Applying for SIM Cards and Mobile Phone Service in Japan

Applying for SIM Cards and Mobile Phone Service in Japan

While constant mobile phone service is not quite as essential when traveling in Japan as in countries such as China (where it can be all but impossible to find a taxi or pay in a store or restaurant without a phone!), it will certainly make your life a whole lot easier. The streets, trains and buses of Japan’s larger cities can be difficult to navigate, as can the language barrier, making navigation and translation apps very handy tools. If you are a new resident in Japan, mobile phone service will likely be essential for work and daily social life. This article introduces some of the various Japanese companies that sell SIM cards, outlines the various types of SIM cards available, and explains how to apply for SIM card mobile phone service.

Do I really need a Japanese SIM card?

If you want to use your mobile phone in Japan to make calls, use apps, or browse the internet when you are out of Wi-Fi range, you will need a Japanese SIM card. The type of SIM card you will require will depend on how long you are staying in Japan (traveler, short-term resident, long-term resident, etc.), whether you need a Japanese phone number, and how much data you typically use.

Finding Free Wi-Fi in JapanFree public Wi-Fi in Japan has become somewhat more widespread in recent years. The best places to find free Wi-Fi are coffee shops (especially large chains such as Starbucks or Tully’s), convenience stores (especially Family Mart and 7-Eleven), train stations and airports, museums, and some fast food restaurants (McDonald’s always has free Wi-Fi). The Shinkansen and some other train lines (and even bus lines) do have free Wi-Fi, but connections can be unreliable due to tunnels and other obstacles.

Can I use a mobile phone from another country?

It depends. You will need to make sure that your mobile phone is unlocked so that it can be used with Japanese SIM cards. Your mobile phone must also be compatible with frequencies used in Japan (click here to check your phone’s compatibility).

Of course, you can also purchase a mobile phone in Japan, but if you want to use it when you travel or after you leave Japan, you should check when you buy the phone whether it can be used outside the country.

Make sure that your smartphone has been unlocked and is able to use a prepaid SIM card. You should also check which type of SIM card your device requires (nano, micro or regular).

What are my options when buying a SIM card in Japan?

The type of SIM card you will require will depend on how long you are staying in Japan (traveler, short-term resident, long-term resident, etc.), whether you need a Japanese phone number, and how much data you typically use.

SIM cards for travelers to Japan or short-term residents

In major airports, there will almost always be a counter selling prepaid data-only SIM cards in or near the Arrivals area (you can also find them in major electronics stores such as BIC CAMERA or Yodobashi). A prepaid data-only SIM card can usually be obtained quickly and simply without even showing your ID (there may be a short registration process, but the counter staff will guide you through this) and rates tend to be quite reasonable. However, for families, groups, or others with heavier data requirements, a Pocket Wi-Fi rental can be a better option.

SIM cards for long-term residents in Japan

Those staying longer or settling in Japan will likely require a Japanese phone number and will therefore need a long-term mobile phone contract.

Don't have Japanese documentation yet? If you are not yet sure whether you will stay in Japan long-term or if you have not yet received the necessary documentation, but do require mobile phone service, you might want to pursue one of the above options (prepaid data-only SIM card, Pocket Wi-Fi) as a temporary solution until you are ready to sign up for a long-term contract.

These are your two main options for acquiring a SIM card for a long-term mobile phone contract:

  1. Docomo, au, or SoftBank - these are the three main mobile phone companies in Japan, all of which have their own mobile networks. There are no major differences between them. They generally provide the most stable networks in the country.
  2. Alternative mobile phone SIM card providers - these are smaller companies that lease the networks of the three main companies but typically offer much more attractive rates. We highly recommend purchasing your SIM card from an alternative mobile phone SIM card provider and applying for mobile phone service from one of them instead of the big three.

Unlike Docomo, au, or SoftBank, some alternative mobile phone SIM card providers do not have stores or service counters where you can inquire in person about their services (you generally need to apply online). Rakuten Mobile, UQ, and Y!mobile, however, do have store locations in major Japanese cities (service for UQ Mobile is available at au stores).

Not all alternative mobile phone SIM card providers provide registration or customer service in English, so you may wish to consider this as a factor when deciding which company to go with.

