Created for expats living in Japan

Japanese Mobile Phones: Plans, Coverage, and Services

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From the iPhone to the latest Android devices, Japanese mobile phones are outfitted with the latest technology with designs to suit every taste; whether you want to use them mostly for data exchange, phone calls or something else depends on your needs and lifestyle. Below, we provide a comparison of the three major Japan mobile carriers as well as MVNOs, focusing on plan types, network coverage and customer service–all to help you make the best decision when it comes to choosing your mobile phone in Japan. If you are considering purchasing a SIM Free mobile phone, please read Buying a SIM Card in Japan.

Japanese Mobile Phone Market Share and Plan Types

In terms of the major Japan mobile carriers, Docomo leads the Japanese mobile phone market with about 50% market share, followed by AU and then Softbank. Ask most Japanese people and they will probably say that Docomo has the largest number of satellites for mobile reception, AU has the most phone choices, and Softbank has the most options offered for data usage.

There are a wide variety of Japanese mobile phone plans to fit every type of user, from the heavy data consumer to the long talker who never hangs up. All three carriers offer numerous contract types based on data usage, number of minutes, and number of texts included in the basic package. The following is a basic outline of plan options available during your stay in Japan. 

1. Contracts with Major Carriers (Docomo, AU, SoftBank)

Signing up with the major three carriers (Docomo, AU, SoftBank) in Japan comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Here's a summary:


Extensive Coverage: The major carriers have wide network coverage across Japan, especially in urban areas. You can expect good signal strength and data connectivity in most places.

High-Quality Service: These carriers offer high-quality communication services with reliable connections, fast data speeds, and clear call quality.

Variety of Plans: They provide a range of mobile plans to suit different needs, including data-heavy plans, family plans, and options for international use.

Smartphone Subsidies: You can often get the latest smartphones at discounted prices when signing a contract with these carriers, making it more affordable to upgrade your device.


Cost: Mobile plans in Japan, especially those offered by major carriers, can be relatively expensive compared to other countries. Data and call charges can add up quickly.

SIM Lock-In: Major carrier's SIM cards are often locked, so you will need to either consult with the carrier to unlock it or go through the procedure yourself.

Complex Plans: The variety of plans can be overwhelming, and it may be challenging to find the best plan to suit your specific needs. Understanding all the terms and conditions can be time-consuming.

English Customer Support: While major carriers offer customer support, English-language support may be limited, potentially causing difficulties for non-Japanese speakers.

Alternative Options: There are alternative mobile providers, known as MVNOs, that may offer more flexible and cost-effective plans. However, coverage and support may vary with these providers.

The major three carriers in Japan (NTT Docomo, AU, and SoftBank) eliminated early termination fees for all contracts. However, specific terms and conditions may vary among carriers and change over time. Therefore, thoroughly reviewing contract terms, plan details, and pricing structures is crucial before making a decision.

It is essential to carefully consider your usage patterns, budget, and preferences when choosing a carrier in Japan. Each of the major carriers has its strengths and weaknesses, so researching and comparing their offerings is advisable to make an informed decision.

2. MVNO Plans

Unlike major carriers, mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, don’t own the networks they use - they also don’t have physical stores of their own. As these things lead to lower overhead cost among other convenient features, it’s no wonder that this option is gaining popularity.

Pros: If you already have an unlocked mobile phone in Japan, and want to continue using it rather than getting a new one, then this plan is the best for you.  It is also less expensive as you do not have to pay for the phone itself.

Cons: As you own your phone, it is up to you to get a replacement in the event of loss or breakage. Also, if you happen to lose your SIM card, you may not ask for the same phone number. Bad reception was common in rural areas however, the system has been improving recently.

In our article Buying a SIM Card in Japan, you can find several MVNOs in Japan and some of them have English-Support.




What You Need in order to Get a New Mobile Phone in Japan (For Major Carriers)

Getting a new mobile phone in Japan is a pretty lengthy process, so be prepared to spend an hour or two at the shop where you plan to get your phone. Although there are some centers that have English-speaking staff, it is still best to have someone you can clarify some things with, so please bring a Japanese friend or colleague with you to help.

Basically you will need:

1. If you are under 20 years old, you need a personal guarantor (and his or her identification documents) who can sign for you. Take note that underage individuals cannot apply for their own phone contracts.

2. Proper identification - your residence card, My Number card, or passport are the safest choices). You will also need to provide identification documents such as a driver's license or a My Number card, which have your current address listed.

3a. Bank information or Credit card - You will need documentation that includes your account name, account number (such as a bank passbook or cash card), along with a financial institution seal.

3b. If you prefer to pay with a credit card, be sure to bring it with you.

Where to purchase SIM cards in Japan

In our article below, we explain where to purchase Japanese SIM cards, what kinds of SIM cards are available, how to purchase them for long-term residents and short-term residents/tourists. You can also find SIM card retailers with English-Support.

Using Pocket WiFi

These are rental companies for pocket Wi-Fi with 100% English support. Choose one based on your length of stay, data requirements, and budget.

> Internet in Japan: Finding English-Speaking Providers in Japan