In many countries around the world, prepaid (or pay-as-you-go) mobile phones are by far the most popular choice since you can simply buy a prepaid SIM (Subscriber Identity Module, a fancy word for that little plastic card you pop into the back of your phone), put some money on it and call/text away to your heart’s content. 

Unfortunately, in Japan prepaid phones are very much in the minority, although they are popular amongst foreign students, travelers and tourists who plan to be here less than a year. However, there is pretty much only one company left that offers full service prepaid, which is Softbank.The primary competitor is au but the range of services is significantly more limited.

Read on...

The advantage of prepaid is, as the name implies, no locking into a contract. Softbank offers a few phone models, all relatively basic by Japanese standards, but functional. au also has a similar set of basic phones to choose from. Handsets can cost anywhere from 5000-10,000 yen and they are all unsubsidized (i.e. you have to buy them yourself, no help from the company) and come with a very small amount of preloaded money. Like all Japanese phones, incoming calls are free but outgoing domestic calls are billed at a rate of 9 yen per 6 seconds (yes, that’s right, I said every six seconds) regardless of whom you call. au offers a not so competative rate of 10 yen per 6 seconds.

Even though talking is expensive, Softbank offers free short mail (their version of SMS) to other Softbank subscribers and for 300 yen a month you get unlimited mobile e-mail (which we will cover in a later post). You can refill your phone online at Softbank’s website via credit card, purchase refill cards in a convince store, or pay for points at a bank ATM. Cards come in 3,000 and 5,000 yen varieties, but money on your account will expire if you do not refill at least once every 60 days. Even if you let your balance expire, however, the phone number on your SIM card will be reserved for your future use up to 12 months after your last recharge. You can continue to receive phone calls and SMS messages (but not mobile e-mails) on a prepaid phone with no balance for that 12 month period. Unlike contract (post-paid) phones, Softbank prepaid phones cannot roam overseas. 

On the other hand, au only lets you use basic calling and "c-mail" (50 yen per message) which is kind of like an in-network only SMS. There is no mobile data or e-mail plan, making your phone pretty much a call-only device. Like Softbank, au sells prepaid cards in 3,000 and 5,000 yen blocks not to mention a 10,000 yen card if you are feeling really extravagant. You can pick these up at au shops and select convenience stores depending on your region. Each card lasts for 60, 90, and 365 days respectively with a reregistration period of 90 days after your service lapses. Unlike softbank, you cannot recharge online or at ATMs and attemptiong to reactivate a phone after the 90 day period will result in a 4,000 yen fee. Like Softbank phones, they cannot roam over seas.

For more info, check out Softbank’s English website here or au's English website here. And stay tuned for our next installment where we will lay out the finer points of getting a standard post-paid contract.

Other posts in this series:
Part #1: The Basics
Part #3: Pre-Paid Phones
Part #4: Post-Paid Phones 
Part #5: Paying Your Bills

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