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Two Laws regarding cellphone in Japan : No.1 “Buying” a local SIM

There’re two laws regarding the use of cellphones and electronics in Japan which you need to be aware of as a foreign traveler to Japan.

The first one is the requirement for obtaining the local cellphone service (whether it is a prepaid contract or a postpaid one), or even a local telephone SIM, in Japan.

Since April 1st, 2006, the cellphone-related law called “the Act for Identification, etc. by Mobile Voice Communications Carriers of Their Subscribers, etc. and for Prevention of Improper Use of Mobile Voice Communications Services”, or in short, “Mobile Phone Improper Use Prevention Act (携帯電話不正利用防止法)” requires anyone who intends to have a voice-call-capable cellphone service (whether it is a prepaid contract or a postpaid one) to show a proper identification which indicates that s/he has the residential (permanent) address in Japan. A hotel address is not sufficient for this purpose.

This law became necessary because Japanese authorities, and especially the law makers, consider the fraud using the cellphones became a social problem, and the police and other law enforcement agencies want the address of all the phone owners to be registered so that, if any crime is committed using a cellphone, they can find the owner and search his residence.

The official proof of residence includes

– Certificate of Residence which must be registered, and issued as a proof, at the municipal office where you reside,
– Japanese driver’s license, governmental health insurance card, or anything that will be issued with the proof of the Certificate of Residence mentioned above,
– Japanese passport, with the Japanese address (hand-)written in the address page by you,
– Proof of an alien registration for a foreign person living in Japan, again, registered and then issued as a proof of residence at the municipal office where you reside. The alien registration is issued only if you have a valid visa which permits you to stay in Japan for more than 90 days.

So, as a traveler to Japan, who does not possesses a valid Japanese passport (due to a dual citizenship) or does not have a visa to permit you to stay there for more than 90 days, you simply can not obtain any voice-call-capable cellphone service or a local cellphone SIM with a voice-call, whether it is a prepaid contract or a postpaid one, under your name, period.
No exceptions. No elaborations, and no further questions, please, period.

No one can do anything to circumvent this law, because I know the carriers and the store sales clerks and his managers have all been penalized before without asking a proper “proof of residence” paper.

So, here’s your choices:

For a foreign student to Japan, any business people and his family members who are going to live in Japan for a while, with a proper VISA:
– First, get yourself find a place to live, then register the address with a municipal office where you live in. Without this process, you’re not going to be able to get the cellphone service under your name, period.

For a shot-time foreign visitor to Japan:
You’re NOT going to be able to purchase a prepaid voice-call-capable cellphone service or SIM under your name anywhere in Japan, period. This is the law.
– If you have a friend or a colleague in Japan, have him obtain the prepaid SIM/phone (from Softbank) under his name. (The Japanese law permits anyone qualified to have upto 5 contract or prepaid phone lines.) You then “borrow” the SIM or cellphone from him and pay for the communications cost by yourself through a prepaid refill card.
You can still “rent” the voice-call-capable cellphone service or SIM at the arriving airport, or in your country before you leave. You’re required to show your passport when renting.
You may be able to obtain the special voice-call-capable SIM card outside of Japan under your name, called a Japan SIM, which you need to send your identification to the vendor when purchasing. (Limited shipping option. More detailed info in the future article.)

The law exempts the data-only SIM from requiring the proof of Japanese residency.
– So, you can still purchase the data-only SIM in Japan, or even before going to Japan. For example, a SONY subsidiary recently launched the data-only SIM at the major arriving airports in Japan, and even installed a vending machine to sell a data-only SIM at Kansai International Airport (KIX). (More about this later in this blog.)
* Even though the store clerks may not be familiar with a particular situation with foreign travelers purchasing Data-only SIMs and therefore can not help you activate the SIM you purchase, some of the data-only SIMs are sold at the electronics shops and book stores around the country.
You can rent the data-only SIM at the arriving airports, for iPhone/Android and other smart phones and iPads.
You can rent a Pocket WiFi (mobile WiFi router) at the arriving airports, or in your country before you leave.

