Japanese Cellular Phones FAQ

Last update: 6/8/2007 (not fully revised)

This is an FAQ list for foreigners who are interested in Japanese cellular phones. Subject to change. Comments are welcome.

Table of Contents

Which cellular technology is used in Japan?

It depends on operators and services.

NTT DoCoMo PDC 800MHz/1.5GHz
PHS 1.9GHz
KDDI "au" cdmaOne 800MHz CDMA2000 1x 800MHz N/A
SoftBank Mobile
(formerly Vodafone)
"SoftBank 3G"
WillcomN/AN/APHS 1.9GHz

Mainstream services are emphasized. Brand names are "quoted."

Some important notes:

Do Japanese phones use a SIM card? Are they locked? Can I unlock them?

It depends.

All PDC, cdmaOne and PHS phones and most CDMA2000 phones:
They do not adopt a SIM card and cannot be unlocked.
Most "FOMA" phones, SIM card-based CDMA2000 phones and some "SoftBank 3G" phones (e.g. 702NK/II):
They cannot be unlocked so far.
Some "SoftBank 3G" phones (e.g. 802SE etc.):
They can be unlocked.

Can I buy a Japanese phone from my country?

Unlike GSM phones, Japanese phones are tightly bundled with subscription and usually not sold alone. The only way is to buy a secondhand ("white ROM") phone.

Can I buy a Japanese phone when I visit Japan?

Japanese phones are not sold alone. Buying a phone means making a postpaid monthly contract (except prepaid phones).

As of April 2006, it is necessary to have some form of Japanese official document (Japanese passport, Japanese Alien Registration Card, etc.) to get prepay or new contract cell phone service. This is a result of a new law aimed at stopping illegal cell phone use; but unfortunately excludes foreign visitors who only want a phone for legal purposes.

It was once possible for anyone to get prepay service, and even foreigners could get contract service using a credit card. Prepay service users who do not have Japanese official document have already lost their prepay service. Currently, foreigners with existing contract service paid by credit card are still allowed to keep it, but it is no longer possible to make a new contract without showing official Japanese documents.

It may be possible to have a Japanese friend apply for service with an account in his name (meaning that he will be responsible for your usage).

Customers of Verizon Wireless in the USA can buy a Japanese PDC phone with monthly service, although the price is quite high ($249 for the phone, $10/month service with a minimum of 12 months, $2.49/minute outgoing call, $1/SMS). Some other foreign wireless carriers (e.g., Vodafone) have similar offers.

It is also possible for foreigners to rent a phone at the airport.

See another section about prepaid phones.

Can I use a Japanese phone in my country?

DoCoMo/SoftBank PDC phones:
They do not work in foreign countries. PDC is deployed only in Japan.
KDDI cdmaOne/CDMA2000 phones:
A few CDMA2000 phones ("Global Passport"-ready phones) work in several Pacific Rim countries. But you will not be able to use them with your local operator's subscription because they do not adopt SIM cards. Other CDMA phones will not work because KDDI's CDMA frequency differs slightly from other countries'.
Most DoCoMo "FOMA" phones (except roaming-ready models) and SoftBank Mobile 802N, 703N and 905SH:
They are W-CDMA only phones, so you can't use with your local GSM networks. Also note that you cannot use them with your local operator's subscription because they do not accept other operators' SIM cards.
SoftBank 3G phones (except 802N, 703N and 905SH) and DoCoMo "FOMA" roaming-ready phones:
They work with your local GSM networks. But you cannot use them with your local operator's subscription because they do not accept other operators' SIM cards.

NOTE: The fact that a Japanese person can use his/her Japanese phone in your country does not mean that you can also use one. Japanese phones are designed for their respective operators (except some SoftBank 3G phones) and will not work with your local operator's subscription. In other words, whether or not Japanese phones work technically in your country is one thing; whether or not you can practically use them with your operator is another.

Can I use my phone in Japan?

Depends on the technology.

GSM phones:
No. GSM is not deployed in Japan. If you just would like to use your GSM SIM card (i.e. make/receive calls with your usual number) in Japan, buy or rent a W-CDMA (UMTS) phone, put your SIM card in it and it can roam in Japan. See below about W-CDMA roaming.
cdmaOne/CDMA2000 phones:
Some CDMA phones can roam in Japan. Ask your operator.
W-CDMA (UMTS) phones:
Yes. They can roam in Japan. Your operator must be an inbound roaming partner of DoCoMo or SoftBank Mobile. Be careful that DoCoMo's reception may be very poor because most of FOMA network is still based on an older version of W-CDMA technology and foreign W-CDMA phones may be incompatible with it. Some foreign W-CDMA phones (such as Motorola A835) are known to be compatible with FOMA network.
PHS (PCT) phones:
Taiwan FITEL PHS phones can roam in Japan. Ask FITEL.

Can I buy a prepaid phone or SIM card in Japan?

Prepaid phones are available but prepaid SIM cards are not.

Note that IDs are required to purchase a prepaid phone to prevent criminal use. In case of foreigners, Japan's Alien Registration Card is required. In some shops you may be able to buy one only with a credit card.

Note: as of April 2005, customer registration is required to activate a new prepaid phone.

Can I buy a GSM phone in Japan? Is it cheap?

You can at some shops, but not cheap.

