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Voice calls options in Japan, as a foreign traveler

Now that the two laws that would restrict your cellphone usage in Japan are out of our way, let’s consider your options for voice calls in Japan.
The data-only SIM is a totally different subject. We will discuss it later.
Here, we’re talking about the cellphone options which enable you to make voice calls and SMS text messages in Japan.

Again, due to the reason (and a Japanese law) I wrote in
Two Laws regarding cellphone in Japan : No.1 “Buying” a local SIM – June 23rd, 2014
you’re not going to be able to “buy” a local SIM or cellphone service with a voice-call capability anywhere in Japan if your stay is less than 90 days there or if you don’t have a Japanese passport with a Japanese address written in it. So, don’t bother to spend time trying to find one. (Again, you can buy a data-only SIM in Japan.)

Option 1: Use the international roaming option of your own carrier in your country.
Option 2: Rent the voice-call capable cellphone or SIM in Japan at the arriving airport or elsewhere.
Option 3: Have your friend or colleague who lives in Japan to purchase a local prepaid phone, and borrow it.
Option 4: Use the so-called Global SIM.
Option 5: Use the VoIP call such as Skype.

Option 1: Use the international roaming option of your own carrier in your country.

This is the easiest way, because you can use the same phone you use in your country.
Unless you’re a T-Mobile US’s Simple Choice customer, this is the most expensive way, too. A minute of call can cost you $1.99 to $2.29 with a US carrier, both when receiving and making a call.
Another problem is that your phone number is still a foreign number. (A US number if you’re from USA.) Your Japanese friends, business associates, customers and hotels will have to make an international call to reach you even if you’re in the same country as they are. They may hesitate to call you, and in the worst case will not call you because it may be expensive for them to make international call. Maybe, they’ve never made an international call before, and simply don’t know how to dial to reach to your phone number.

However, this is the easiest way to make voice calls in Japan.

Depending on the contract you’re currently under, your cellphone plan in your country may not allow you to make roaming calls overseas (that is, in Japan). So, please check with your cellphone company before you leave your country so that you can make a roaming call in Japan.

And, most recent 3G/4G phones will be compatible with Japanese radio wave frequencies. But, no cheap 2G phones, please. There’re no 2G GSM radio wave used in Japan.

Please check the frequencies used in Japan in the following page:
Cellular phone frequencies used in Japan – June 23rd, 2014

How to dial in Japan:
In most cases, you simply dial a local number: For example, a call to a Tokyo number should be dialed as 03-xxxx-xxxx. A call to a Japanese cellphone should be dialed as 090-xxxx-xxxx or 080-xxxx-xxxx. (‘x’ is, of course, a number.)
To make a call to non-Japanese number, dial 010-‘country code’-‘phone number’, or +’country code’-‘phone number’. (‘+’ is a long push of ‘0’ in a smartphone.) For example, to make a call to a New York City phone number in USA, dial 010-1-212-xxx-xxxx or +1-212-xxx-xxxx.

Option 2: Rent the voice-call capable cellphone or SIM in Japan at the arriving airport or elsewhere.

There’re several cellular phone rental companies you can find at international airports in Japan, like Narita Airport.

In Japan, there’s no charge (that is, free!) for incoming calls on a Japanese phone.

Telecom Square rents Japan domestic phone at about $5 per day, $0.90 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers.
【Telecom Square (in Japanese)】Phone Rental for Japan domestic use
【Telecom Square (in Japanese)】Airport Counters Map

JAL ABC (a JAL subsidiary) has the domestic phone rental at Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai International Airports. You must reserve it in advance. The cost is about $2.5 per day for a rental phone, and $0.80 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers.
【JAL ABC】Rental Mobile Phones for Use within Japan
【JAL ABC】Pickup & Return Locations

Softbank Global Rental has the domestic phone rental at Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai, Sapporo (Shin Chitose) International Airports. The cost is about $3 per a rental phone + $5.40 ($2.60 on a web order) per day, and $1.10 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers.
【Softbank Global Rental】Rental Mobile Services
【Softbank Global Rental】Locations
【Softbank Global Rental】Domestic Rates

