Ask an Alumn: Should I bring or buy a phone?

posted in: Japan, JET | 3

PSchubleProfilePicOriginally from New York, Paul spent three years as an ALT in Itami City, Hyogo and then relocated to Maryland in 2011. After a stint as a freelance rights reuse analyst for a Virginia publishing company, he came to work at the Research Institute of Telecommunications and Economics (RITE) Japan in DC, where he is currently employed.


I recently had a commenter pose a question to me on my blog, Just Another Day in Japan, asking about my thoughts on whether she should unlock and bring a phone or buy one in Japan. A little investigating (sounds so much better than internet stalking) revealed that “Shi” is a Wisconsonite soon to set out to Japan through the JET Program. With that in mind, I wondered if my answer might be useful for any other outgoing JETs. Shi writes:

Question for you though: with all this knowledge and your experience in Japan, do you recommend just getting a Japanese phone there when expecting to be there for a year OR [drumroll] unlocking your U.S. phone for like Docomo or something? I’ve heard SO many yes and no’s but I am not sure who or what to believe so I don’t know what to do. Its annoying. Advice?

This is a tricky question to answer, as there are various factors to take into account. I’m going to break this down into two major considerations and then summarize for you at the end. First I just want to highlight one thing Shi mentioned in her question – that is the fact that if you’re going to try to bring your phone to Japan and use it with a Japanese carrier, it must be unlocked. There are other things to keep in mind, but that’s the starting point. If the phone isn’t unlocked, you won’t be able to make use of a Japanese SIM card. If you’re not down with my techno jive, here’s a nice long article for you to read on what “unlocking” means.


Price and Capabilities

One decision you’re going to be making is what type of phone you want to have. Most broadly, I mean smartphone (スマホ)  versus feature phone (ガラケー). Practically speaking, an iPhone from the US is the same as one you can buy in Japan, while Japanese feature phones can do a lot more than their Stateside counterparts. If you’re the type who can live without all the flashy games and apps, a Japanese feature phone will likely fulfill all your day-to-day needs and save you money (full disclosure, I had a Japanese feature phone from 2008-2011 plus an iPod 4 on the side for music and apps).

Whether or not you already own a paid-off and unlocked phone is another major consideration. If you’re thinking about buying a Galaxy 5 or iPhone 5 today, I’d probably advise you to just wait and purchase one in Japan. If memory serves, the prices are comparable (and perhaps even a little cheaper in Japan). If you already own one, though, you may not want to throw down the yenners for a new one. When I was on JET, the 2-year contract minimum term was as ubiquitous in Japan as in the States. So if you’re planning on only sticking around for a year, keep in mind that you might want to shop around for a pre-paid option. If you want the monthly installments, you may be forced to bite the bullet and pay for a year that you’re not gonna use.


Network Compatibility and Standards Compliance

Ok, I know that the subheader probably looks like I’m putting together a technical manual here, but this is a very important point if you’re considering bringing your phone to Japan. If you’re not, good job reading this far, and before you depart here’s a picture of a baby sloth:

 There are two basic types of radio technology that cellphones in the US utilize: CDMA and GSM. The bad news is that GSM phones won’t work on Japanese networks. The good news is that two of the major carriers use CDMA, which is what Japan uses. So if you bought your phone through Verizon or Sprint (in the later case you’ll still need to unlock it), it should theoretically be useable in Japan. I say “theoretically” because I don’t personally know anyone who’s done this, nor can I turn up any relevant Google search results.   One last thing is that you don’t want to run afoul of Japanese telecom law. You may have casually noticed at some point that the back of your phone has a bunch of little logos on the back, perhaps accompanied by some legalese.

Those logos are certifications from various authorities that said device conforms to the national telecom standards, and is essentially “legit.” That little FCC that’s second from the right is the US government’s seal of approval. I believe the one to the right of that is Japan’s. This may not be of help to you right now (in part because it’s in Japanese and behind a paywall), but there was a Nikkei article just the other day about how the Japanese government recognizes that many visitors want to bring and use their own phones, and so they are making a push to relax their standards and certify more phones. So maybe if you’re reading this article in 2015 or 2016, you’ll have even more options. For now, however, I imagine that a good amount of globally popular handsets like iPhones and Galaxies meet Japanese requirements.



It really depends. If you have an unlocked CDMA phone (probably through Sprint or Verizon), you may be able to use a Japanese SIM card with it. But you’re going to want to consider whether the hassle and potential cost are acceptable tradeoffs.


Personally I’d recommend “roughing it” with a feature phone, even if just for the experience of it.

JET Alums, what do you think? Should new JETs bring or buy?

New JETs, what other advice are you looking for before heading to Japan?

3 Responses

  1. Alice

    I’m solidly in the camp of get a phone when you arrive. I think it simplifies life to have something in the local ecosystem. Japanese systems tend to be rather less than flexible when it comes to absorbing Westernnesses, as you’re more than familiar with, I’m sure 🙂

  2. Ryan

    I say don’t bring one – it’s easy to get one once you’re there. I got a Japanese phone when I first got to Japan, but felt that the ability to watch TV was a bit gimmicky and I didn’t use its other features. So I bought an iPhone once they were available a few years later.

  3. Sammer

    Even if your phone doesn’T support CDMA, as long as it has UMTS support (or even LTE), chances are it will work in many areas, especially in larger cities.
    At least mine does.

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