Getting a Prepaid SoftBank Phone – even without resident card!

I’d had the impression, from various blogs and such mostly I suppose, that it was basically impossible to get a keitai (mobile phone / cellphone) in Japan – contract, or even prepaid – without a resident alien card (or permanent residency, citizenship, or the like of course). In other words, if you’re here on a tourist visa, or even if you are here for a longer period and you just haven’t gotten your paperwork all sorted out yet, you were pretty much out of luck. Whether this is government policy, or the cellphone companies themselves, I wasn’t sure. But, as many of us, whether as researchers/students or otherwise, do come here not infrequently, and often for relatively short periods of time, this is a profound inconvenience. I was in Japan for only two months this summer, and in planning for that summer trip, this keitai issue was probably my chief source of stress and uncertainty.

In the end, though, as it turns out, one can rent a phone or buy a prepaid phone at Haneda (or Narita, Kansai, or Nagoya/Chûbu) quite easily, from SoftBank, at least – and it wasn’t nearly as expensive as I expected. Whether policies have changed and one can now get a phone at a regular SoftBank or au store in town (outside of the airport), I’m not sure. But, after a relatively smooth, uneventful and enjoyable jaunt over to Haneda, I now have a shiny sleek prepaid keitai that’s apparently mine to keep and to reactivate & recharge whenever I come back to Japan. (This, contrary to my prior possibly mistaken understanding that once you let your phone number lapse – as it does if for a full 360 day period you don’t recharge or use the phone – it’s essentially bricked, and you either can’t reactivate it at all, or have to do so with a resident alien card and for a large fee. It remains to be seen whether or not this is the case. If anyone out there knows differently, please let us know in the comments.)

I apologize to not go into any great detail here, but, rather than risk my presenting incorrect or incomplete information as to the precise details of all the fees and charges, I think I will leave it here – they key point of this post is simply to say that yes, you can get a phone in Japan without any kind of resident card (yes, even on a tourist visa), and get exactly the same prepaid plan (and the same rates/fees/charges) as anyone else.

Points to watch out for:
*Whether you rent a phone, or buy one to use with a prepaid plan, you will still be paying per minute for your calls, and per message for texts/emails, on top of any other fees (e.g. the daily rental fees for a rental phone)
*Incoming calls and messages are free
*There is a small additional fee (¥300/month on the prepaid plan) to enable sending and receiving texts & emails. On my previous trips to Japan, I thought I’d had this activated, but always had trouble with it. So it’s something to make sure you’ve set up properly when you get your phone (or, you can probably get it done afterwards too).
*Texts sent to phones on the same company as yourself (e.g. sending messages from one SoftBank phone to another, or from one au phone to another au phone) are free, but when sending messages to people on a different cellphone carrier, you need to know not their phone number, but their cellphone email address.
*The SoftBank office/desk at Haneda couldn’t (wouldn’t) take my credit card, or my debit card. They *do* in general accept all the major credit cards, but for whatever reason mine did not work. So I paid by cash. Just be aware that this is a possibility. It might be better in the end, actually, since, with no credit card on file, it’s a lot harder for them to sneak in any additional or surprise fees.

Personally, I decided to do the prepaid plan, paying an upfront cost of roughly ¥9000 to buy the phone itself, rather than paying any daily or monthly fee – with the rental phones, there is no such large upfront cost, but at a few hundred yen per day, it adds up to at least ¥4000-5000 per month, and that’s not including the charges per call minute and per text message – but I by no means presume to understand all the precise ins-and-outs of all the pros and cons, or definitively which option would have been cheaper. I am no expert, and I leave it up to you to look at all the material and figure out for yourself which option might work best for you.

For further details as to the exact details of the pricing and services, you can take a look at the SoftBank Global Rental page, and fees chart.

AU has a very similar fee structure for their airport rental phones, but I am not sure if they also offer prepaid phones at the airport without residency documents.

[Edit: Check out the comments below for useful information from others!]

About Travis

I am a scholar of Japanese & Okinawan history with a particular interest in the history of arts and culture, and inter-Asia interactions, in the early modern period. I am currently working on how cultural and political realities were produced and maintained through diplomatic ritual performance in Luchuan (Okinawan) embassies to the Tokugawa shogunate.
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19 Responses to Getting a Prepaid SoftBank Phone – even without resident card!

  1. Krys says:

    I find this surprising since generally, they don’t let foreigners with tourist visa to purchase it. I guess the one at Haneda is more flexible.
    The 300 yen fee is for the unlimited mail, that is why you have to activate it.

  2. DR says:

    I’m not quite sure how you did this with a tourist visa, unless Haneda Softbank is either skirting the law or hasn’t updated their website.

    I checked the softbank website, and on the English overview page, it only states that a passport is required; however if you follow the link to the detailed “purchasing procedures” section, it states that if using a foreign passport, you need a certificate of alien registration (外国人証明書 or 在留カード) with at least 90 days worth of stay on it; and they specifically mention compliance with the 携帯電話不正利用防止法.

