Keitai no koto ga wakaranai!
July 24, 2008 8:07 PM   Subscribe

Please help a fellow gaijin make sense of Softbank mobile phone plans.

Well, seems like my stay in Japan is going to be longer than I had originally planned, so I'm getting ready to settle down a bit. As part of that process, I have decided to make the jump from my lousy, barely audible and expensive to run prepaid Softbank mobile to a proper contract phone. Which sounded like it shouldn't be too difficult until I actually tried. I've been trying to make sense of the system for two weeks and the tears still haven't stopped.

My requirements are as follows: I'd like to stay in Softbank, for convenience and because all my friends use it too. I'll be staying for less than two years, so I know they'll probably make me pay for the handset upfront. I'm OK with that, but I don't want to spend a fortune on a mobile phone unless I can easily unlock it for use in Europe.

I'm not terribly interested in an iPhone - too expensive, hard to find right now and potentially difficult to unlock when I go back. I would love to get myself a nice smartphone, but it seems like Softbank doesn't do unlocking even after you reach the end of your contract, and that kind of makes the purchase a lousy investment.

So, with all of the above in mind, I have a ton of questions:

- How easy is it to get out of a two-year contract with Softbank before it runs out, assuming you have already paid for your handset? Is there a penalty fee for early cancellation? Is it possible to put a contract "on hold" for a few months and resume it afterwards if you're temporarily leaving Japan but expect to come back soonish?

- Is there any way to unlock Japanese mobile phones, assuming I get a model that would actually work outside of Japan?

- Is it possible to purchase an unlocked multiband phone, such as a Nokia E71 from Expansys, and ask Softbank to provide service for it? Do they sell such things as SIM cards here, or something equivalent? If affirmative, would I be restricted to prepaid call and data rates or can I sign up for something like Softbank's White Plan?

- Failing that, is there any specific phone on Softbank that you'd recommend and which wouldn't be prohibitively expensive? I'm usually a capable gadget nerd, but Japanese specs sheets baffle me to no end. Right now, the 821sc seems to be both cheap and capable, but when compared to other models there just doesn't seem to be any correlation whatsoever between features and price.

- Am I missing out by staying on Softbank? Should I be paying more attention at what the other operators have on offer? It seems like Docomo and Au have made great progress in catering to the gaijin lately, so it's not looking as impossible to get a phone with them as it one was.

I know this is a ton of questions and some of them have been asked at some point in the past, but things move pretty fast in this country and my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to ask at an actual Softbank store. If my dear Hivemind can assist this prospective Japanese student in this time of need, I'd be eternally grateful.

Thanks in advance everyone!
posted by doctorpiorno to Technology (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Basically if you go with any of the companies you are screwed - they do not and will not unlock (there's no pressure on them to do so). Some phones can be unlocked by 3rd parties (outside Japan). Just get the cheapest handset you can and forget about it when you leave Japan. If you google I think you can find services that say they can unlock the Samsung 821SC.
Using the other companies depends where you live - KDDI's au has the best coverage in my experience. Softbank's service etc. leaves a lot to be desired (again in my experience, I rather regret moving to them). By the way if you live in Tokyo the main Softbank stores all have English speaking saff (others may also)
Good Luck!
posted by AndyM825 at 9:59 PM on July 24, 2008


I don't know much about the phones, I'm afraid. I chose one based on the fact that it could display menus in English, and was very cheap (1 Yen, I think, or about $0.01 US) with a new contract. There are tons of styles and features to base your decision on, if you care, but for such a temporary stay those were my priorities.

Word on the street is that Softbank is lacking in the reception game. Depending on where you will be (I imagine if you're staying in Tokyo exclusively it won't be much of an issue, for example) that might be a concern for you.

Speaking out of experience from KDDI au, I went for the two year plan even though I won't be using it for much over a year. Everything (the phone, the initial fees, and even the monthly bills) were cheaper on that plan, and the penalty for cancellation is about 10,000 Yen (about $100 US). I easily made that up in the first month alone.
YMMV, of course, but my advice would be to 1) Ask people in places you will be about local service, and with that in mind 2) Go to a shop, and look at the multi-language brochure's English section about different plans - and ask an English-speaking staff member for explanation, if you need it.
posted by Bun at 11:54 PM on July 24, 2008


I worked in the Japanese mobile phone industry, and I am fairly familiar with SoftBank in that respect, so I'll do my best to answer your questions.

How easy is it to get out of a two-year contract with Softbank before it runs out, assuming you have already paid for your handset? Is there a penalty fee for early cancellation? Is it possible to put a contract "on hold" for a few months and resume it afterwards if you're temporarily leaving Japan but expect to come back soonish?

For the White Plan, there is no early termination fee (ETF). There may be for other plans, but IIRC they do not exceed \9,995. However, if you have signed up for a discount plan to reduce the cost of your handset (e.g. New Super Bonus), you will continue to pay back that amount for the life of the contract (up to 2 years). Also, if you are enrolled in the Two Year Discount or Yearly Discount, you will have to pay an ETF.

- Is there any way to unlock Japanese mobile phones, assuming I get a model that would actually work outside of Japan?

