So you’re thinking about moving to Japan, and you want to know if you should bother getting a phone. With the amount of downtime you’ll have on public transportation and in waiting areas alone, you’re going to need one. Remember that in order to get a phone here, you’ll need a bank account (and vice versa, which complicates things).
There are three major mobile providers in Japan: au, docomo, and Softbank. Who you go with is entirely up to you, though I’m told Softbank is the most foreigner-friendly. Whoever you pick will also have a selection of newer-model phones on hand to choose from. I recommend you get one you don’t mind having for a while, if only to avoid unnecessary hassle.
Let’s say you want an older-model phone, though. In that case, there are scattered shops (e.g. テルル) that carry a selection of newer- and older-model phones, and can legitimately sign you up for contracts with any of the Big Three. The advantage of these smaller places is that they often have much more affordable (read: older) phones in stock, while core stores would rather sell you the higher-end stuff. Note that in most cases, phones do not come with chargers; you’ll have to bring or buy your own.
On the off chance you don’t want a phone and/or would rather save your money, there are options, but I can’t recommend them. Still:
- Prepaid Phone: The last I knew, Softbank was the only provider for prepaid phones, and they have many of the same restrictions as contract phones (i.e. you have to have at least a non-tourist visa). These aren’t twenty-dollar Walmart prepaids; the one I bought in 2012 cost me over a hundred dollars’ equivalent, and it was a flip-phone. I’d charge the phone with money, which drained very quickly when I made calls. If there are prepaid smart phones, I imagine they carry a similar hassle.
- Bring Your Own: This is possible if (1) your phone is unlocked, and (2) you buy a sim card and get a contract. In truth, this is the best option for frequent world travelers, but requires more than a layman’s understanding of mobile phones.
- Pocket Wi-Fi: I haven’t tried this. My understanding is that you buy and carry a device that acts as a portable hotspot. You do have to pay for it, but the price for the device and the monthly fee are much lower than a regular phone and contract. The drawback, of course, is that you technically don’t have a phone; you can use messenger and chat programs to call individual people, but if you want to make calls to or receive calls from actual phone numbers, you then also need something like a Skype account. Still cheaper, but less reliable.
- Rough It: Forget contracts and use-anytime internet; all you need is an occasional wireless signal and your own willpower! This option is purely for serious budgeteers and borderline Luddites. You have whatever electronic device you brought (domestic phone, tablet, laptop) and can only use the internet in very specific places. Maybe your Leopalace comes with free wi-fi, maybe you found an unsecured signal from a faceless neighbor. In any case, you’re unreliable for any official contact. Aside from it being difficult to make or change plans with you socially, it also reduces your occupational attractiveness.
Let’s assume you get a contract phone. I recommend using it as is for at least a week or two until you figure out which apps are useful and which ones are preinstalled filler. Once you have, start carefully removing or disabling the unwanted apps until you’re sure you haven’t disrupted something you use. You’ll free up a noticeable amount of memory and reduce your battery use. On top of that, I have a few apps I can recommend, all of which are free on Android as of this writing:
- Japan Official Travel App: For quick train travel information, the most reliable English-language app I’ve found is Japan’s official one for tourists. It will give you multiple routes (if available) from all available train lines based on speed, price, or minimal transfers.
- LINE: When it comes to social media and apps, LINE is a necessity for making friends. Many Japanese have Facebook accounts, but there are also many who don’t and have no interest. LINE, however, is commonplace in both Japan and Korea. If you want to keep in touch with new friends, you need it.
- Skype: Skype is one of the cheapest ways to keep in touch live. You can use it as a messenger, a live voice-and-video chat program with other Skype users, and — if you leave your calling region set to your home country — a very cheap way to make calls to home-area landlines and mobiles. (As of this writing, Skype charges a 4.9¢ connection fee and 2.3¢ per minute for US-to-US calls, while toll-free calls are still free.)
- XE: Just like the website it came from, XE gives you instant conversion of multiple currencies on the same screen. Useful for keeping quick track of how the yen compares to your home currency.
The one last thing I recommend is to get a portable charger. They’re available everywhere: electronics stores, game centers, even convenience stores.