In this post, we explain why mobile phone price plans are likely to drop significantly this year and go over the questions you should ask in order to compare the price plans offered by Japan’s three major carriers (SoftBank, Docomo, and au KDDI).
This article is intended for people who plan to live in Japan for the medium to long-term.
If you are in Japan for the short-term or would like to use your phone from your home country in Japan, please see this article: How to use your cell phone in Japan (with JP Smart SIM).
For information on setting up a fixed-line internet connection in your home in in Japan, please see: Setting up internet at home in Japan
Mobile phone price plans are likely to drop in 2019
The first thing to know about shopping for a mobile phone carrier this year is that the major carriers are all likely to drop prices within the year. SoftBank already rolled out its new price plan in September 2018.
This article provides an overview of the main issues involved in signing up with a major mobile phone carrier. There will be follow up articles on each of the main carriers and their pricing plans.
Why are prices dropping?
In September 2018, the Japanese government came out with a statement effectively saying that:
- Cell phone rate plans are confusing and difficult for consumers to understand.
- Cell phone rates could drop by as much as 40% to bring them in line with rates in other countries
- Mobile carriers should de-couple pricing of handsets from monthly calling and data plans.
- This was a practice in which carriers would offer steep discounts on the initial price of the handset, in return for contracts that effectively locked the consumer into long-term contracts. Some carriers would run campaigns selling slightly older generation phones for ¥1, but in exchange the user would be committed to a 2-year contract where there were high penalties for cancelling mid-term.
- SoftBank has already stopped offering initial discounts on handsets and now offers pricing plans that are not linked to the purchase of a handset.
How the major carriers are reacting
Basically, the government spoke and the carriers listened. This is excellent news for consumers.
- As we just mentioned, SoftBank was first to the gate with a new pricing plan, which was introduced last September.
- NTT Docomo and au KDDI are expected to roll out new plans sometime between April and June this year, based on Japanese media reports. Both companies have already introduced a few new pricing options. These will be covered in follow up articles.
- Rakuten is expected to enter the market in October this year to become the fourth major carrier in Japan. This is, of course, expected to increase competition and be a plus for consumers.
- In line with what the government requested last fall, SoftBank and Docomo no longer require that you sign a long-term (2-year) contract in order to sign up for a voice or data plan, but be aware that the monthly basic fees are significantly higher if you opt for a “no-contract” plan. Specific pricing will be covered in follow-up articles.
What you’ll need to get a long-term mobile phone
To get a long-term mobile phone in Japan:
- One of the key unstated requirements is that you must have a physical address in Japan that can be verified with official documentation.
- Another important thing to know is if your period-of-stay ends earlier than the contract period of monthly installments, you will not be eligible for an installment payment contract (for the voice/data plan) or indirect installment sales contract (for the handset).
- The carrier will check your period-of-stay using your ID documents.
You’ll need to bring originals (not copies) of the following with you to the shop to apply for a mobile phone contract:
- Identification Document(s)
- This can usually be one of the following:
- Residence card + Passport
- Special Permanent Resident Certificate
- Driver’s License
- Japanese passport
- Individual (My Number) Card
- Health insurance card + residential registration certificate (or utility receipt or some official government document)
- This can usually be one of the following:
- Credit card or Cash card
- Your name seal (stamp). You can also just use your signature.
- Your MNP (Mobile Number Portability) reservation number if you are switching to this carrier and wish to keep your number.
- You may be asked to provide proof-of-income or other information.
- If you are student, non-working spouse or do not have income, you may have to come to the shop with the working person in your family so they can verify household income.
Questions to ask when comparing carriers
Here are a few things to know before you go shopping for a carrier:
- The average monthly cell phone bill in Japan is between ¥7,000 and ¥10,000.
- Despite all the hullabaloo about simplifying mobile plans, they are still extremely confusing and difficult to compare across carriers. One of the best ways to compare prices is to figure out exactly how you plan to use your mobile phone (please see 1. below).
- There is a huge amount of fine print in mobile phone plan pricing. We can’t go into each and every detail, but will do our best to go over the key points you should know.
Here are some questions to ask in order to get the plan that is right for you
- How do you plan to use your smart phone? Which best describes you?
- Light talk (only a few short outgoing calls a month, light data (less than 1GB per month)
- Light talk, heavy data (few calls, more than 2GB or 3GB a month)
- Heavy talk (frequent calls and/or you want unlimited voice), light data (less than 1GB)
- Heavy talk, heavy data (more than 2GB or 3GB a month)
- None of the above. For example, “data only”
- It’s important to figure out exactly how you will use your smart phone so that you can get the most appropriate plan. SoftBank, for example, only offers bundled voice and data plans for iPhones and 4G smart phones. Docomo offers a data-only plan.
- Estimate the number of minutes you plan to talk in a month and amount of data you plan to use, then use these numbers to find the most appropriate plan. This is more cost efficient than picking the “most popular” or “recommended” plans that the carriers tend to push. In many cases, you will not use as many minutes of voice or GBs of data as you will end up paying for when you choose a “recommended” plan.
- How long do you plan to be in Japan?
- Your period-of-stay will determine whether you are eligible for the standard 2-year contract, which usually is the least expensive long-term option.
- SoftBank currently offers a “no-contract” plan where you can sign-up for a monthly voice/data plan, without any long-term obligations; but be aware that the monthly price for this plan is much higher than the 2-year contract price.
- Will you be sharing a voice/data plan with family members?
- All the major carriers offer discounts for voice/data plans shared among family members.
- Do you plan on getting a fixed-line internet connection at home?
- SoftBank offers a ¥1,000 monthly discount off your mobile phone plan if you bundle it with their in-home fiber-optic plan.
- Most carriers offer a student discount but these are not advertised in English.
- If you are a student, you still qualify and you should ask. The word for student discount is 学割 (gakuwari, がくわり)
- Whether and how long you plan to stay with the same carrier
- All the carriers offer long-term loyalty discounts. These discounts are usually applied automatically and usually don’t kick in until the 3rd or 4th year.
- It’s important to ask about the cancellation fees and window in which you can cancel without a fee.
- Every carrier has a different policy.
- Cancellation fees for 2-year contracts average about ¥10,000.
You may also be interested in: Getting a cell phone in Japan: SoftBank price plans explained