    Additionally, even with the prepaid phones it seems you are on a one year contract:
    “Pre-mobile customers who sign up from April 4, 2012, will be liable for a cancellation fee of ¥9,975 (tax inclusive) if they cancel their service contract within one year to the day of having signed it (including MNP port-out).”

    Still, encouraging! I’m not sure if it was featured on shinpaideshou before, but there is a prepaid sim card rental business that may be a better option for people bringing their own smartphones from home.

  3. redfish says:

    (I tried posting this a while ago, but for whatever reason I seem to be unable to post comments to any wordpress blog from my home browser.)

    The somewhat obscure b-mobile also sells data-only prepaids suitable for use in tablets and MiFi type devices. You can buy prepaid cards aimed at tourists valid for two weeks in English, though the unlimited validity ones don’t require more than the ability to receive a letter and some Japanese ability either. (These cards will work in many phones too, but for technical reasons some phones may not work at all and most will display “no signal”.)

    Their voice-enabled plans still require Japanese id. Selling voice plans to tourists probably requires the political capital of a large operator and isn’t a particularly high-margin business (the 2009 revision of the identity verification law states that the seller may accept “…other identification document as approved by the Ministry of Justice”; I suppose if you have friends at the MoJ, making foreign passports “approved” shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem). The pricey rental stuff has been around for a long time, but being able to actually buy the thing yourself from Softbank at the airport is something that I think only appeared a few years ago.

    The Softbank prepaid validity is actually expiry of balance (two months from last recharge) + one year. I’m there often enough that I don’t know what happens then either. Theoretically you can recharge the balance by credit card remotely, but I’ve never tried that. At any rate, if you plan to come back, buying the phone is a good idea (the device itself doesn’t expire). It’s cheap and I think the rental phone’s deposit is pretty damn heavy too.

    • redfish says:

      DR’s comment inspired me to dig a bit further. MoJ has a Q&A page at with section 5 regarding “identity verification when dealing with travellers”, which explicitly permits the use of foreign passwords as long as the nationality and passport number are recorded. The text of the law also includes an addendum to the second article (concerning identification documents) regarding identity verification of travellers, which states that contracts may be issued “for a limited time as specified by the Ministry of Justice … unless the seller can determine the identity of the subscriber in a sufficient manner within the time limit, in which case the limit need not be enforced”. Whatever “sufficient” means.

      The basic impression is that the law as it stands has been watered down so that if the operator cares enough they can do whatever regarding tourists if they have lawyers to spare. Not necessarily a bad thing, since it was a pretty silly law to start with.

  4. Steve says:

    I was able to buy a 3000 yen SoftBank prepaid phone at SoftBank store in a Fukuoka shopping mall in March of 2013 as a tourist. They needed my passport and some time, but it was not a problem. Also needed to buy a 3000 yen card for the voice minutes, of which 300 yen was assigned to unlimited text/email.

  5. Izzy says:

    Question about cancelling a prepaid softbank phone-do you have to do it? I’ve got a softbank prepaid phone and I just found that the terms and conditions include a cancellation fee of 20,790 yen if you cancel in the first year (even though the guy in the shop told me it was ok that I was only in Japan for 4 months, that’s an expensive communication error!). So…if I simply don’t cancel my prepaid “contract”, what will happen? They have my passport and residence card(I’m on a student visa) copied and I want to work in Japan later so I don’t want to risk anything, but on the other hand that’s a LOT of money to cancel something which is supposedly not a contract…

    • redfish says:

      If you don’t recharge it, it will expire quietly a year after the balance goes to zero, so it shouldn’t normally ever get “cancelled” within the first year. I’d guess that this cancellation fee exists to prevent people from buying a prepaid and then immediately moving the number to another operator.

  6. Steve says:

    My impression is the same as redfish’. It’s only if you purposely want to cancel it in the first year that you’d have to pay the cancellation fee. But you are not obligated to keep recharging it for the first year or anything, so there’d be no reason you’d want to cancel in the first year anyway, except maybe as redfish said to transfer your phone number to another carrier.

  7. toranosuke says:

    I have now returned to Japan, a year later. My phone number expired “quietly,” as redfish said above, and I had to pay around 3000 yen, and wait an hour, to get a new SIM card with a new phone number. This, at Narita Airport this time. Once again, like at Haneda last year, they didn’t ask for a Resident Alien Card or anything of the sort, but merely asked for my passport, and had me fill out a brief form (name, address overseas, address in Japan, phone number overseas, birthdate, etc.), and that was pretty much it.

  8. localtimes says:

    REALLY … Thanks !!… this posting was a real life saver when we were in a pinch !
    Went to the Softbank store in Tenjin and a half hour later a crisis was diverted 🙂

  9. steve says:

    I just returned from Sapporo and wanted to buy a SoftBank prepaid phone recharge card. The Circle K Sunkus (サークルK スンクス) did not sell a physical recharge card, but the store manager there showed me how to buy a SoftBank prepaid recharge number from a vending machine that printed the number on a strip of paper. I could enter that number into my phone the same as from the back of the physical SoftBanck prepaid recharge cards.

    There is some information on SIM cards in Japan at:

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