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For years there has been tremendous interest in using Japanese cellphones in other countries. Recently however, as  development of next generation handsets has stalled within Japan, there’s been growing interest in using foreign handsets in Japan.

In the 2G era, while Japan was protected as a technological Galapagos island, network incompatibility prevented anyone from either using Japanese cellphones abroad or from bringing cellphones for use in Japan, unlocked or not. But with the introduction of the global W-CDMA 3G standard came foreign immigrants in the form of Nokias, HTCs and or course the iPhone.

Both NTT Docomo and Softbank operate on the 2100 Mhz W-CDMA band which is compatible with most of the global 3G network providers around the world so now, most 3G hardware available on the open market is technically able to work in Japan. I say technically because there are still quite a few safeguards put in place by Japanese carriers to prevent both exporting and importing.

One barrier is SIM locks. While there has been quite a bit of discussion lately in Japan on the subject, the fact is that now Japan is one of the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to locking down of cellphones to a single carrier. Breaking a SIM lock in Japan not only voids your contract and warranty, but is against the law and Japan is one of the few countries that enforces this.  There have been raids on shops that unlock Japanese cellphones. In spite of the recent interest and discussion I am doubtful that this trend will change anytime soon. SIM lock free phones, while not unheard of, have been rare to the point of insignificance, and as such carriers are usually unwilling to assist customers in attaching an “unsupported” handset to their network, even if the phone is a legally unlocked model.  There are no incentives for carriers to modify their business plan and the government is too inclined to the the industry regulate itself.

Luckily there are an abundance of webpages that assist the few brave souls who attempt to go this route with settings and guides on how to use their foreign booty in Japan, but as with all thing, relying on the advice of unknown individuals on the internet is not without risks. For one, there is the danger that the carrier you shoehorn your mobile onto might not be happy to have you as a customer.

Japanese carriers still treat data as a premium commodity. While recently with the arrival of true internet capable smartphone such as the iPhone, reasonable pricing plans have started appearing, these are mostly band-aids on a broken pricing model. I can get unlimited data on an iPhone for less than 5,000 yen a month, but that’s only because I am getting a discount equivalent to the extra amount of my monthly data usage. The raw cost of data is unreasonably high, with a real charge of over $500 for just 100MB of data. Without the discount on my plan, my monthly iPhone bill would be in the thousands or tens of thousands of DOLLARS each month! Of course any unauthorized use of my SIM card can void my discount, so even if you get your imported phone working, you still take a risk that an very unfriendly bill can find it’s way into your mailbox next month.

With so many deterrents standing in the way of consumers, it’s hardly a surprise that you don’t see many off network cellphones around. With the scarcity, of course come yet even higher costs. The few stores that deal with imported goods tend to charge ridiculous import fees. I’ve seen imports going for as cheap as 30% over retail to over 200% from local shops. A better route for many is mail order. There are plenty of websites selling unlocked mobile phones that will ship to Japan. Of course there are plenty of risks with this path as well. Aside from standard complaints of online retailers such as poor customer service, delayed shipments, and even fraud, you also have to deal with international shipping, customs duties, and potentially expensive shipping costs if your phone needs to be replaced. You are also not guaranteed to get the phone working in Japan and have no official support should you have some problem operating your device in Japan.

So why go through the hassle? As someone who has gone this route many, many times, I think it has to do mostly with prestige. The difficulties and additional costs rule out any real practical advantage, but there is certainly something to be said for being the only person in a party with that cool new phone (as I am writing this article in a cafe on my imported iPad). If you can afford to spend a few extra yen on a prestige phone, or are subsidized by a company to do testing of a non-supported phone, it’s always fun to see the surprised expression on someones face when you pull out that mystery device and show off it’s amazing functions. But be prepared to trade emails with online vendors and shipping companies, scour internet newsgroups to get your contraband working, and live in mortal fear of the dreaded DOA shipment.

If you have any success or fail stories involving imported mobiles in Japan, feel free to add them to the comments below.

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