Mobile phone service operators lift SIM locks

TOKYO —

Japan’s wireless network providers have lifted restrictions on which network their subscribers can use, enabling all smartphones and tablets to be sold with their SIM cards unlocked upon customers’ request.

As of May 1, all smartphones and tablets are sold with their SIM cards unlocked if customers ask for it and at no cost to users, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

The move frees consumers from traditional two-year contracts and gives them the option to sign up for alternative plans. Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), which do not own any wireless network infrastructure but rents bandwidth instead, generally offer cheaper data and voice plans.

The move will push the country’s three biggest mobile carriers network providers NTT DoCoMo Inc, KDDI Corp and SoftBank Corp to be more competitive with their pricing.

Docomo and KDDI have lifted SIM locks on handsets that customers keep for more than six months after purchase.

The new policy also gives MVNOs such as Aeon Co Ltd and Rakuten Inc a chance to increase their market share, currently at less than 5% combined.

The government has long criticized the three main carriers for giving consumers little choice over data plans, although they have held back from taking action until now.

Network providers lock the SIM cards of smartphones, often sold at a discount, to prevent subscribers from breaking contracts and hopping over to other networks after obtaining their handsets at reduced prices.

Japan Today/Thomson Reuters

  • 3

    Kokuzi

    Question: Does anyone know if this means whether phones with unlocked SIM cards could now be taken to a home country and used there with a local SIM, or is this purely a domestic SIM unlocking? Been holding off on getting an iPhone 6Plus, because I may return to Canada within a year... I guess at least it will make 'sayonara' resale of a phone in Japan easier, if it can't be used overseas.

  • 2

    scoobydoo

    Any one know if that applies to previously purchased phones?

  • 2

    Gobshite

    Question: Does anyone know if this means whether phones with unlocked SIM cards could now be taken to a home country and used there with a local SIM, or is this purely a domestic SIM unlocking?

    Unlocking means unlocking, you should be fine in Canadaland, as long as the network you choose is compatible with the phone.

  • -1

    some14some

    Any one know if that applies to previously purchased phones?

    Pls contact nearest mobile dealer if you know the japanese language, if not, wait for knowledgeable poster :)

  • 1

    cdanr

    @Kokuzi and @scoobydoo Sim cards from other countries will be able to be used but apparently the law will only allow unlocking for 6 months after purchase on phones that are sold from May 1st. It will be free if done online and ¥3240 if done at a carrier's store.

  • 2

    Gobshite

    but apparently the law will only allow unlocking for 6 months after purchase on phones that are sold from May 1st.

    Wrong

    handsets that customers keep for more than six months after purchase.

    This means minimum contract period is 6 months instead of 2 years. ALL phones must be unlocked upon request

  • 0

    Kronos

    I am very surprised to read this.

    I just had a talk with a Docomo store about an hour ago to switch from my old garake to an iPhone 6. The guy at the store said there is no simfree option.Very confusing...

  • 2

    Ah_so

    I just had a talk with a Docomo store about an hour ago to switch from my old garake to an iPhone 6. The guy at the store said there is no simfree option.Very confusing...

    He obviously does not know that the rules have changed.

  • 1

    James Farmer

    Docomo has been unlocking SIMs since summer 2010. And, you wait six months. They unlocked my Galaxy S2 the day I bought it. And, when I bought the S4, they unlocked it the day I got it. It just cost 3000 yen plus tax. So, the only big difference for Docomo users now seems to be that it will be free.

    I have used my unlocked Galaxies in well over a dozen countries using locally bought SIMs. The only time I had a problem was with THREE in the UK, but O2 worked no problems.

  • 1

    Kronos

    He obviously does not know that the rules have changed.

    I asked my wife to call the Docomo store again. I thought my Japanese was not enough.

    Basically they said that they cannot make the iPhone models they are currently selling simfree. They are apparently not built like that (not sure what this means). They said that the next model (i.e. generation) iPhones can be made simfree but not the current ones.

  • 0

    masri

    let say we had purchased ip5 from au before 1st May. does it mean that the phone cannot be unlocked ever?

