Just because you’re travelling abroad to Japan doesn’t mean you have to put your mobile phone on airplane mode and hope for free WiFi access to check your mail, share your favourite moments from Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, or use Google Maps to find your way around Tokyo.
The ways that you can stay connected while in Japan has grown over the last few years, ensuring no loss of communication access.
We’ve waded through the various options and have come up with recommendations for visitors to Tokyo Disney Resort!
What is a SIM card?
If you’re a smartphone pro, there’s a good chance you can skip to our reviews below. But for people who don’t travel abroad much, there can be many questions about how to get your smartphone to work in another country.
With most smartphones today, a special card is inserted into the handset to make it work with your mobile carrier. This is called a SIM card, and it’s this card that tells the phone a whole bunch of information – who your mobile provider is, what your phone number is, and ultimately, it authorizes your device to work with the service you subscribe to.
What’s great about phones equipped with SIM cards is that when travelling abroad, these cards can be removed and replaced with a card for a local mobile company which provides service at your destination.
Using a mobile carrier based in the country you’re visiting – and not roaming with your home mobile provider – makes good money sense. Unless you have a top-end international plan from a carrier like T-Mobile in the United States, most cell phone companies will charge a rather hefty price tag for roaming abroad. For heavy smartphone users, this can often result in massive phone bills upon returning home – with customers thinking their large-volume or unlimited data plans apply while overseas (unfortunately, they often don’t).
There’s one small detail you can’t overlook when planning to use your mobile device abroad.
There’s a very good chance you bought that shiny touchscreen phone of yours on a contract or tariff where the price of the phone is subsidized and/or financed over time. If this is the case, it’s possible that your home mobile provider has “SIM locked” your phone. This means that your phone will only work with the provider you purchased it from until a special unlock code is entered into the phone or authorized in their computer system.
Mobile providers lock phones to their networks to make sure that you don’t get a cheap or free phone and then jump ship to another provider without fulfilling the terms of your contract.
However, it is possible to contact your mobile provider and ask for your phone to be unlocked. Depending on the laws in your country and the terms of your contract, there’s a good chance your provider will unlock your phone so you can use a local SIM card while visiting Japan. You need to do this before you can use most of the products we talk about later in this article.
In Canada, mobile providers are required to oblige an unlock request 90 days after purchase of the phone, or after the device has been paid for in full.
In the United States, T-Mobile will unlock your phone if your account has been in good standing for the past 40 days. As a result of a class-action lawsuit, AT&T customers can ask for their phones to be unlocked at any time.
Residents of Singapore need not worry about getting unlocked, as the government has forbidden mobile carriers from locking phones to a network.
In other countries, it’s best to ask your mobile provider well in advance of your trip if your phone is locked. If it is, ask for it to be unlocked.
(Also, check the source of the information we used for this post on Wikipedia – they have some other countries listed with details on what to expect.)
In all cases, expect to pay some sort of nominal, one-time fee for your phone to be unlocked.
It is possible to buy unlocked phones. Often, phones purchased directly from a hardware company (i.e., Apple, Samsung, LG) come unlocked, but are usually much more expensive than subsidized on-tariff or on-contract phones.
Now that you have an unlocked phone, it’s time to go shopping for a service provider in Japan!
It wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t many options for visitors to Japan to get connected with their mobile phones. While there were some SIM card rental services, for the most part they were rather expensive and not very useful. But, times have changed.
Today, a myriad of providers are all offering visitor SIM card and mobile access products. We’ve gone through them, done the math, and have some recommendations.
In an effort to compare apples to apples, here is what we looked at :
- Price (in JPY and USD)
- Amount of data provided
- Whether or not the mobile provider had a “fair use” policy (some Japanese SIM card providers will drastically reduce the speed of your service if you consume more than a specified allotment of data in a certain time period)
- Validity period (how long the card is good for)
- Price Per Day
Because of Japanese laws requiring cell phone numbers to be registered, none of the SIM cards mentioned here offer telephone voice or texting service. Instead, they offer a data-only service – so you don’t get any airtime or the ability to use SMS text messaging with these SIM cards. (We discuss alternatives below.)
- Data : Unlimited (Speed reduced if more than 1GB of data is used in a 3 day period)
- Validity Period : 14 Days
- Price : ¥2,204 / US$19.85
- Network : NTT DoCoMo
- Recharges/Top-Ups : Not Necessary
bMobile has been offering visitors to Japan mobile service access for a long time. Their packages change often, and the current one is one of the best they’ve had yet.
