Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reasonably priced voice and data rental SIMs finally come to Japan: B-Mobile PAYG

SIM card rental in Japan is exorbitantly expensive because law prohibits non-residents from obtaining cellular voice contracts, blocking them out of the (relatively) reasonably priced market. The only options are rental services.

The rental market predates 3G, and Japan never used GSM. In the past, visitors had no choice but to rent hardware, which created an environment that (somewhat) justified premium pricing. There was no significant decrease in price following the start of SIM card rental after introduction of 3G networks, and once smartphones proliferated, mobile data options were added data but at laughable prices.

Not anymore.

Inexpensive data with a voice rental SIM

The B-Mobile line of SIM cards from Japan Communications, Inc. (JCI) got a new product today, the prepaid PAYG rental SIM, which provides 60 minutes of outgoing voice calls (incoming is free) and 3GB of 3G/LTE data for ¥9,980. The SIM is active for 7 days, after which any remaining data and minutes become invalid. The specifics are:

B-Mobile PAYG Rental Voice and Data SIM
  • ¥9,980 for 7 days
  • 60 outgoing domestic/international minutes
  • 3 GB 3G/LTE data
  • 5/75 seconds deducted for domestic/international SMS
  • Free tethering
  • incoming calls and SMS free
  • Prepaid (no worry of unexpected, additional charges)
  • Nano, micro, standard SIM card sizes
The SIM card can be purchased in stores (Yodobashi Camera) or preordered. Unfortunately, complying with Japanese law complicates the activation process. If you preorder, you will first set an activation date and upload a scan or image of the passport page with your photo. Then, following activation but within 24 hours of arrival in Japan, you will have to also upload pictures of 1) your entry stamps and 2) the image of the same passport page originally uploaded. If you buy in a store, then you will need to upload all this together as soon as possible and wait for activation.

In a press release, JCI indicated they are working with the government to try and smooth the activation process. By the way, if Tokyo police have their way, this will be required for ALL SIMs sold to non-residents, even data-only SIMs, which means that most MVNOs won't bother to go through the effort and just start requiring residency for data-only SIMs, just like for voice SIMs.

Traditional data costs with a rental voice SIM

At ¥110/day and ¥110 per minute (with a ¥315 service fee), the current SoftBank rental SIM would cost ¥7,685 over a 7 day period if a comparable 60 minutes were used – a better value for just voice. However, if you want to have minimal background data usage for mail, maps, etc., the SoftBank rental costs increase quickly.

Softbank rental data fees are ¥0.32/packet (128 bytes). Doing the math yields the following:
  • 1 KB: ¥3
  • 1 MB: ¥2,621
  • 2 MB: ¥5,243
  • 250 MB: ¥655,360 ($6,500US)
  • 1 GB: ¥2,684,355 ($27,000US)
  • 3 GB: ¥8,053,064 ($80,500US)
Yes, current Japanese rental SIMs value 3 GB of mobile data at 80,000 US dollars. As I said, laughable. Of course no one would ever use this much, and the daily maximums are capped I believe, so it wouldn't be possible anyway. However, because the traditional rentals are postpaid with a credit card, there will always be the concern of incurring additional charges.

A more realistic comparison

Long time readers will recall that I once did an experiment over about 8 months with a b-mobile FAIR data-only SIM. (There is an interactive chart showing how I consumed data during those 240 days at the bottom of this post.) The FAIR is wide open with no proxy or speed restrictions (and accordingly priced). 1 GB of data costs about ¥8,000 and is good for four months. This translates to 250 MB for ¥2,000.

All the other MVNO SIMs, especially the other b-mobile products, are speed restricted and relatively high latency. Because of this, I think it would be near impossible to use 3 GB with the PAYG SIM in 7 days (or even in an entire month). So comparing prices based on high data consumption is completely unrealistic.

Rather, I will compare prices based on my experience with the FAIR SIM because I think my behavior regarding data usage with a 250 MB monthly quota is a good analog for the way people use traditional Japanese rental SIMs. That is, I thought about the cost of everything I did with the phone. On light-usage days, I would consume around 2 MB, which is the equivalent of uploading one or two photos.

Let's compare costs by taking about a quarter of my light-day usage, 500 KB. Seven days with a Softbank rental SIM, using 500 KB per day and 60 minutes total, would cost ¥16,645. To bring the cost down to the PAYG SIM price over 7 days, total data usage over the entire week must be limited to just under 1 MB. One. Megabyte.

Good luck with that.


  1. 7 days??? Is this a joke??? So if I stay in Japan for three weeks, I'm supposed to pay 30 000 Yen just to have a phone number? Everytime my wife and I stay over at my parents-in-law we get into trouble with not having mobile internet and phone and I will certainly not pay 3man for which I could instead stay a night at an expensive ryokan, or buy half an iphone, or ... so many things.

  2. As a consumer, the responsibility is obviously on you to determine which products best fit your needs and situation. Of course it would be ridiculous to use this for 3 continuous weeks. The product is not designed for that purpose.

    If you must have a phone number, get the rental SIM from softbank and put it in something that doesn't use data. Then get a data-only SIM and carry around two devices, one for calls and one for data. Or get a "050" IP number and set up a SIP client on your phone. There's really no reason you should be without mobile internet and phone for 3 weeks.

