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SIM-Only Mobile Providers in Japan

Most often referred to in Japan as an MVNO, which stands for "mobile virtual network operator," the following is a potentially-growing list of SIM-only mobile providers that resell services on one of the major Japanese mobile networks: NTT Docomo, Au by KDDI, or Softbank.  While the big three Japanese providers will usually force you into an over-priced 2-year auto-renewing service contract inseparable from the bundled phone, MVNOs can and will sell you just the SIM card and service.  Most resell NTT Docomo, and I have yet to see one that resells Softbank; however anything is possible as Japan looks as if it is finally embracing SIM-only solutions.

NOTES
* I focus solely on providers offering full phone service, as in a real phone number.  There are countless other Japanese providers offering data-only SIMs, and I don't bother researching these because I myself want and need a real phone number.  Yes, my research efforts wallow in self-interest.
* Price isn't everything.  Be wary of service term obligations and what other people are saying about their data speeds.  While one provider may be less expensive, another provider may have a shorter service term obligation.  I may be willing to pay a little more if I know I can ditch them sooner if their service is subpar.
* Pay attention to what phones and features (like tethering) they support--they almost always provide a list on their site (search for something like 動作確認端末一覧 or just 端末).  For example, at the time of writing, UQ Mobile states they do not support newer iPhones.  Bummer.

NTT Docomo Resellers
Asahi-Net - asahi-net.jp/en/service/mobile/sim/
I previously sung Asahi-Net's praises as a solid English-speaking ISP (Life in Japan - English-Speaking Internet Service Provider Asahi Net), and now they offer mobile SIM cards as well.  As Asahi-Net caters to the foreign crowd, they have an English website.  However, they do mention that you will need Japanese skills to complete the sign-up process.

B-Mobile - www.bmobile.ne.jp
This the the one I have blogged fairly extensively about because it's the only one on this list that yours truly has actually used.  B-Mobile is one of the first and only providers to offer full phone service, and they have an assortment of SIM-only libations.  Their pricing is fairly competitive, their obligation term is on the short side, and their web interface is user-friendly--provided you (or a friend) have decent kanji skills.  They also have an English-speaking helpdesk, but I honestly don't know how good it is since I've never used it.  My primary complaint is echoed by numerous Japanese reviews and forum posts--their data speed sucks.  So far I've tolerated it because I have wifi at both my home and office, but now that other SIM-only providers have entered the market, it may be time to move on to more rapid rivers.
Amazon Japan - B-Mobile

DMM - mvno.dmm.com
DMM is another one of those companies involved in various business model strata, so they too have entered the MVNO game.  A good friend of mine signed up with them and reported that their data speed is "pretty good."
Amazon Japan - DMM Mobile

IIJ - www.iijmio.jp
IIJ has been in the data-only SIM game for a while and recently expanded their SIM portfolio to include full phone service.  I've never used them, but my friend has.  He said their data speed is superior to B-Mobile's, which means they probably don't over-subscribe their bandwidth like B-Mobile tragically does.  Bic Camera also sells Bic/IIJ-branded SIMs in their stores (see this: http://www.biccamera.com/bc/c/service/bicsim/), which may smooth the application process for those that fear kanji.
Amazon Japan - IIJ

Rakuten Mobile - broadband.rakuten.co.jp/rmobile
Rakuten sells freakin' everything, and now they even sell SIM-only mobile service.  I've previously espoused Rakuten in my podcast, graphically expressing how I have a serious heroin-like drug addiction to Rakuten points.  As I seek ever-increasing ways to engorge my Rakuten account with even more points, I may indeed pull the trigger on them and sample their service quality.  Unfortunately, they enforce a 1-year service obligation.

I have zero experience with the following providers.  I include them merely to be comprehensive because I'm OCD that way.  Note how I even put them in alphabetical order.

Biglobe - join.biglobe.ne.jp/mobile/lte
Biglobe is owned by NEC, a big Japanese tech company--the guys that made the TurboGrafx-16 game system.  Anyone up for a quick game of "Bonk's Revenge?"
Amazon Japan - Biglobe

Freetel - www.freetel.jp
For a company with "free" in the name, their prices sure are high!  Bad jokes aside, I don't know much about them other than the fact they seem to be a phone manufacturer as well.
Amazon Japan - Freetel

Hi-Ho - home.hi-ho.ne.jp/hihomobile/lte/d
I find Hi-Ho attractive because of their name.  I could then tell everyone that my mobile provider is Hi-Ho.  It's the provider of choice for hip-hop-styling dwarf pirates.

