Living in Japan with my foreign iPhone

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on the quickest and easiest way I knew of to get your international iPhone working in Japan. And, after one of my friends traveled to Japan late last year, I can confirm that renting a Japanese SIM card from JCRCorp is STILL a quick and viable option, with unlimited voice, and unlimited data.

That being said however, while JCRCorp is really good, their rates start to get quite expensive the longer you stay in Japan. It’s probably fair to say that this is a service that is geared mainly towards tourists of Japan; those only staying for a short while before promptly leaving.

So last year, when I went to go work at pixiv, something I knew that I would be doing in upwards of 7 months, I figured I’d have to do something else. I also figured that since I would be going to Japan on a working visa, I could most likely pop into a telco shop and just grab a pre-paid SIM card.

So, armed with my carrier-unlocked iPhone 5 (Bought outright from Apple), I traveled over to Japan!

Unfortunately, when I got there, a few of my friends who had traveled over there a few months early, broke the news to me; apparently a ‘pre-paid SIM’ as we know and understand it in Australia, doesn’t really work in Japan.

It turns out that Japanese telephone companies are pretty draconian when it comes to what phones work with their services. If it isn’t one of their specifically branded models, or in the case of iPhone, not a device you didn’t specifically get from them, they don’t want to let you onto their network.

In fact, one of my friends put it best:

It’s easier to not think of Japanese phone companies as companies offering phone services. More, they’re simply mobile hardware companies that just HAPPEN to offer phone plans on the side.

It’s incredibly rare times like these when I realise we actually do have it pretty good in some cases in Australia (All phone companies here offer any sort of ‘bring-your-own-device’ plans).

In any case, it was starting to look like the only solution to having an iPhone with voice and data (without paying ludicrous amounts of money.) was to start a phone contract with one of the companies, and get a new iPhone with it.

Sadly, that wasn’t very feasible either, the fact I’d be locked into a 2 year contract asside, not only was it pretty pointless to have two iPhone 5 devices (If the 5s was out by then, MAYBE…), but because all Japanese phone companies don’t offer carrier unlocking (ie, all of their iPhones are permanently tied to their own networks), when it came time to go back to Australia, that second iPhone wouldn’t ever be able to work over there. And while I thought I could probably just break off the contract and sell off the phone, I got the feeling that would end up being prohibitively expensive anyway.

Just as I was about to give up hope and start looking at maybe buying a $20 clamshell phone from one of the companies, another friend pointed me in the direction of b-mobile. Thankfully, b-mobile was a proper pre-paid SIM card service, that worked outside of the scope of the main telephone companies.

b-mobile Pack

Getting a b-mobile SIM card was really easy. It was just a matter of jumping on Amazon Japan, buying the pack containing the SIM (Although we later discovered that there are certain electronic shops in Tokyo that sell them too), insert the SIM into the phone and then getting a friend with a proper Japanese phone to call the activation number.

That being said, there were a few catches. Firstly, there was no voice component; it was data only. That was okay though, since I usually do all of my communications through Twitter anyway, and the rare times I did need to do a voice call, I just used Skype for iOS.

The price wasn’t too bad either; it was ¥3,000 (Around 30 bucks) for 1GB a month (Which, given the wifi hotspot heavy nature of Japan), was more than sufficient. Recharging the SIM card was easy enough; you just jumped onto the b-mobile website, registered an account and used your credit card to recharge each month.

Another thing we discovered later on was that b-mobile also offer ‘combined’ packs with 2 SIM cards in them. So you could attach both an iPhone and an iPad to the same 1GB pool, and share between the devices.

And that was how I survived in Japan with my Aussie iPhone for 7 months.

As a quick disclaimer, this may not be the absolute BEST solution; just the one I ended up going with. If you do happen to know of a better solution (Something like a pre-paid SIM that offers voice and data, but doesn’t break the bank), please post it in the comments!

Finally, as a bit of a recent update to all of this, apparently the Japanese communications ministry have started considering enacting a law to force the Japanese phone companies to start allowing carrier unlocking on their handsets.

If that actually happens, that would be so, SO much nicer for all of us!

  • sean

    i believe bmobile also offers data/voice sim… trying to go get it tomorrow.

    • Yeah. That’s what I used when I lived in Japan for the longterm in 2013 (JCR would have been WAY too expensive).

      They’re good, but the lack of voice can be annoying sometimes.

  • Being a foreigner living in Japan is a little rough for the first month. I was able to use my Unlocked iPhone on NTT Docomo’s network and I’m sure it’s because it’s not an officially supported phone and they don’t know about the camera noise.

