Getting cell phones in Japan without selling a kidney

Posted by in Mike's blog

This is the beginning of a 3 part series about how we got our phones, how we get away with paying peanuts for great service, and what our awesome “dumbphones” can do without any kind of data plan.  

Before this year, the last time I remember being satisfied with my cell phone service was in 2006.

It’s been a long time coming.  When the mobile industry in Canada went from being poor to thievery, I got out.  I happily functioned with only a land-line for years before we moved to Japan.  Like most other things, cell phones are different here.  We use them, and we like them.

The research phase

We knew before we moved that it would be a good idea to “cave” and get cell phones when we arrived in Japan.  Not having one in Canada can at times be an inconvenience.  Not having one in a new country where we don’t know the language or our way around had the potential to be a disaster.  We wanted to make sure we could stay in contact with each other.

In Fukui, most foreigners use SoftBank.  SoftBank offers a few plans that come with free calling between members…which means that most people who can speak English can call each other for free.  That alone was a good enough reason for us not to consider the other major cell phone companies.  In addition, SoftBank has English customer service, and the others did not last August when we arrived (this may have changed in the meantime).

I tried my best to use the SoftBank website to figure out what kind of phone & plan to get before we moved…but I ended up getting confused.  For example, in Japan, price plans don’t include “minutes”, they include a certain amount of free calling measured in yen, and the cost per minute can vary at times.  Instead of a plan with 100 minutes, there are plans with ¥980.  It makes sense to me now, but it didn’t back then.  I wanted to talk to a real person.

Since I had some time in Tokyo, I went to one of the SoftBank shops with English-speaking staff (accompanied by the ever-amazing Soness).  I spoke to a sales lady, got all my questions answered, and got an English copy of their catalogue  to take home/study.  I decided on our phones and the price plan we would get while in Tokyo, but I needed to wait until we got to Fukui to sign up because I didn’t have the necessary identification.

Going to a SoftBank shop in Fukui and getting our phones should have been easy because I already knew exactly what we wanted, right?

Discrimination: It’s the policy

When I described the phones and the plan we wanted, we were hit with the news that we needed to pay upfront for the entire cost of our phones.  This completely contradicted what I had learned in both Tokyo and the catalogue.  We wanted to pay monthly for the phone cost – especially because there was a promotion at the time that would give us each an extra ¥980 of “minutes” every month (though at the time we understood this to be a discount – but we were fooled by sales lingo).  Since we are foreigners, there was a risk that we could sign up to pay for the handsets on a monthly basis, then escape back to our home country with their phones and not pay our bill.

I was so shocked by this that I thanked the saleslady we were with and told her that we were not going to use her service if that was to be her company’s policy.  Then we left.

The next day we tried again at a different SoftBank shop.  We were able to skirt the “pay upfront because we don’t trust foreigners” policy by using a Canadian credit card for monthly auto-withdrawal payments instead of our Japanese bank account.  We quickly switched our account with them back to the Japanese one to avoid the exchange fee.

We later found out that most of our friends who got new cell phones were not able to get around the “pay upfront because we don’t trust foreigners” policy, and most of them got iPhones…they had to hand over a lot of money right after they moved across the world, which is expensive enough as is.

What we got for our trouble

After we got past the discrimination, we signed contracts, picked our phones, got them activated, and had a saleslady switch them to “English mode” for us.  We were given free hand massages while we waited by an in-house hand-massage artist (for real).

We got to choose the last 4 digits of our phone numbers.  We weren’t surprised at all when “MIKE” and “MARY” were both available.  The plan we went with was the popular “white plan” – free calling & SMS to SoftBank users for ¥980 every month from 1am – 9pm.  We also got a family discount that lets us call each other for free during those 3 hours not covered by the white plan.  Since we DID get that promotion, we also get up to ¥980 of “free calling” (aka minutes) at a rate of ¥21 for every 30s.  I decided that we should get a small internet plan for our first month while we waited for our home internet to get connected.  Unfortunately, either Mary’s supervisor or the saleslady told us/translated that we were going to be charged something like ¥0.105/KB, when in reality it was ¥0.105/byte.  The number was off by about 1000.  Our first bill hurt.

Since then, we have been quite happy with our service, especially when we think about how much freedom we have when we use our phones.  We can USE them here without being afraid of exorbitant fees.

Next time – Mobile services: Japan vs. Canada.  We can only truly appreciate how good we have it here when we compare our current situation to the one we took for granted for so many years in Canada.