Here is a short list of the most popular alternative mobile phone SIM card providers offering SIM cards at cheaper rates.

Provider English customer service? Initial activation fee* Cancellation Application procedure? Sample Monthly Rates*
Sakura Mobile   ¥5,500 (discount) ¥0 Online 4GB: ¥3,278
25GB: ¥4,378
Mobal   ¥0** ¥0 Online 1GB: ¥1,480
5GB: ¥2,980
10GB: ¥3,280
GTN Mobile   ¥3,850 ¥0 In-store or Online 3GB: ¥2,178
(LTE 4G: ¥1,628)
10GB: ¥3,278
(LTE 4G: ¥2,728)
17GB: ¥4,378
Rakuten Mobile ¥0 ¥0 In-store or Online 3GB: ¥1,078
20GB: ¥2,178
Unlimited: ¥3,278
LINEMO ¥0 ¥0 Online 3GB: ¥990
20GB: ¥2,480
UQ Mobile ¥3,300 ¥0 In-store or Online 3GB: ¥1,628
15GB: ¥2,728
25GB: ¥3,828
Y!Mobile Limited ¥0 (Online)
¥3,300 (In-Store)
¥0 In-store or Online 3GB: ¥2,178
15GB: ¥3,278
25GB: ¥4,158

*Only for reference purposes (rates subject to change). There are many different family plans, etc. available, so we have only listed the most common plans here. Check individual company websites for current promotions and other plans.
**There is no activation fee for Mobal but you do need to purchase your SIM card (¥3000).

How do I get a SIM card in Japan?

For prepaid data-only SIM cards suitable for travelers or short-term residents, you will not even generally need to show your ID; simply purchase your SIM card at the sales counter and complete a brief registration process (counter staff can assist you with this).

For SIM cards for long-term mobile phone contracts, you will generally need to provide photo ID such as your residence card or Japanese driver’s license that displays your address in Japan.

Do I actually need a Japanese telephone number? While acquiring a Japanese telephone number will allow you to make and receive calls and to send and receive text messages, these days many people in Japan use apps such as LINE, WhatsApp or FaceTime instead to send messages and make calls. A data-only SIM card might therefore seem a tempting option.

However, because a telephone number is required in Japan for such necessities as opening a bank account, renting an apartment, shipping almost anything, or signing up for many different public and commercial services, a Japanese telephone number is a must for anyone planning to live in Japan for more than just a few months. As many people moving to Japan no longer bother getting landlines at home, the Japanese telephone number you use for all these essentials will generally be the mobile phone number that you acquire with your new SIM card.

Signing up for a long-term mobile phone contract SIM card (Docomo, au, Softbank)

If you decide to choose one of the big three mobile phone providers (Docomo, au, Softbank), you will need to visit one of their actual branch store locations. All have numerous locations nationwide, so there should be one relatively close to where you live or work. If you do not speak Japanese, however, you might want to check which locations have English-speaking staff available:

  1. Softbank - click here for a list of Softbank’s store locations with English-speaking staff
  2. au - click here to search for store locations offering multilingual services
  3. Docomo - Docomo uses an interpreter system where the in-store staff will connect to an interpreter via telephone to assist you

When you have decided which company and store location to visit, make sure to bring along:

  • your (Japanese) photo ID - this needs to display your Japanese address. Your residence card is usually the easiest option, though a Japanese driver’s license will also work if you have one. You might want to bring your passport along too, just in case, though this is not normally required.
  • a credit card - the initial setup fee and your first month’s payment will usually need to be charged to your credit card, though you can change this to a bank transfer from your Japanese bank account from the next month onward if you prefer.
  • a book or a magazine - you will definitely end up waiting! After the store’s staff member dealing with you has explained the different plans and then submitted your application to your chosen plan, it will take some time (sometimes as much as an hour) for them to hear back from the company as to whether or not your application has been accepted (if it has not, you may have to select a different plan and try again).

Unless you enjoy waiting around in mobile phone stores... If possible, try to visit mobile phone store locations midday on weekdays rather than on weekends or holidays (or in the evenings). It could save you from a long wait!

