Using Your Mobile Phone in Japan

It was a trip to London and Paris in 2012 which solidified my opinion on the importance of having access to mobile data while travelling.

While the City of Light is beautiful and I was able to check out all the major tourist attractions with ease using a paper map, something was missing from my visit.  I felt like I was sticking to the well-worn path, rather than being adventurous in exploring side streets and hidden gems around the city.  It wasn’t until I went to London on the second half of that trip when I found the missing piece of the puzzle.

While I relied on free WiFi (where and when available) in Paris, I had paid to rent a 3G mobile WiFi hotspot while visiting London.  For about C$100, I had a tiny, battery-operated device which would connect to the cellular data network, and then relay that connection as a signal useable by any WiFi-enabled device I had with me (like my iPhone or iPad).  This not only kept me connected to social media, Skype and e-mail, it also gave me access to possibly one of the most valuable resources anyone can have while travelling in the 21st cenutry – Google Maps.

With access to the mobile data network, I was able to navigate to quirky corners of the city that weren’t in any guidebook, which made for some of the most memorable and talked-about experiences of the trip.  I could check train timetables.  I even used Opentable to make a reservation at a Gordon Ramsey restaurant on the spur of the moment as we walked past it.

People can say we live in an over-connected age, but after contrasting my experience in visiting Paris and London, between being disconnected and connected, I now refuse to travel without access to some sort of mobile data network. It’s hard to experience a place like a local, when all you have access to are tourist resources.

In Japan, staying connected is so important – for maps, for train schedules, for weather information, for translations.  But, getting online can be a little expensive if you don’t know the right tricks.  Here is my guide to keeping your mobile devices connected while visiting.

Don’t Roam

To begin, here is the most important piece of advice I can think of for anyone leaving North America.  If the multitude of news stories haven’t drilled it in to your head enough already, do not roam.  Turn off roaming.

My old Canadian cell provider – Bell – lists its roaming prices for Japan at C$2 per minute on a voice call, C$0.75 per outgoing text message, and C$8 per megabyte for data usage.  To put this in perspective, a 15 minute call home would cost C$30, 100 text messages would cost C$75, and 1GB of data would cost C$8000.

Some providers (including Bell) offer “value travel packs” to try and offset the fees they charge for roaming.  However, these still are still very expensive for many travellers.

Telus Mobility
C$150 for 150 minutes of talk time, 700MB of data, 300 outgoing text messages

Bell Mobility
C$135 for 60 minutes of talk time, 300MB of data, 200 outgoing text messages

Rogers Wireless
C$125 for 40 minutes of talk time, 50MB of data, 150 outgoing text messages

Because of changes in Canadian mobile laws, typically once these “value pack” plans run out, your roaming service will be cut off, or you will be sent a notification that you need to resubscribe, in an effort to prevent customers from being charged astronomical bills.

Most US mobile providers don’t offer much better value.

AT&T
US$120 for a roaming rate of US$0.35/minute for talk time, 800MB of data (overage charged at US$0.15/MB or US$150/GB), unlimited texting

Sprint
US$80 for 85MB of data (US$10/MB – or US$10,000/1GB – overage)

Verizon
US$40 for 100 minutes of talk time, 100MB of data (US$25/100MB or US$250/1GB overage), 100 outgoing text messages

T-Mobile is another story (in a good way) – which I’ve included at the end of this post because it’s something every American backpacker and round-the-world traveler should know about.

In short, unless you’re like Scrooge McDuck – rolling around in a vault filled with bags of money – roaming in Japan just doesn’t make good financial sense.  There are better ways to stay connected!

Free (and not-so-Free) WiFi

Free WiFi is not as ubiquitous in Japan as it is in North America. With Internet connection owners responsible for everything flowing over their pipeline, it’s fair to say many private businesses like coffee shops and restaurants don’t want the hassle of dealing with people chewing up bandwidth and possibly doing things they could be liable for.

That said, there are many public WiFi hotspots in Japan.  Most are operated by local telecom companies like NTT DoCoMo, SoftBank, Flets, and AU/KDDI.  In fact, the telecoms seemingly have hotspots everywhere.  Unfortunately, the only way to access these is to have an account (mobile phone, home internet) with the company already.  This makes them relatively useless to visitors (unless you have a Japanese friend or family member willing to share their login information.)

One of the telecoms – NTT DoCoMo – offers visitors access to their secure WiFi hotspot network with unlimited data for ¥1,404 (or about C$18) for a period of three weeks.  This is a very good deal, and DoCoMo is arguably the biggest telecom in Japan, with service all over the place.

Travel Japan’s Free WiFi piggybacks off some of the telecom WiFi networks, but requires you to get a card with a special code printed on it in order to log on. The card can be obtained by showing your passport at a designated service counter in a number of tourist spots like Narita Airport or Tokyo Skytree.

Starbucks offers free service at all their locations – but using it requires you to sign up with either a pre-registered user name and password, or by logging in using your Facebook or Twitter account.  This service is rather fast and works quite well.

