I didn’t even know this was possible, but you CAN break free from the shackles of SoftBank, au, and docomo (AKA shibari). Well, sort of. You can at least use their networks under the name of another carrier who doesn’t hold you to 2-year contracts and make you use phones locked to their network only. And you CAN get LTE speeds on the iPhone using a SIM-free carrier! I’ve done it! All I had to do was acquire the SIM-free phone of my choice, decide on a carrier, and wait for that magical month once every two years when I am free to leave my contract without incurring the 9,500 yen penalty. (And actually, though I can’t find this information in English anywhere, soon it might cost you up to 60,000 yen to cancel your SoftBank contract early! Also, while currently they “only” charge you an extra 20,000 yen for leaving your contract less than 6 months in, they may extend that period to less than a year in! j-source 1, j-source 2, j-source 3)
- Acquire new phone.
For me, I knew I wanted an iPhone 6 for my next phone. (I’ve used Android before and then I got an iPhone and it’s amazing how few issues it has and how much easier it is to manage apps. I’m sticking with iPhone for the next long while.) However, finding an unlocked iPhone 6 in Japan in March 2015 was easier said than done. I found the SIM-free versions were out of stock in the Apple Store online. I figured they would restock… they did not. I realized they did not plan to. Doing some digging, I discovered why. Chinese people. Mainland Chinese people were coming to Japan, loading their giant suitcases (the kind you normally see clogging up Yamanote Line trains or in packs at Shinjuku Station) with SIM-free iPhone 6s, and taking them back to China to sell, because apparently in China they’re extremely expensive. (Yes, this theory is not confirmed, but it’s very very likely.) So around December 2014, Apple decided to stop selling them in Japan. Probably a wise choice. But now they’re prohibitively expensive in Japan (I saw some upwards of 100,000 yen on an electronics site). I did not think to check Yahoo Auctions, however, and you can actually find them for about 55,000 yen, which is really good (although I guess it could be a fake since you’re not buying it directly from the Apple Store or a licensed retailer). I wish I’d done that in hindsight, but what I did was buy a SIM-free iPhone 6 from the American Apple Store, have it shipped to my parents’ house, and have them send it to me. Worked like a charm! And I paid less than the Japanese version would have cost because it costs less in the US (I paid $800 total for a 64 gig iPhone 6, when a 16 gig Japanese unlocked phone was going to run me 84,000 yen without tax). Good thing China’s so far away and tourist visas cost money, or else we wouldn’t be able to buy them there either probably.
Optional: Buy new case and screen protector for your new phone too
- Choose new SIM-free carrier
I relied on this blog post (and this follow-up) to inform me which MNVO providers were available and what features they had. The list linked above said that IIJ had comparatively faster data speeds, so off to their website I went. I liked what I saw and decided on them. (I should mention that I read Japanese, so an English website wasn’t a concern for me. IIJ has an English website but it seems to be exclusively geared towards tourists purchasing prepaid SIMs for use during their short stay in Japan. All of the application pages I used were entirely in Japanese.)
- (Optional if you don’t mind paying the fee) Wait for 1-month period at end of 2-year contract with existing Big Three service provider (in my case, SoftBank) when you can end contract without paying the penalty. Once you have entered that period…
- (Optional: If you want to move your phone number/have voice on your new plan) Call up existing provider and get your MNP number.
IIJ provided a handy guide here (under 他社から乗り換え) with a list of numbers for the major providers. Fortunately, SoftBank’s line was open on weekends too so I could call then and get my MNP予約番号 (MNP reservation number). Again, this step was no problem for me because I speak Japanese so I communicated with the guy on the phone only in Japanese. It’s SoftBank so they probably could have provided English support if I’d asked, but I’m not certain. They had to do a lot of verification steps, they wanted to know where I was taking my business, but in the end they sent the MNP number to my phone via text message. Once I had that…
- Apply with desired new service provider (and decide on rate plan).
For IIJ that will start here. Oh, you also need a credit card number to apply with IIJ (and then that’s what they will bill going forward). I used my Japanese credit card (Rakuten, nothing fancy) so I’m not sure if an international card could work too. I also decided to do the Light Start Plan, which is the medium option. You get 4GB of data a month (5GB during the campaign they’re running starting April 1, 2015, and running for quite a while, I think a year) and I chose to add on voice calls. The application process was relatively simple, though it did demand that my name match across all three places (former service provider information, new application, and credit card) and since it doesn’t (my middle name is not on my credit card, or at least it’s not written on the actual card, but it does appear in all my SoftBank paperwork), I had to add my middle name to my credit card name and hope everything checked out. Fortunately, it did. It also didn’t like me using full-width roman letters for my application name, but I made it katakana and it was happy. After submitting the application, I received a link to upload my proof of identity, a photo or scan of some identification document. It said a health insurance card would be fine, but they wouldn’t accept it because my address wasn’t on it, so in the end I submitted clear photos of the front and back of my residence card and my identity was successfully verified.
