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Japanese Cell » Prepaid phones

Prepaid phones

Whilst prepaid phones have no fixed monthly charge, in Japan the call rates are much more expensive than with postpaid contracts (roughly 80 yen a minute vs 40 yen for the most basic contract plans).
However, using prepaid phones in conjunction with a Comica card works out as the cheapest option for some users:

- for people who ONLY receive calls :
it works out at 3000 yen for 14 months for Softbank, plus the cost of a phone (approx. 6000 yen for a basic one, or you might know someone who has an old 3G one you can put a SIM card into). This entails registering a 3000 yen prepaid card to the phone once a year – you will be able to call out for 60 days, after which the credit will expire, but will be able to receive calls for another 365 days (at which point you need to top-up again to keep the phone live)
The cheapest postpaid contract plan (Softbank White Plan) would cost 11,760 yen per year (with a free phone).

- for regular visitors to Japan from abroad :
e.g coming to Japan twice a year, for two weeks at a time - you can top-up a Softbank prepaid phone with a prepaid card each time you come over, working out at 6000 yen including 33 minutes of calls each time. If you call more and want a discounted rate, use a Comica card – calling for two hours on each trip (to a mix of landlines and cell phones) and using Comica for the excess over the 3 minutes in the 3000 yen prepaid card, in total you would be paying 10,000 yen per year, slightly less than the cheapest postpaid contractplans for each carrier.

For people unable to get a postpaid contract phone (they don’t have a Japanese bank account or credit card) it is the only option, and doesn’t work out too bad for the light user, if using in conjunction with a Comica card.

Whilst in many countries prepaid (known in some countries as “pay-as-you-go”) phones / SIMs account for a large part of the cell phone market, in Japan they have never really taken off.
This is rather odd as the Japanese are big on prepaid cards for all kinds of things (paying for train fares / buying books / paying for purchases at convenience stores to name a few).
At their peak in the early-mid 2000’s they accounted for an estimated 5% of phones (mainly Softbank, previously called J-Phone then Vodafone), but that has declined to 1.6% of phones as of early 2009.
The reason for this is that the cost of calling with prepaid phones (Softbank at least) has gone up, whilst the plan costs and calling rates of postpaid contract phones have tumbled.

Going back to 2003-5 prepaid phones were attractive for the light user :
When J-Phone was taken over by Vodafone in 2003 they slashed prepaid call rates from 20 yen per 12 seconds (100 yen per min) to 20 yen per 20 seconds (60 yen per min) and call rates were equivalent to the cheapest post-paid plan -
Using a Vodafone pj prepaid phone (see below), you could get 3500 yen of calls with a 3000 yen card, which in turn you could by for a little over 2500 yen , giving a call rate of about 42 yen per min, the same as the cheapest postpaid contract plan (which in fact was charged per minute or part thereof, so for calls including a fraction of a minute the prepaid worked out cheaper !), plus there is no basic monthly charge with prepaid, which worked out at about 2000 yen for the cheapest postpaid contract plan. Given this, it is somewhat surprising that prepaid phones were not more popular, although at that time only pj prepaid phones were capable of sending pictures, and they were not on sale outside the Tokai area ( roughly Nagoya to Shizuoka)

In turn , the Japanese cell phone companies have not pushed prepaid phones in the way that they have been in many other countries. This is because phone bills are almost always paid by direct debit from a bank account in Japan, and therefore it is unusual for the cell phone companies to have to chase customers owing money - in most countries this is not the case and the cell phone carriers promote prepaid phone to encourage prepaid use so that they don’t have to worry about chasing debts.

Here are the prepaid services offered by each cell phone company-


Softbank currently (early 2009) has three types of prepaid service, two of which are 2G and will only be able to be used until the end of March 2010 when Softbank will stop supporting its 2G service.
All three services use the same prepaid cards.

Softbank 3G prepaid service “PreMobile”

Starting Feb 2008, Softbank has been the only Japanese cell phone carrier to offer a prepaid cell phone service with SIM cards.

