Buying a Mobile PhoneEdit

There are four major mobile phone companies. In order of popularity, they are:

The first three services are very similar. All three offer similar basic service (calling, email, and internet access). Reputation wise (your experience may vary):

  • DoCoMo has the largest service area, the best overall quality and service, but is the most expensive.
  • au is good for those concerned about cost. It has a famous discount plan for students. It also seems to have better coverage at the University of Tsukuba than other services (it often works inside the buildings where others don't).
  • Vodafone focuses on fun features (the trendsetter) at a more reasonable rate for those features, and perhaps is more popular with younger people who use phones as toys. Incidentally Vodafone is the largest cell phone provider in the world outside China.

TU-KA (pronounced tsu-ka) is a PDC system (a predecessor to the modern systems) by KDDI that is mostly designed for the big cities (it often works inside buildings and subway stations in Tokyo, while the others may not). Coverage outside the city is not as good as the other three services. In recent TV commercials they tout a simple easy-to-use phone ideal for older people.

A fifth and lesser known company, Willcom, offers PHS phone service and mobile internet connections.

For short stays in JapanEdit

In general, phones from other countries cannot be used in Japan.

The system used by DoCoMo and Vodafone in Japan (and South Korea) (WCDMA format) is "too new", and thus incompatible with nearly all other countries (which mostly use the older GSM format). If you have a North American or European phone, it will most likely not work in Japan. Apparently DoCoMo has a skeleton GSM system that is compatible with North American and European phones. Use of this service probably has to be arranged before coming. When a relative of mine came to Japan with a Cingular phone (GSM), we checked with DoCoMo and Cingular but it seems that the only available option was to rent a phone from DoCoMo or Vodafone, and put their SIM from home in the phone.

In simple terms most European and North American phones have two pieces; the phone which communicates to the local net, and a SIM card which identifies you, your number, and service provider. In principal you can take a North American (or European) SIM card out of your (GSM) phone, and put it in a Japanese (WCDMA) one. Then it would work as if you were at home (with somewhat higher calling rates). Vodaphone at Narita and DoCoMo rent Japanese (WCDMA) phones than you can put your SIM in. About $10 per day. So, only useful for short periods. If you can find a Japanese (WCDMA) phone to buy with an "unlocked SIM" you could do the same thing, but the phone must operate on a network that has an agreement with your phone company at home. For Cingular in the US, you must activate international roaming on your Cingular account before leaving to use your SIM in Japan.

au uses the cdma2000 format and does not support foreign phones or SIM cards. TU-KA uses the PDC format and also does not support foreign phones.

Note that each phone network around the world (mobile phone towers, underground connections, switching offices, etc.) is independently operated by each respective phone company. You can't just tune in like a radio and start using it. To use a phone on a DoCoMo network, it must be compatible with the DoCoMo network, and the phone must be identifiable as a subscribing customer (either a DoCoMo customer or that of a foreign affiliate with a roaming agreement like Cingular).

For Longer stays in JapanEdit

For people coming to Japan, the best value is probably:

  • for stays of a few days, rent a phone from DoCoMo or Vodafone to put your SIM card into
  • for stays of less than a couple of weeks or for those who don't have a SIM card, rent a phone (see links below)
  • for longer stays, subscribe to a local service like a resident
  • for those who visit several times a year, get a fancy international roaming-capable phone at home

Using your Japanese phone overseasEdit

It not possible to use Japanese mobile phones in other countries without making special arrangements.

For customers in Japan with DoCoMo phones who travel overseas, DoCoMo offers a service where they rent you a phone that works in the US. When you go overseas, people can call you from Japan using your usual number, and it doesn't cost them extra. You can also call anywhere in the world, and it gets billed to your DoCoMo account. Rates are much higher than the usual domestic rates of course, and you are billed for incoming calls as well. Email also works like usual. However, the coverage area in the US is not as broad as local phones.

Renting a Mobile PhoneEdit

  • Biscuit BNJ: 090-3688-9778 (Tom Suzuki)
  • GoMobile
  • Narita Airport
  • NTT Docomo: 0120-005-250
  • Telecom Square: 0120-388-212


Calling to a Japanese Cellphone from AbroadEdit

(Using a Foreign Cellphone Service)

(Using a Foreign Landline/Household Phone)

Mobile Phones and DrivingEdit

The laws regarding driving with cellphones changed on November 1, 2004. Before that time, it was basically illegal to use a cellphone when driving, but you would only be punished if you caused an accident. From that day forward, it became illegal to talk on the phone, write mail, check mail, or even have your phone in your hand. If you are caught doing any of these things, you will be fined and have at least one point taken off your license.

Here is a Japan Times article that discusses the new law: (registration necessary)

According to research done in Japan, "hands-free" phone devices are not that much safer than holding your phone. Drivers react 2.2 times more slowly when talking on a cellphone and 1.7 times more slowly when using a hands-free device.

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