Having the internet at our fingertips has gone from being a luxury to a necessity in modern-day living. The need for access to fast, reliable internet becomes even more important when you’re traveling in a foreign country.
It is important to find out if your phone will work in Japan and what the best plan for you would be. Most carriers allow you to buy a SIM card at airports or shops throughout the country, but it can be hard to know where they are located.
4 Reasons You Need A Sim Card In Japan
If you’re simply heading to Japan for a holiday and not an extended period of time, and if you can go a few weeks without checking social media while you’re out and about (no judgments if you can’t) then you might rightly wonder whether you even need to worry about getting a SIM card. The answer really depends on a few different factors.
1. Too Many Factors
Are you planning on spending most or all of your time in the city? How confident do you feel about finding your way without the internet? Are you planning on traveling with or meeting people who’ll need to be able to contact you? Do you live for danger and would rather spend two weeks blindfolded, feeling your way around Tokyo? OK, I’m being a little silly with that last one, but your answers to the rest are really great indicators of whether you’re going to benefit from having internet on the go.
2. Free Wi-Fi May Not Be Readily Available
If you are planning on spending most of your time in the city, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to survive on café (or Apple store) Wi-Fi, especially in Tokyo. It wasn’t always the case, and only a decade or so ago you might have struggled to find as many cafés with Wi-Fi, but now the little Wi-Fi sign in the window is much easier to come by. If you plan to head to more rural areas in Japan, which includes many of the temple and onsen locations, you might find yourself in need of an internet connection. Especially if you don’t speak any Japanese.
3. The Joy Of Spontaneous Travel
If you are planning on traveling around, and perhaps want the ability to be spontaneous, you’ll likely benefit from being able to get online when you’re lost, looking for a café, or tracking down a train station. Sure, you can download them beforehand, that won’t always give you the most up to date information, especially when it comes to public transport. That’s another reason you might really benefit from being able to use google maps – planning your journeys in real-time (especially across Tokyo).
4. Google Maps
I loved using google maps - you can wander around aimlessly enjoying the sights, and then check in on google maps to find out where you’ve wandered to! Plus, if you type in your destination in the city, google maps will tell you the trains you need to get, what lines they are on, and what time they’ll arrive at the second! It’s the perfect companion in Tokyo. Especially if you get separated from your real-life traveling companions – Tokyo is an enormous place, so it’s handy to be able to get in touch with people quickly if you get separated.
So, if you’ve decided that internet is the best way to go, what are your options? Is a SIM card the best choice? Or are there alternatives?
SIM Cards Available To Tourists
Your SIM card options are pretty straight forward in Japan and will be familiar to most people in the west. They have PAYG, and pre-paid options, with the best option for tourists usually being a pre-paid short term SIM card that’s made to last for 3-21+ days.
There are also plenty of networks to choose from, and several MVNOs (which piggyback off existing networks and are marketed to tourists, or those with visas specifically). There are so many in fact that it can get a little overwhelming. To help you narrow them down, here are a few of the best ones (as of June 2020).
Mobal is a great choice because they offer flexibility, unlimited data, English-speaking call centres, and you can pre-order your SIM for overseas delivery or pickup at the airport as soon as you land. While most providers only offer prepaid data SIMs, Mobal has options that allow for calls and texts too, which is incredibly handy as it allows you to use it as the sole SIM while you travel (which is far more convenient than having to swap your SIM every time you need to send a text or make a call).
They have plenty of options for different lengths of time as you’ll see on their website, but one of the most popular is the 30-day option, which offers unlimited data, voice calling, and texting, at a price of ¥7,500 (£55, or $70). Some say this is a little pricey, but if you’re in Japan for a few weeks it’s probably going to be your best option. They’re known for being reliable, convenient, and efficient.
Plus, there’s an added bonus if you’re ethically conscious, as Mobal donate a large number of their profits to charity! Mobal is dedicated to changing the world one SIM at a time, and they support a number of charities in Malawi that do all kinds of fantastic stuff. Find out more here.
Fair usage applies, and your speeds could be slowed if you use more than 3GB a day.