They are available free (with no credit on them) from Softbank Mobile shops (you just have to ask, and complete a registration process, which takes about 10 mins) , but to get one you need to show a Japanese drivers’ licence or gaijin card.
(however, we have heard of foreigners getting them with just a passport (for Japanese people, just proof of identity is necessary, and that can be a passport , but foreigners should not be able to get one with just a passport if the staff in the shop know what they are doing)

You just put the SIM in any 3G Softbank phone (or an unlocked phone from an overseas carrier)
Softbank has basic phones on sale aimed at prepaid use, but many shops don’t have them in stock - you may have to order them (or you might try another shop). As of Jan 2009, the ones on sale are the Samsung 730sc and Panasonic 822P straight phones for about 6000 yen - cheap !
(the 707scII and 707Px on the Softbank website are sold out)
If you buy the phone, you will automatically be asked to register for a prepaid SIM card.
The phones on sale aimed at prepaid use are not sold without a prepaid SIM (which is free…).
Rather a lot of people have taken advantage of this as 6000 yen for a new phone is very good value - they buy the phones, are required to get the prepaid SIM, which they then ditch and use the phone with a regular SIM.

To use the phone, you need to register a Softbank Mobile prepaid card to the phone number. You do this by calling 1400 and following the voice prompts. The cards come in values of 3000 and 5000 yen, but when you register a card, you get 19 yen less (so 2981 yen or 4981 yen - 19 yen is taken for the ” Universal Service Charge ” which users of all phones (landline and mobile) have to pay in Japan to fund the national landline service.
From 3 March 2009 the Universal Service Charge for Softbank prepaid phones will change from 19 yen to 29 yen for each card added

Adding 3000 yen or 5000 yen credit will also extend the credit usage period by 60 days (there is no clear reason why anyone should use the 5000 yen cards…). If the credit usage period expires, the credit is lost- but you can add credit and start calling again up to a 365 days from then before the phone is dead, AND during those 365 days you can still receive calls.
This means that it is the cheapest option for people just receiving calls - 3000 yen for a year!
It is also ideal for regular visitors to Japan or those based in Japan, but spending a large amount of time each year abroad, who don’t call a great deal. Each time you are in Japan, register a card and you have two months to use the credit; more if you add another card. When you come back again, register another card if needed.

Note that calls are expensive - now 9 yen / 6 secs so 90 yen a minute to any type of phone in Japan.
Years ago, in the pre-2003 J-Phone era it was actually more - 20 yen / 12 secs (so 100 yen a minute) but even then it was attractive for very light users as the cheapest postpaid contract plan was about 3000 yen per month. With the Vodafone takeover it dropped to 20 yen per 20 seconds (so 60 yen per min) - and weekend calls were 5 yen to other Vodafone users for the first year. Softbank jacked up the rate to 2 yen /sec (doubling the per-minute rate to a ridiculous 120 yen ) with its takeover of Vodafone in Oct 2006, only to backtrack a few months later and put the charges down to 9 yen / 6 secs, to slightly undercut AU and Tu-ka on paper, but not in reality - AU has a nominal rate of 10 yen / 6 secs so 100 yen a minute , but a 3000 yen card comes with a “bonus” of 300 yen , so in reality the AU rates and Softbank are basically the same.
Regarding pricing, note that both Softbank and AU 3000 yen cards can be bought for 2700 yen at discount outlets, offering a 10% discount, so the real cost cost is 81 yen /min (until mid-2008 Softbank ones were available for around 2550 yen - 15% off- but Softbank put up the wholesale price).
Credit can also be added online by credit card if you register your phone number on the Softbank website - in this case there is no discount.