This SIM card will give your phone access to the NTT DoCoMo network – one of the most extensive in the country, with service even on top of Mt. Fuji! With unlimited data, you’ll never have to worry about purchasing a top-up or recharge. However, bMobile is one of a few carriers who offers this kind of service with an asterisk. If you use in excess of 1GB of data in a 3 day period, they will slow down your service speed, which, given today’s data intensive websites and apps, can make your phone fairly useless. (I had this happen to me shortly after arriving in Osaka on a previous visit – leaving me challenged to find my way through the city with a Maps app which wouldn’t function properly on such a slow data speed.)
However, if you’re a relatively light user and want to pay as little as possible – without needing to worry about adding extra data to your SIM card while in Japan – then this product is highly recommended.
One benefit of bMobile’s product is that it can be ordered online and for a fee sent to the post office at either Narita or Haneda airport or to your hotel for pickup. I highly recommend making use of this delivery service if you can.
Best for Heavy Data Users
- Data : 7GB
- Validity Period : Variable (we priced this out for 14 days)
- Price : ¥7,090 / US$63.85
- Network : NTT DoCoMo
- Recharges/Top-Ups : Purchase Online
If you’re a heavy data user and plan on streaming videos – or maybe even sharing your Tokyo Disney Resort adventure using Facebook Live, Periscope or Facetime Video – you’ll want a hefty amount of data. We feel the 7GB SIM card from Sakura Mobile is your best bet in this case.
One attractive feature with Sakura Mobile is that you have some flexibility in designing a rate plan of your own choosing. We custom designed this one (14 days/7GB) to compare apples to apples with some of the other providers we’re reviewing. However, you can also buy smaller data plans (3GB and 5GB) and for any length of validity. The rental fee is ¥50 per day.
Like bMobile (and most of the other carriers), this card uses the highly reliable NTT DoCoMo data network. One feature we really like about Sakura Mobile is that they have no limit on how much data you can use in a specified time period. So, if you choose to use up all 7GB in one day, they wouldn’t put the brakes on your speed (as bMobile does). They also offer options to top up your SIM card with additional data if you run out (at a rate of ¥1,500/US$13.50 per GB).
One thing to note is that with Sakura Mobile, you are renting a SIM card – not purchasing it outright – and they expect it to be returned. Return instructions will be included with your rental package.
Best for Groups
- Data : Unlimited (Speed reduced if more than 1GB is used in a 24 hour period)
- Validity Period : Variable (we priced this out for 14 Days)
- Price : ¥16,975 / US$152.85
- Network : Softbank
- Recharges/Top-Ups : Not Necessary
If you’re a family or a group of friends visiting Japan, you may not want to go through the hassle of getting a SIM card for each person’s phone. In that case, renting a pocket WiFi router might be a more attractive option.
Just like your WiFi router at home, this device connects to the internet (although it does it wirelessly over 4G LTE rather than using a cable or telephone line), and then broadcasts a WiFi signal you can use with your mobile device or laptop. Up to 10 devices can be connected to this mobile router at any given time. Another benefit of this option is that it does not require your cell phone to be unlocked to work.
Softbank is one of the major Japanese mobile service providers, and has a very extensive network around the country.
Much like the Sakura Mobile SIM cards, this rental can be configured to meet the needs of your stay (we priced this rental out using a promotional price, 14 days rental and 14 days insurance). Also, if you’re travelling with a group of friends, this price can easily be split up, making the price per person much more attractive.
If you do end up using this option, we highly recommend you double check to make sure that mobile/cellular data is disabled on your phone, or that your device is in airplane mode to avoid roaming on a Japanese network.
- Data : 2GB
- Validity Period : 90 Days
- Price : ¥4,080 / US$36.75
- Network : NTT DoCoMo
- Recharges/Top-Ups : Prepaid Cards/Coupons
While all the above options are fantastic, we feel the best value among the current mobile options is the Japan Travel SIM offered by IIJmio.
There are many things which make this SIM card attractive to us.
The first is that the amount of data feels just about right for an average visit to Japan. If it isn’t, recharge coupons can easily be purchased at Family Mart or Lawson convenience stores and added to your account.
The second thing is that there are no data usage restrictions, unlike the bMobile product. If you wanted to use up all your data in one sitting, you could.