Unfortunately, this option is for web-browsing, GPS locations and sending/receiving emails.
The Japanese friends or businesses will not be able to “call” you. But, if it’s OK, this is one option.

But, how about the public (free) WiFi in Japan.

Well, that’s the thing.
The government of Japan is trying to make it easy to access the public WiFi before the next Tokyo Olympic in 2020.
However, right now, it is just difficult to find the public (free) WiFi in Japan for a foreign traveler, except maybe at your hotel which you are staying. (More about this later in this blog.)
So, do not heavily count on the public, free WiFi in Japan right now.

Use your phone with your carrier’s international roaming plan.

Yes, of course, you can.
Except (for a USA traveler) AT&T’s Global Roaming Add-On, which you need to subscribe to before it becomes effective, and T-Mobile US’s slow 2G-speed free international data roaming, the data roaming cost is expensive. (If you’re a Verizon and Sprint customer, don’t even think about using the data as roaming in Japan.)
And, your phone number is still your country’s phone number, making your friend and business in Japan to make an international call to you even though you’re in Japan AND they’re in Japan. They will be hesitant to call you BECAUSE they have to make an expensive international call to reach you while you’re in Japan.

So, this is expensive for data usage, and NOT practical for a local voice call execpt in an emergency situation.

So, the conclusion:

Due to a local law, you’ll not be able to find a local SIM with the voice-call function when you arrive in Japan. No exception.
You can still find and purchase a data-only SIM locally.
Otherwise, consider renting a voice-call-capable SIM or a data-only SIM or a pocket WiFi (portable WiFi router) at the arriving airport or before you leave your country.
Public WiFi is not easy to use in Japan.
The last resort is to use your phone with an international roaming plan, especially if you’re a customer with AT&T and T-Mobile US in USA.

I hope to explain more details for each option in the coming weeks.

26 comments to Two Laws regarding cellphone in Japan : No.1 “Buying” a local SIM

  • Alain Lafume

    I wanted to know about the use of cell phones in buses and trains. Is their a law in japan that restricts you from doing that?

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Thanks for posting a question.

    There’s no national or local laws to ban the cell phone use in the public transportation or hospitals.
    There’re two reasons that the use of cell phone in the public transportation is considered “not polite” in Japan, and each bus/train companies and hospitals impose their own internal rules on the passengers or hospital visitors.

    First, people in Japan had long believed that the cell phone signal would interfere with the pace makers. It is only two years ago (2013) that the national government issued the report that the cellphones will not affect the pace makers in the heart unless they are positioned in the very close proximity to the heart devices. After the report, the association for senior people still begged that people turn off the cellphone in trains and buses because the many of the senior people had long (more than decades) believed that the cellphone interferes with the medical devices and that the association had difficulty to educate the senior people otherwise.

    Second, it has been the one of the Japanese moral discipline taught since they were small that they should stay quiet in the public place. Making the big voice in the public place is considered rude and annoying. It’s a big “No, No” in Japan. It is considered as a “public annoyance”.

    If you need to talk on your cellphone in the a or train, you need to lower your voice and make it short. Or, if you can, you should move to the area between the train’s cars where you don’t bother other people. If you need to talk on your cellphone in a restaurant or hospital, again, make it short, or go outside the restaurant or hospital.

    It is not the law, but it is the manner. And, sometimes the trains or buses or hospitals or restaurants post these “manner” inside to remind people and/or force it as the internal rules.

    [Reply]

  • A student in Japan

    I have read your two post of the laws regrading cell phones in Japan. It is of GREAT HELP MAN! It is so different from the systems from other countries. Have been in confused state from since I arrived weeks ago. I am an iPhone 5s(unlocked and just bought it 1 month ago) user. They keep telling me to buy a new iPhone with contract for two years(which I don’t really prefer) but my Japanese are not frequent enough to understand and communicate smoothly. I did some researches but there aren’t too many English forum that can help me. Can you please help me by telling me are there any postpaid or prepaid sim card for iPhone? I have student visa and I want both voice and data together’s sim card. Whether it is monthly plan or 2 years plan or whatever as long as I don’t have to buy a new phone. Or it can be if there is the option to trade my iPhone for a newer one with just a bit of cost. It will really become a great help!

