If you’re wondering how you’ll be able to upload all your amazing photos to Instagram during your next visit to Japan, you’ve come to the right place! In this post, you’ll learn how to use your mobile phone in Japan. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of prepaid SIM cards, international plans, portable WiFi hotspots, and more. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about your data needs in Japan.
Mobile Carriers in Japan
Japan has three major mobile carriers which cater primarily to permanent residents only — NTT DoCoMo, au, and Softbank. In addition to these carriers, there are smaller carriers called MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) that piggyback off the big ones. As a temporary visitor to Japan, you’ll be able to purchase data-only prepaid SIMs from MVNO providers. You’ll learn more about Japan’s various MVNOs later on in this post.
Supported Cellular Frequencies in Japan
Japan’s cellular network uses CDMA technology, so you’ll be unable to use a local carrier if you have a GSM-only phone Secondly, Japan has completely phased out 2G technology — this isn’t an issue because most phones support 3G at a minimum nowadays. In the following section, you’ll learn about the specific cellular bands used by Japanese mobile carriers. Most modern smartphones will support at least one of the frequency bands. If you want to make sure, just hop on Google and search for the technical specifications for your phone.
Japan’s 3G networks use Band 1 (2100 MHz) and Band 19 (800 MHz). Band 1 covers urban areas, while rural areas are covered by Band 19. All mobile phones that support 3G Band 1 can be used in urban areas, while mobile phones that support 3G Band 19 will give you better coverage in rural areas.
4G & LTE Networks
4G is similar to 3G, but offers faster data transfer speeds. All mobile phones that support 4G Band 1 can be used in urban areas, while mobile phones that support 4G Band 19 will give you better coverage in rural areas. Japan’s 4G network also supports other bands. Band 3 (1800 MHz) is used in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. Band 21 (1500 MHz) are used in other major cities. You’ll likely experience faster data speeds if your mobile phone supports all of these bands.
Yes, Japan-specific phones do exist. One notable example is the Apple iPhone. The Japanese market has a special model that supports additional LTE cellular bands (Band 11 for au and Softbank, and Band 21 for DoCoMo) and contains a special chip that supports FeliCa NFC technology.
Using Your Mobile Phone in Japan
In this next section, you’ll learn how to use your phone in Japan. Before going to Japan, be sure to contact your carrier to check if your phone is unlocked. If it’s locked, ask the carrier if it’s possible to unlock it. This may or may not be possible depending on the exact terms of your contract with the mobile carrier.
If Your Phone is Unlocked
If your phone is unlocked, you’ll be able to use a Japanese prepaid SIM card. Since the major Japanese mobile carriers (NTT Docomo, au, and Softbank) all require proof of residence and a longterm contract to get a SIM card, you do NOT want to go to these establishments.
Prepaid SIM Cards
Instead, look for prepaid SIM cards from MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators). These smaller carriers offer tourist-oriented data-only SIM cards that can be used for shorter periods of time. Since these SIM cards are data-only, you do not need to provide proof of residence, as you won’t be getting a voice-compatible phone number.
MVNO SIM cards can be purchased from a variety of different sources. Some providers are able to ship SIM cards to your home, while other providers’ SIM cards can be found at airports, train stations, and large electronics stores such as BIC Camera and Yodobashi Camera.
Here are a few MVNOs to look into before your visit to Japan. The specifics of each plan occasionally change, so it’s best to refer to the provider’s official website for the latest information.
The only prepaid SIM I’ve personally tried is the Japan Travel SIM, which I purchased at a BIC Camera (there’s a location in the arrivals hall at Haneda Airport). Prepaid cards from B-Mobile and Ninja SIM can be picked up at the airport, and they also deliver to Japanese hotel addresses. Mobal is the most expensive option, but also offers voice calling capability — something that the other providers options don’t.
Be sure to do thorough research to find the best value for you. Ask yourself what type of user you are. How long will you be in Japan? Do you only need data to occasionally send a message, or will you be constantly uploading photos and videos to social media platforms? Will you be using FaceTime or Skype to make phone and video calls? Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about which prepaid SIM to choose.
If you’re still unsure about which SIM to choose after thinking about your data needs, leave a comment below with your question and we’ll do our best to recommend the right prepaid SIM for you!
If Your Phone is Locked
If you’re unable to unlock your phone, you’ll still be able to access the Internet via international roaming plans and portable WiFi hotspots.
International Roaming Plans
Some carriers offer international roaming plans. For example, AT&T and Verizon Wireless in the USA lets you use your domestic plan abroad for $10/day. While this may be too expensive for longer stays, it can be a good option for shorter visits. I’ve used AT&T’s plan for 3-5 day visits, and I think the convenience factor and ability to keep your normal phone number is worth the price. If you don’t want to worry about renting a portable WiFi hotspot for a short stay, ask your carrier about their international roaming packages.
Renting a Portable WiFi Hotspot
A portable WiFi hotspot is a device that acts as a bridge between your mobile phone and the cellular network. You connect to the hotspot via WiFi, and the hotspot connects with the mobile carrier. You can reserve a hotspot online for pickup at the airport upon your arrival. Some companies will also ship to a Japanese address. If you’re unable to reserve one online for whatever reason, there are rental booths at the airport as well.