Help me choose the best cell phone plan in Japan.
July 28, 2006 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me choose the best cell phone plan in Japan. I'm moving to Tokyo next week so this will be a normal contract, not a rental.

We'd prefer a family plan including my wife and 13yo daughter (heavy texter, of course). Ideally they'd offer some cool Windows Smartphones for the family geek (me, of course).
posted by jgt246 to Technology (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

are the Big Three. I listed au first because I'm a longtime user and have never had any problems with them, but vodafone is probably the cheapest. All family plans are probably pretty similar.
posted by misozaki at 2:57 AM on July 29, 2006

jgt246: "Ideally they'd offer some cool Windows Smartphones for the family geek (me, of course)."

This isn't directly an answer to your question, but neither my wife (a non-techie) or I (a techie and former cell-phone geek) have any idea what a "Windows Smartphone" is, so I doubt they sell them.

Past that, as misozaki says, pretty much all family plans are the same, with pretty similar prices, discounts, etc.
posted by Bugbread at 3:07 AM on July 29, 2006

I don't find much difference between the 3 listed by misozaki. A lot of foreigners might steer you towards Vodafone (soon to be known as SoftBank) for their supposedly better English service but I'm also with au and theirs was good enough whilst my fluency was low.

I also have no idea what a Windows Smartphone is but messaging is a little different here. Generally, you just send a plain old email as each phone has a user-chosen address. Because you can only use Latin script characters in an email address, you'll find some of the addresses people give you to be fairly hilarious, non-Japanese phrases. eg was one an old client of mine had.

Each network does have another protocol (c-mail or skymail are two examples) which is sent to the receiver's number and that works more like an SMS. It's cheaper but allows less text and functions and only works between phones from the same network. BTW, remember phone models are network specific. The handsets in an au shop will be different to those at DoCoMo and you can't switch them between the networks.

As has been said, there's not much difference between the plans and you can get all the help you need in a shop. Decide on the features you want, then choose the appropriate phone from the bilingual ones on offer at the shop. Remember that you'll need your alien card to get signed up and that takes about a week to get from city hall after applying for it.
posted by Jenga at 4:15 AM on July 29, 2006

You should talk to people at your office and ideally people in your building because those are two places that you'll want to be sure that your service works. I am of the opinion that AU has the best 3G network in Tokyo.

wrt Windows smartphones, Willcom has the W-03, but it's a Japanese OS, so ymmv. Also the Willcom network is PHS (not 3G) so it's a better data service than voice.
posted by gen at 10:10 AM on July 29, 2006

Also, tell your daughter that Japan does not have SMS on mobile phones (we use email for mobile phones, not SMS.)

Also, let us know when you've settled down and we'll have a Tokyo MeFi meetup!
posted by gen at 10:17 AM on July 29, 2006

The reason there are some hilariously long mobile email addresses is because of spam. Longer and more convoluted, the better.
posted by gen at 10:20 AM on July 29, 2006

Oh also you may want to consider getting one of the few phones (each carrier has only 1-2 models) that work on non-Japanese GSM networks (i.e. in the US or EU.)
posted by gen at 11:18 AM on July 29, 2006

I would not recommend Vodafone. They have nice phones, but their coverage is terrible still.

Welcome to Tokyo.
posted by lundman at 5:35 PM on July 30, 2006

I have Vodaphone here in Tokyo. Service is pretty good, but the phone selection is the most limited of the big three. AU seems to have the best prices and a pretty good selection of phones. Docomo has the most top-of-the-line phones out there (it seems), and a massive selection, but they also are the most expensive of the three.

Virtually all phones can be switched to an English menu, but beware. If you want to send texts in Japanese (hiragana and/or kanji), make sure your English phone has this function. I found out after the fact that I couldn't enter in hiragana on my phone, only romaji.
posted by zardoz at 6:46 PM on July 30, 2006

I had a Vodafone for a long time (to be picky, I had a Digital Tu-Ka, which was a joint ownership of Digital Phone and Tu-Ka. Then Digital Phone got its name changed to J-Phone, and I had a J-Phone. Then J-Phone got bought out by Vodafone, and so I had a Vodafone), and the coverage is just fine for 2G networks, but I switched to AU right when they rolled out the 3G, and from what I understand, 3G coverage was pretty weak (this was a year ago). So the strength of Vodafone's coverage will vary based on whether you're using a 2G phone (probably properly considered a 2.5G phone) or a 3G phone.

DoCoMo has a history of massive, massive overpricing, but that's gotten a lot better. I don't know if their prices are now competitive, but at least they're not worthy of outright ridicule either.
posted by Bugbread at 8:46 PM on July 30, 2006

If you go with Vodaphone I think there is a much better chance of getting it unlocked so you can use it overseas when you leave (IIRC it is Vodaphone, it might be Au but I'm almost 100% it's Vodaphone, I'm pretty sure you can't unlock Docomo phones). Since you'll be in or around Tokyo I'd go to Akihabara and not so subtlely ask around for a place that will unlock phones for a nominal fee. Some shops might even do it for you if you sign up and buy your phone from them.

Since an equivalent phone outside of Japan would probably cost an arm and a leg, I think it would be more then worth it. Unfortunately when I was living in Japan the 3G service was very poor in my area and I had to buy a MOVA Docomo phone.
posted by robofunk at 10:23 AM on July 31, 2006


I'd forgotten about that, but I think you're right. A coworker left Japan to live in Thailand, and I remember him buying a Vodafone right before he left, immediately cancelling the contract, because he only got the phone in order to get it unlocked in Thailand (the phone being both cheaper and better than anything he could have gotten there).
posted by Bugbread at 9:06 PM on July 31, 2006


OK, we're in Japan now and ready to take advantage of the OUTSTANDING info you guys provided. Many thanks, and I'll post any interesting tidbits I turn up in my local research.

BTW, a Windows smartphone is just one that uses the Windows Mobile OS. This generally provides the best support for synchronization with Outlook, though other mobile OS's do this as well.

Thanks again!
posted by jgt246 at 1:17 AM on August 6, 2006

Further on Windows Mobile, I found this page on the Microsoft Japan website that lists gear using Windows Mobile 5.0 available in Japan -- not many, as you'll see.
posted by jgt246 at 1:26 AM on August 6, 2006

I looked over those Windows Mobile 5.0 equipped terminals, and (just in case you weren't aware), I just wanted to point out that there's no indication that the HP or Dell ones are phones, jut PDAs using Windows Mobile 5.0. The only phones I see are the three Willcom PDAs up top and the one DoCoMo phone immediately below it.
posted by Bugbread at 4:47 PM on August 6, 2006

Thanks bugbread, yes I did note that. Given the very limited choices for Windows Mobile I think I need to broaden my search. The real objective is to be able to sync with MS Outlook (for Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks). There should be phones with e.g. Sybian OS that can do that. In fact this may be one from Docomo; the Features page says you can sync with Outlook, and other apps -- via Bluetooth, no less!
posted by jgt246 at 3:39 AM on August 7, 2006

Well, I think I finally found the phone I want...on sale Saturday. But it's on Vodafone, which comments (and subscriber numbers) indicate is the weakest 3G network. Or is there any chance they've improved of late? Insights from anyone with recent Vodafone experience in Tokyo would be much appreciated.
posted by jgt246 at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2006

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