Softbank “America Houdai” review after using it on a two-week trip to America

I recently took a two week trip to the U.S. After searching around for different data plans to use with my SIM-free iPhone 7 Plus, it turns out the best plan didn’t require a SIM-free phone at all. I have a contract with Softbank, one of the “big three” mobile carriers in Japan. And Softbank currently lets people with smartphone contracts use their phones completely free while traveling in the U.S. That is free talk to calls made in the U.S., free calls made to and from Japan and, best of all, unlimited data, including tethering. The plan is called “America Houdai” (America Unlimited). No extra contract is required. Just follow their simple settings procedures for leaving Japan and arriving in the U.S. and it just works.

Here are the Pros and Cons of my two week experience using America Houdai in Boston. I waited to write this report until after my bill for April was finalized just to make sure there was no “funny stuff” about the plan.

Pros

  • It is free if you have a SoftBank contract and a supported smartphone, which are most smartphones. It doesn’t matter if your phone is SIM-free or locked to Softbank.
  • Data is truly unlimited. I called and confirmed this any number of times and it really, truly did turn out to be unlimited data, including tethering. I used over 25 GB of data in my two weeks (even with TripMode on my Mac to keep unnecessary background data at a minimum) and there were no slowdowns.
  • The data speeds were not bad for a cell phone in the U.S. In my sister’s Brookline apartment I would regularly get 10-20 Mbps speed. Of course that doesn’t compare to what I get in Japan, but you can definitely get your work done at those speeds.
  • You can make unlimited calls out to U.S. numbers and you can make and receive unlimited calls to and from Japan. People in Japan call you as usual, and they don’t even realize they are calling the U.S.

Cons

  • You don’t get a U.S. phone number. There doesn’t seem to be a risk of somebody seeing your caller ID and accidentally returning a call from within the U.S. (which would be an international call to Japan for them) because your entire Japan phone number isn’t sent. Still, people in the U.S. don’t really have a reasonable way of calling you. I suggest getting a Skype-in number and using Skype for calls instead.
  • Voice calls tend not to be very clear.
  • Oftentimes,  calls will simply not connect. Any number of times I got an “unable to complete your call at this time” recording. But the problem was with Softbank/Sprint and America Houdai and not with the number I was calling, because whenever that happened I was able to call using my Skype account on my iPhone instead.
  • Data seems to originate from Japan, even though you are on the Sprint network. For example, I wanted to watch Hulu one evening and Hulu thought I was in Japan, so I needed to connect via a VPN instead (like I do when I am actually in Japan).

Other

  • Even though I had data roaming turning off (one of the procedures you are supposed to check) somehow roaming data slowly accumulated over the two weeks, reaching about 2 MB in all. I was concerned when I saw that happening and called Softbank while in the U.S. and they said they would make a note of it. This ended up being reflected in an extra 676 yen charge on my latest Softbank bill. I called them today and they said they would refund the 676 yen from my next month’s bill. So despite it being free, and despite following all the settings, you should still check your bill for minor charges cropping up and call Softbank when you get back to Japan if there is a problem. If you see roaming data inching up over your trip, I also recommend calling Softbank and mentioning it to get it on the record. You will get plenty of daily messages from Softbank letting you know you are connected to the Sprint network and in those messages there is a 24-hour phone number to call if you are having issues.

Conclusion

America Houdai is absolutely worth it even for the data alone. There are no U.S. data plans from AT&T or other companies which will give you 25 GB data for two weeks at a reasonable price, much less free! But you do need Skype or some other way to really feel comfortable about making and receiving phone calls, and the voice calls are definitely not very clear.

Still, overall, America Houdai was extremely useful to me on my trip. And you can’t beat the price!

If you travel back and forth to the U.S. a lot I think it’s probably a good reason to use Softbank as your carrier.

 

Using my Japan Softbank iPhone 7 Plus while traveling in the U.S. – America Houdai

At the end of March I will be making a two week visit to the U.S. for my mother’s 90th birthday. My mother and sister live in Boston.

Since I have an unlocked iPhone 7 Plus I thought of doing what I usually do – get an AT&T GoPhone SIM card and get a U.S. temporary account and phone number. They have plans for $45 per month which seem fairly reasonable, for unlimited talk and text within the U.S. and 4 GB of data at high speed, after which your speed is throttled.

But I ran into some problems, and it was starting to get expensive. For example, the GoPhone plans don’t allow tethering. I was surprised by that. So in order for me to do work on my computer I would need a separate mobile hotspot – more money for a new device, plus pretty expensive data plans with restrictive data limit caps. It was getting costly. I was looking at $45 for the GoPhone plan plus $119 for a mobile hotspot device + $75 or so for a hotspot data plan. All for a two week visit.

I had decided to go with AT&T anyway, because I do every year, but this morning got a notice that my online order had been canceled by AT&T because they “could not confirm my identity.” I don’t know why, since I have U.S. credit cards that match my U.S. address and have been using AT&T every year. But whatever…

While looking for an alternative a Facebook friend told me about Softbank’s “America Houdai” service. I happen to use Softbank for my carrier in Japan. The word “houdai” means “all you can.” For example, if a restaurant is “tabe houdai” (like the Sizzler salad bar) it is all you can eat. Some bars have happy hours which are “nomi houdai” – all you can drink. The Softbank America Houdai plan turns out to be quite a good plan:

  • There is no extra fee for using it. You just change certain settings on your iPhone to make sure you stay connected to the Sprint network in the U.S. because Softbank happens to own Sprint.
  • You get unlimited talk and text with calls made within the U.S. and also calls made to and from Japan. So people in Japan can continue to call me as usual.
  • The plan includes tethering. And currently there is no data cap. That’s unlimited 4G/LTE data for my iPhone and my computer.

The only drawback is that you don’t get a U.S. phone number. So when you make a call in the U.S., it looks to the person receiving the call like you are calling from Japan. And if they call or text you back at your Japan number, they end up making an international phone call. But for people calling me I can just tell them to use my Skype-in number, which is a Boston number, and avoid that problem.

It sounds like a good deal. No extra cost, unlimited talk and text, and unlimited data during my trip.

I think perhaps the AT&T network is better than the Sprint network. So I’ll report again how good the reception and speeds turn out to be. But it’s definitely worth trying if you are a Softbank person visiting the U.S. and have an eligible contract.

All the major carriers in Japan now have unlimited calling plans

All the major carriers now – AU, Softbank and DoCoMo – are competing and have introduced “unlimited calling plans” and all for about the same price. The basic cost is 2,700 yen/month for calling. This is 24 hour calling, to any carrier, and to regular phone lines as well. Then you choose a data package, typically starting at 2 GB per month and going up from there.

As I mentioned the other day, starting tomorrow my new AU package will kick in. I chose the 2 GB plan (which comes with an extra 1 GB per month for the first 13 months) since I checked and have never used more than 1 GB per month.

Today I helped a friend on Softbank switch to their equivalent package. He will save a lot of money because he makes lots of calls. His plan will kick in on 9/11. They also checked and saw he never exceeds 1 GB per month of data, so the lowest cost data package will be perfect for him.

And we both get to keep our tethering option.

There is one contractual difference between the Softbank plan and the AU plan though. In typical Softbank fashion, if you switch to this new plan you are recommitting for another two years as of the date it takes effect. With AU there is no contract extension; they just consider it a “change of plan.” In that sense, AU is nicer about it.

Anyway, it’s a good deal in both cases. It looks like the age of unlimited calling has come to Japan.

But as they say, what good are unlimited minutes if they all have to be spent on the phone?