A lot has changed in the mobile phone landscape in Japan over the last few years.
Cell phones used to be very heavily restricted. You had a choice of three large companies, all offering near-identical packages and prices, with customer service standards that generally fell well below what you would come to expect from Japan.
To make matters worse, it was nearly impossible to bring a phone into Japan and use it on one of these networks. If you didn’t buy one of the company’s phones on an overpriced two-year plan, then you couldn’t get access to its network.
Thankfully, this all changed a few years ago, when the government brought an end to the restrictive practice that was the blanket ban on phone unlocking in Japan (the process of making a device capable of working on any carrier network). That being said, figuring out the best option for a phone in Japan is still extremely tricky.
In this quick guide, GaijinPot will walk you through the following topics:
- Unlocking your Japanese phone (even if you bought it before May 2015)
- The difference between “SIM-free” and “unlocked”
- Do’s and don’ts for switching to a cheaper network or plan
- Options for short-term phone plans
- Finding a SIM-free smartphone
- Do’s and don’ts of buying a SIM-free phone to use in Japan
Unlocking your Japanese smartphone
Now, any phones bought after May 2015 can be unlocked provided you have been with the carrier for more than 180 days. Some carriers may try to play dumb in this regard. But it is the law, and they cannot refuse to unlock your phone provided you meet these conditions. A phone that has been unlocked should, in theory, work on any network worldwide.
However, bandwidth differences mean that you may not get full functionality. For example, a phone that gives 4G coverage in Japan may only give 3G coverage elsewhere and vice-versa. A number of phones will not work at all outside of Japan, but these days the number of phones with this problem is small and continues to drop year by year.
So, unless you’re very unlucky, unlocking is a great way to free up your options for pursuing cheaper phone plans.
Of course, if you’re planning to cancel your current contract then you will need to pay off whatever amount remains to be paid on the phone too, plus any cancellation fees.
However, you do not necessarily need to cancel your contract in order to unlock the phone. For example, a friend of mine was going home to England for a month during the summer and he wanted to use a local pay-as-you-go SIM card. He unlocked his phone but continued to use SoftBank until his contract ran out some six months later. (This may only be an option depending on your contractor, so do look into that.)
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