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Phone Solutions for Americans Living in Japan

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.

American Calls

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).


Softbank is a special case in that, on Yokota AFB at least, they're in the commissary and staffed by all English-speaking employees. For that reason and because they have plans that give you free calling to and from any Softbank user (during certain hours), most people go this way. For price reasons, I did too.

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:

This is the crap flipphone that you get by default when you use the cheapy $10 a month plan from Softbank. Great price! Crappy phone. So what do we do?
SIM cards should be behind the back cover and usually require that you pull the battery as well.
Throw the Japan SIM into your US unlocked phone and boom. Same phone number, same plan, but much better phone without paying the bogus smartphone plan price

When I put the SIM in, my phone worked perfectly immediately. Same for my wife's phone except for one important problem: no data.

Data beware!

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.

Apple woes

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!

My phone working fine, sending a message to my wife's iPhone. I have a smartphone working with the $10 flipphone plan, and she has an iPhone on the $60 data-enabled flipphone plan.

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.

That's it!

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: , ,

4th Amendment Summary by the EFF

Can you refuse search or not? It would be good to know your rights.
(Image is in the Public Domain)

You can't use rights you don't know about or don't understand. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a summary of your 4th amendment rights to deny the government permission to search you or your belongings (digital or otherwise).

It's good to know what you can and can't do since you should know that even when you've done nothing wrong, you may still get yourself into a lot of trouble if you are careless with your privacy.

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Skip the Nudie Scanner, Get Extra Frisking as Punishment

There are some people who have reported extra screening and scrutiny of their person and personal belongings when they refuse to engage in the TSA nudie scanner fiasco.

I went over to the TSA blog to see what the climate was and the responses are overwhelmingly against the technology.

From the complaints that have been coming in, it seems to be common practice for TSA to send people through the machines without telling them what they do or offering them a choice. How does anyone think that this is OK?

And

Bob, why would the TSA use backscatter at all when MMW is much less risky in terms of exposure to harmwave wavelengths.

There were other issues listed such as the scanning of children nude and the right to ask that your belongings always remain in your sight while they're being analyzed (which is only useful if you know about that right).

I once met the head of privacy for the TSA, Peter P., and got his contact information. I just sent him an e-mail suggesting that the only way that it would be ethical to use these machines is to:

  1. Post on the machine actual, unedited, unblurred photos of real people being scanned.
  2. Verbally tell each person to be scanned that they may opt-out every time

I don't know if he'll respond or what he'll say, but expect they won't do either of these because if they did, people would probably never use them at all. But that's the point isn't it? We should know exactly what's going to happen and be able to make an informed choice.

Anyway, if he does respond, I'll post it here.

Update

It's really quite surprising how quickly he responded. Not more than 2 hours after my e-mail, I received a phone call where he answered my questions.

He says there are already images on all machines that are exactly what the operators see, just not life sized though he didn't know why that matters to people. In fact, some people have complained about the nudity on the signs (which I expected would happen, but we don't care about them do we :)).

There are also indications that you can choose to have a pat down in the largest font of all text on the machine. I can't really say if that's sufficient considering I haven't seen the machines personally, though I doubt a simple sign is enough unless it's a pretty big font.

He says a verbal notice would add too much time and present it more as a negative thing when it wasn't (a matter of opinion) and he's right about that so I didn't expect much. The main thing is how the operators act in practice. If someone seems hesitant, they should immediately offer the pat-down instead, but do they?

On the subject of how people are treated when refusing the scan, he said that it's impossible to monitor that process, but they are trained not to do extra screening just because someone opted-out. He also pointed out that at last year's CFP Conference a woman who claimed to have been subjected to nearly 20 minutes of screening was actually only there for less than 3 (they checked the video). He said perception plays a large part and I can't disagree with that.

What is fact is that people are frustrated and angry. We don't trust that the machines won't be misused and there's at least one case where they already were. Is there anything the TSA could do to win our trust? Who' knows, but here's the page where they have all the information about the machines and how they're used.

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TSA Nudie Scanners May Violate Child Porn Laws

EPIC has been fighting what they call Whole Body Imaging for a while now, but this is an interesting new twist. I never thought about this before, but taking a nude scan of a minor is a violation of child pornography laws.

So if this is really the case, and the TSA doesn't get some kind of exception they will be barred from scanning anyone under 18 at which point the terrorists get an advantage by sending through young recruits (or ones young enough to plausibly lie about it).

The really sad thing about all this is that the technology is very good. It's less invasive than a strip search or pat down and it's extremely fast and easy for the traveler. If it were possible to trust that the TSA could keep the images from being stored and distributed, maybe even I could support it.

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GPS Tracking Watch for Parents

Track your kids in real-time online with GPS

Here's a tool for you ultra-paranoid: a GPS watch you can make your kids wear.