If you do end up concluding a contract with one of the big three providers, all three do offer customer support in English via telephone should you require assistance.

Signing up for a (cheaper!) long-term mobile phone contract SIM card with an alternative mobile phone provider

If you want to save money on your mobile phone bills (and who doesn’t?), we recommend looking into the many alternative mobile phone SIM card providers in Japan offering cheaper rates than the big three mobile phone providers. For some of these alternative providers, you may also cancel your contract at any time without a cancellation fee (be sure to check your specific provider and plan though).

You must apply online for a SIM card from most alternative mobile phone SIM card providers, though Y!Mobile, UQ, and Rakuten Mobile do have actual physical stores in major Japanese cities (however, you can also apply online for these providers). You can either have your new SIM card shipped directly to your address (most ship to other countries as well) or designate it for pickup at major airports or service counters in Japan.

To apply for a long-term mobile phone SIM card from a Japanese alternative mobile phone SIM card provider, all you need to do is:

  1. visit your preferred company’s website (see above list of alternative mobile phone SIM card providers for links). You can also visit one of their actual store locations (Y!Mobile, UQ, and Rakuten Mobile only)
  2. browse through their various data and calling plans
  3. follow their online application procedure
  4. confirm your shipping or pickup arrangements
  5. set up payment (generally via credit card)
  6. receive your SIM card via mail or pick it up when you get to Japan

Have you got the right type of SIM card? Alternative mobile phone SIM card providers sell data-only SIM cards as well SIM cards that provide you with a Japanese telephone number and allow you to make/receive phone calls and send/receive text messages. If you will be living in Japan for some time (over 90 days), a Japanese telephone number will likely be essential, so be sure to apply for the right kind of SIM card!

Picking up your new SIM card

SIM cards from alternative mobile phone SIM card providers can be delivered in the mail to your address either in Japan or abroad (depending on the company).

Another option is to arrange for pickup at a major Japanese international airport when you arrive in the country. This is a fairly seamless process and will allow you to have active mobile phone service before you are even out of the airport!

SIM cards for some alternative mobile phone SIM card providers can also be picked up at designated pickup counters in various locations, but this is not usually the best option as such locations are quite few in number (for example, Sakura Mobile has only 5 such locations in Japan) and may be difficult to find or access. You must also book such arrangements several days in advance (see individual company websites). The airport is usually a much better option!

Best of all, if you choose an alternative mobile phone SIM card provider, you won’t need to spend hours in a mobile phone shop as you would when applying to one of the big three.

Is your phone eSIM compatible? Rakuten, UQ Mobile, Y!Mobile and LINEMO also all offer eSIM service, so if your phone is eSIM-compatible, you can skip the delivery process altogether.

What if I don’t speak Japanese…?

Several alternative mobile phone SIM card providers have particularly user-friendly websites for English users and offer excellent customer service in English (especially Sakura, Mobal and GTN). Their rates are sometimes slightly higher than other alternative mobile phone SIM card providers such as Rakuten Mobile (click here for our English guide to applying for Rakuten), LINEMO (click here for our English guide to applying for LINEMO), or UQ Mobile, so if you can read Japanese or have someone who can assist you with the language, those companies are also possible options.

However, having customer service in English with Sakura, Mobal, or GTN might make this slight difference in rates well worth your while.

Summary - SIM cards and mobile phone service in Japan

The type of SIM card that you choose to purchase in Japan will be determined by how long you intend to stay as well as your personal preferences in terms of data usage, cancellation fees, and the availability of English-language customer service.

Here are a few key points to remember when choosing your SIM card:

  • if you are bringing a mobile phone from outside Japan, ensure that it is SIM-unlocked and compatible with Japanese frequencies
  • if you will be living in Japan, a Japanese phone number will be essential, so apply for a SIM card that provides you with a phone number
  • Alternative mobile phone SIM card providers typically offer cheaper rates than the big three Japanese mobile phone providers (Docomo, au, Softbank)
  • if you do not speak and read Japanese, certain alternative mobile phone SIM card providers offer English websites for applications and excellent English customer service
  • if you choose a SIM card from an alternative mobile phone SIM card provider, you should arrange for pickup at an airport or delivery to your address (in advance) for a more convenient experience