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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012
Softbank's policies on foreign customers hard to pin down
Some of our non-Japanese readers are wondering why, when trying to sort out a phone and contract with Softbank, they often seem to be subject to different rules than Japanese customers — and even fellow foreign residents.
BJ writes: "When getting an iPhone at Softbank, in my experience, a foreigner must pay outright for the entire phone, while Japanese pay a couple thousand yen each month with a two-year contract. For those of us who call Japan home, it is infuriating to be treated as a 'lesser citizen.' "
Whereas a number of foreign readers complain that Softbank's policies seem to vary from store to store, others have had no problems at all. Several said they had been told they must pay the entire cost of the handset up front upon beginning a contract, but just as many people were able to set up monthly payments for the handset over a two-year contract period.
A few of those who had to buy a handset at the outset were told by the store staff they didn't have enough time left on their visa (meaning more than 24 months), whereas some of the successful applicants had less than two years remaining on their visa.
My husband and I have had our own share of contradictory experiences with Softbank, usually depending on the store. When my husband switched to Softbank a few years ago, he had to pay the full price of a handset before signing a contract because he only had a year left on his visa, which we thought was reasonable. The following year his phone was stolen, but when he went to get a new handset, despite having a renewed visa valid for three years, they told him they don't revise previous decisions and he had to pay outright for the phone again (instead of spreading the payments out over the contract period).
In contrast, I was able to upgrade my phone and renew my two-year contract despite having less than a year left on my visa, but I used my driver's license for ID. They didn't ask about my visa status.
To clarify their official policies, I spoke with Softbank's public relations department. They said that they do not typically require handsets to be paid in full when making a contract, nor do they have a visa-length requirement for contracts. However, they said a visa length of less than 26 months might limit your choice of payment method or mean that you are asked to pay for a handset in full.
Softbank says that they run through a basic identification process for all new customers, and the results of this process, based on ID documents you provide, may determine whether you have to pay for a handset up front or not. Softbank would not reveal what information they check.
As for how to pay, some people have said they were required to provide and use a credit card when signing up. According to Softbank, customers can choose to make payments with a credit card or by bank transfer, although, as previously mentioned, you might not be offered the choice considering the time left on your visa. It's also possible to change the method of payment throughout the duration of your contract. Paying with cash is not an option — unless you miss a payment. If that happens, they'll send you a paper bill to pay in cash at a financial institution, convenience store or Softbank shop.
Softbank asks all of its stores to follow basic company policies, but they said that some of their shops are "agent" stores, contracted out to other companies. As a result, agent stores can act independently to some degree. For example, they might require someone to pay in full for their phone or provide a credit card when agreeing on a contract.
Softbank added that although they ask all of their stores to follow "basic policies," they "don't have sufficient force" to ensure that they do. As a result, even nonagent stores may make some of their own decisions regarding how to handle certain issues — although Softbank believes it's more likely that customers might be experiencing problems at agent stores. They would not reveal how many of their sellers are agent stores.
If you have a problem at a Softbank shop, the company suggests trying another store, as each one may handle specific situations differently (as many readers have already found out). You can also report the shop by calling customer service — in English, if necessary.
To contact Softbank's customer service department (toll-free) from a fixed-line phone, call (0800) 919-0157; from a Softbank mobile phone, ring 157. When calling either number, press "8" for English support.
If you have an experience to share about getting a mobile phone in Japan, — whether positive or negative, from any carrier — please drop us a line.