As mentioned above, GSM is not deployed in Japan. Demand for GSM phones is limited to tourists to go abroad. You will be disappointed if you are expecting that GSM phones may be also cheap in Japan like other electric items.

You can buy a GSM phone in Japan at following shops:

Some specialty stores and mail order shops offer very competitive prices due to import from Hong Kong etc.

Why on earth are Japanese phones so exclusive?

Blame the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications. :-)

What is PHS?

PHS (Personal Handyphone System) is a low-powered wireless phone technology developed in Japan and rather different from other cellular phone technologies.

PHS has been deployed in Japan since mid-1990's; now also in China, Taiwan, Thailand (where called PCT) etc. Today PHS is considered as low-cost data communication service rather than voice phone in Japan. Unlimited data communication plans are available.


Terminology on Japanese cell phone culture.

AIR-EDGE (formerly AirH``)
Willcom(formerly DDI Pocket)'s unlimited (flat-rate) PHS data communication service based on 32k/128k/256kbps packet exchange. 5800 yen/month in 32kbps (ISP fee excluded). Supported by heavy roadwarriors as well as those who are abandoned by wired flat-rate services (ADSL etc) for some reason.
Appli アプリ (< application)
Java (or BREW) apps for cell phones.
Chaku-melo 着メロ (< Chakushin melody 着信メロディ)
Ringtone. Similarly, Chaku-voice, Chaku-uta (Chakushin song) etc.
Chakushin 着信
Incoming call.
Emoji 絵文字
Operator dependent pictograms (delight, sadness, sun, heartsuit, restaurant etc.) that can be used in email and web. e.g. list of i-mode emoji
KDDI and TU-KA's web and email service. Web service is based on WAP and WML.
Full browser フルブラウザ
A full-featured web browser (HTML3.2/4.0, frames, CSS, JavaScript etc) as opposed to a CompactHTML/WAP browser. You can browse web sites designed for PC, using a phone with a full browser. A few phones have a built-in full browser (Willcom AH-K3001V, KDDI W21CA, SoftBank 705NK etc), while there are some full browser apps for other phones.
i-mode iモード
NTT DoCoMo's web and email service. Web service is based on HTTP and CompactHTML.
Katte site 勝手サイト
"Unofficial" web site designed for cell phones. Most of them are free of charge; some are by individuals. See Kōshiki site.
Kētai 携帯 (< kētai denwa 携帯電話)
Cell phone.
Kishu henkō 機種変更
Phone upgrade procedure. Specific to non-SIM phones (PDC, CDMA and PHS). When an existing subscriber purchases a new phone without new subscription, his/her subscription is moved from the current phone to the new phone using dedicated equipment. The new phone is not very discounted. See Shinki kēyaku.
Kōshiki site 公式サイト
"Official" web site designed by commercial content providers for a specific operator's cell phones. Approved by the operator and registered with their portal site (such as i-mode's "i-Menu"). Most of them are commercial and monthly fee (approx. 100 to 300 yen) is charged to the customer's bill. See Katte site.
Machiuke 待ち受け
Machiuke gazō 待ち受け画像
Image shown in the screen during standby. So-called wallpaper.
Mēwaku mail 迷惑メール
Unsolicited email. Spam. Spam email to phones is a serious issue in Japan and every operator has introduced "black list" and "white list" features which can be configured by the subscriber.
Oritatami 折りたたみ
Clamshell style. Now most Japanese phones are relatively large clamshells to accommodate a larger screen, a high-precision camera, a memory card etc.
Pake-dai パケ代
Slang for packet data communiation fee. Typical rate is 0.3 yen per 128 bytes (DoCoMo PDC). 3G packet fee is cheaper.
Pake-shi パケ死
"Death by packets," which means receiving monthly bills with a huge amount of fee (several tens of thosand yen or more) because of heavy usage of packet communication (downloading a lot of ringtones, images and apps).
Sha-mail 写メール (< shashin mail)
J-Phone (now SoftBank Mobile)'s email service where you can send email with camera picture attached to it. Now other operators also offer similar services.
Shinki kēyaku 新規契約
New subscription with purchase of a new phone. The new phone is usually significantly discounted; outdated or low-end models can be often sold at a pretty low price (e.g. 1 yen). Latest high-end models, however, still remain at a moderate price (e.g. 30000 yen). See Kishu henkō.
Straight ストレート
Candy bar style. Candy bar phones are considered obsolete and no longer very popular in Japan, except a few design-conscious models such as KDDI's "INFOBAR" and NTT DoCoMo's "premini."
Strap ストラップ
Lanyard attached to a phone. Straps are originally to prevent a phone from falling down but now considered as decorative accessories. Young users tend to attach many decorative straps to their phone.
Tēgakusē 定額制
Flat rate plan for data communication. Classified into two categories.
  1. Only data communication that originates from the cell phone (i.e. i-mode web/mail/apps) is flat rate. Provided by NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank Mobile.
  2. All data communication including use as a modem by PC/PDA is flat rate. Provided by Willcom.
Yahoo! Kētai and S! Mail (formerly Vodafone live!)
SoftBank Mobile's web and email service. Web service is based on WAP and WML. Email service is based on MMS.
Wan-giri ワン切り
"One ring and hang up." Fraud by "spam calls" abusing cell phone's incoming call history.


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