  • 2

    Kronos

    @ Strangerland

    "...and she came back that the law says that handsets sold after May 1st are provided with this option, and that my handset was purchased before May 1st."

    Similar to what I was told in Docomo. When they say after May 1st, they mean for new generation models, not current ones - at least for iPhones.

    According to J.Farmer's post, Galaxy phones seem to be different.

  • 2

    Gobshite

    @Strangerland

    Unfortunately it appears to be correct.

    The "sold after May 1st" is correct, "the law will only allow unlocking for 6 months after purchase" is not correct. I think the phone companies may take the p1ss a little, it seems that the law states that [phone models sold after May 1st must be offered SIM free]. So, by the letter of the law, iPhone 7 must be, as iPhone 6 is a current model, they may not do it.

    As per Kronos' post above, docomo refused to unlock a 6, even though there is NO REASON WHATSOEVER that it can not be done, except greed of course. iPhones both current and past have been available unlocked in other countries for a long time.

  • -1

    Michael Werker

    Now that they are required by law to unlock it, does that mean unlocking it yourself is a legal option, too?

    It is quite easy on android, no need to pay money for an easy fix like that, really.

  • 2

    sighclops

    @scoobydoo

    Any one know if that applies to previously purchased phones?

    This being the nickel-and-diming Japanese carriers in question, I'd say it's phones from May 1st only.

  • 3

    GyGene

    Any iPhone CAN be unlocked. Whether or not the knuckle headed carrier will do it is another question. They are always finding ways to take lucres from our wallets.

  • 2

    M3M3M3

    Although it's unfortunate for some, it makes perfect sense that the new law doesn't apply to phones sold before May 1st. The government isn't allowed to retrospectively impose an additional burden on the mobile companies which they couldn't have expected when they sold you a phone 5 years ago.

    @Kronos

    I asked my wife to call the Docomo store again. I thought my Japanese was not enough. Basically they said that they cannot make the iPhone models they are currently selling simfree. They are apparently not built like that (not sure what this means). They said that the next model (i.e. generation) iPhones can be made simfree but not the current ones.

    This sounds like a ridiculous excuse, I suspect they will have to change their tune in the coming days (or remove the current batch of i-phones from sale if what they say is true). They can't just excuse themselves from the new law simply because they have designed their products in a way that can't meet the new requirements.

    It would be like a motorcycle shop attempting to sell a bike with an illegal two-stroke engine by arguing that the laws shouldn't apply because no other type of engine will fit their bike. The whole point of these new regulations is to protect consumers and stop the sale of inferior products, no exceptions. I would check again with Docomo customer service if I were you. The people working at the shops aren't always reliable.

  • 1

    jerseyboy

    Mobile phone service operators lift SIM locks

    At least a decade too late, and a perfect example of why Abe speaking in California about Japan lacking innovation and a more competitive spirit is so timely. Japanese companies, at least domestically, want to control the market, not truly compete.

  • 1

    hampton

    So can I put a Japanese SIM from e.g. AU into a phone purchased overseas, or is this still blocked?

  • 2

    M3M3M3

    @hampton

    So can I put a Japanese SIM from e.g. AU into a phone purchased overseas, or is this still blocked?

    I think you need to check with AU. The new law just says that companies cannot sell devices which are intentionally designed to be inoperable on other networks... but I don't think anything in the new law forces companies to actually allow competitor's phones to access their network. I hope that make sense?

    For example, a few years ago I bought a tablet from overseas and tried to use my old Docomo FOMA sim card. I could make calls but Docomo would check the unique IMEI number that each device transmits and block access to their data network for any device that wasn't on their list. They don't do this anymore but I don't think anything in the new law would prevent AU from operating a similar system. You need to ask.

  • 3

    Michael T Burns

    None of you seem to know how unlocking works on an iPhone. If it is locked, the carrier needs special access to one of Apple's servers (called "Fat Albert" (seriously)). They log into Fat Albert and add your IMEI to the white list, then the next time you connect your phone to iTunes, it will get unlocked. The problem is that Japanese carriers have never bothered to get access, so they really can't unlock your phone. I suppose they will order new phones that are already unlocked from the factory...