McDonalds offers free WiFi in areas frequented by foreign tourists (near Shinjuku Station, in Shibuya), but does not offer it at all their restaurants.  Check for a sign denoting free WiFi on the front door before going in.

Some of the private train companies (Keio, Tokyo Metro) also offer a free tourist WiFi service on train platforms and in their stations.  From my experience, Keio’s service is really fast (I’ve used it instead of Starbucks’ hotspot while working on my blog at the coffee shop in the station), and is easy to sign up for.

Softbank offers a free visitor WiFi service called Passport, but it requires you to call a Japanese phone number from a mobile phone roaming on the SoftBank network.  This is a less-than-ideal solution for many North American visitors who don’t have affordable international roaming options.

A Better Way

While roaming can be costly, and the patchwork of free WiFi may be frustrating, there is a better way to get online – by connecting your phone to the Japanese cellular network using a Japanese SIM card!

As a rule, getting a SIM card for a cellular provider in the country you’re visiting is almost always the most affordable way to stay connected on the road.  But before you leave for Japan, you will need to make sure your phone is unlocked.

[Are you a power-user who already understands unlocked phones?  Want to skip right to the services available?  Click here.]

Understanding Unlocked Phones

Many of us buy our cell phones from on “contract” or “subsidy” from our mobile provider.  Rather than paying a huge sum of money upfront to own the phone, we pay for it over a period of time (typically 24 months).  During that time, the phone stays “locked” (through software) to the same cell phone provider to ensure we live up to the terms of our contract.

The upside to buying a locked phone on contract is that we can get the bright, shiny new phone everyone’s talking about, and we’re not skipping a mortgage payment to afford it.  The downside is that if you travel, you can’t simply pop out the SIM card for your home country mobile provider and replace it with one for the destination you’re travelling to.

Some mobile providers have policies in place (and in some countries are directed by law) to unlock your phone after a certain amount of time has lapsed in your contract, usually for a fee of somewhere between $50 and $100.  You should check with your mobile provider, or your local consumer advocacy organization, on what the laws and policies are where you live.

But, if you’re someone who loves to travel abroad, I strongly make the case that buying your phone unlocked (or SIM-free as it’s called in some parts of the world) is no different than making the decision to buy high-quality luggage, trekking gear, snowboarding gear, etc.  It’s a piece of equipment you’ll need for your passion or hobby.

Unlike a locked phone on-contract, purchasing an unlocked phone requires you to pay for the full value of the phone when you get it – and can often cost anywhere from C$500 to over C$1000 depending on the manufacturer and model.

Once you have an unlocked phone in your possession, you will be able to use it to connect to the Japanese cellular network by removing the SIM card used by your home mobile provider, and replacing it with one you purchase in Japan.

Choosing a Service

When I first visited Japan in 2013, there was really only one choice for visitors who wanted affordable access to the Japanese mobile network.  That service was offered by a company called bMobile, which today still offers two tourist SIM card products – both priced at about ¥3,700 (or C$40).

The first SIM card gives you 14 days of service with a 1GB data cap at top network speeds. (Once you’ve used 1GB of data, the service would turn off until you “recharge” the service with another 1GB of data.)

The second SIM card offers 14 days of unlimited data, but at a speed fast enough to only use e-mail and text-based messaging services (this means no web, no videos, no maps).

The bMobile SIM cards can be ordered in advance of your trip through their website, and are delivered (for a fee) to the post office at Narita or Haneda airports for pickup, or to your hotel.  As well, the 1GB version can be found in electronics stores like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera.

While I was once a big fan of the bMobile service, I believe it is no longer the best value for your dollar, and has been replaced by the SIM card I’ve been using throughout this trip to Japan.  This would be the Japan Travel SIM, offered by a company called IIJmio.  It is available for purchase at electronic stores like Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera.

You’ll find IIJmio’s Japan Travel SIM along with other prepaid SIM cards at Yodobashi Camera.

IIJmio’s service is offered in two configurations.

The first gives you 1GB of data which you can use for up to 30 days for the price of ¥2,650 (or roughly C$30.  That’s C$10 less than bMobile for the same amount of data.)  If you run out of data before the end of 30 days, you can purchase pay-as-you-go coupon cards from electronic stores or from Lawson convenience stores to “recharge” your service.  However, the SIM card will no longer work after 30 days of service.

The second configuration gives you 2GB of data, valid for use up to 90 days (the longest allowable stay in Japan for visitors not requiring a visa). This SIM card retails for ¥4,090 (or about C$43).  Like the 1GB card, it can be “recharged” with pay-as-you-go coupons, and will no longer work after 90 days of service.

Mt. Fuji from an airplane | Photo Credit - ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO
You can even get access to mobile data service on top of Mt. Fuji! | Photo Credit – ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

There is no difference in the quality of network you get access to with either bMobile or IIJmio.  Both companies piggyback their service on the popular NTT DoCoMo network, which has coverage throughout Japan – and even on top of Mt. Fuji!

Beyond price, the one major difference which makes me favour IIJmio over bMobile is a policy bMobile has on data usage.

