Despite the high tech reputation (or perhaps due to it), first time visitors to Japan may be surprised to find things actually more analogue than they’re used to at home. Cash is king, and subway tickets are paper stubs; until very recently it was also quite frustrating to get online as a short-term visitor, with wifi only becoming (somewhat) widespread in the last couple of years, though things have definitely improved on this front. Visitors aren’t helped by some absurd laws like foreigners not being permitted to have a Japanese mobile phone number unless they are legally resident in the country.
So, thanks to above said ridiculous law, you’re not able to just walk into a cellphone shop and buy a prepaid SIM for your unlocked phone. However this law only applies to cellphone numbers, meaning data-only SIMs are fine. If you’re happy to make do with just data, it’s easy enough – you can either pick one up in a store after you arrive, or sort it out online in advance.
To buy one in-store I recommend simply going to the nearest Yodabashi Camera or Bic Camera, asking for an English-speaking staff member, and telling them what you’re after. They’ll run you through the available options and the SIM should be good to go right out of the packet. For example, last time I was in Japan on a tourist visa I got a 1.5GB IIJmio Japan Travel Sim from Yodabashi to use for a week while I was waiting for my Mobal SIM to arrive; I was in & out of the store and all set up in about 10 minutes. If you’d rather order online before heading to Japan click here (though it’s definitely cheaper to do it at Yodabashi or Bic).
However, if you really want to have actual cellphone service with your own phone number, you need to get a Mobal SIM. I’m not sure how these guys get around the no foreigners law, but it’s a good thing they can – I guess it’s a workaround involving registering the SIMs to themselves and then technically just renting them to you or some such, but anyway they’re an absolute godsend and their service is legit.
This is more expensive than a data SIM of course, but if you want telephone service the only alternative is to rent an entire phone which is far more expensive again (and extra hassle as you have to pay a deposit and return the phone at the end); you can order your Mobal SIM to be sent to your home address before you even leave for Japan so you just need to activate it on arrival and away you go. To sign up to Mobal or read more details click here – as an extremely satisfied customer of theirs I can wholeheartedly recommend them.
Another option is a portable wifi router, which can be particularly cost-effective for groups as you can have multiple devices (usually up to 5) connected simultaneously. You can’t really get them from the electronics stores as you can’t get the service contract as a tourist, but they’re easy enough to rent – see here and here for details.
Japan was really behind the curve with wifi (with people always having preferred to use their own data connections) and it’s still harder to find than you might expect. It remains a rarity for bars & restaurants to offer free wifi to their customers, and cafes are hit & miss, but free wifi has caught on in public spaces and convenience stores. It varies from city to city, but major JR stations usually have it, as do many of the private railways, and busy shopping districts often have public wifi zones. Other safe bets are convenience stores (all of them) and Starbucks. Trains don’t usually have wifi, but it is now being installed on the shinkansen network – hopefully this will be up & running in time for the Olympics.
Look out for posters like this, and just follow the sign-up instructions:
In short, free wifi can usually be found with a little searching around, but you don’t want to be relying on it.
Manga Kissas (internet cafes)
These are 24-hour internet cafés, where you can always get online if all else fails – they’re also reasonably comfortable to stay in overnight if you get stuck somewhere, as you can get private booths with reclining chairs or padded floors. They offer unlimited soft drinks and coffee and are also manga libraries, where many people go just to chill and read comics (manga kissa literally translates as comic cafe).
Any questions? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.