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    There’re two problems in your case:
    Problem 1:
    Have you already registered your address with a municipal office? Have you received a copy of a certificate of alien registration or an alien registration card?
    If you don’t have it, you will not be able to get any SIM (or contract) that requires a voice service. You can still buy a data-only SIM without the proof of Japanese residence address (a certificate of alien registration). This is the Japanese law, and I don’t know how sweet a sales person talk to you prior to actually handing you a SIM or cellphone, he/she will encounter the problem if you don’t have it.

    Problem 2:
    Japanese postpaid cellphone companies, NTT Docomo, Softbank and KDDI au, will not provide a SIM unless you either buy a phone from them OR bring the phone which was originally sold at one of their stores or Japanese Apple Stores. (The phone can be a used or a second-hand phone, but has to be originally sold at one of their stores or Japanese Apple stores.) That is, if the serial number of the phone you want to use is not registered with their system, they can not issue a SIM.
    What some Japanese people do, if they want to use their own non-Japanese phone, is
    Step 1: Buy the postpaid service with the phone from NTT Docomo, Softbank or KDDI au with the contract.
    Step 2: As soon as you are out of that store, you can switch the SIM you just obtained to your own iPhone bought outside of Japan.
    Step 3: Sell your new iPhone you just bought at the NTT Docomo, Softbank or KDDI au shop to a second-hand shop or through a Japanese auction site.

    If you have a certification of alien registration and you want a postpaid contract and you want to use your own phone, the above steps is what you have to do. This is true even for a Japanese resident. (Of course, they use a driver’s license or equivalent instead of a certification of alien registration.)

    There’re several prepaid SIM companies (MVNO), and the list is growing in the last 12 months or so.
    Its monthly fees are cheaper than the postpaid, but may have some data speed restrictions, and unfortunately it is not friendly to non-Japanese users.

    Check
    https://www.iijmio.jp/hdd/visitors/
    http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/index.html
    http://lte.so-net.ne.jp/?SmRcid=sny_s_snt_tpGnv_all_SMPH
    http://umobile.jp/

    Sorry, I can not find the English pages for the last three.
    Note that a Japanese prepaid SIM still may have the termination fee if you terminate the plan within, say, 6 months. And, it charges the initial fee or activation fee.

    Another solution is to “rent” a SIM. For example,
    http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com/simrent.html
    Of course, it’s more expensive, but there’s no “red tape” you have to go through, you can terminate anytime, and it’s more friendly to “Gaijin-san (English-speaking traveler or temporary resident)”.

    [Reply]

  • A student in Japan

    Thanks for your reply admin! 🙂 The information you provided is very helpful 🙂 I hate region locked phone so I always prefer to buy unlocked iPhone. But it seems start from May, Japan will start to sell unlocked iPhone too. If that’s so I might have a better option ^ ^

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Japanese Apple Stores are already selling an unlocked iPhone 5s/6/6 plus even before this May 1 regulation becomes effective.
    You can buy an iPhone at the Apple store in Japan (in Japan only) today, and bring it to any of the 3 Japanese carriers for postpaid contract with one of them.
    This is already true.
    One thing about Japanese cellphone models are that they can not silence the camera shutter sound even when you mute the ringer sound. This is true with an iPhone bought in Japan. There’re no official law for this, but this is due to the industry self-regulation in order to prevent the picture taken without the knowledge of the person in the picture (TOSATSU).