The third thing is that this product is easy to find practically anywhere in Japan. BIC Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Family Mart, NewDays, and a number of tourist information centres all offer this SIM card for purchase, which means you don’t need to order it online before leaving – you can just grab one-off the shelf and get going.
Overall, this is just a great basic SIM card which will satisfy the needs of most visitors who want to update social media, send and receive e-mail, maybe watch a few YouTube videos while waiting in a queue in the park, and look up directions using Google Maps. It uses the popular NTT DoCoMo network as well.
Installing a SIM Card
If you’ve never changed a SIM card in your phone before, don’t sweat it. There are lots of instructions and how-to videos (like this one) on YouTube. If you don’t have an iPhone 6/6S, just search and you should be able to find a video for your phone’s model.
T-Mobile International Roaming
If you’re a T-Mobile customer in the United States, you’re in luck. T-Mobile has arguably one of the best roaming packages for travellers in the western world. Their Simple Choice plan offers unlimited texting and unlimited data while roaming in Japan – with calls only costing US$0.20 per minute. If you’re a traveller from the US, this is a plan worth checking out (especially if you love to travel).
About Phone Calls
As we mentioned earlier, SIM cards in Japan do not allow you to make telephone calls. Special laws in Japan require that voice telephone numbers be registered appropriately with the authorities, and as a result visitors to the country don’t have the right credentials to make this happen. This doesn’t mean you can’t call home, though.
While we all know Skype and FaceTime are fantastic options for making internet phone calls, one often overlooked service which provides free-calling to mobiles and landlines in North America is Google Hangouts. In fact, you can call anywhere in Canada or the United States for free using the Hangouts app. If you use Google Wallet, you can also pay for long distance to other countries if need be. We are big fans of this app for this reason.
If you’re an iMessage user, don’t worry – your messages to other iMessage users will go through (although they may see the e-mail address you have associated with your iCloud account than a phone number as the sender of the messages).
If you rely on normal SMS text messaging (if you’re an Android user or you’re trying to send a text message to an Android user), you’ll need to find an alternative method to send messages while in Japan. Data-based messaging services like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Kik, Snapchat, or LINE might be your best bet to keep in contact with friends on non-Apple phones and devices.
When you go to a public space, you’ll often see Wifi hotspots for all the major carriers (DoCoMo, AU, Softbank). However, these services are restricted to customers of the carriers’ contract cell phone service.
DoCoMo does offer access to its Wifi network for visitors at a rather reasonable rate of ¥972 (US$8.75) for one week, and ¥1,404 (US$12.65) for three weeks. This is a great alternative if you just casually want access to the Internet, but don’t need an always-on connection on your mobile device.
“Free” WiFi is not as common in Japan as it is in other parts of the world, but it’s also not unheard of.
Typically, hotels will offer Wifi of some sort. Starbucks locations also offer free Wifi, but need you to use your Facebook or Twitter account to sign up to get access. McDonald’s locations in high-traffic tourist areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya will offer free Wifi, but don’t count on it being in every restaurant. 7-Eleven and Ito Yokado department stores offer free wi-fi as well using the brand 7-Spot.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
To sum it all up :
- Be sure to check with your mobile provider to make sure your cell phone/mobile device is unlocked before leaving for Japan to use a local SIM card.
- The cheapest option is bMobile’s Unlimited Visitor SIM Card (¥2,204 / US$19.85). However, it does restrict the speed of your access after going over a specified amount of use.
- The best option for heavy data users is Sakura Mobile’s 7GB SIM Card (Price : ¥7,090 / US$63.85). You can adjust the price of this option depending on how many days you need access. The card is rented and must be returned.
- The best option for large groups is Softbank’s Unlimited 4G LTE Pocket Wifi (Price : ¥16,975 / US$152.85). This is a fantastic option for families or a large group who want to stay connected without needing to buy separate SIM cards. It’s also good for those who cannot or do not want to get their phone unlocked.
- The overall best value is IIJmio’s 2GB Japan Travel SIM (Price : ¥4,080 / US$36.75). This SIM card has just enough data for a visit to Japan, and doesn’t pose any restrictions on usage.
- Casual Internet users may want to subscribe to NTT DoCoMo’s Wifi visitor service (¥972/US8.75 for one week, ¥1,404/US$12.65 for three weeks) so they can get access to the service in public locations.
- Free Wifi is not always easy to find in Japan, and shouldn’t be relied upon.
What have your experiences been with using your mobile phone in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature photo by Duy Phan Photography.
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