Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tokyo 2006 part I: Pay-as-you-go mobile phones in Japan

The first thing I did in Tokyo was to get a mobile phone. I can use my Vodafone UK handset, but both making and receiving calls will cost more than 1 to 2 pounds per minute. For a two-week stay, it's better to buy a pay-as-you-go mobile here. (And I forgot bringing a battery charger.)

So I did a bit of research on Japanese mobile phone markets. Here's the report.

Pay-as-you-go (called "pre-paid" here) mobile phones are very unpopular in Japan. NTT Docomo, the largest carrier in Japan, stopped accepting new pay-as-you-go contracts on 31st March 2005. It says that the number of pay-as-you-go users has declined since its peak in March 2001 from 21 million to 8 million. AU, the second largest operator, still provides the service though, judging from their uninspiring list of mobile handsets for pay-as-you-go services, it's not really keen on attracting new customers.

Vodafone, which has decided to withdraw from the Japanese market, turns out to be the best in pay-as-you-go services (and maybe that reflects why Vodafone failed in the Japanese market). The call rate is 60 yen per minute (approximately 30 pence or 50 cents) while AU's rate is 100 yen (50 pence or 80 cents) per minute. They just released a new, relatively stylish handset which costs 7140 yen (35 pounds or 51 dollars).

You can top up your mobile phone airtime by purchasing a "prepaid card" (3,000 yen or 5,000 yen) at convenience stores or Vodafone shops or by credit card online. The topped up fee will expire in 60 days. To keep your phone number, you need to top up at least 3,000 yen before 240 days passes. Otherwise, you will lose your number. Once you lose your number, you need to pay about 3,000 yen to reactivate your handset and your number will be different.

You will be required to submit a piece of identification documentation such as a driving license and a passport to purchase a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, which is nothing surprising to UK customers. But this requirement has just been introduced in Japan since scam using pay-as-you-go phones became a social problem last year).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this it has been very informative! However one question still lingers in my mind T_T So basically I'm going to Tokyo in July 2010 for 10 days and the first thing i want to do after recovering from epic jetlag is buy a phone like a fliptop style. The problem is I am in the UK atm and i don't have a residence in Japan, if i wanted to just buy a phone with no strings attached (i.e. no contracts or monthly bills) just the phone, its charger and that's it, would i only need my passport to show them so they could let me buy it? Also where in tokyo would this be possible KDDI?

Masa said...

Do you plan to use a Japanese mobile handset in UK? I don't know if that's possible. I think you can buy a handset in Japan with your passport at a Softbank mobile shop (Vodafone Japan was acquired by Softbank a few years ago) although it will probably have to come with strings attached. The mobile phone market in Japan is completely different from the one in UK and almost all other countries. Mobile phone carriers (Docomo, KDDI, and Softbank) ask manufacturers to produce handsets exclusively for them, which means that a handset is always sold together with a contract. You can't even change the Sim card to switch your carrier while you keep the same handset. Maybe it is possible to unlock a Japanese handset at some of those dodgy shops in UK, but I cannot assure you. Plus, be careful to choose which handset to buy because some cannot be used abroad as Japan (and Korea) didn't adopt GSM which is standard in Europe.