Mobal Communications has the domestic phone rental at Narita International Airport. Mobal has no daily rental fee, but the call rate is higher at $2.10 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers. At this rate, though, the roaming call cost of your own carrier from your country may costs you about the same. The only difference is that you get a Japanese phone number and your incoming call is free.
【Mobal Communications】Rental Mobile Services
Mobal has the SIM-only option, which uses the Softbank radio and is cheaper to make calls ($0.80 per minute) and free for all incoming calls. The communication cost is charged monthly to your credit card, with no monthly charge to keep the SIM. You can keep this SIM many months for your next trip to Japan.
【Mobal Communications】SIM card only (at the bottom half)

Pururu has the domestic phone rental at Narita, Haneda, Chubu and Kansai International Airports. You must reserve it in advance. The cost is about $15 per a rental phone (which covers the delivery to the airport pickup locations) + $4 per day, and $0.80 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers.
【Pururu】Rental Mobile Services
【Pururu】Rental Phone Basic Service
【Pururu】Airport Pickup & Return Locations

Other companies such as Global Advanced Communications will ship a rental phone to a postal office in the airport building where you can pick up the phone by showing your passport. Global Advanced Communications has a higher daily rental fee, but lower call rates. And, their SIM offer is the best if you plan to use the data (web) service in addition to voice calls with your unlocked iPhone or Android phone. Their data plan is unlimited.
【Global Advanced Communications】Rental Mobile Phones, SIM rentals and Mobile WiFi rental services for Use within Japan
【Global Advanced Communications】Airport Pickup Locations

Global Cellular (XCom Global) rents Japan domestic phone at about $4.5 per day, $1.80 per minute for calls made to Japanese phone numbers. (I can’t find their English page.)
【Global Cellular】Rental Mobile Phones for Use within Japan
【Global Cellular】Airport Counter Locations

Narita Airport website has the handy list of many cellphone rental companies that cater to foreign travelers to Japan.
【Narita Airport】Cellular Phone Rental

You may also find the phone rental company in your country, which has a phone model for your trip to Japan. This is a convenient way, if you can find one, because you get the phone and the phone number before you leave your country, and return it after you come back home by an overnight carrier, making it possible to use the phone until you board your return airplane.

Option 3: Have your friend or colleague who lives in Japan to purchase a local prepaid phone, and borrow it.

If you have a friend in Japan, or a colleague in Japan, who has a permanent residence address there, they can obtain a cellphone from Softbank. Well, KDDI au has one, too, but I heard that their email and messaging service is restricted. So, the prepaid service from Softbank is better.
The cost of phone itself is about $25 to $60 for a simple phone. The cost of prepaid card is 3000 Yen (about $30) or 5000 Yen (about $50), and is good for 60 days after recharge. The calls you make cost about $0.90 per minute. Incoming calls are free. You can also make international calls.

You may return the phone to your friend after the trip, or keep it for your next trip if you definitely plan to make your next trip within 360 days because the phone number and the SIM will be effective for 360 days after your last expiration of the recharge.

Refill cards can be purchased at any Softbank shops. The refill PIN numbers can be purchased at many convenience stores throughout Japan.

Option 4: Use the so-called Global SIM.

There’re so-called a Global SIM or an International SIM in the market which you can use the same SIM in more than 100 countries. Most of the SIM has a UK number. Some have the phone number from other European countries.

I am not going to recommend it for the use in Japan.
The reasons are:
– The rates may not be as good as or lower than other options.
– The phone number is still not a Japanese phone number, and people in Japan will not want to call your non-Japanese phone numbers due to higher international calling rates charged to them.
– Some of these Global or International SIM uses the ‘call back” system, in which you make a call and then hang-up to be reconnected by the call-back server.

Option 5: Use the VoIP call such as Skype.

There’re two reasons that this option does not work for you:
– First, as a non-resident of Japan, you’re not going to find an easy-connect public WiFi everywhere in Japan. Many public WiFi requires you to pre-register before you access it. And, you cannot pre-register for it on the spot if you cannot access it.
– The second problem is, due to the law, you’re not going to obtain a Japanese phone number through any of the VoIP service available. Thus, again, making it difficult for your friend or business that needs to call you because they have to make the international calls.
– And, not everyone has the Skype, Facetime, Google Voice, Line, Kakao Talk or any VoIP service.

Conclusions:

– If you’re planning to use your phone on an emergency situation only, consider using your own country’s phone through international roaming.