To use e-mail, after applying for the mail service (easily done from the phone by dialing 1400 and following the instructions), it is 300 yen per month for receiving /sending as many as you like. This Yen 300 yen is automatically deducted each month from the credit balance. It is also easy to cancel the mail service, and register a personalized e-mail address.
This is the big advantage Softbank prepaid phones have over AU - with AU prepaid phones you cannot use e-mail, only C-mail (so you can only text other AU phones)
For more information see-

Softbank 2G prepaid services - ” Softbank Prepaid Service” (SPS) and “pj”

***Note that sales of Softbank 2G prepaid phones stopped 31 March 2008 and the phones will unusable after 31 March 2010.
However, some readers of this article may well come across these phones and wish to use them until then (for example they may be given one by a departing colleague )

For historical reasons, J-Phone and its successors Vodafone and then Softbank has had two prepaid systems, one for phones purchased in the Tokai area (Aichi, Mie, Gifu, Shizuoka prefectures) and one for all other areas in Japan. The Tokai system, called “pj” (we have not been able to confirm what that stands for - best guess is “Prepaid Japan”) offers/ has offered certain benefits compared to the other, now called ” Softbank Prepaid Service” , abbreviated to SPS (originally “J-Phone Preca”), and no drawbacks.
The benefits are-
- for pj a 3000 yen card has a “bonus” of 200 yen, PLUS another 300 yen bonus if you register a card within 30 days of the previous one, for a total bonus of 500 yen - not so for SPS
- from early on, sending photos was possible with pj, but not with SPS at the beginning - now possible.
- you could, until 31 Mar 2008, take a used phone and register it as a pj prepaid phone at a Softbank shop in the Tokai area on payment of 3150 yen. With SPS this was not possible.
- you can, until 31 March 2010, take an existing old an battered pj prepaid phone along with a newer used to a Softbank shop in the Tokai area and have the number plus credit balance transferred from one phone to the other on payment of 1995 yen. With SPS this is not possible.

The only reason that anyone would buy a SPS phone rather than a pj one is if they live outside the Tokai area and don’t know about pj phones (even for people living outside the Tokai area it was easy until 31 March 2008 to get the pj phones on the internet. e.g. on Yahoo Auctions)

To complicate things further, pj prepaid has two plans - pj standard and pj gold.
The pj standard is only of use for people not using e-mail, or hardly using the phone at all - there is a charge of 450 yen per month deducted form the credit balance for e-mail use and sending is 6 yen/ message sent.
For pj gold there is no monthly charge for e-mail use and sending is 5 yen/ message sent.
(receiving e-mail is free for both plans up to a size of 384 characters, after which it is 15 yen. Sending longer e-mails/ mails with pictures attached also costs 15 yen / message)
The plus point of pj standard is that registering a 3000 yen card extends the credit usage period of the phone for 90 days, whereas it is 60 days for pj gold.
Originally the calling charges were different (in the Vodafone era, pj gold was 60 yen a minute / pj standard 90 yen a minute), but now they are the same - 9 yen / 6 secs (so 90 yen a minute) -same as the Softbank 3G PreMobile service.
If you use e-mail, and in total, with e-mail and voice calls, you use less than 550 yen ( e.g. 110 e-mails) on average per month, pj standard is cheaper.

As outlined above Softbank 3000 yen cards can be bought for 2700 yen at discount outlets, offering a 10% discount, so the real cost cost is 81 yen /min.
As with Softbank 3G PreMobile, when you register a card, you actually get 19 yen less because of the Universal Service Charge. Apart from the benefits of pj prepaid outlined above, SPS works like pj gold Originally the prepaid cards for pj and SPS (then J-Phone Preca) were different, but now they are the same - the same as Softbank 3G PreMobile.

For more information see-
-note that they haven’t updated their website for some time
-it is not possible to buy the phones listed on the website as sales of 2G Softbank prepaid phones stopped March 2008
The phones that were on sale were not the best phones ( they were on sale cheap, usually about 5000 yen) as they did not want to encourage people to buy a cheap new prepaid phone and then convert it to a regular postpaid contract phone (which could be done fairly easily).
In the case of earlier phones (J-Phone / early Vodafone), they were models that hadn’t sold well and the manufacturers got rid of excess old stock by unloading them to J-Phone / Vodafone for use as prepaid phones (e.g. the SA-06).
Later on, there were simple phones aimed for use as prepaid phones (the toy-like “Enjorno” (101D /102D) ; the basic, but functional 201SH) or even odd colours of regular phones (e.g. the yellow 302SH - for regular postpaid contracts it was produced in black, white and “Ferrari” ; the prepaid version was puke-yellow so that few people would want to use it as a regular phone)