    AND, for the government regulation that starts May 1, 2015, Docomo and KDDI have already announced on April 22 that
    1. They will unlock the SIM FOR CERTAIN MODELS, ONLY AFTER 6 MONTHS AFTER A CUSTOMER PURCHASED, and ONLY FOR THE MODELS THE CUSTOMER PURCHASED AFTER MAY 1, 2015.
    2. They will NOT UNLOCK A CERTAIN MODELS.
    It is expected that the iPhone will be the exceptions in 2.
    And, Softbank will announce about their unlock policy just before May 1, 2015.

    And, this is for their “unlocking policy”. Nothing is announced IF ANY ONE OF THE CARRIERS WILL ACCEPT THE UNLOCKED PHONE. And, the government is not forcing the carrier to accept the unlocked phones from other carriers or from outside of Japan. So, we don’t expect this situation will change soon.

    If you still want to use the unlocked phone you already own, your choices are simple. And, I repeat them here
    Choice 1.
    Step 1: Buy the postpaid service with the phone from NTT Docomo, Softbank or KDDI au with the contract.
    Step 2: As soon as you are out of that store, you can switch the SIM you just obtained to your own iPhone bought outside of Japan.
    Step 3: Sell your new iPhone you just bought at the NTT Docomo, Softbank or KDDI au shop to a second-hand shop or through a Japanese auction site.

    Choice 2.
    Look for the Docomo MVNO, such as IIJMIO, B-Mobile, So-Net, U-Mobile. They’re quite lenient about the phone you use, meaning you can use your own phone. Just buy SIM from them.
    There’re may be restrictions, such as the speed of data access, compared to MNO (NTT Docomo, Softbank or KDDI au ).

    Choice 3.
    Look for the SIM “rental” company such as Global Advanced Communications. This is good for a short-time stay. May be expensive for a long-time stay. But, I think they have the long-stay discount.

    [Reply]

  • A student in Japan

    Wow, that is a close call. About to think that I can trade the unlocked iPhone I have with the Japan Apple Store and then pay a bit more cash to buy a new unlocked iPhone. But the camera….sigh….well, this is Japan. I respect their decision….but I will have to think about whether I will be bothered by this camera thingy. It seems that your choice one is the best I can see right now and choice 2 second best. Btw, one thing I would like to know. How much will the phone I just buy worth in a Japanese auction site? Pardon me for being a total newbie in these area. I mostly will choose choice one or choice 2 depends on the situation after 1st of May. Really thank you for taking your time to reply 🙂 It really saves me from a lot of troubles 🙂

    [Reply]

  • A student in Japan

    New update: MVNO all require you to use Credit card not to mention it must be your own credit card. Which makes students almost impossible to sign up for MVNO.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I didn’t think about it.

    1.
    Don’t you have a credit card from your own country?
    Many online website rejects non-Japanese credit card. But, if you call the company’s customer service, most of them will accept and successfully register your non-Japanese credit card, though some of them may have to send you the document or a post card and you have to follow their directions.

    2.
    Try the prepaid VISA card such as V-Prica
    http://vpc.lifecard.co.jp/en/
    If you have a bank account in Japan, you can fund the prepaid VISA card from your Japanese bank account, and use it as a credit card online.
    V-prica is the oldest, but there’re more these days. SO, check others too, such as Vanilla prepaid VISA.
    http://vanilla-online.jp/
    (I can only find the Japanese page for Vanilla.)

    [Reply]

    ThuyTung Reply:

    But when I register to the V-Prepaid or Lifecard, itz required me to have a phone number to register. I want a credit card to have a phone number and credit card require phone number. Just like a circle:”((

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    Japanese banking and financial laws are not friendly to non-Japanese residents either. You must be a “resident” of Japan to receive benefits of Japanese banks and financial institution.
    Checking a (Japanese) phone number is one of the way to check your residency in Japan.
    The phone number to register V-Prica can be any phone number that you can be contacted. Your apartment phone number, a fix-line phone number, a friend’s phone number (get permission to use first), company or school phone number, etc. In fact, I was not contacted by V-Prica by phone even once when I had the active account.
    I am sure once registered, you can change it later to your cell phone number.

    admin Reply:

    Since V-Prica started services several years ago, there’re more prepaid credit cards available in Japan. Many of them I am not aware of in details. I am not surprised if there’re a Japanese prepaid credit card you can “refill” at a convenience store’s counter or ATM’like machine with cash. Please do some research on this subject on your own.