- Wait for new service provider to approve you and go through the process of canceling your old service and transferring your phone number.
Yes, they do it for you, which is very nice. They notified me the night before that service was about to be canceled. Sure enough, at some point during the next day my phone (still my old phone) changed from “SoftBank LTE” to “No Service.” I was no longer a SoftBank customer!
- Wait to receive new SIM card in the mail.
This happens about 2-3 days after service is canceled, so I did have to spend 2-3 days with no data on my phone (and apparently a phone number that would go nowhere, though no one tried to call me), so I couldn’t do much when I was out and about (though I was fine at work and at home where I can access WiFi). They notified me the day before mailing it and gave me a tracking number, so I was able to get onto Kuroneko’s website and schedule the delivery for the following day instead (to be delivered Saturday morning when I am home instead of Friday during the day when I am at work).
- Once new SIM card arrives, begin the phone transfer process! Since I was going from iPhone 5 to iPhone 6, I made a full backup using iTunes and then plugged in the iPhone 6 to restore it using the backup. Ran into a slight hiccup in that there had been an iOS update since my iPhone 6 came into existence, so the iPhone 5 was running a newer iOS than the other phone, so the backup wouldn’t transfer until the iPhone 6 was updated to the newest iOS. So, did that first… took 45 minutes of downloading and installing… then finally I could restore my backup onto the iPhone 6 and have all my settings and apps waiting for me. There’s always that moment of terror though where your apps haven’t been updated (and if you open LINE, it’s a hella old version AND your conversations are all gone, causing a minor heart attack!) and you have to go into the App Store and update them to the latest version, but once that’s done it all works smoothly.
- BONUS LAST STEP I did not realize I needed to do: data will not work automatically. You need to set up the APN settings to connect to it. I spent a couple days despairing that I would ever be able to connect to data (maybe the American iPhone was to blame!). I could not see the option to set them up in my carrier settings no matter what I did, so I had to access this page on Safari on my iPhone and click the link to install the profile directly onto my phone. I did and I installed it and SUDDENLY I COULD CONNECT TO DATA!!! Yaaaaaayyy! And not only that, but I could access LTE! I didn’t think I’d be able to access LTE because I thought SoftBank, docomo, and au were the only carriers licensed for LTE for iPhone, but I guess because IIJ uses a network that has been licensed to them by docomo, it’s technically docomo, and docomo gets LTE so I do too! Yaaaaay! And the speeds are good – I ran a speed test and I’m getting download 37.88 Mbps, upload 4.61 Mbps.
- Final step: sell old iPhone 5. Apparently even though it’s locked to SoftBank, people will still buy it. I’m waiting until my final bill clears to do this, hoping I find a buyer and get at least 10,000 yen for it, ideally more.
So what’s my total monthly bill now? 2,200 yen a month. That’s amazing, frankly. SoftBank was charging me 5,000-7,000 in comparison, and I still had to pay for my phone upfront because they wouldn’t give me the monthly payment plan because they were worried I might leave the country partway through my contract. I was worried if I renewed with SoftBank and upgraded to an iPhone 6 that they would still demand I pay the full cost upfront. And then I would be locked into another 2-year contract.
Of course, IIJ also charged a startup fee of 3,000 yen, and the SIM card cost another 2,000. SoftBank also charged me a cancellation fee of 2,500 yen (RIDICULOUS, but at least it wasn’t the mid-contract 9,500 yen). So doing this does require a lot more upfront than just doing nothing and watching your contract automatically renew for another two years, but in the long run I’m saving at least 3,000 yen a month on my phone bill. Over 24 months, that adds up to 72,000, close to the price of my new phone.
The other nice thing? When I go back to the US for visits, I can pop in a prepaid SIM and be able to contact people wherever I am. It was always a huge pain to only be in reach if I had WiFi, which made meeting up with people a little difficult sometimes. And if I decide to move back to the US, I can take this phone with me and use a MNVO there. Seamless transition.
So basically, I’m super thrilled I decided to do this and it was worth all the hassle. Freedom!
(I should thank my boyfriend, as this was all something he told me about. I had no idea about it before. Ironically though, I’m the one who completed the process and he’s still on his au-locked iPhone.)