SIM Card Jungle: Comparing Japanese MVNOs

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  • SIM Card Jungle: Comparing Japanese MVNOs

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    Choosing a cell phone provider can indeed cause one of those headaches expats who have recently arrived in Japan experience when trying to settle down in their new city. Spending hundreds of yen at a local Starbucks to use their Wi-Fi might sound like a tempting option, but it’s quite unrealistic for the long-term resident who will be relying on their cell phone for both their work and personal life. The multiple NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank, and AU stores spread around cities are of course an option, but you have to be ready to face their astronomically high fees – in the past, I was paying close to 7,000 yen for only 3GB of data.

    However, there is another way to get your phone working without having to torture your wallet every month: SIM cards. MVNO stands for “Mobile Virtual Network Operator”, and boy did I wish I knew about them when I first moved to Japan. MVNOs will use one of Japan’s main carriers’ networks while charging their customers a fraction of the price. Of course, nothing will be 100% perfect, and there are so many SIM card providers that researching the best options can become quite annoying for those who need to maximize their days. To make that research simpler, we have compiled several SIM cards and compared them so you can make a decision far more easily than by going to the closest Bic Camera and asking for help without knowing exactly what you want.

    Things to Know

    Before going for a specific brand or provider, it is important to know that there are essentially two types of SIM cards: the ones that include both data and voice plans, and the ones that offer nothing but data. SIM cards that include a voice plan will be a tad more expensive, and they also tend to come with a cancellation fee. Almost all plans have an initial cost of about 3,240 yen. Additionally, while the prices will differ, most companies charge somewhere between 20-45 yen/minute. Finally, and for the sake of simplicity, all prices listed below include an 8% consumption tax.


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    BIGLOBEさん(@biglobe_official)がシェアした投稿 –

    BIGLOBE is one of the most important Internet providers in Japan, and as such, offers SIM cards for which you can apply online. The initial cost would be 3,394 yen whether you choose their Type D (an NTT DoCoMo line) or their Type A (an AU line). Afterwards, you can choose the type of plan you want, having the options of a voice call SIM, a data with SMS function SIM, and a data SIM for those who simply want and need Internet access (which is only available with their Type D plan). Depending on your needs and how you end up tailoring your plan, you can end up paying as low as 1,728 yen a month for a functioning phone with 3GB of data; and if you were to select the plan that only includes the data SIM, you would be paying 972 yen a moth. The data options would be 3GB, 6GB, 12GB, 20GB, and 30GB; the voice call plan also offers an option with 1GB of data, though we wouldn’t recommend it. As it is the case with many cell phone providers in Japan, the downside is that BIGLOBE charges an 8,640-yen fee for cancelling the contract before the 12-month term finishes. Keep that one in mind.

    DMM Mobile

    If its name sounds familiar, rest assured that you’ve seen DMM somewhere thanks to how diversified the company is. Through its online shopping portal people can even buy Bitcoins, so knowing that they also sell SIM cards should not be that surprising. DMM Mobile uses NTT DoCoMo’s line, and it offers high-speed data plans ranging from 1GB to 20GB. Something fun about the variety of options DMM Mobile offers is that it gives customers more freedom when considering a data plan that best suits their needs. A 3GB plan would run you 1,620 yen each month, and if it were the plan that only includes data, the price would go down to 972 yen. At 9,720 yen, the cancellation fee is a bit higher than those of other competitors, but DMM Mobile’s website stipulates that after the initial 12-month contract they don’t impose any cancellation fees.


    Another popular MVNO is IIJmio. With IIJmio you also have the option of choosing between a Type D plan (DoCoMo) and a Type A one (AU). The differences between both plans are minimal, and it mostly comes down to one’s preference, or if there are any restrictions with your device – for example, DoCoMo phones will only work with the Type D plan. According to MMD Labo, IIJmio was the number one MVNO in terms of customer satisfaction for three years in a row, which certainly adds something special when choosing a new SIM card, particularly once considering that wireless phone providers are among the companies customers hate the most. As for the data, you can also decide between 3GB, 6GB, and 12GB. For 3GB, IIJmio charges 1,728 yen (which would be 972 yen for a data-only Type A plan). They also offer 20GB and 30GB plans, though are advertised differently. While their website has some information in English, a good option is to go to Yodobashi Camera when applying and signing the contract. When cancelling, the fee will be equal to the remaining months in the contract x 1,080 yen.


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    . #目がメガ盛り . 本日の午前中に mineoユーザーになりました🙌🎵 @mineo_jp さんが インスタ開設記念のキャンペーンですってよ✨ ななななんと!!!!! 抽選で300名さまに 3000メガバイト分のパケットプレゼント🎁 . 3000メガバイト⁉️ はい。わたくし 一瞬 固まりました😂✨笑 . . . そして今まで(17年以上) お世話になったa○様は 青春時代を共に過ごした 思い出のあるキャリア様😌✨ #出会いあれば別れあり ← 今まで ありがとうございました🙇🏻‍♀️✨ . @mineo_jp 様 これから どうぞよろしくお願いします🙋🏻‍♀️❤️ #mineo #マイネオ #マイネオに変えました #マイネオキャンペーン #格安スマホ #格安スマホデビュー

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    Fun fact, according to MMD Labo, Mineo came to overtake IIJmio in terms of customer satisfaction in 2017, a title it has now held for two years in a row. That’s quite a feat! With Mineo, customers have the options between a DoCoMo, SoftBank, and AU SIM cards, and they offer 3GB, 6GB, 10GB, 20GB, and 30GB plans. As if the 1GB plans other providers offer were not puzzling enough, Mineo has a 500MB option, but why would you even do that to yourself? Their 3GB plan costs 1,738 yen a month, going down to 972 yen if it’s only a data plan. Another benefit with Mineo is that they don’t impose any cancellation fees, which could certainly explain why users are so content with this provider. As a side note, the SoftBank plan is slightly more expensive than the other two, so keep that in mind if you decide to go with Mineo.