– If you plan to call many Japanese friends or colleagues in Japan, or plan to receive calls from them,
– – Rent a phone or SIM for the use in Japan at Japanese airports. It is recommended to make reservation through the web page in advance.
– – Have your friend or colleague buy a Softbank prepaid phone under their name and “borrow” it by paying the communication fees by yourself, if you plan to visit Japan frequently
– – Consider obtaining the Mobal SIM-only, if you plan to visit Japan frequently
– – – 【Mobal Communications】SIM card only (at the bottom half)

8 comments to Voice calls options in Japan, as a foreign traveler

  • jamar0303

    A couple of things that I don’t notice here:

    1. One more carrier in the US now offers affordable roaming to Japan. Sprint will give you unlimited domestic and US voice (oh, and text and data) in Japan for $5/month because they are now part of SoftBank. This does limit you to their network, however, and strangely enough, domestic numbers have to be dialed +81-xx-xxxx-xxxx, and not just 0xx-xxxx-xxxx.

    2. SoftBank counters in Narita and Kansai airports can sign you up for prepaid with just a passport. Smartphones are pricey, however- last I saw the start-up package was 20000 yen for a smartphone+SIM+10000 yen credit.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    For short-stay travelers, Softbank Japan roaming cost $5, but unlimited US-domestic-rate voice and 3G (and LTE?) data service is good.
    Both T-Mobile US and Softbank let you use 2G-speed data in Japan (and many other countries) for free and unlimited, which is good enough for checking emails or twitters.

    And, Japan WILL relax the Giteki-mark rules officially before May, 2016 so that any foreign traveler to Japan who plan to stay there for less than 90 days can legally use foreign phones with a local Japanese SIM without breaking the law.

    But, it is still a problem for any foreigner (Gaijin san) who plan to stay in Japan for more than 90 days.

    [Reply]

  • DK-ALT

    I’ve read this a few times, and it is a wealth of information! Thank you for that!
    I do have a question though.

    I’ve lived in Japan before (for a year) and knew about the needing a registration card to get a Japanese phone number etc ~ but I got a phone with the contract. However, this year I’m moving back to teach for a few years (everything’s arranged, and I’ll have my registration card a couple weeks after my arrival.

    So, that said… I have a Nexus 6P, factory unlocked (not locked to any carrier) and this same phone is available in Japan (through the Google Store, again, available factory unlocked).

    I will need a Japanese phone number, and a local carrier account… would you happen to know what companies might support obtaining a SIM for a phone like the Google Nexus that will allow an unlocked phone? I don’t mind a carrier that has a year-long contract as I’ll be there for quite a while. I might have simply overlooked something in your post (entirely possible). So… yeah! How might I get a Japanese phone number, with a voice-capable sim, and a decent plan (good data, bandwidth, speed, costs, etc) – assuming I already have the alien registration card, a local address, a job in Japan (I am working for the public school system), and a proper visa etc… is there a resource you could point me to? Or is there new info in 2016 that has some carriers like Softbank (which I had before, and quite loved) or AU/KDDI allowing newer phones to be used?

    Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    First of all, the Nexus 6P you bought in USA (& Candada & Mexico) is not exactly the same model as the Nexus 6P sold in the rest of the world.
    It does not cover many LTE frequencies used in Japan, except one.
    http://blogfromamerica.com/?p=29434 (in Japanese)

    For the past year or two, there have been many “prepaid SIM (MVNO)” companies that offer relaxed condition for obtaining SIM and plans, some of them for short-term foreign travellers who do not have Japanese alien registration card. Most of them uses NTT Docomo signals. We’re starting to see an MVNO which uses Softbank signals this year. And, some plans are data-only, but there’re a few plans with voice which can be bought by non-Japanese resident in Japan or even by a short-term visitor to Japan.
    There’s so many (maybe a dozen or so MVNOs with many different plans per each MVNO) and that the new plans are coming out every few months and that I don’t live in Japan and I can’t test them all, so I regret to say I can not have a one to recommend.
    And, some of these SIMs are prepaid in nature, but you have to pay “termination fee” of about $100 if you terminate the contract within 12 months.
    And, of course, if you have your Japanese alien registration card, it is easier to get one of these MVNO SIMs with voice services.
    These SIM are sold at the electric appliances shops such as Yamada Denki, or department stores such as Aeon, as well as online.

