Contrary to reports, travelers CAN buy data-only prepaid SIM cards and micro-SIM cards in Japan. This is important because free wi-fi is relatively rare in Japan.
In this post, I will tell you how and where to buy a SIM or micro-SIM for your own device (smartphone or iPad) that will give you access across most of the country. I will also discuss other options, including voice options and pocket wi-fi devices. (You can also view my separate page about Kyoto Hotels with Free Wifi).
As you will see below, it is indeed possible to buy a data-only SIM card in Japan, even if you’re here on a tourist visa. You can also rent voice/data SIM cards, cell phones and pocket wi-fi options that will meet your needs. The key, as always, is choosing the best-value option for your needs. And, before we even start discussing using your own device in Japan, keep in mind that Japan’s mobile internet/cell phone network is 3G, so if your device is not 3G, it will not work in Japan.
First: What do you want to do?
Before deciding you need, you have to decide what you want to do.
A) Make Phone Calls Only (Voice Only)
If you only want to make phone calls, then the best option is to rent a phone in Japan.
B) Get Online (Data Only)
If you only want to get online and are content to use Skype for phone calls, then you have two main options:
1. Buy a data-only SIM from an electronics store in Japan.
2. Rent a pocket-wifi unit from an online provider.
C) Phone Calls and Internet (Voice and Data)
Finally, if want the flexibility to make phone calls and get online, you have three main options:
1. Rent a voice/data SIM for your own internet capable phone.
2. Rent a cell phone and buy a data-only SIM to use in your own smartphone or iPad.
3. Rent a cell phone and rent a pocket wi-fi unit. This will allow you to make phone calls at a reasonable rate, and to log onto the internet with multiple devices (including iPhones, iPads and laptops). Despite seeming clunky, this is often the best and most economical choice for most travelers.
Let’s discuss these one by one:
A) Phone Calls Only
Because Japan’s cellphone network is 3G, many non-Japanese cell phones will not work here. And even if they do, you’ll have to pay extortionate roaming fees if you use your own phone with its normal SIM. Easily the cheapest way to go if you want a phone you can use and reasonable rates is to rent a phone from a phone rental specialist in Japan. You can order these phones online in English and have them delivered to your first night’s accommodation. A popular Japan phone rental specialist is:
Rentafone Japan ( www.rentafonejapan.com ): From Y3900 per week; domestic Y35 per minute and overseas calls Y45 per minute. Free delivery and return envelope.
B) Data Only
If you only want to get online and are content to use Skype for phone calls, then your options are:
1. Buy a data-only SIM card from major electronics retailers in Japan like Yodobashi Camera or BIC Camera. You’ll find branches of these stores all over Japan, including Shinjuku and Akihabara in Tokyo, and near Osaka and Kyoto stations. These stores carry prepaid SIM cards from a company called B-mobile. Note that there are a variety of B-mobile SIMS available, including the one-month/1GB “teigaku” micro-SIM that costs Y3480 that gives you one gigabyte of data for a maximum of one month, and longer unlimited plans.
These SIMs allow you to log on from almost anyplace in Japan (except wilderness and some rural areas). Note that you’ll need to call to activate the SIM from a Japanese cell phone. You can ask the salesperson at the store to call for you (and they seem willing to do this). Thus, for most travelers, this is a perfectly workable way to get data service for your iPhone or iPad.
Get A Data Only SIM Card Delivered Straight To Your Hotel Room
It is now possible to buy B-Mobile data-only SIM and micro-SIM cards online and have them delivered to a hotel or post office in Japan and you no longer need to call to activate them. For details, see these posts about buying a sim card in Kyoto and buying a sim card in Tokyo – they both explain how to get the sim delivered to your hotel.
2. Rent a pocket wi-fi unit, that will allow give you fast internet access across most of the country. You can log onto these with iPads, iPhones and laptops (and multiple users can log on at the same time, which is handy when travelling as a couple/family). Rentafone Japan ( www.rentafonejapan.com/Mobile-Internet.html ) is one of the cheapest and most reliable options for this. They offer two models: type A (Y3900/week), which works almost everywhere, but is somewhat slow at 300kb/s max, and type B (from Y4900/week), which is much faster at up to 40mb/s, but usually about 10mb/s.
C) Phone Calls and Internet
If you want to make phone calls and get online, then you have three options:
1. Rent a voice/data SIM or micro-SIM from Softbank Global ( www.softbank-rental.jp/ ), which has rental counters at Narita, Haneda and Kansai Airports. Note, however, that this is an economical option ONLY if you want to receive calls. If you want to make calls as well, this option gets pricey very fast. Also, these SIMs only work with certain handsets and devices, so check the site carefully.
2. Rent a phone from a phone rental specialist in Japan (see A above) and buy a data-only SIM card in Japan (see B1 above).
3. Rent a phone and a pocket-wifi from a phone rental specialist in Japan (see A and B2 above). Despite the clunkiness of this option, this is the cheapest option for those those who want to make and receive phone calls (international and domestic) and get online.
The situation with SIM cards and phone rentals in Japan (as elsewhere) is extremely complex and changeable. There are other companies in this field than those I mention above. Also, the phone and data plans offered by all the companies above are subject to change. Always do a bit of your own research if you can before committing to a plan.