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Softbank, AU, Docomo? What Japanese phone should you choose?

Updated on November 28, 2010

If you are coming to Japan for any amount of time, having a functioning mobile phone becomes imperative. The only problem, is that once you get here, finding a phone that fits your lifestyle and your budget can be difficult, especially because of the language barrier. Plus there are several cell phone companies to chose from. Softbank, Docomo, and AU are the 3 major mobile phone carriers in Japan and each company has their own business model and exclusive phones. Read on to find out more about each company and pluses and minuses. 

First Step to Getting a Japanese Mobile Phone

Getting a phone in Japan is a hassle. There are a few small businesses that offer rental phones which require a lot less to get a hold of but are not worth it in the long run. If you are planning on studying or working here for 6 months or more, you must have a phone. It's nearly impossible to live life here without a mobile phone. If you are living in Japan for this long you will also have some sort of VIsa and a place to live. Both of these are needed to get yourself a phone. All of the major phone companies require you to make a contract and give them all your contact information in Japan. Even prepaid phones require Japanese I.D. and a address in Japan to purchase, and currently the only company that offers prepaid phones is Softbank.

What Company is Best for You?

All of the major phone companies in Japan offer up largely the same services. Email, internet and calling are all largely the same. Also because Japan is a relatively small and closely packed country, cell services is almost always flawless unless traveling through subway tunnels or hiking in the mountains. 

So when it comes to choosing a phone company in Japan it all comes down to what kind of phone you want, how much you want to pay, and how long you are planning on staying in Japan. 

Softbank

Softbank is one of the big 3 mobile phone companies in Japan. Softbank is a decent company and from my experience they are reliable and upfront with their contracts and billing. Softbank also currently has the sexiest phone selection of all the big phone companies. They have an exclusive contract with Apple and thus are the only company able to offer iPhones and iPads. They also have some Android enabled phones and of course LG, Sony Erikson, Panasonic and other mobile phones from the well known manufacturers.

One problem with softbank is the huge price of it's mobile handsets. All of softbanks phones are full priced with no subsidies. You have the option of buying the phone upfront upon creating a contract, or you can pay for your phone monthly. If you select to pay over time they give you slight discount and basically divide the cost evenly over the course of your 2 year contract.

Yes that's right. Softbank has a 2 year contract system. It may sound horrible to be stuck with a contract like that but actually it's not so bad. Softbank's actual service fees are in my opinion the best deal available among all the phone companies in Japan. They have a very reasonable packet system with a plan that charges a flat rate of 1000 yen for 17,000 packets. You can have unlimited packets for roughly 6000 yen. Also softbanks basic phone service plans are incredibly cheap and offer free calling and messaging to other softbank phones. With my current phone is completely paid off and my monthly bill comes to only about 2000 to 3000 yen a month or roughly $20 to $30.

The best thing about softbank is that if you are able and willing to sign on to their 2 year contract you can get some nice deals. Especially if you purchase a new phone and use it for more than 2 years. After the 2 years is up your phone is completely paid for and all you have to pay for is the service charges.

NTT Docomo

Docomo is another big player in mobile phones. While Softbank has the sexiest and newest smart phones Docomo is known for having high tech conventional mobile phones, but is not known for its wide selection of smartphones. NTT Docomo is looking to change this. Recently they have been pushing several new lines of Android powered phones. If you are a fan of Android phones, Docomo might be the best place to look for.

NTT Docomo also has flexible services and billing options. The company mainly focuses on giving discounts if the customer meets certain criteria or opts for certain services and perks. For example, NTT has a 1 year contract, but offers big discounts if you opt for a longer 2 year contract. There are also a discounts offered for families and students.

Over all NTT is a good company and popular with Middle aged people, and offers some very nice phones. Also NTT slightly subsidizes their phones so you can get a hold of one for less than if you buy a comparable phone from Softbank. But from what I've heard Docomo has slightly higher operating costs. I personally haven't tried Docomo so take my thoughts with a grain of salt. 

AU by KDDI

AU is the last big phone company I will discuss. Overall AU's phones are not so trendy and sexy when compared to Docomo and Softbank. AU seems to specialize in low cost contracts and phones. They cater to kids families and the elderlerly. AU is also the furthest behind when it comes to smartphones. They only have a few new smartphone models and only one Android enabled phone. They offer a lot of very cheap but decently reliable handsets. 

Pricing and service is decent as well, but AU is tricky. They use a lot of trickery to squeeze a few bucks out of their customers. If you can understand their system make sure they are billing you correctly AU can be the cheapest and most flexible mobile option. It's especially good for people who are students because AU has a special student plan that when combined with a student discount can be an incredibly good deal. If you don't complete the process properly though and request the right discounts funny things can happen to your bill. 

I initially signed up for AU when I fist came to Japan and the above happened to me. I tried to negotiate with AU, but it was no good. After this incident I decided to cancel my AU account. I then switched to Softbank. So again take my commentary with a grain of salt. AU might very well be the best option for you if you are a student and only staying here for a year. I know many people who had no problems with AU and it's service. 

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      SomeDude 6 years ago

      problem is even after 2 year the phones are usually locked with the operator and you CANNOT use them in other country unless jailbreak, root, etc, and even that doesn't work since they have a SIM lock feature...or something. More advise regarding this please?

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      Kikki 7 years ago

      next year I'm gonna staying in Japan for about 6 months...do you think AU is the best? if the minimum contract with the other companies is 1 year I think that's no way, but I don't wanna be tricked just because I'm a foreigner! you're not the first one I heard having problems with AU. Thank you!

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