    [Reply]

  • qim

    Hi

    I’m confused over the availability of voice SIM cards for foreign visitors. I read that they are not allowed, I read that some operators offer them.

    What is the situation, legal and in practice?

    [Reply]

    Admin Reply:

    B-Mobile sells PAYG SIM since August, 2014. You have to send a picture of your entry stamp to Japan on your passport within a few days of activating the SIM. Otherwise, the service may be terminated.

    As you mentioned, Softbank’s reseller (GSM Rentafone Pty Ltd.) sells at the airport counters the Softbank’s prepaid SIM to travellers which seems to be the same SIM/service offered to domestic customers.

    There’re several SIM rental services in Japan, which you can get for iPhone, too, with voice calls and data.

    I hope more will be available as the law is relaxing before 2020 Tokyo Olympicfor for short-time travellers (less than 90-day stay).

    [Reply]

  • qim

    I’ve just contacted Softbank at Haneda. They tell me that they an sell SIM for 8000 yen:

    Here’s their message:

    The prepaid service is exclusively for Android users. You can choose from: 3

    1. 8,000 yen
    2. 5,000 yen
    3. 3,000 yen

    You are required to get a 700MB Data Plan including unlimited texting (2,916
    yen) from your purchased amount, available for 7 days.
    The remaining amount can be used for calls or additional data usage but you
    can only use data up to a maximum of 1.4GB.
    The SIM card will expire within 14 days of your purchase.

    Could you comment, please?

    [Reply]

    Admin Reply:

    It’s this:
    http://www.softbank-rental.jp/e/selection-acc.php
    I didn’t know there’s a 14-day expiration date for this one. And, I don’t see any mention of the 14-day expiration on the above page.

    Softbank has had a prepaid smartphone (Android) SIM for a few years now domestically. This SIM is just the same SIM/service for foreign travelers, I assume.
    As I wrote in the most recent article, the law is relaxing for any foreign traveler to Japan for less than 90 days of stay.
    B-Mobile already has PAYG SIM for a traveller for about a year now, with which you can make voice calls as well, but has to show the entry stamp to Japan on your passport to continue to use it after an initial period of few days.

    This “Softbank” counter at the major airports will probably ask the same type of proof that you’re not staying in Japan for more than 90 days.

    BTW, the counters at airports are managed by a 3rd party “franchisee”. They are not the Softbank direct sales counters.
    And, they do have a SIM “rental” for iPhones.
    http://www.softbank-rental.jp/e/rental-plan-ib03.php
    Ask if they have a Nano SIM (they should), too.

    [Reply]

  • J. Petruff

    Actually this is not totally true! I have had a cell phone for over 20 years in Japan with no Japanese Drivers License or Gajin Toruku; and so have the other THOUSANDS OF US MILITARY, spouses, and dependents. So the “No-exception” is not true at all. NTT DOCOMI, AU KDDI, and SoftBank All love the millions of yen earned from the Military! So how do they get around the law? After many years with NTT DOCOMO, I am trying to move to DMM Mobile and save hundreds of dollars a year but am having trouble because of the law. What ever is allowing Military to have cell phones with the major companies should apply to the MVNO SIM-card companies as well. Hopefully I will find a solution soon.

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    Your’re right. Under the “Agreement under Article VI of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America, Regarding Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Japan”, US military personnel and its family members (and only them) do not require Alien registrations (Gaijin-Toroku) to live in Japan.
    US Military personnel has many other exceptions while in Japan. And, most times, US law or US military law governs within the US military bases in Japan.