With bMobile, if you use more than 360MB of data within a 72 hour period (or 120MB a day), they will reduce the speed of your connection for a period of 24 hours.  I can tell you from experience this is horribly frustrating, and – as was my luck – can happen at a time when you need data service the most.  In my case, we had just arrived in Osaka and when I opened Google Maps to navigate to our hotel, my connection was so bad that Google Maps wouldn’t open properly.

While I understand a policy like this can prevent people from abusing the cellular network, it is not a terribly realistic limitation when services – like social media and maps – can consume a large amount of data in a very short period of time.

Shopping Around

There are other tourist SIM cards – some for sale in vending machines at Narita and Haneda airports – offered by companies like SO-Net, eConnect and Sakura Mobile.  I don’t have any experience with these products, but looking at their pricing, I can say they don’t offer nearly as much value-for-dollar as the product from IIJmio.

I highly recommend the Japan Travel SIM from IIJmio for anyone looking to stay connected while visiting Japan.

Japanese Phone Number

There is one important thing to know about your Japanese SIM card.  While you will have access to the Japanese cellular data network, and you can do everything you would over the Internet like you would at home (surfing, chatting, posting to social networks, Facetime and Skype), you won’t have a Japanese cell phone number.  The SIM cards offered to visitors are data only, which means you can’t receive inbound calls, and you can’t send or receive SMS text messages.  This means only data-based messaging services like iMessage, LINE, Whatsapp, KIK, Snapchat, etc. will be usable during your visit.

This may be frustrating, but the reason you won’t have a telephone number is that the Japanese government requires quite a bit of paperwork – including a government-issued residency card which, as a tourist, you won’t have – in an effort to prevent pay-as-you-go phones from being favoured by criminals for illegal uses.

VoIP services – like Facetime and Skype – will work on your phone, allowing you to call out while in Japan.  I am a big fan of using Google Hangouts and their calling service, which will connect you to any North American landline for free.

Renting a Hotspot

If you don’t own an unlocked phone, can’t get your phone unlocked, or if you have a WiFi-only device you prefer to travel with (like a WiFi-only tablet or iPod Touch), you can rent a WiFi hotspot. This small device is about the size of a smartphone, and can be carried in your pocket, backpack, or purse and turned on when you need access to the mobile data network.

Softbank offers a mobile WiFi hotspot rental.
Softbank offers a mobile WiFi hotspot rental service.

SoftBank offers a WiFi hotspot rental service for ¥1,290 per day for unlimited data. (However, in their fair use agreement, Softbank says they will limit your data transfer speeds – like bMobile does – if you exceed 1GB of data transfer within a 72 hour period.)  While this seems pricy, if you have more than two people traveling as a group, it could be price efficient for short trips to Japan (around 7 days).

The T-Mobile Solution

There is one thing worth mentioning here for American readers who love to travel and it’s something I call the T-Mobile Solution.

If you’re not already a T-Mobile customer, I get it.  I’ve used T-Mobile’s network in the United States, and its quality depends on which city you’re visiting. (In Minneapolis, it was great. In Los Angeles, it was frustrating at times.)

However, if you love to travel internationally, or are planning on going on a long-term trip, getting a T-Mobile account may be a very smart move.

T-Mobile offers an international roaming plan which offers unlimited data with no data roaming fees in over 140 countries – including Japan. This means your phone doesn’t need to get unlocked, you don’t have to get a Japanese SIM card, and you don’t have to worry about people having trouble reaching you because your phone number will work while visiting (although you will pay roaming charges for telephone calls while abroad.)

While I haven’t used the service, travel blogger Nomadic Matt has written extensively about his experience with T-Mobile, and I’d highly suggest giving it a read if you’re from the United States.

Conclusion

To sum it all up :

  • Don’t roam. It’s cost-prohibitive.
  • Don’t rely free WiFi. (Although there are many places with some sort of service, and there is a reliable paid service from NTT DoCoMo.)
  • Get your phone unlocked (if it isn’t already).
  • Get the IIJmio Japan Travel SIM. It’s the best value for your dollar with 1GB of data over 30 days for ¥2,650 or 2GB of data over 90 days for ¥4,090.
  • Renting a mobile WiFi hotspot from Softbank may be a good option if you’re travelling with a larger group.
  • If you’re a US citizen, consider T-Mobile as your mobile carrier. Their international data plan is hands down the best out of any North American mobile provider.

What are your experiences with staying connected abroad – and specifically in Japan? Leave your stories in the comments below.

Disclosure : Because people are bound to ask… Like with everything on this blog, this post has in no way been sponsored by any of the companies mentioned or endorsed (and if Google Adsense happens to pop one of their ads in to the spots on this page, it’s only a matter of coincidence.)  I haven’t been given free products to review, nor have I been given any compensation for this post.  

Prices and data used in this post are accurate as of October 23, 2015.  For most up-to-date pricing, please check links to service providers mentioned in this post.  Prices are denoted as either being in Canadian dollars (C$), US dollars (US$) or Japanese yen (¥).

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