Nifmo - nifmo.nifty.com
Nifmo is run by Nifty, which is owned by Fujitsu, makers of laptop computers and other stuff.  Did you get all that?
Amazon Japan - Nifmo

OCN - service.ocn.ne.jp/mobile/one
OCN is run by NTT Communications, which is owned by NTT.  Yep, the big guy himself.
Amazon Japan - OCN

So-net - www.so-net.ne.jp/access/mobile
This one is owned by Sony--the guys that made those portable tape players we all knew and loved.  I for one listened to my "Fat Boys" tape non-stop on mine.  Good times, dude!
Amazon Japan - So-net

U-Mobile - umobile.jp
U-Mobile's website has a very cute girl on it.  I'm (just a little) ashamed to admit that this is a huge selling point in my book, and that I spent much longer perusing their website than the others.  I did happen to notice that their service obligation is 6 months, while most seem to go with 1 year.
Amazon Japan - U-Mobile

Au by KDDI Resellers
Mineo - mineo.jp
Mineo is one of few that resells KDDI's service, making them unique in that sense.  My friend uses them with his Android phone and has been thoroughly satisfied with their data speeds.  Pay attention to their phone support, as they only recently started supporting newer iPhones: http://mineo.jp/device/devicelist/au/  Depending on the phone, things like tethering may not work.
Amazon Japan - Mineo

UQ Mobile - uqmobile.jp
Not to be confused with U-Mobile, UQ Mobile resells Au's service, which makes sense since KDDI is a key shareholder.  I was pleasantly surprised that they even have an English version of their website.  Unfortunately, they don't (yet) support newer iPhones (see this: http://www.uqmobile.jp/product/sim/devices/).  What's up with that?
Amazon Japan - UQ Mobile

Further Reading
My warm regards go to this Japanese site that provides loads of SIM-only related info: www.mvno-navi.com.  Specifically, this page lists MVNOs sorted into various useful categories: http://www.mvno-navi.com/mvno-list.

Final Note
It's not common to find these SIM cards for sale in brick-and-mortar shops, so you'll likely have to purchase and apply online.  However, if you're staunchly determined to purchase and apply in a real shop with real people (and/or your kanji reading skills suck like mine do), then I'd suggest visiting large stores like Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera.  I'm quite sure they do carry them.

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  • Guest - Aaron

    Can anyone tell me which of these companies don't require a Japanese credit card? I just bought a Yamada Sim card powered by U Mobile and it won't take my debit card or discovery card. It also will only let me input a Japanese address which is probably messing with them being able to recognize my cards. either way, is there anyway someone can mention which of these companies even allow foreigners to sign up for there postpaid plans. Thank you kindly.

  • Guest - Mondaiji

    Guest - Aaron

    I'm not sure, but why not try Asahi-Net? They speak English, cater to foreigners, and could likely help you.

  • Guest - Kelsey

    Hello! I have a question and hopefully I can word it clearly enough. I have a data only SIM right now but I want a real phone number (IP phone number is just not working out) but I also want to have a login for one of the three major carries. Does that make sense? Like either a Docomo or au ID. There have been a few times recently where I can only join a service by first logging in with one of those accounts, which I don't currently have. If I get one of these SIMs cards with voice and data, will I get an ID for one of these carriers? Thanks!

  • Guest - Nathan

    I just got a DMM sim card and they only accept credit cards. Not debit/credit cards, JUST credit cards. And not just credit cards, ONLY credit Japanese credit cards. And not JUST Japanese credit cards, only SPECIFIC Japanese credit cards. They don't accept prepaid credit cards either. They won't even accept their own branded prepaid cards - those are only for some of their other services.

    I bought the sim card from amazon via the link in this page, and luckily it was on sale for around 500 yen as opposed to the normal price of 3000-4000 yen, so I've only lost a little money, but it's infuriating that they are so specific about the method of payment. Why do they have to be so picky about the way they take my money. It's money...

    I can't comment on the service since I have yet to get it working, but if you have a Japanese credit card with a Visa/Mastercard/JCB logo on it (that isn't any of the previously mentioned variations of credit cards) my guess is you won't have any problems getting it set up if you can read Japanese enough to get through the site.

    TLDR, don't use this company unless you have a Japanese credit card - NOT debit/credit.

  • Guest - Nathan

    Guest - Nathan

    As an update to this, I have been getting a LOT of mail from DMM since not being able to complete the registration/payment. I never put the sim card in my phone, and I never was able to use their service anyway because I wasn't able to pay, yet they won't let me delete my account and/or unsubscribe from their emails because according to them "The account is still in use and/or there are still accounts payable." I personally have had a very unpleasant experience with DMM, but maybe if there weren't any problems getting the payment though, it could have been a different story. Interested to here what other people have to say about this company who actually got it to work.

  • Guest - Chris

    Just thought I'd throw in my experience thus far. I ended up going with IIJ and have been using it for 3 months now.