  • -3

    Joeintokyo

    Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), which do not own any wireless network infrastructure but rents bandwidth instead, generally offer cheaper data and voice plans.

    Can anyone show me evidence of this? J-customers will continue to get screwed because this country couldn't survive with a different model.

  • 0

    JeffLee

    "Can anyone show me evidence of this?"

    I used to be on Softbank, which charged me around 7,000 yen a month. Then I switched to e-mobile, which charged me 4,000 yen and also threw in tethering, etc.

    Here's some of b-mobile rates:

    http://www.bmobile.ne.jp/xsim/index.html

    "So can I put a Japanese SIM from e.g. AU into a phone purchased overseas, or is this still blocked?"

    I believe that is illegal. The handset needs to have Ministry of Communications certification, as shown by a sticker. The police, customs, etc. have the right to seize any unapproved device. Not sure sure whether this regulation has been reformed, etc.

  • 1

    Gobshite

    @JeffLee

    I used to be on Softbank, which charged me around 7,000 yen a month.

    I did the exact same thing. I paid for an unlocked Nexus 5 upfront, my monthly bill went from 7000 to 3000 yen / month for 2 years. Emoblie offered an unlocked phone from the start, here's the kicker though, Softbank OWN Emobile (now called Ymobile) so my bill still shows SB!!

    Now, in typical dumb Japanese business practice, I already know that after 2 years my bill will increase, so guess what.... time for MVNO. It's also easy to import phones, but be careful about frequency compatibility.

  • 0

    JeffLee

    Gobshite Yeah, I signed up right before Softbank took over e-mobile, after being so happy to escape SB's horrendous practices. Was really peeved by that!!

    Maybe b-mobile is next.

  • -1

    Paul Laimal-Convoy

    The thing is, I doubt very much the three carriers will allow people to join their networks without purchasing their own phones.

    All this means is that people can join, get a phone, unlock it after six months, pay the exorbitant fees needed to unlock and/or leave and then go to the satellite carriers instead.

  • 0

    kanuk

    For those looking at iPhones, if you buy from the Apple store, they are unlocked and can be used with any carrier.

    You can also buy SIM free phones from http://www.expansys.jp/

    I'm thinking about doing this, and switching to an MVNO, but am hesitant because they reportedly have slower LTE speeds. The sites I've looked at comparing speeds have data ranges all over the place, so it's hard to tell what's good.

    If anyone with MVNO experience could post their experiences, that would be great.

    I believe that is illegal. The handset needs to have Ministry of Communications certification, as shown by a sticker. The police, customs, etc. have the right to seize any unapproved device. Not sure sure whether this regulation has been reformed, etc. - See more at: http://www.japantoday.com/category/technology/view/mobile-phone-service-operators-lift-sim-locks#sthash.bQolHjiK.dpuf

    I don't know about this. Expan sys is selling imported phones, and it seems to be a legitimate business. Also, SIM provider IIJmio sells short term SIMS to travelers who bring their phones from overseas.

  • -4

    Joeintokyo

    @ JeffLee

    Okay, but I was thinking a really good deal. I was thinking something like a 5 gig sim card for 2000 yen--something comparable to what you see in other countries.

  • 0

    scoobydoo

    Lots of good info here, thanks for answering me. One thing that comes out of it that I have always gripped about in Japan is that people in shops who are supposed to be experts on their goods are less informed than the consumers they are trying to sell to and give wrong, misinformed, or just lie to answer a question they don't know about. And that the carriers are less than professional. Have you ever heard of a carrier promising a real agreement that they will give 95% up time, at minimum bandwidth of 123MB etc , best effort is so subjective its ridiculous.

  • 0

    Gobshite

    something comparable to what you see in other countries.

    I'll just compose myself, laughed at that comment...... this is Japan, things work differently here, consumers get shafted and very few complain about it, primarily because the majority know very little about the workings of the out outside world. The phone carriers are unlikely to tell them are they? That said, things are changing, all be it at a snails pace.

