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Life in Japan - How I Cut My Mobile Phone Bill In Half

I had had enough of Softbank.  I wanted out.  I had to free myself from their oppressive chains of subjugation.  Oh, and I also detest their obnoxious commercials.  But at the same time I was married to the iPhone.  Au was my other option, but I would be trading one oppressor for another.  I wanted freedom--total, complete freedom from contracts, obligations, over-priced sub-par service, and that stupid white dog.  I ascertained the only way to achieve such freedom was with a SIM unlocked phone plus a SIM-only pay-as-you-go (PAYG) service provider.  With these 2 things I would be able to escape from Softbank's dictatorial rule for good.

Step 1: Buy an Unlocked Phone
At the time of writing this, I had learned the hard way that getting a Softbank iPhone factory unlocked is impossible.  Softbank refused to do it (even after completing contractual obligations), and any website claiming to do it is a scammer.  The only possibility would be if a Softbank worker went rogue and did it.  However, given the underhandedness of this method, your phone would most certainly be blacklisted after Softbank uncovers the rogue.  There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel, however.  The Japanese government passed a law going into effect in 2015 that will force all providers to unlock phones after contractual obligations have been met.  Swish! 

But why bother with 2-year contracts and over-priced service in the first place?  Instead, I vote for flat-out buying a factory unlocked phone from a reputable vendor.  Unlocked Android phones abound on Japanese shopping sites like Rakuten; but when it comes to unlocked iPhones, I present 2 recommendations:

* The Apple Store (duh!)
You're guaranteed to get what you pay for.  Up until recently this was not an easy option for those of us living in Japan because the Apple Store here did not sell unlocked phones.  But that has finally changed!  Japan's Apple Store has finally started selling unlocked iPhones, so now step 1 is very easy.  I recommend avoiding purchasing overseas iPhone models if you're based in Japan since they often differ by country.  Overseas models will probably work, but may not get LTE.  Please refer to this chart from Apple: http://www.apple.com/iphone/LTE/
 
* Expansys
This is the road I traversed because at the time Japan's Apple Store was not selling unlocked iPhones.  They sell an assortment of unlocked phones at reasonable prices, and best of all they ship internationally.  I ordered a factory unlocked iPhone 5 from them, and it arrived (from Hong Kong) within days.  My savior!

Step 2: Get Contract-less Pay-As-You-Go Service
This is gaining momentum in Japan as I've seen a number of ISPs start offering data-only plans for smartphones / tablets.  All those I found are reselling NTT Docomo's service sans the 2-year contract and phone.  While it is possible to mimic the functionality of a smartphone using a data-only plan plus a VoIP service like Skype, the VoIP industry isn't quite there yet in my opinion.  Namely, you can't call emergency services using VoIP--a serious and potentially life-threatening shortcoming.  What to do?

At the time I went with a provider known as B-Mobile; however, a myriad of other companies have since joined the MVNO fold: SIM-Only Mobile Providers in Japan.  Bmobile had been in the SIM-only business much longer than the ISPs recently jumping on the bandwagon, so they offer a more diverse portfolio of service options, including full phone service and pre-paid SIMs.  I started with a one-month pre-paid data-only SIM as a trial (easily purchased through Amazon), where I soon learned that VoIP can't fully replace traditional mobile phone service.  As my 1 month of data-only service waned, I signed up for their monthly phone plus data LTE plan.

So after roughly 1 month of using BMobile, here are my impressions:

Good
* Docomo's network is so much better than Softbank's.  I can even surf the internet on the train.  I like to stream music to/from work, and it rarely cuts off anymore.  The music would almost always cut off between train stations on Softbank.  I streamed music while riding my bike recently, and it didn't cut off once.
* It's half the price.  Softbank was 6000~7000 a month for me, while BMobile is in the 3000~3500 yen range.  No more white plan lies and manipulations!
* If I want out, I can get out quite easily.  The monthly plan has a 2-month obligation, but that's negligible compared to 2-year contracts and penalties that all the major carriers enforce.

