How and why to get a Japanese phone number

If you're planning on staying here for a while, it pays to sign up for a phone number
How to get a Japanese phone number | Time Out Tokyo
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |
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By Claire Williamson

If you’re planning to stay in Japan for any extended period of time, it’s a good idea to get a Japanese phone number. Of course, with the plethora of free messaging apps available, you might feel like it isn't worth the hassle, but in order to rent an apartment, ship a package, open a bank account and complete other logistical tasks, having a Japanese number is a necessity.

There are three big phone companies in Japan – Softbank, Docomo and Au (KDDI) – that you can choose from, plus several discount carriers including Yahoo's Ymobile and UQ. As a rule of thumb, Softbank and Docomo are the most English-friendly.

Depending on if you want to stick with your current phone or purchase a new one in Japan, you should look closely into the various plans to see what’s best for you. Softbank offers prepaid phone options, or you could purchase a prepaid data-only SIM card or another SIM card through an independent provider if you happen to have an unlocked phone.

But for those of you planning set up a standard phone plan and contract, this article will break down what to expect when you go to do the deed, while also suggesting an inexpensive alternative if you really only need the bare basics.

WHAT TO BRING

When you head to the phone store to set up your contract, remember to bring all of the following:

• Some form of official ID. This could be a Japanese driver’s license or My Number card, but most likely you’ll want to bring both your passport and residence card (make sure you’ve registered it at your local ward office)
• A credit card
• A hanko (personal seal) if you have one. If not, your signature should suffice
• Something to keep you busy while you wait

WHAT TO EXPECT

If you don’t speak much Japanese or would prefer to conduct the transaction in English, you can check online to see if any of the company’s branch offices have English-speaking staff. (Check Softbank here and Docomo here.) Either way, set aside at least two or three hours and prepare to do a lot of waiting.

Once an employee is available to consult with you, they’ll walk you through your various options for phones and/or contracts and make copies of your ID.

Once you decide on a plan, they’ll ask for a credit card. Generally the first month’s payment (which will likely include a one-time startup fee) has to happen via card.

Don’t have a credit card attached to a Japanese bank account? Don’t worry – after the first month’s payment you can go back to the store and submit a fairly simple request to change the method of payment from credit card to bank remittance (ginko furikomi, 銀行振込).

The staff will then submit your phone and contract application to the company. This is when you have to wait again – usually 45 minutes to an hour – to see if your application has been approved or not.

If your application comes back rejected, the staff most likely won’t even be able to tell you why – you’ll just have to tweak your phone or contract plan and try again.

And if your plan was accepted? Congratulations! You now have a Japanese phone number. 

HOW TO SAVE MONEY

The least expensive way to get a Japanese phone number is to either use your own phone with a 'discount' (kakuyasu, 格安) SIM card, or purchase a used phone to go with a discount calling plan.

Old-school flip-phone from Docomo

If you're buying, used is the key here. Even a galakei (flip-phone, ガラ携) purchased new from a major provider like Softbank would cost about ¥30,000.

If you know you won’t be making many calls, a used galakei and corresponding charger will only set you back around ¥3,500. It’ll add a bit more time to your appointment, but after discussing options you can have a clerk write down the model numbers of secondhand phones the company will accept.

Then just run to the nearest used electronics store, purchase a hand-me-down phone, and head back to the phone shop to finish processing your payment.

A basic talk-only plan is a mere ¥1,000-1,500 per month, so for those of you on a budget this is the recommended way to get a Japanese phone number.

Even if you don’t need to use your Japanese phone all that much, ¥1,500 per month is a small price to pay for the convenience of having one when the need arises.

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