Having a reliable data connection from a mobile device in Japan helps make the difference between bumbling about like a stupid foreigner vs. navigating the streets like a native. Unfortunately, your native country’s cell plan won’t work out of the box in Japan, and outside of Starbucks and Tokyo Metro, the country still doesn’t have a wealth of free wi-fi hotspots that are easily accessible by foreigners.
Your best bet is to rent some sort of data plan while in the country. You have are various options, ranging from lousy to best.
Lousy Option: Use the international data plan offered by your cell company. This is a particularly lousy option is your wireless provider is AT&T.
The one benefit of an international data plan is convenience: it’s easy to activate on your account, and gives you automatic access to data without making any other changes. But the downsides are numerous. These plans are relatively expensive, and give you very little data. In the case of AT&T, for example, their Passport plan will run you $40 for a month of service, and gives you a measly 200MB. You can run through this just by using Facebook for two days. If you exceed this 200MB limit, every additional MB will cost you $.25 US. That’s $50 for another 200MB! Frankly, this amounts to usury, and AT&T should be ashamed for offering this to customers with a straight face as some sort of great deal.
Good Option: Rent a wi-fi hotspot from the airport. Wi-fi hotspot rental stations can be found at both Narita and Haneda airports. A wi-fi hotspot basically acts as a miniature wireless router that you carry around in your pocket. For around $30-50, you can rent a device that will give you up to 2GB or 3GB of wireless data for up to 30 days. Optionally, if you are planning to stay in a room or apartment booked through AirBnB, chances are you can find an apartment where the owner is offering a free wi-fi hotspot as part of your rental package.
A wi-fi hotspot is a great option if you have multiple devices, and know you will want to connect them from your apartment or while on the go. It also lets you conserve data by only turning it on when you need it. The downside of a mobile hotspot is that it’s another device you have to carry around with you and keep charged, which is a hassle.
Another Good Option: If you don’t need always-on data, the simplest, most convenient option is to buy a pre-paid SIM card. This requires having a phone that is SIM unlocked, which generally requires that you own your phone outright. You also have to ask your carrier to unlock your phone (see here for AT&T’s request page), and, for iPhones, perform a full backup and restore before your phone is considered unlocked. Once you’ve done this, however, your phone is now yours, and you can insert prepaid SIM cards for any other carrier from any country.
SIM cards in Japan can be purchased at both Narita and Haneda; see here for a full guide. My personal suggestion is to go to Bic Camera in Haneda and buy the Freetel pre-paid SIM. You can buy up to 5GB of data on a Freetel plan; what’s more, data use on popular social media apps such as Facebook, LINE and WhatsApp is free and does not count toward your total data usage!
A SIM card is a great option if you want to use your phone as you normally do, and don’t want to hassle with carrying around yet another device. The downside is that there’s setup involved: you need to remove and replace your current SIM card, and then follow the instructions that came with the card and install a new cell phone carrier on your device before the card will work.
Note: Be aware that there are two types of SIM cards you can buy. The one pictured here is intended for foreign visitors, and gives you a set amount of data for a limited time duration – generally up to 90 days, which is the max duration per visit for a tourist visa. You can also by regular, prepaid SIM cards that cost about $30-40 for the card itself, after which you have to subscribe to a monthly data planwith a recurring charge. The latter cards generally only have instructions in Japanese. If you plan to visit or do business in Japan regularly, it might be worth looking into one of these cards, as the data plans tend to be cheaper. The downside is you (1) generally need to know Japanese and (2) have to remember to cancel any auto-renewals you’ve established when you leave the country.
I had originally labeled SIM cards the “best” option, but that’s really a matter of personal preference. Depending on where you’re staying and your data requirements, you may find carrying around a wi-fi hotspot beneficial. It’s also generally easy to set up and use. If you have a SIM unlocked phone, or can get it unlocked, and don’t mind performing a bit of setup, a SIM card on your phone will give you more than enough data for the duration of your stay in Japan.