Bad
* I can't get LTE on my iPhone 5.  It says 3G.  This is probably to do with the iPhone bands and other complicated stuff.  Or perhaps they block it from using LTE since it's a bandwidth-hogging iPhone.  In their defense, BMobile does provide a list of phones that support their flavor of LTE.  I've read that 4G/LTE is such a mess because the providers all did their own thing.  Docomo, Au, Softbank, and Emobile all have different definitions of 4G/LTE. 
* I ran a "speed test," and I don't get anywhere near full 3G speeds.  While the signal may be strong, the speed is not.  This is the recurrent complaint you'll see written in reviews of BMobile on Amazon.  Functionally it's been fine for checking email and other light web tasks, but things like tethering are painfully slow.  I have flashbacks to my modem days when I tether.
* The signal bars don't appear.  Apparently that's normal, and it hasn't been a big deal to me.

Step 3: Sell Your Provider-Locked Phone
Love 'em or hate 'em, Apple products maintain awesome resale value.  Even a used Softbank carrier-locked iPhone will command a decent price, provided it's free from contractual obligations.  You can check if your phone is under any obligation using this Softbank site: https://ct11.my.softbank.jp/WBF/icv

Enter your IMEI, and if you get an "O," you're good to go.  If not, then be sure to terminate any and all Softbank contracts before selling your phone.  This part should be fun since you can tell Softbank to go suck an egg.

Next, use an auction site like Yahoo Auctions Japan to sell your used phone.  Potential buyers may ask for your IMEI so they can check your phone's contractual status themselves.  Albeit a reasonable request, this was a tough one for me because the IMEI could also be used for shady business, including changing the IMEI of a stolen and/or blacklisted phone.  The best approach I found was photographing the IMEI in one of your auction item photos.  At least this way it's unlikely the IMEI would be auto-harvested by an evil web bot.  Alternatively, you could provide the IMEI on an as-needed basis.

Final Thoughts
You may be thinking that the cost of entry to the unlocked phone world is high.  Yes, it is.  Instead of entering an over-priced 2-year contract that subsidizes the cost of the phone, you pay the full price of the phone upfront.  Consider this:
* The resale value of an unlocked phone is awesome.  Check what used factory unlocked iPhones go for on auction sites, and your reservations may abate.
* It's the cost of freedom.  You can switch providers anytime you want.  No more penalties or contracts.  You can switch phones whenever you want.  No more paying it off for 2 years.  Get a new one and sell off the old one.  No problem.  Let freedom ring, dude.
* Every time you see one of those stupid Softbank commercials, you can smile knowing you're no longer giving that tyrannical white dog any more of your hard-earned yen.

UPDATE
As my 30-day / 1GB data-only BMobile SIM ended, so I moved on to their voice+data LTE smartphone month-to-month plan.  Here are my impressions so far:
* I have signal bars now.  Apparently, the previously-mentioned "no signal bars" thing only affects their data-only offerings.
* I pay about 3060 yen per month, and outbound calls are extra of course.  I'm planning to use VoIP services like Skype whenever possible to save money on calls.  I rarely make calls anyways since I don't have any friends.
* Data speed still isn't that great.  Data-heavy things like streaming and tethering suffer, but light tasks like checking email and web browsing are OK.  I pay half what I did with Softbank, so I'm not going to complain (yet).  Plus, I have wifi at both home and office, so it hasn't been a deal-breaker for me.
* After more research I learned that Docomo-supported Xi phones will get LTE (essentially the phones listed on BMobile's website).  BMobile's mobile data cards will too.  I'm tempted to try one of these someday to see if the data speed improves, but I've read that getting a Docomo smartphone (even unlocked ones) to tether can be challenging.  This is changing; however, as more providers and phones allow and support tethering.
* I borrowed an Emobile (now known as Ymobile) data card from my office, sticking it in my backpack on the way to/from work and connecting my iPhone to it.  Data performance was awesome, as you'd expect.  So using a mobile internet service like Ymobile, Wimax, or BMobile's own (for example: 日本通信 bモバイル4G WiFi3 (LTE対応WiFiルーター・SIMフリー端末) オブシディアンブラック [BM-AR5210BK]) could be a workaround for getting better data performance.  I'm not the biggest fan of carrying around 2 devices, though.  If I were a normal person--i.e. not an IT geek that runs servers out of his house--I would probably use a wifi anywhere device as my home internet connection and take it on the road when necessary.  That way I'd only pay for two things: mobile internet and mobile phone, instead of three: home internet, mobile internet, and mobile phone.  It is also possible to be super-minimalist and use smartphone tethering for the internet connection, reducing it to just 1 device.  Personally, I doubt performance would meet my IT-geek requirements, though.