If unlimited data isn’t your thing, or you’d like a cheaper alternative, Simcard Geek has several different options for you, but please note they’re data only. The different deals are tailored to the length of your trip, with 8, 16, and 31-day options available. They also offer unlimited data for shorter periods of time than Mobal, which will be better if you’re not planning on staying the whole month.
Simcard Geek also offers international shipping and airport pickup. Fair usage applies to every SIM they have, and your speeds might be slowed if you use more than 3GB.
These guys could be your best option if you’re on a really tight budget, and only want data in case of an emergency. They offer two basic packages – 220MB/day for 7, or 15 days (data only). This might seem like a simple option, but it’s also the cheapest, at £14 and £24 respectively ($18 and $30 if you’re American). The only downside is the fact that you can’t add more data if you run out of your daily allowance, so you could be in trouble if you get lost and run out.
While there are other options to be found, these are three of the best that cater to varying budgets. So, once you’ve decided which one you would like, how do you buy it?
Should You Buy A Sim Card Before Traveling
You have three options for buying a SIM card in Japan: order before your trip and either get it delivered or pick it up from the airport when you land, buy one as you land at the airport without pre-ordering, or buy one while you’re out and about in Japan from one of the many electronics stores.
Pre-Ordering A Sim Card
All three of the options we’ve mentioned above allow you to pre-order, and either choose international delivery or airport pickup. Simply select the option, add in your details, and most will ask you to pay part of the payment at checkout, and the rest when you arrive. This is a fantastic option if you need to get in touch with your host as soon as you land to arrange a pickup or key exchange.
Purchasing A Sim Card In Japan
But what if you’re not that kind of traveler? What if you’re just not that organized? What if you’re reading this in some weird café that has shaky Wi-Fi and bad coffee, after getting lost somewhere in rural Japan? Do not fret, there’s hope for you yet.
For the underprepared, there are still plenty of options to be found in one of Japan’s many electronics shops. If you’re in the city, especially Tokyo, look out for a BIC Camera shop, or a Yodobashi Camera shop, both of which will have several options and likely somebody who speaks a little English. If they don’t, here are some helpful phrases to use:
- Intānetto sim kādo o sagashiteimasu. Tetsudatte kudasai.
It basically means “I need an internet sim, please help me”. While some staff may speak English, there’s a chance that whoever you get won’t, but once they know what you’re looking for you should be able to read the packaging to find what you need. Some SIMs are even cheaper to buy in-store than they are at the airport, so if you like shopping for a good deal and can wait then you might fare better.
Mobile Wi-Fi Could Be A Great Alternative
If you’re traveling with another person, mobile Wi-Fi might be a better choice for you. There are plenty of options for mobile Wi-Fi, and in some cases, you’ll even get mobile Wi-Fi with your accommodation. We specifically chose accommodation that offered mobile Wi-Fi and found it to be a fantastic help throughout our entire trip.
In fact, the only time we were staying at an accommodation without it I managed to incur a £40 charge on my phone bill after connecting to the internet for 2 minutes (we were stranded and looking for a bus stop in rural Japan, and were only saved by a kind convenience store worker who spoke zero English).
Japan Wireless and SUSHI Wi-Fi usually come on top of polls that compare the best, but in theory, you could take a mobile Wi-Fi device with you and put any data sim inside.
If you already have one, simply check that it’s unlocked to work on any network and equipped for roaming and you could be saving yourself a large expense, and make things a whole lot easier in terms of using your phone at the same time as accessing Wi-Fi. But providers like FON, or Ninja Wi-Fi actually allow you to hire hotspots, picking them up and dropping them off at the airport.
A checklist of things to remember!
- If you plan on using a SIM card, check that your phone is unlocked before you travel! You can usually do this via your mobile operator or manufacturer (we don’t recommend using a third party as doing so usually voids your warranty).
- If you do decide to use a SIM will call and text while you’re traveling, be sure to send your temporary contact number to some people you trust, even if you don’t plan on contacting them frequently. It helps keep you safe should anything unexpected happen.
- Make a note of what size SIM you need before you travel, especially if you’re ordering in advance.
- Check with your current provider – some mobile networks offer roaming that includes Japan (although the majority don’t, so it might be worth checking your networks roaming charges too).