Parents can see the location of their child on Google maps by clicking 'where r you' on a secure website or texting 'wru' to a special number. Safe zones can also be programmed with parents being alerted if their child strays outside this zone.

The watch, which is designed in bright colours to appeal to children, can be tightly fastened to a child's wrist and sends an alert if forcibly removed.

Two things to keep in mind before doing this:

  1. If you tag kids with monitoring devices, we will be raising a generation of people who don't see a problem with being tagged and tracked. This sets a very dangerous precedent for the future if we are to retain our personal liberties.
  2. The company that supplies the information also gets to see where your kid is which creates a new set of questions. What does the company do with all that data? Would they possibly share or sell it? Could they lose it in a data breach?
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Stealing Cellphone Data Takes Only Seconds

Digital Pickpocketing
(Image used under: Creative Commons 2.0 [SRC])

There's a small device that when plugged into many cellphone brands (and the list is growing) that can copy all data on the phone. In other words, if someone wanted to know every bit of data you have on your phone, they could ask to "borrow it for second", plug this thing in when you weren't looking and hand it back.

While designed for law enforcement, this device is available to the public for only ~$200

The rule: if your phone contains sensitive data, do not leave it unattended. If you loan it to someone to use because they tell you theirs is not working, make sure you actually see them using the phone and there is nothing connected to it.
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Verizon First Wireless Provider to go to Unlimited Calling

Verizon
(Image used under: Fair Use doctrine)

Just as AOL was the first to go to unlimited Internet access in the 90's thus changing the way Internet service is charged, Verizon is making that step in the wireless communications field. All I can say is that it's about damn time.

Wireless companies have been robbing people for years with their ridiculous rate plans and minute to minute charges. Now that they're going flat rate, chances are that the prices will come down just like they did for Internet service so many years ago.

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Sprint Forced to Unlock Phones

Unlocked
(Image used under: Creative Commons 2.0 [SRC])

In California, Sprint has been forced to unlock their phones to allow their customers to use their phones with other cell services. The main point here being that if someone has been using their cellphone for years wouldn't normally want to switch to another service even if Sprint was terrible since they might like their phone and have it customized and full of data they wanted to keep.

With cellphone unlocking, now that customer can drop Sprint like a bad habit at will. Bad news for Sprint, great news for us.

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RARE! A Bill In Congress With No Drawbacks? Cell Phone Companies Cringe

Congress
(Image is in the Public Domain)

From the Consumerist:

Early Termination Fees: FCC regulations would require companies to prorate ETFs, with the penalty for escaping a 2-year contract cut in half at the end of the first year.

Service Maps: Cellphone companies would be required to provide detailed maps showing call quality down to the street level. The maps would be augmented by data on dropped calls and coverage gaps collected and publicized by the FCC.

Fee Disclosure: Overage charges would be displayed separately from taxes, and companies would be prohibited from levying any fees, apart from the basic service charge, not expressly authorized by federal, state, or local regulation.

Contract Disclosure: Depriving us of a source of many posts, companies would be prohibited from extending contracts without "point-of-sale notification," and customers would have 30 days to cancel any contract, new or extended. Any contract changes would need to be sent to consumers in writing, and could not take affect for 30 days.

Unlocked Phones: The bill would give the FCC a homework assignment: a single-spaced report to Congress on the harmful and anti-competitive practice of locking handsets.

Military Exemptions: Companies would be required to release military members awaiting deployment from their contracts.

Wow. I can't remember the last time I saw a consumer friendly bill that didn't have some horrible drawback attached. No custom fees? Prorated early termination fees? Street level service maps! So very cool… Let's hope for the best.

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The British RFID passports have had their encryption broken already

If you spend millions to deploy an encryption system, maybe you should make sure it's robust first?
(Image used under: Creative Commons 2.0 [SRC])

New RFID passports are supposed to make identity theft more difficult and to make it easier to spot fake passports like the ones used by the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

First, making the data remotely secretly readable without every possessing or otherwise coming into contact with the passport hardly makes it more secure against identity theft. Second, it's hard to make fake documents, but easy to fake 1's and 0's. Last I checked your electrons look just like mine.

Besides the very obvious flaws in this idea, all it would take for the "secure passports" to turn into a nightmare of unprecedented proportions would be for the encryption to be broken. Oops, it's been done… and in under 48 hours of effort.

In the article, they mostly talk about the dangers of cloning passports, but I submit that the real danger is being easily, quickly, and remotely identified as a foreigner while you travel. Either way, they said it best in their final paragraph:

It may be that at some point in the future the government will accept that putting RFID chips in to passports is ill-conceived and unnecessary. Until then, the only people likely to embrace this kind of technology are those with mischief in mind.
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