly cost of your phone bill (but you’d be paying for your phone upfront).

Which provider should I use?

There are a lot of MVNO options available in Japan. Here’s just a small section of what’s available.

JP Smart SIM

Rakuten Mobile

DMM Mobile

LINE Mobile

IIJmio

UQ Mobile

NifMo

mineo

How do I change my wireless service to an MVNO?

Large electronics retailers like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera will often have a floor dedicated to smartphones and mobile services, and you can usually find a corner of these sections dedicated to a few MVNO options. If you’re the type of person who likes to window shop and browse different models of smartphones before you buy, this might be the easiest way for you to sign up with an MVNO in Japan. In my experience, the mobile services departments of these stores are really only setup for Japanese speakers. You might be able to find an employee that speaks English, but even then it might just be easier to bring a Japanese speaking friend along to help you out.

Otherwise, you’ll need to navigate the Japanese websites for the MVNO of your choice. This mostly requires you to fill out some personal information forms.

If you are planning on switching to an MVNO from a major carrier, you’ll want to go through the MNP (mobile number portability) process. This will allow you to keep your existing number. But if you aren’t interested in keeping your existing phone number then switching to an MVNO might be an opportunity to change numbers as well.


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