    • Yeah, tell me about it!

      Woah! Really? How did you get it working on NTT Docomo’s network? Do they actually do some kind of BYO device service now?

      Hahahahaha. Yup. I feel so special when I take my Aussie iPhone into Japan knowing that. XD

      • RobR

        As per my post below. I cant get data to work on my aussie iphone. Sim is via my company in Japan on NTT docomo. It works on my friends french iphone.

    • Hanakimi87

      Hi Adam. I will be in Japan soon and wanted to ask, how were you able to get on NTT DoCoMo’s network? Thanks in advance!

  • Jill

    I just saw on the website that the plan is now ¥3600 for up to 14 days only…does anyone know if the service changed, or if they offer a different version in stores?

    • Hey Jill!

      What? Really? Where did you see that? They were offering multiple versions in stores (Things like tablet+smartphone combo plans and the likes), so it’s not too farfetched there might be a 14-day plan.

  • Yoko

    Have you asked to Apple store about it? Apple sells exactry the same model, unlocked iPhone 5 in Japan. They therefore should know which carrier can provide service to us.

    • Oh you’re right! I just checked the Apple Japan website and it looks like you can buy unlocked iPhones directly from them now.
      I might have to ask at an Apple Store next time I’m in Japan then. Maybe things have gotten better since I was living in Japan in 2013.

  • NANI NUNENO

    I using Iphone5s bought from Thailand. I discovered your blog by the sudden and your info was very useful for me,though ! just a quick question. Do my iphone5s can connect with that sim card? and others thing i also found 6ヶ月定額SIM or 6months sim card(!?) which is the price is more expensive. which one is better for me cus i plan to study at japan about 6months.

  • RobR

    I have been trying to use my Aussie iphone 5s and iphoe 6 with a NTT Docomo sim but it will not work. I can make phone calls but cant use data. A colleague of mine has an iphone from France and it works fine. Other rented sims from here in japan work.

    • Chi

      I have the same issue, Did you try asking docomo if they can do something to your phone for data to work?

  • Em

    I’m planning on getting a bmobile sim since I’m going to study in Japan for 5 months. Do you think my host family would be willing to help me set it up?

  • Jin Munprakobkid Blackman

    Thanks for your information. I am going to Kumamoto University in 22 Sep 2016 for 1 year. I have iPhone 6 plus and iPad Air 2 Wi-fi so I would like to have internet / Skype (but not the phone call). Do you have any suggestion or sim card available at the Kumamoto Airport.

  • Jacinta

    Hi there. Do you know If you’re locked to a Japanese carrier if you buy the phone outright? I bought an iPhone 6 from AU and want to use it when I go back to Australia.

    • Hi Jacinta!

      I heard from a friend a week or so ago that if you buy an iPhone outright from a Japanese carrier, they come unlocked.

      That being said, I’m not sure if this rule applies to all carriers, so it would probably be a good idea to make absolutely sure before throwing down any money for a new phone!

  • Tatsujiro Kurogane

    Great article, but I do have a question. Given what you wrote here:
    >>>>>>>>The price wasn’t too bad either; it was ¥3,000 …… (Which, given the wifi hotspot heavy nature of Japan)………<<<<<<<<<<<<
    Where is this magical Wifi hotspot heavy Japan? I rarely go to Tokyo, but most of the Japan I get around in treats Wifi service like a rare and magical bean to be hoarded and guarded, and has the infastructure of Canada circa 2004. So…….do you mean specifically Tokyo or is there a new and wonderful tendency to let any old pleb use the available Wifi at said hotspots (and I was just there 3 weeks ago, btw)? And by use I mean, like a public Wifi spot in a developed country, without the onerous registration kerfuffle of Starbucks Japan, etc. (FYI, one must be registered with such services in advance to use the services offered at their shops, and cannot register on the spot using the available Wifi service, because to use that service one must have pre-registered to use said service before coming to the shop to use said service ;) ). Anyways, a question, and a thank you for a well written and informative article.

  • Anne

    I’ve found these options with MVNO: http://mvno.dmm.com/fee/index.html
    It’s wayyy cheaper than b-mobile but I’m not really sure if it’s prepaid or a contract XD
    Still $30 is really expensiveeee in my opinion !! In France I can get a 2€/ month with 2h voice, unlimited SMS and the data is only free up to 50MO but even if I use more I never had to pay more than 10€/ month for this …