In summary I'm a little disappointed in the data speed; but overall happy since my mobile bill is now half what it was, and my contract obligation is only 2 months.

UPDATE - 2014/1/12
I often receive questions asking which phones can be used with Bmobile's service.  Please see this list: http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/devices/devices.html  Generally speaking, the phone has to either be provider unlocked or an NTT Docomo-branded phone.

You may also be interested in my follow-ups to this article:
SIM-Only Mobile Providers in Japan
23 - Mobile Phones in Japan
NTT Docomo iPhone 5s and BMobile LTE
Japan Mobile Phones - BMobile FAQ

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  • Guest - Kim S

    Question?
    You said "That way I'd only pay for two things: mobile internet and mobile phone, instead of three: home internet, mobile internet, and mobile phone".... what would the simplest way to do this be? I'm in Japan for a year and I brought all my gadgets (ie iPad, Galaxy Tab, MacBook) with me so I am looking for internet and basic phone. I have no problem with the upfront cost of buying an unlocked phone but I'm a bit confused on the mobile internet thing. Thanks.

    from Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - Kim S

    I updated the article to explain that a bit better, but I suggest listening to episode 23 of the Japanatron podcast. The link to it is near the bottom of this article.

  • Guest - Jonathan H.

    So, I'm happy to go down the Apple store purchase route next time (previously Softbank 3GS, 2 years & 4S, 4 years). Depending whether they announce a mini iPhone 6 in autumn 2015 I'll either pick up one of 'those' or go for the trusty 5S 'coz the regular iPhone 6 is a two-handed operation and I like to hold on to something on the train! Is it JUST a case of popping out the SIM card from my 4S and dropping it into the new phone or will I have to take the J-Apple-store bought device into the Softbank shop to get it registered? I've read that AU, DoCoMo and Softbank have no problem dealing with a directly purchased iPhone but wonder if there's any lingering 'bullshit' I might encounter. Noting a few recent Yahoo Auctions where 'genuine' used Apple-store-purchased 5S phones sold for 50,000 yen plus I think sim-free factory direct is definitely worth trying out.

    from Nagano Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - Thomas

    Useful information! Thank you.

  • Guest - Kuma

    Thanks for the info! I am in Docomo and I hate it and I am not willing to pay ¥8,000 yen per month!

  • Guest - Andrew

    Question: I have a N. American iPhone 4 I am thinking of getting unlocked and using with B mobile. According to the list, B mobile supports this phone. However, does it have to be purchased in Japan? Thanks.

  • Guest - Eli

    Hi. Useful information. I also did my research and found similar information. I've been with docomo for 2 years now and even though I'm extremely happy with their service, I was looking for less pricey alternatives. Unfortunately, in the best case scenario one can save 1000-1500 yen a month for questionable service as you mention. The 6-7k per month you quote obviously includes paying back the device. Two years ago, my unlimited internet (7gb) plan paired with free calls to my spouse added up to 4500 yen (plus paying back the device which is another 3000 yen). Long story short, I'm not willing to go through the frustration of subpar speeds for saving 1000 yen per month. My suggestion is to go with docomo or au if you're not on a tight budget. Softbank, yes, sucks big time. The huge con of all those services is the 2 year contract...

    from Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - mike

    Great information. I still don't have a smart phone but am getting close to one, what really puts me off are the expensive rates and charges - so your experience is the best information I have gotten so far to cheaper alternatives. Thanks.

    from Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - Rad

    I'm on AU. How easy is it to maintain my current phone number by porting it over to one of these sevices? I did this when I switched fr from SB to AU a few years ago. Can I even do that with these providers?

  • Guest - Gregg

    Is there an MVNO in Japan that resells SoftBank's network? I have an unlocked iPhone 7 A 1660 model that will only work on SoftBank in Japan to the best of my knowledge.