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.
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.
Finally!! Communications ministry calls for end of SIM lock & Softbank CEO Son flips a table, expressing outrage http://t.co/NtlmXybd6m
— Rekishi no Tabi (@RekishinoTabi) July 1, 2014
If that actually happens, that would be so, SO much nicer for all of us!