  • -1

    LostinNagoya

    Let me try to understand it: you can buy an iPhone, unlocked, in installments in Japan? Or do you have to pay the full price in order to get it?

  • 1

    ThonTaddeo

    These phone providers' shenanigans have to stop.

    I signed up for an iPhone 5 right after launch in October 2012. Paid the whole thing off over 25 monthly installments. Softbank wouldn't unlock it when I was done, saying that that phone is forever locked to them and that if I want a sim-free phone, I should get an unlocked phone in 2015 when the new law comes in.

    Then just a week or so ago this old, paid-off phone developed a bulge in the front screen. Turns out the battery had a problem that was pushing the thin front screen outward. Apple acknowledged that it was a production problem, and offered to either replace my battery or give me a whole new unit.

    I took the new phone, of course. But... this new phone, which was obtained after the unlocking law went into effect and which is not subsidized by Softbank in any way, is also locked to Softbank, who refuse to unlock it.

    Their logic, such that it is, is that when I signed my contract back in 2012, it was for a locked phone, and I'm still on that contract, so any future iPhone 5 handset that I use my Softbank SIM card with must also be locked to them.

    The cheek of these people! And they wonder why people are leaving for MVNOs in droves... as I soon shall be.

  • 0

    Kevin Moore

    Here it is almost October 2015 and if you go to SoftBank they will STILL not see you an unlocked "Sim Free" iPhone. I understand you can get these if you purchase directly from Apple and that's what I will do. Greedy phone companies!

  • 0

    Allan Jespersen

    Can I purchase (directly from Apple on the upgrade plan) an unlocked iPhone 6S in the US before I leave and put it on a contract in Japan with one of the carriers? I'll be in Japan for three years. I have conflicting information saying the big carriers in Japan are reluctant/unwilling to sign you up if you already have a phone.

  • 0

    Shady Shitoos

    Can I purchase (directly from Apple on the upgrade plan) an unlocked iPhone 6S in the US before I leave and put it on a contract in Japan with one of the carriers?

    I wanna know about this too, I already got my unlocked phone but I'm scared Japanese companies would refuse to give me a contract, someone please reply.

  • 0

    Tidi Uehara

    I wanna know about this too, I already got my unlocked phone but I'm scared Japanese companies would refuse to give me a contract, someone please reply.

    I live in Japan over a year, and I opted for a cheaper option instead of the 3 big names. The cheapest Softbank/Docomo/Au services for iPhone is around U$70. I did a plan with Y!Mobile (which belongs to SoftBank). I bought a SIM card with 2 years contract and I am paying around U$25. It is a plan with 1GB data only (LTE), and 30 calls of 10min. For me, it is the cheapest solution.

  • 0

    Michael T Burns

    As long as your phone model operates in a compatible bandwidth of the country you're using it it in, yes. For instance your phone MUST support CDMA to work in South Korea (forget that it's kind of hard to get temporary pre-paid SIM cards there...). Most new iPhones (especially ones sold in Japan) will work most anywhere when unlocked.

  • 0

    Cheech Chi

    FYI, if a Japanese carrier tells you they can't unlock an older generation iPhone that is only partially true. A Genius at the Apple store explained this to me. Apple can but only with the carrier's permission. When you take the phone to the Genius bar, a Genius checks the "Lock status" of the phone. If its set to "Locked", they can't do anything. If its set to "unlocked," then they have procedure that can unlock the phone. (it pings the server first to make sure the status is set to unlocked.) Apple can't CHANGE the status, the CARRIER CAN.

    Note; usually if the carrier unlocks the status for you, all you have to do is wait a few hours and then restart the phone. Sometimes you have hard reset (erase everything).

    However, if the law doesn't force them to unlock phones that were purchased before May 1st 2015, the carrier will probably tell you "sorry we can't do older iPhones" just cuz 1) the person you're talking to doesn't know how 2) easier to blow you off 3) they have no incentive because they think you're gonna leave their network once you do that anyway.

  • 0

    cnnlk

    Ntt docomo and kddi charge 3000 yen + tax to unlock mobile phones after 6months also. This is legal?

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