    Mobal is one of those providers that acts as a magnet for foreigners. Their English website is comprehensible, and they offer English support, which is a rarity among all other MVNOs (only Sakura Mobile offers the same type of service). Another benefit for foreigners is that Mobal offers both short-term and long-term plans, making it a reliable option not only for residents, but also for people who are just visiting Japan. Mobal uses a SoftBank line, and offers two types of plans: voice and text only for 1,000 yen a month, and unlimited data for 4,500 yen. The unlimited data is truly special since no other MVNO will offer something remotely similar. Additionally, Mobal won’t ask for resident cards, visas, and Japanese bank accounts. No contract, no commitments. There’s a reason Mobal is very popular among foreign visitors and residents.


    NifMo by Nifty, a subsidiary of Fujitsu, offers 3GB, 7GB, and 13GB plans. Their 3GB plan has a monthly cost of 1,728 yen (972 yen if it’s only for data) while their 7GB plan has a cost of 2,484 yen (1,728 yen for a plan that only offers data). NifMo uses NTT DoCoMo’s network, and it has a comprehensive and very user-friendly website that makes ordering a SIM card with them an easy affair. Additionally, RBB Speed Test recognized NifMo for its customer satisfaction, placing the company alongside IIJmio and Mineo as one of the most well liked MVNO providers in Japan. Cancelling your contract before 6 months will result in an 8,640-yen fee.


    NuroMobile is a bit different in that, instead of offering a 3GB plan, it offers a 2GB one (1,512 yen with voice calls and 756 yen without it), followed by 7GB and 13GB ones. Besides DoCoMo line, NuroMobile also offers a SoftBank one, but it’s more expensive. Besides, NuroMobile recommends the DoCoMo line for those with a SIM unlocked terminal and those with SIM free terminal. Similarly to IIJmio, the cancellation fee would be the remaining months x 1,080 yen.

    Rakuten Mobile

    The almighty Rakuten. Is anyone remotely surprised that Rakuten is one of the many companies offering SIM cards? We are not. With Rakuten Mobile, customers can choose between a DoCoMo line and an AU one that are priced exactly the same. There are 3.1GB, 5GB, 10GB, 20GB, and 30GB data plans; the 3.1GB plan costing 1,728 yen, and 972 yen if it only includes data. The biggest downside to Rakuten Mobile is that it imposes a very high cancellation fee of 10,260 yen.

    Sakura Mobile

    Another company known for catering to foreign residents, Sakura Mobile is a great option for those who are planning to stay in Japan regardless of how long. There is no contract and no cancellation fees. Additionally, they offer English support, and accept credit cards that are not issued in Japan. The activation fee is 15,000 yen, but it goes down to 5,400 yen through multiple campaigns throughout the year (as of this writing, there is a Christmas campaign going on). Their 3GB plan is 3,218 yen a month, and a rather steep 2,138-yen if it does not include a voice plan. Sakura Mobile also offers 5GB, 7GB, and 20GB plans, all of which are more expensive than what its competitors offer. That’s the catch, Sakura Mobile is a reliable provider that offers ease and flexibility to foreigners, but it is not the cheapest option.


    The last MVNO provider on our list is U-mobile, their 3GB plan costs 1,707 yen a month while their 5GB plan costs 2,139 yen. Interestingly, U-mobile also offers an all-you-can-use LTE plan with a monthly price of 3,219 yen for a 6-month contract, and 2,949 yen for a 12-month one. One of the best things about U-mobile is their 25GB plan called U-mobile Max, which at 3,111 yen costs about the same as what both Rakuten Mobile and DMM Mobile would charge for 10GB. Their cancellation fee of 6,480 yen also rivals that of many of its competitors, making U-mobile a no-brainer for many customers looking for a reliable SIM card.


    For your convenience, we will like to provide you with a small chart that lists all the MVNO providers we compared, as well as some of their data + voice call plans (as a reminder, the 8% consumer tax is already included).



    As you can attest, there is a vast number of options to choose from when considering MVNOs. If you were to ask friends or coworkers who use MVNOs to tell you about their experience, it wouldn’t be unusual to find out that many of them are content with their choice of provider, and how little they have to spend each month for something as important as a functioning cell phone. Most providers will have similar plans and rates, and thus some of the biggest factors to consider would be concealed in the footprint. By that, we are talking about daily usage limits, payment methods, and contract terms. It is always important to confirm that information before giving one of those providers your business. If you want to go for those that have earned the most awards, then IIJmio, Mineo, and NifMo will be your best bet. Now that you know some of the options out there, go get the SIM card that best suits your needs!