AU prepaid service “CDMA Prepaid”

Note that AU does not offer a 3G prepaid service, although reports are that they are thinking about it.
The service they do have is with older 2G phones. At the time of writing (early 2009) it is still possible to buy various models (old stock) for around 10,000 yen from AU shops , but this will probably not be for long as AU will stop selling 2G in the near future.
Alternatively , it is possible to take a used 2G phone to an AU shop and have it registered as a prepaid phone for a charge of 4200 yen.
(most phones over 3 years old will be 2G - if the phone has “WIN” on it , or the code number of the phone starts with W (e.g. W62S) it is 3G and will not work as a prepaid phone).

AU has a nominal rate of 10 yen / 6 secs so 100 yen a minute , but a 3000 yen card comes with a “bonus” of 300 yen , so in reality it is about 90 yen /minute.

Also, like Softbank cards, AU 3000 yen cards can be bought for 2700 yen at discount outlets, offering a 10% discount, so the real cost cost is about 81 yen /min (same as Softbank).

For AU, the Universal Service Charge is now deducted from the credit balance on registration of cards depending on the card value (previous to 16 Jan 2009 AU did not apply the Universal Service Charge to prepaid phones).
The current Universal Service Charge being 8.4 yen (i.e. 8 yen plus 5% tax), the Universal Service Charge is be deducted as follows-
1000 yen card -30 days credit usage period extension -1 month - 8.4 yen
3000 yen card - 60 days credit usage period extension -3 months -25.2 yen
5000 yen card - 90 days credit usage period extension -5 months- 42 yen
10,000 yen card -365 days credit usage period extension -12 months-100.8 yen
However, as the credit usage period of the phone can be extended to a maximum of 365 days, if you register a card, and do not get the full credit usage extension applicable to that card , then the Universal Service Charge will be calculated on the basis of the number of full 30-day periods that the credit usage period of the phone is extended (e.g. if the phone has a service period of 300 days and you register a 5000 yen card, only 2 months’ Universal Service Charge will be deducted from the credit balance)

For many people the big disadvantage of AU prepaid phones is that you cannot send e-mail with them - only C-mail (so you can only text other AU phones). Why AU can’t get it’s act in gear on this is a mystery.
For the very light user, only wanting voice calls, the 10,000 for a year deal works very well.

Also, unlike Softbank prepaid phones, once the credit usage period expires, you cannot receive calls and only have 30 days to register another prepaid card before the phone is dead.

The only real advantage AU prepaid has over Softbank is the general AU plus point - that reception is much better. If you can’t get Softbank reception where you live/work/hang out , and you want a prepaid phone then AU is the alternative.
It also works out cheaper for people usually in Japan, spending less than 18,000 (approx 200 mins for prepaid phones) on calls per year (for people in and out of Japan, spending long chunks of time out of the country, Softbank will usually work out cheaper as they can let the credit balance expire when they leave and top-up again when back in Japan).

For more information see- Note that the old Tu-ka prepaid phones can no longer be used (Tu-ka was a cell phone company taken over by AU ).
Going back to the pre-Vodafone era (before April 2003) , Tu-ka actually was the number one prepaid brand, and was the only Japanese cell phone company that had prepaid as a significant part of its business.


Docomo stopped selling their 2G prepaid phones in 2005, and they are almost impossible to find on the second-hand market. Their prepaid phones were more expensive to buy that the other companies’; calling rates were high (100 yen per minute); and the service period was extendable to a maximum of only 30 days.
As they had no advantages over the other companies’ phones, other than that they were usable in certain places that only has Docomo reception (which is why the writer has one in fact, adding 500 yen to the balance every 2 months to keep it active), very few people bought them - at the peak, only just over 0.2% of Docomo phones were prepaid, compared with about 1% for AU , 30% for Tu-ka (now AU) , and about 15% for J-Phone/Vodafone/Softbank.
It is unlikely that anyone reading this will come across one, and as Docomo will be stopping its 2G service before long, we will not go into detail about their prepaid service here.

See also- -in Japanese

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