  3. Never head of that company. If you are here for that amount of time, you'll have the necessary documents to get a regular phone contract, so there's absolutely no reason to get a rental SIM.

  4. Why not?
    I refuse to bind myself for 2 years to a contract (like au, softbank, docomo etc), even if I would plan to stay that long.
    Especially since I already have a new smartphone and contract prices are even higher. I don't need 7Gb/month, so paying over 6000Y for it seems non-feasible.
    Or am I missing something?

  5. iij, ocn, biglobe and even bmobile offers low priced non 2 year contract (5month usage) voice and data plans available. This new product PAYG SIM is expensive and ridiculous in a sense but a big step forward for japan to open the door more.

  6. Yup, as mentioned by Shinya Oishi, many of the MVNOs offer voice SIMs with short contracts, though some follow the standard 2-year model, so you have to be careful. None of the b-mobile voice SIMs have "shibari" (autorenewing contracts), so after the initial 5 months (depending on the MVNO), you can cancel anytime, with no restrictions or penalties ever.

  7. Yes, but the 1500/month only has a low speed which b-mobile is kind of known for.
    And the next higher one costs already 3121/month for 3Gb.
    I also looked up the other companies Shinya Oishi mentioned; and these are also more expensive than u-mobile.
    (Eg. ocn for around 4000/month, although unlimited which I don't need.)

    If I don't hear anything wrong about u-mobile, I guess I'll just try it. Maybe it's awful slow or they won't take foreign customers, who knows.

  8. Why would you think they don't take foreign customers? Basically you get what you pay for. If you want the best experience, pay 6000 yen per month with a 2-year contract. If you cant afford that, select an MVNO, but if you are not happy with 3GB and a voice sim for only about 3,000 per month, then I doubt you will find a product here that meets your needs.

  9. Joost van SteenderenAugust 25, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    You said the 7 days are government policy? I guess it's a step in the good direction for appealing to tourists. I hope the 7 days is just a start though. As with travel tour packages they seem to focus on the average Japanese holiday, which probably isn't going to be more than one week. If they really want to attract more foreigners (or 2020 olympic visitors), expanding limit would work. Who's going to call 60 minutes in one week in a foreign country where most people don't speak English... but same package for a month would be suitable for a larger number of tourists I think.

    Tourists might be better of checking their own provider for roaming packages. Or even buy a prepaid sim just for the roaming package in their own country. During summer break I went back to my country and got myself one of Vodafone. It turned out that for 2 euro (approx 280 yen) I can use 35mb + 30 texts + 30 mins (int.) calling here in Japan. 30 mins for 280 yen, that's cheaper than my Docomo post paid contract...

    That said, the LTE networks is pretty good here in JP and I'm sure that cost a few yennies to renew it whenever a new standard has to be rolled out nationwide, but consumers and the Authority for Consumers and Market need to speak up more. AU, Softbank, Docomo, it's pretty much all the same price-wise, and there isn't much to choose in things like small voice or data-plans, contract-length... or in other words we're selling the same for the same agreed price...

    I'm about to end my 2yr contract so I'll hop over and try a MVNO for a year. B-mobile also has come up with some small data plan packages like u-mobile.

  10. No, 7 days is just what they decided. The government requires the ID checking etc. I am under the impression that this product is more or less targeting Asian visitors. Packages are available in traditional and simplified Chinese for both Taiwan and China. Given the close proximity and similar time zones, I expect there would be greater opportunity to call back home for them.

  11. "Reasonable" is a relative term. For example, relative to 8 Million yen, ¥10,000 is reasonable for 3 GB over 7 days, but ¥10,000 is still expensive.

  12. Did you sign up for u-mobile? if so, could you share with us your experiences with it so far, particularly data speeds?

  13. I will be arriving in a few weeks, so I didn't had the oppurtunity to sign up yet.

  14. Well, if you do have a chance, please post your feedback here after you get it. And enjoy your time in Japan!

  15. As far as I know, the only plan from OCN that is close to 4000 JPY is their reselling of emotive. The data only plans start at something like 900 JPY per month for 70 MB per day. Even if you go over that, you still get data, it's just throttled to 256 kbps or so. Also, you can pay 500 JPY to unlock unlimited data for a day for those days you forgot your router...

  16. Sorry for the long waiting.
    I signed up the contract with u-mobile about 3 months ago and so far I am pleased with the outcome.
    Speed is totally fine and most of the time I get LTE in the midst of Tokyo.

    The only thing which was very bothersome, was the registration.
    You have to type the foreign name in the first name sections in CAPS and your Japanese transliteration belongs in the furigana section.
    And if you have more than one official name, include all into the registration (without spaces) whether it's the same case for your credit card or not.
    Also the credit card owner's name has to be written in CAPS.
    It nearly drove me crazy, because I would get error messages all the time.
    And then after I took the hurdle with CAPS, they didn't approved my application for several times as I got automatic emails saying I should upload the pictures of my resident card again. And after that I got immediately automatic emails, demanding all information to written again.

    Took me like 5 - 7 times entering and uploading all information.
    Friends of mine didn't have as much problem though (well after I figured it out with caps).

    So fellow foreigners, don't give up in the registration process! It pays up in the end.