When I first arrived in Japan, my wife and I had done a fair amount of research into various options for calling back home to the states, but we got our best information from the many other people on base after we arrived combined with personal research. In fact, after two weeks of study and digging, I discovered I knew more about the issue than most. That's why I'm posting this guide: so that people following me can learn from my mistakes, but especially my triumphs to navigate the difficult and often expensive process of using a phone in Japan.
Most people are going to want to call back home to speak to family or because there's always some bill or service back in the states that you need a phone call to deal with. It's also convenient because you can use YOUR American phone number to talk to another person in Japan if they too have an American number (which saves a lot of money if depending on your phone plan).
For Yokota AFB, the common solution is to use the Cable/Internet/Phone company: Allied Telsis. There are two main reasons we didn't do that:
- It's $30 per month for a phone when there are much cheaper options out there.
- We get no discount on the phone price because we only wanted Internet and not TV service.
To each their own, but I get very little use out of TV service. It costs a LOT while any movies or shows I'm interested in watching can be found via online Instant video, rentals, or purchases over time (if I don't already have it on my movie computer that is). At some point, I'll do a guide about how to make your own off-line Netflix-like system like I use, but that's for another day.
So no discount for us.
There are various "Voice over Internet" or VoIP options, but the best we found was Magicjack Plus.
Luckily, they recently improved these devices so that you don't need a computer to be turned on and connected for them to work. They come with a power adapter and a cord that plugs directly into the Internet router so you can leave it on and plugged in to the wall at all times. That way, you can pick up the phone and hear an American dialtone immediately or receive a call just as easily.
When you set up service (first year is included in the purchase price), you get to choose a US number from several options. In our case, we chose a number closest to where most of our family is so they theoretically wouldn't have to pay long distance to call us. But even if they don't have free long distance, the Magicjack service includes free, unlimited long distance calling anywhere in the US (and I think Canada, but I forget) so we can call them back if necessary).
After the first year of service is up, additional years are $30 per year. No contracts, no BS. I personally have no complaints with the system so I feel comfortable recommending it. You can also get them immediately down at the BX for about $70.
NOTE! If you get Allied service, you can make local base calls as well as US calls. This is useful for calling work, base facilities of various kinds, or other people on base IF they have Allied as well. But we don't call the base that much and if they have Allied, they also have a US number so we can just call that one instead.
Three Cell Choices
Considering you live and work on base (or live very close anyway), you may be tempted to skip cellphones. That's fine, but undesireable if you plan to get out into Japan to see and do things or if you just want to call home from the store to ask your spouse which kind of barbecue sauce you need.
Assuming you do want a cellphone, here's what I learned.
There are a variety of smaller services and various options that I've heard about here and there, but most people are going to want to stick with the big three for simplicity's sake. They are:
AU is the first. It's a company that uses WCDMA technology (which will be important later). I didn't get a chance to evaluated their plans for various reasons (explained later).
Docomo is a huge company that uses GSM technology. At the time I checked, they had no particular specials of any kind and the cheapest phone plans were about $20 a month.
Note: At the 4th of July event, the Docomo employees in attendance told me that using an American smartphone with their service was no problem for them as long as the phone was carrier unlocked (explained below).
However, Softbank has many issues you need to be aware of:
Bring your own phone
Bringing your own phone to a service is a great idea in the US. First, you don't have to reprogram anything or re-add contacts and apps. Second, your phone may be just fine already and you don't need/want a new one. Third, you can often avoid contracts and get lower prices since plan prices and contract periods are designed to give you steep price discounts on the phone you're buying (why else would you get an iPhone for free/cheap?).
I've heard that other stores, including other Softbank stores, are reasonable about you wanting to use your own phone, but the people on base are ruthless and rigid. They absolutely want to funnel you into the expensive smartphone plan and contract and will constantly warn you/dissuade you from using your own.
Well, I wasn't going to let that happen so here's what I did.
Here are our two cellphones form T-mobile. They are GSM technology phones so they will work with Docomo and Softbank (which is why I never evaluated AU). To get them to work, though, they must first be "carrier unlocked" which is to say; they come from the factory locked to the service that's printed on the front of the phone.
But you can ask for an unlock code and I did. First by telephone which was a COMPLETE waste of time and then a day later via T-mobile text-chat through their website. In less than 5 minutes, I told her I was out of country and wanted unlock codes. She asked for some phone information and e-mailed me the instructions and codes right away (I received the e-mails several hours later, but it was easy and fast all things considered).
If you're smarter than I was, you should unlock your phones BEFORE you come to Japan. I actually figured this out in the US before we left, but forgot to do it until we got here.
Once your phones are unlocked, it's a simple matter to take the SIM cards (the brain) from their cheap and stupid flip phones:
When I put the SIM in, my phone worked perfectly immediately. Same for my wife's phone except for one important problem: no data.
