Usually the minute you land in another country, you can head over to the nearest mobile phone kiosk or even convenience store in the airport and score a prepaid SIM to pop in your phone that will give you a phone number to be contacted through while visiting. However, thanks to one of Japan’s more arcane telcom laws from the last century, visitors to the country cannot have access to any
permanently connected voice phone lines. In other words, unless you are a citizen or maintain a long-term visa, you can’t obtain traditional voice service on your cellphone. Don’t worry thought; we’re going to use 21st century methods to get around this old 20th century technicality.
There’s still a need for the traditional phone number, even in this age of instant messaging and email; business between strangers is usually conducted through telephone conversations, and doesn’t require the knowledge of what network is connecting the other end; it’s universal, thereby necessary in many cases to have.
Data isn’t restricted
You can still pick up a prepaid SIM card almost anywhere electronics are sold; online, at airports and even vending machines. However it will be a data-only card, and the phone number attached is just to provide access to the network. If you visit the shops and see prepaid voice SIMs, do know that the sales people will then ask to see your Japanese ID card to verify identity. Don’t worry though; this is more than enough for the next steps. Usually SMS service is included using the given number to send and receive text messages as well; do make sure SMS is included in your service as a text message will be needed to verify things in our next steps.
Welcome to VoIP Land!
With our data connection we can use Voice over IP technology— the tech behind the power to use the open internet as a telephone system. If you are fairly technical there are ways to even use a device or your PC to enable your home phone to connect to the service. For our purposes, we’ll just stick to using apps on our smartphone to get us up and running.
We need a provider and luckily there are many to choose from. Take a trip into Google Play or Apple’s App Store and simply type
050 Japan and you’ll probably see dozens.
050 is the number code that all VoIP communications receive, and when you sign up for one of these services, you’ll get a number in this range that will look like
A good example of this type of service is NTT’s 050 Plus or Brastel’s 050 Free. Simply sign up with a credit card, download their app and use. One other thing: incoming calls in Japan are free to take, so if you simply need a local number to be contacted on, you’re good. If you want to place phone calls to local numbers, you’re also OK but make sure you do some comparative shopping to see which one of these services offer the best deals.
If you really want to make things dead simple, Skype is still there. The Microsoft owned messaging app has been around for years and still offers some of the best deals for getting a local number in different countries. If you already use Skype in some capacity, you should check out their Skype Local Number and Skype Out services to see if it fits your needs. Here in Japan, you’ll get a 050 just as in the other examples, so the same rules and limitations apply as well.
Do I really need a local number?
To be fair, you really truly only need a local number for things like filling out official residence and leasing forms, applying for a bank account and so on. I personally keep a 050 number for business contacts to call me on and to give out in an official manner. For 95% of everything else, I use instant messaging apps to talk to pretty much everyone, including workmates.
Check for those blue bubbles!
Japan has one of the highest smartphone users per capita metrics in the world, and the overwhelming majority of them choose to use Apple’s rig, the venerable iPhone. Every iPhone user has Apple’s messaging apps, iMessage and FaceTime built in by default. If you are in Apple’s ecosystem, this means you can simply input your Japanese contact’s number or email address into the phone book on your Apple device and check if you get the FaceTime and iMessage section to light up. If you do, then you can simply give them a call or text them without incurring anything more than internet data charges; and they can connect with you just by using your regular phone number. You may need to teach your Japanese counterparts how to use FaceTime and iMessage though; This is LINE country after all…
Can you drop me a LINE?
Japan’s swiss army knife app, LINE is single-handedly the #1 app used on smartphones by far here. When doing business these days, it’s not uncommon to be exchanging business cards, then LINE contact QR codes. Of course, LINE offers in-app VoIP and video conferencing like most other messaging apps, and there’s no faux pas in telling your new Japan contacts to contact you via the app. Some businesses also use LINE to communicate to their clients, customers, and internally too. LINE is also available for every mobile phone and PC OS so there’s no lock-in here. LINE is the messaging app that started the whole sticker craze, and now it can do anything from call a taxi to order food and clothing, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself using it more than you thought.
Of course, these methods are by no means exhaustive so if you have a tip you’d like to share with us, tell us in the comments section below!