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.
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!]