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.
Inexpensive data with a voice rental SIMThe 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
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 SIMAt ¥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)
A more realistic comparisonLong 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.