Even if you remove the USIM lock on the phone (impossible to do unless you go through a third party or know someone with the proper unlock codes), unless it supports GSM roaming it will not work overseas. However, the trend within SoftBank is towards cheaper phones -- Samsung, Toshiba, and NEC in particular have been moving in this direction -- because of the increased manufacturing cost being passed directly to the consumer. That's another long discussion, however, so I'll move on to your questions.

- Is it possible to purchase an unlocked multiband phone, such as a Nokia E71 from Expansys, and ask Softbank to provide service for it? Do they sell such things as SIM cards here, or something equivalent?

No. SoftBank does not support any kind of "foreign" communications equipment.

- Failing that, is there any specific phone on Softbank that you'd recommend and which wouldn't be prohibitively expensive? I'm usually a capable gadget nerd, but Japanese specs sheets baffle me to no end. Right now, the 821sc seems to be both cheap and capable, but when compared to other models there just doesn't seem to be any correlation whatsoever between features and price.

The price is really determined by a few factors: screen size, camera size, GPS, global roaming, and thinness. Everything else is generally a standard feature -- you'll notice how most phones now come with one-seg TV as standard, whereas a year ago it was still a high-end feature. The better the specs I listed above (or if they are present at all), the more expensive the phone, generally. Manufacturers must recoup their costs, and by jamming more features into a phone they can charge more -- but if you are satisfied with a 2.8" WQVGA screen instead of a 3.0" WVGA one, and don't need GPS or a 5MP camera, then any of SoftBank's latest phones will be fine for you. Sharp tends to have the highest-end handsets, with Panasonic coming next; Toshiba and NEC have a varied range trending towards the cheaper end; Samsung is trying to differentiate themselves with OLED displays and other software features generally not found on Japanese phones. Is there anything in particular you're looking for in the way of features?

- Am I missing out by staying on Softbank? Should I be paying more attention at what the other operators have on offer? It seems like Docomo and Au have made great progress in catering to the gaijin lately, so it's not looking as impossible to get a phone with them as it one was.

I currently use au, and I have no real complaints. There is no real global roaming, which is the biggest downside compared to DoCoMo and SoftBank; on the other hand, the handsets themselves are smaller, and the software features tend to be better. Bun mentioned that reception has been a problem with SoftBank (nee Vodaphone and J-Phone) in the past, but infrastructure upgrades have been a big help, and you will generally get good reception throughout urbanized areas of Japan with any of the big three carriers. Ultimately it will depend on your handset's reception and antenna sensitivity more than anything.

I know this is a ton of questions and some of them have been asked at some point in the past, but things move pretty fast in this country and my Japanese is nowhere near good enough to ask at an actual Softbank store. If my dear Hivemind can assist this prospective Japanese student in this time of need, I'd be eternally grateful.

Since your profile shows you as being in Tokyo, I recommend that you visit SoftBank's main showroom/store on Omotesando, or their branches in Roppongi or Shibuya. I am quite certain they have staff with enough English ability to guide you to a decision. There are also pamphlets in English which describe the plans and phones.

If you have any more detailed questions, please post here or email me, and I'll be happy to help.
posted by armage at 1:34 AM on July 25, 2008


If all your friends use Softbank and you talk on the phone for even a few minute a day then it's probably the best option.

Armage's answer above is amazingly thorough too, jeez!
posted by ejoey at 1:43 AM on July 25, 2008


Wow, armage, thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough answer. You have addressed pretty much everything I was unsure about. My hat goes off to you, Sir.

If I may exploit your knowledge a little bit more, is there any specific phone in the Softbank catalogue and in the medium-low price range that you would feel inclined to recommend? I don't particularly care for huge megapixel cameras or Oneseg (my language skills need to improve a ton before I can understand Japanese TV), but GPS would be nice if it's not limited to the high-end models - I still manage to get lost around Tokyo on a pretty regular basis.

Thanks for the tip about the Omotesando store, too. I'll try to head there this weekend to check what's on offer, if the iPhone fiends let me in. ^_^,
posted by doctorpiorno at 3:00 AM on July 25, 2008


If I may exploit your knowledge a little bit more, is there any specific phone in the Softbank catalogue and in the medium-low price range that you would feel inclined to recommend?

I think that you'd probably be better off with a model from the spring 2008 or fall/winter 2007 releases, since they are being sold at larger discounts to clear stock, but aside from a few software and TV-related features are not much different than current models. If you want a thin, no-frills handset with GPS, the 814T is not bad; the 815T has the exact same internals but with a changeable faceplate and backplate. No global roaming, unfortunately -- Toshiba phones are weak in that regard, but they all have GPS as standard.

If you want a candybar or slide phone, you're a bit more limited in your options. The 822P is a thin candybar with GSM roaming and Bluetooth, but no GPS. The only sliders of note are the new 825SH Pantone and the 920T, which both have TV functionality.

It comes down to price, and older models are much cheaper than the latest ones. If you don't need TV, global roaming, or the software features of a particular manufacturer, then any phone will be fine. Pay attention to battery life (listed in the catalog) and be sure to try out an actual demo model (実機, jikki) in the store to see if you like the button layout and the way things work. Incidentally, since your prepaid model is most likely either a 705Px or a 707SCII, you'll probably be most familiar with the layouts and menus of that particular manufacturer, which may make choosing a handset easier.

Good luck!
posted by armage at 10:37 PM on July 25, 2008


« Older "You're hired! To get fleeced!"   |   New glasses, new problems... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.