    The Phone
    IIJ runs on the NTT DoCoMo network and thus requires DoCoMo devices. I picked up a used Galaxy S5 on eBay before coming to Japan for $200 (pretty good find since DoCoMo phones don't really sell too much in America)

    The Plan
    IIJ SIM cards can be bought online at amazon, but I wanted to talk to someone first. Fortunately IIJ SIMs are also sold at Bic Camera. I talked with the rep, who was kind enough to explain the entire contract to me, also providing an English translation of the contract. He explained that I could just buy the SIM for ¥2000 or I could pay an additional ¥1000 for him to do the initial setup and activation then and there. I figured I would save myself the trouble and just had him do it. This took a long time... I'm not sure if he encountered unusual problems or what, but it seriously took over an hour, but I figure it would have taken me longer. A few people have expressed difficulty with credit cards when signing up with other companies. I was able to use my Chase credit card (United States Visa card) with no issues. I opted for the lowest tier which gave me talk/text and 3gb of data. Walked out of the store and called my wife with no problem. This plan costs ¥1600 a month plus the per text and per minute fees.

    My Experience Thus Far
    In a word... Awesome. I could not be more happy. I have found DoCoMo's coverage and speed to be flawless. I am located in a small town outside Fukuoka and have never ran into trouble in the city or rural areas (both calls and data). Unused data carries over month to month, which was a big plus. IIJ offers a nice Android app that tells you usage info such as remaining data and when it will refill. I find myself using apps such as Line, Facebook, and Skype more often than calling, but in the professional environment having a phone number is still nessesary. Calls have been load and clear with no drops.

    The Bill
    Lots of people are afraid of hidden costs from these companies, but my experience has been great. In the three months I have used this services my bills have averaged ¥1850. This was with moderate amounts of phone calls (always short conversations) and only a handful of texts. (Texting usually happens on Line, FB, and Skype)

    If you can find yourself a decent price on a used DoCoMo device, I would highly recommend IIJ. It's been perfect for me.

    from Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - Matt

    Guest - Chris

    Great post Chris!

    Im thinking about going for IIJmio too, but Im going to try to use my current locked softbank iphone...

    I have to pay approx $100USD to get it unlocked when Im out of contract first.

    Anyone see why that won't work?

    from Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
  • Guest - Nathan

    Guest - Chris

    After not being able to set up the DMM sim because I didn't have a Japanese credit card, I went to BIC Camera tonight and bought their iij mio sim card. I also have a Chase Freedom credit card and it worked like a charm online to activate it. The store attendant was really knowledgeable and told me which sim cards accepted what types of payments. He said the iij mio had a reputation for accepting foreign cards, but of course he gave me a disclaimer saying that he couldn't guarantee that mine would be accepted.

    The sim card itself was around 3000 yen, and they told me they could activate it for around 2000 yen more. I decided to do it myself. It was pretty straight forward until the last part where you have to change some APN settings in your phone but I managed to do it without much trouble.

    I've got my Skype number set up, so I just got the data sim. Line messaging is working but I tried to update my account using my Skype number and it wouldn't let me, so Line is still connected to my old number... Hope it doesn't cause any problems in the future.

    Speed seems good, no hiccups getting it set up, and I'm happy to be off the contract!

  • Guest - Lily Rae

    Guest - Chris

    Hi,

    Me and my friends have just arrived in Japan and are looking for Sim-only services just like you described. I'm glad to read that you were able to pay with your american card because that is one of our concerns; we went to Bic Camera yesterday and they told us we needed a japanese credit card to purchase them, the japanese cash cards two of us had weren't even enough. I worry that we weren't talking about the same sim cards though; the guy we talked to only spoke japanese and one of us is fairly good at it but it's still not ideal for such matters :/

    Can I ask you if your credit card is special or premium or something? We only have regular kind of card so I want to be sure that what we want is doable. Also are your monthly payments automatically withdrawn from your account? We would just buy the sim cards from amazon but we're not sure how the monthly payments would be set up in that case... (Sorry these questions are sort of intrusive.)
    Also (that's the last one) you said you had to buy a Docomo phone. The main reason we're interested in sim-only services is because we want to keep using our european phones, and since they are unlocked it seemed possible. Is it a IIJ/Docomo thing? The blog article author above talked about checking if your phone is compatible with the Sim card, which seems to indicate you can keep your phone if both are compatible...

    You probably don't the answer to all my questions, I'm sorry about ambushing you out of the blue ^^"" But what you described in your comment is exactly what we are looking for and if you could clear up even one thing it would be great :o

    Thanks in any case for the description of your situation and have a nice day!

  • Guest - Tung

    Hi, I dont have my credit card in Japan. Can I buy those sim with Prepaid Card as Vanilla Card?

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