    Try companies like
    B-Mobile (Nihon Tsuushinn)
    http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/
    SONY Mobile
    http://www.sonymobile.co.jp/
    IIJmio
    https://www.iijmio.jp/hdd/visitors/
    U-Mobile
    http://umobile.jp/
    These are major ones. And, IIJmio has a non-Japanese friendly web pages.

    Legally, you’re still not allowed to use any phones with a Japanese SIM with a phone which does not have a Giteki mark, and your North-american version of Nexus 6P does not have one, I believe. But, there’s no way anyone can know your’re using it rather than a Japanese version. So, practically, you don’t need to worry.

    The only problem with Japanese MVNOs are that the data speed of these MVNOs are usually slow, and some of them are very slow like 1-3 Mbps. But, if you use WiFi indoors, this should not be a big problem. And, your US version of Nexus 6P does not support the main LTE frequencies of 2100MHz (Band 1) anyway.

    [Reply]

  • tishi

    which nexus 6P do you have?
    if you have “Google Nexus 6P A2 TD-LTE 32GB H1512”, you are compatible with SoftBank’s network.

    https://www.frequencycheck.com/compatibility/qZWc62/google-nexus-6p-h1512/japan

    -tishi

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    Google has always sold two Nexus versions, one in North America (USA/Canada/Mexico) and one in the rest of the world.
    North American version of 6P is H1511, and we can’t officially buy H1512 in USA unless bought from an importer.

    [Reply]

  • Neal

    Thank you for all the info, and your detailed replies to people’s comments! Of course, if you no longer live in Japan, I imagine you may not be up on the details, but I am going to ask anyway…

    Do you know of any VoIP service offering Japanese numbers, besides Skype?

    I bought a Japanese number through Skype a few days ago. $8.50 for three months, plus about 10 yen/minute w/ 10 yen connection charge. Cheap, ne? I thought I’d just pair it with a data-only SIM (and hack my Galaxy S5 to enable all LTE bands).

    Unfortunately, I just discovered that I can’t receive SMS (only send) through Skype. Plus, when someone receives my SMS, they see a non-Japanese number. Plus (!) when I call someone, they see “unknown number”. But I am able to receive calls… I can live with this, but I’d rather not.

    In a few days I’ll visit a friend who would be willing to “lend” me a voice-enabled SIM, but I already paid $4000 for this 60-day data-only SIM. So a VoIP option would be better. Or perhaps there’s a cheap voice/SMS SIM without data? (I have another SIM-free phone).

    I’ve been traveling in southeast Asia. in Cambodia, I paid $5 for a SIM and 3GB data, with a phone number and some SMS and talk time. I forgot how frustrating these things can be in Japan! And *so* expensive!

    Thank you, Alex!

    [Reply]

    Alex Yoshida Reply:

    I do follow Japanese SIMs to some degree from Japanese articles and twitter. But, I am not able to test them in Japan, so I haven’t written about those SIM info on this site.
    But, there’s at least one SIM which both has Voice (of course, with a Japanese phone number) and Data for a short-time foreign traveler to Japan. It’s called B-Mobile PayG SIM.
    http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/payg_sim/
    It circumbents the current law by using the entry stamp to Japan in your passport.
    Well, I found another one which started earlier this year:
    https://sim.telecomsquare.co.jp/
    And, you can get it at the Telecom Square shops at major international airports in Japan.

    Anyway, your question is about VoIP (Japanese phone number that starts with 050 prefix)
    I do have a Skype Japanese number, and I did research other Japanese VoIP numbers when I decided to get the Japanese number through Skype.
    There are several, in deed, which issues 050 (VoIP) numbers to anyone with a Japanese address (because of law, a Japanese address is required except for Skype).
    Popular examples are
    http://506506.ntt.com/english/ipphone/plus/index.html
    and SmarTalk
    http://ip-phone-smart.jp/smart_en/
    I have not tried enough to know that the own Caller ID can be turned on/off. But, the web pages say they both can.

    Again, unfortunately, due to the local law, you must have Japanese address to subscribe to. The monthly fee for SmarTalk is free, though.

    I don’t know why Skype can give 050 number to non-Japanese residents, but I suspect it is the only 050 service without Japanese address, and as you found out it can not send Japanese number’s Caller ID when calling.

    [Reply]

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