    [Reply]

  • Kesen

    Not sure when this was last updated. But for those without Resident status, you can infect obtain a prepaid SIM from Softbank at four of the major airports, if you absolutely have to as they are quite expensive . There are two options you can purchase a stand alone sim with either 3000, 5000, or 8000jpy value, but it will automatically expire in 14 days unless you recharge during this time. Or another option is to buy a phone and SIM combo for frequent travellers to JP, but it’s like 15,000 for a obviously crappy phone and 10,000 for the sims value. That being said it’s not true that you simply cannot obtain a voice sim in Japan because of the law as a couple carriers now are starting to make options available .

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    It is now legal to use a non-Japanese phone AND buy a SIM for a traveller to Japan upto 90 days at a time.
    Please read
    http://eng.blogfromamerica.com/archives/116

    [Reply]

  • Ei

    I became the student at one Japan university since 3 months ago and I can’t make the credit card to buy the SIM card . I don’t want to buy the new phone with post paid card with contract cause I just bought the new I phone from US and I like my phone. I already have a 4 yeared residence card as a student . I tried4 times to receive credit card in different location. But I could not get the credit card. My question is if I could buy the iPad with post paid SIM card and change this card to my iPhone ? .

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    I don’t think an iPad SIM would work for an iPhone. Japanese carriers make SIMs specific for a particular service and a plan/device, and a SIM for a particular SIM/device may not work with a device which is not intended to be used for the particular SIM.
    Besides, an iPad SIM is not going to be able to make a voice call for sure.

    I assume you now have a Japanese bank account. If not, get one with a residence card.
    Then, get a VISA prepaid card like ”V-Preca”
    http://vpc.lifecard.co.jp/en/
    It does not issue a physical plastic card, but you can use it as a VISA credit card for online payments with Japanese merchants in Japan. And, you can reload balance anytime at any amount from your Japanese bank account.

    V-Preca is one of the oldest prepaid VISA (or MasterCard) card. There are quite a few more prepaid VISA/MasterCard cards which recently became available in Japan, which I am not familiar with so much and don’t have experiences using them. But, some of them may actually issue a plastic card which can be used at physical shops. Do some research, or ask around your friends.

    [Reply]

  • Having read this Ibelieved it was really informative.

    I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this short article together.I oncee again find myself personally
    spending a significant amount of time both reading
    and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

    [Reply]

  • Au

    Hi admin, i will be staying in japan for about 2 years, any recommendations for any prepaid sim cards?

    I bought a softbank prepaid sim and cellphone tru amazon, but its useless, i cant not use it, since the sim is unregistered.

    I dont want to use postpaid plan since its too expensive, besides i just need a japanese cellphone number.

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    SONY Mobile
    http://www.sonymobile.co.jp/
    IIJmio
    https://www.iijmio.jp/hdd/visitors/
    U-Mobile
    http://umobile.jp/
    Or, go to any large electronics shop such as Yamada Denki or Bic Camera or Yodobashi Denki, which sell “KAKUYASU (very cheap)” SIMs.
    There’re many MVNO companies which sell SIM-only. Mostly NTT Docomo MVNOs.
    There aren’t many (any) Softbank MVNOs.
    Due to the relaxation of regulations last May (of 2016), you should be able to obtain these SIMs.
    If you have a problem with not having a Japanese credit card, obtain a prepaid (Japanese) VISA card for paying these SIMs monthly.
    Make sure your phone is compatible with Japanese signal (frequency). If you mainly want a voice-only service, you phone should be compatible 2100MHz 3G (Japanese main cell band).

    [Reply]

  • Joseph

    Whatever you do don’t use Softbank for your Japanese phone plan! So many of my friends in the military chose softbank and received unexpected orders to be stationed elsewhere and were forced to pay hundreds of dollars to this horrible company to get out of their contracts! Even though softbank is on base and shops are numerous, save yourself the headache, time and money and go off base to AU or another carrier. You will thank yourself.

    [Reply]

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