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.

 

Disk storage sure has changed over the years

In 1956 the huge box being shipped in the first photo was a 5 MB hard drive. It rented for $28,000 a month in today’s dollars.

In the second photo, on the finger of my hand, is a 256 GB flash drive (51,500 times the capacity) designed to just fit into the SD slot of a MacBook Pro. Cost $150.

I got it so I could keep my entire Photos library of more than 35,000 photos and videos I’ve taken over the years on my Mac without needing to store them on an external drive. The 1956 hard drive could only hold about 5 photos like the one shown.

IBM 5 MB hard drive from 1956

IBM 5 MB hard drive from 1956

Monta and 256 GB flash drive from 2017

Monta and 256 GB flash drive from 2017

Followup on my new iPhone 7 Plus – and a cool photos sync feature I discovered

I just did a test with a friend’s AU SIM card to confirm that my new iPhone 7 Plus is not carrier locked. AU showed up right away and I was able to make a test phone call. (See screenshots)

 

Using a borrowed AU SIM card

Using a borrowed AU SIM card

Using my Softbank SIM card

Using my Softbank SIM card

While I have to admit to not being completely satisfied with the display (it isn’t as bright as Apple advertises), it does occur to me that the way it ended up is advantageous to me in the short and long run. In addition to the extra 9,000 yen refunded to me because of the price difference, the amount I will actually pay for the iPhone with the Softbank carrier discount is just a small fraction of list price  – just about 40,000 yen.

But even better, the phone I now have in hand is completely unrelated to the iPhone received from Softbank. So when a new model comes out, I should be able to sell this one at a good price since it is not carrier locked, and the iPhone itself is not under any contract. Plus it’s under AppleCare until February 2019.

If I sell it at some point, I can upgrade to another straight-from-Apple iPhone at my leisure, for net amounts that are like carrier discounts.

It seems like a reasonable way to go forward: no more phones from the carrier are needed, and I have freedom to move from carrier to carrier more easily.

I did casually look around over this last week at the latest Android models. The Samsung and Sony models are especially nice. But they are also pricey, and not attractive enough to lure me away yet. But the way I’m leaving it, I also leave myself open to being lured.

On the Apple ecosystem plus side, I discovered a new, cool thing about the iPhone today, if you also have a Mac. I went to sync photos from my iPhone to Mac Photos for backup (even though I mostly use Google Photos these days) and found they were already synced! It turns out that even if you don’t have iCloud Photo Library turned on, as long as you have My Photo Stream turned on everything gets put into your Mac Photos library until deleted there, making backups easier. You don’t have to physically connect to your Mac with a lightning cable anymore to do this. It’s all done via iCloud.

The post-final result of my iPhone 7 Plus display problem with Apple

Well, I’m sure the main thing on most of my friends’ minds these days is, “I wonder what Doug decided to do about his iPhone 7 Plus?”

So as not to keep you in suspense, this is what I decided:

Since Apple agreed to buy back my iPhone 7 Plus at the full Softbank contract list price of 129,000 yen I decided to take them up on it.

And I ordered a new iPhone 7 Plus from the Apple site today, to be delivered tomorrow morning. That cost 120,000 yen.*

So, not only am I making 9,000 yen on the deal, I’m getting a new phone and two more years of AppleCare coverage.

Plus since I’m getting it directly from Apple, the new iPhone will be unlocked to start with and I can use it on my scheduled U.S. trip for my mother’s birthday in April.

Will it be “as bright” as the iPhone 6 Plus. Probably not. But at this point this deal seems like a no-brainer to do for now. And who knows, maybe it will be brighter.

Also getting it directly from Apple means there is a 14 day return policy if I change my mind.

And I’m sticking with Apple, which I feel relieved and comfortable about for now.

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* I don’t know why the Softbank list price (pre carrier discount for a two year contract) comes to 129,000 yen including tax and AppleCare, instead of the 120,000 yen you would pay when buying direct from Apple. That remains a mystery, but Apple is agreeable with paying the 129,000 list price on my Softbank contract. Probably to shut up a crackpot customer.