A data plan isn't necessary unless you want Internet access when you're away from your home wireless network. But considering we very much would have use for translation, live GPS services, and other things when traveling, we thought it made sense to have at least one phone on a more expensive data plan.
For Softbank, the basic phone with data is $60 a month. If you want the "nice" phone, they charge $25 more per month which is reasonable to recover the cost of a phone. The problem is, as I understand it, they will continue to charge you the extra $25 even AFTER the two year contract is up (which there is no justification for, it's simply customer abuse).
So I was excited to drop the SIM into my wife's phone and taste victory yet again… but it turns out there's a technical incompatibility between the US data system and the Japanese one. A really smart friend assures me there's a hack/workaround, but I opted for a simpler approach.
There are a variety of website and Facebook groups where people on base swap goods. Considering taking a Japanese phone to the US would be just as difficult (or more) than coming here, I figured (correctly) that there would be people willing to sell their Softbank smartphones for reasonable prices. My wife wanted an Iphone for a specific app (which it turns out is on Android anyway) so that's what I got.
There are many reasons I don't prefer Apple devices and now I have a new one: they use non-standard SIM cards it seems. So instead of stealthily swapping cards as I hoped, I needed Softbank's help. But I knew the people on base would try to force me into the more expensive plan so I had to go offbase instead. If you look, you can find where they speak English in offbase stores, though it's a little faster if you speak decent Japanese or bring a friend.
There are rumors that you can physically cut the large SIM cards down to fit in an iPhone, but I haven't tried it. Do at your own risk
Either way, it took about a half hour or so to get everything set up, but, as I suspected, going to a regular Softbank store I was able to get them to transfer the phone number and $60 plan to my wife's used iPhone for a one-time cost of $30. Victory!
One last issue: connection
For reasons I just can't fathom, Softbank is allowed to operate a store on base even though they are famous for having horrible connectivity. Everyone warned me about it but there are two reasons I went with Softbank anyway:
Reason 1: It turns out that there's a fairly simple process for requesting a booster antenna for your home which they'll install for free. Granted, if you don't give it back after you leave at the end of your tour, they'll charge you $350, but it's free otherwise and works well according to the people I know that have it.
Reason 2: I've heard consistently, saw in person, and now have tested myself that iPhones (and possibly other smartphones) get perfect reception where others don't. My smartphone gets ok service in the living room, especially by the window, but my wife's new iPhone has a full 5 bars everywhere in the house; even in the stairwell. Whether that's an apple thing, a newer phone thing, or just a Japanese-made phone thing, I don't know. If you like conspiracies, maybe it's a "Japanese company using tricks to lower the service on foreign phones" thing.
I still haven't decided if I'm going to bother getting the antenna for just my phone now that my wife's works perfectly, but either way, the connectivity issue has been resolved.
Final notes and lessons learned
- Plan for data issues. If you don't need data, you can use your own phone fine. If you DO, plan to buy new phones (though I recommend getting them used and swapping the SIMs or service).
- Check your phone's compatibility before you try this. My phone was actually GSM and WCDMA compatible. If I had known that we'd have to get a new phone for my wife either way, I could have evaluated all of the services instead of just the two.
- Beware of Apple vs the world issues. They just have to be clever and use custom everything so if you're already using Apple, you're stuck with them while if you're using anything else, you'll have a lot more options. Alternatively, you can brave the off-base stores and pay a transfer fee to have your number and plan moved to the different phone. Considering the long-term costs, for me it was well worth it.
- Softbank had me sign a document talking about the scary consequences of swapping SIM cards into different phones if you're using a data plan; especially American ones. As far as I can tell they're full of it, but your mileage may vary. Considering my wife is using an actual Softbank brand phone now, I'm not worries, but if you try to get more clever, it is possible that there may be additional charges or weirdness. Use at your own risk.
- If you already bought Softbank and thought you had to deal with horrible service and difficult to use flipphones, it's not too late. Get a used smartphone and swap SIMS and it should work beautifully (though note that iPhones at least have a different sided SIM and will need to be manually transferred at a store).
- If you end with an extra US phone like we did in this process, you can sell it or do what we plan to and use it for your trips home (it's easy enough to activate prepaid on an "as needed basis" with T-Mobile at least).
- If you're brave or have a friend who can take you, Joyful Honda has a cellphone store that appears to deal with ALL THREE CELL COMPANIES. I don't know if they have anyone there who speaks English, but if they do, that would be a great place to compare plans and prices.
I made this guide because most people end up with Softbank on horrible terms, with horrible prices, and horrible service. Regardless of what you end up doing, I hope my experience helps you find a better way. Tags: Cellphones, iPhone, Japan