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The biggest Japanese mobile phone companies are NTT docomo, au by KDDI, Softbank (formerly Vodafone, and before that J-phone) and Rakuten Mobile. There are also several smaller companies which provide low-cost cell phone plans for residents and mobile internet products for tourists, but they typically use the networks of the big four companies.

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Do foreign phones work in Japan?

While most mobile phone models can be used in Japan today, some older phones may not work due to different technologies. The following is needed for a handset to work in Japan:

  • For voice - The handset must be compatible with a Japanese mobile phone network. Most modern phones are compatible with one or more of these networks. Compatible handsets may be used via international roaming (check with your home provider for details) or a SIM card (unlocked handsets only). Alternatively, phones can use internet-based telephone services, such as Skype, when connected to a Wi-Fi network.
  • For data - Phones that work in Japan for voice (see above) can also receive and send data (such as e-mails and web content) via international roaming or a SIM card, but note that the cost for data transfer can easily skyrocket without an appropriate data plan. Alternatively, phones with wireless network (Wi-Fi) connectivity can take advantage of the numerous paid and free Wi-Fi hotspots found around the country.

How to use a mobile phone in Japan?

SIM cards

SIM cards allow travelers to use their own mobile phones in Japan, provided the phones are unlocked and work on a Japanese network (most modern phones do). Most SIM cards available to foreign tourists are data-only and do not allow for voice calls (except when using internet-based telephone services such as Skype).

Offers by the various companies differ on connection speeds, networks used and data transfer limits. They are typically available for specific time periods (e.g. one week) or maximum data amounts (e.g. 3 GB to be used within a certain time period). SIM cards can be purchased at airports, selected retailers in Japan or via the internet for delivery to your home or hotel.

Rental phones

Renting a phone typically requires a picture ID and a credit card. Many companies have kiosks at the airports, while other companies will mail a phone to your hotel or home. You can return the phones at the airport or through the mail depending on the company.

The fees for rental phones vary and are typically around 500-1000 yen per day. Additional fees may apply for calling, messaging, mobile data, insurance etc. Calling rates are typically 50-100 yen per minute for outgoing domestic calls while incoming calls are free. International rates vary depending on the country you are dialing to. All of the companies at the airports offer same-day rentals if stock is available, while some give discounts for advance reservations.

Subscription plans (for residents of Japan only)

With subscription plans you pay for your phone usage at the end of a monthly billing cycle. Contracts are typically for two year periods, and early cancellations may incur a cancellation fee. Handsets can be purchased in full or in monthly installments. A residence card is required to enroll into a subscription plan.

Phone manners

Talking on the phone in trains, buses, cafes and restaurants is a serious breach of manners to a degree that it can cause hostile reactions. Only on long-distance trains is it acceptable to conduct voice calls outside of the seating area on the decks at either end of each train car.

Likewise, set your phone to silent mode on public transportation or at cafes and restaurants. It is not acceptable to listen to music or other media in public spaces without headphones.

Walking while using a smartphone is a widely committed violation of good manners.