For somewhere that has such an over abundance of fast wireless internet options, it can be quite difficult to cheaply get on the net when visiting or staying short term in Tokyo. Unless someone else is paying the bill (ie. you’re on a business trip) then you shouldn’t even consider data roaming. For example, if you’re on US carrier Verizon Wireless, 1GB will set you back about $US20,480! Not all international carriers are as bad as the US ones, but no matter which country you’re from, you can still purchase a new compact car for the cost of a single Gigabyte of data on your local mobile carrier.
So what are your options if you don’t want your data charges to cost more than the rest of your trip put together?
Starbucks is your friend. No matter what you think of the coffee, they are your best bet for free internet in Tokyo. Don’t worry about not being able to find a Starbucks either – the 23 wards of Tokyo alone have 220 branches! Before you can use the free wi-fi (labeled at_STARBUCKS_Wi2), you need to sign up here. It’s even in English – but you need an internet connection to sign up for it so make sure you do it in advance.
Apart from Starbucks, there are a number of other options. FON – a system that allows people who provide a free hotspot to use the network for free – is almost everywhere and is probably the most ubiquitous of all the wi-fi networks. Unfortunately, FON has done some kind of horrible deal with Softbank in Japan that detects when you are trying to connect on a mobile device and then asks for some kind of Softbank ID.
Mobinect is another option that seems to be quite widespread. It’s mainly offered by shops, cafes and restaurants. If you find a ‘mobinect’ network nearby, you’ll have to hunt around for a shop with one of the stickers shown at left. They apparently offer 30 minutes for free (you might have to ask the shop staff how this works), or you can buy a 100yen scratch card with an access key from the shop staff that will give you access for 1 day.
7-Eleven also offers free wi-fi at most (if not all) of their thousands of branches. Given that most 7-Elevens don’t have anywhere to sit down, you’ll either have to stand, sit down out front (Japanese high school students do it so why not?) or find a cafe next door. Like Starbucks, it also requires you to sign up before you can use it. Unlike Starbucks, the sign-up page is in Japanese. However, it translates almost perfectly to English using the Chrome translate tool.
One last option worthy of mention is Free Spot. They have an English map of available Hotspots and the system is very simple – free wi-fi. If the hotspot has a password, all you have to do is ask the shop that hosts the free spot for the password and they’ll give it to you. Some hotspots may require email authentication, but that’s all explained on the web site.
I should also mention that it would be unusual to find a hotel or hostel that didn’t at least have free wireless internet in the lobby. Check this before you arrive.
Biglobe Ninja SIM
Biglobe’s Ninja SIM provides 4G/LTE mobile data through SIM cards with 1GB, 3GB or 7GB of data. Despite the fact that you can insert them into your phone, they will not allow you to make voice calls – they’re data only.
They have a good English site which allows you to purchase the SIM directly. Their cheapest tourist SIM is 2,916yen + delivery charges for 1GB of data which must be used within 30 days. After that, it can be recharged with your credit card online.
In terms of supported devices, the SIMs can be inserted into all versions of iPhone and iPad – as long as they are SIM unlocked – so make sure you do this before leaving because you’ll have a lot of trouble trying to do this in Japan. Ninja SIM also supports almost all recent Android devices.
If you’re already in Japan and you’re in too much of a hurry to use their web site, head to the major electronics stores such as LAOX, Yodobashi Camera and Bic Camera. You’ll have to ask the staff where it is though, as the Biglobe desk will probably be located in a cupboard under the stairs.
For more options, see our article Prepaid and cheap data options in Japan.
Internet cafes or more commonly ‘comic cafes’ (like this one) are located around most major and even not so major stations in Tokyo. It’s not exactly mobile internet, but they’re great if you want to plan your travels for the day. They also have printers – so you can print out maps and useful information that you can take with you.
Finding them can be a little difficult for the uninitiated as they rarely have any English signage. If you can’t find one, just ask – mothers with push chairs (strollers) and dog walkers are usually the best bet as they’re likely to be local.
** Warning: The following is a bit technical ++
In order to unload some capacity from their networks, the big cellular providers – Docomo, AU and Softbank all operate widespread wi-fi networks. After sign-up on the provider’s web site, anyone with a handset from one of these companies can access their wifi hotspots for free. However, the hotspots check the headers of every device that tries to connect to figure out if it is a mobile device from that company. Therefore, if you use a Firefox or Chrome plugin like User Agent Switcher, you can spoof the headers sent to the network and join the wifi network with your laptop. This may require you to do some network sniffing to work out what headers are sent – so you will probably need the assistance of a Japanese friend with a mobile contract in order to figure this out.
The wonderful Money Saving Expert has some excellent general advice on roaming on your smartphone. To summarise, switch off 3G/4G, turn off app updates, don’t watch video or download music (download those podcasts before you leave!) and use ‘offline’ tour guides.
To this, we would recommend installing a free app called ‘Line’ before your travels. This is a voice and messaging app that is hugely popular in Japan – especially with young people – so it’s ideal for keeping in touch with your Japanese friends and acquaintances while you’re here.
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