There’s that moment when you land in Japan for the first time, get through the baggage claim and ride the train into the big city. Maybe you stand in the middle of Shibuya’s “Scramble Crossing“, delaying traffic while you take a selfie. Or you hit a restaurant, pointing at a random photo on a menu and hoping the waiter gets what you’re trying to order. And when it arrives, the first thing you think is, “I need to post this to make my friends envious.” Alas, you have no data because it costs more than your rent to post a status containing a single emoji. Well fear not, fellow Cheapo, help is at hand! Here’s the lowdown on getting a Japan SIM.
Prepaid Japan SIM cards: Read this first
You may have noticed that if you wander into a SoftBank or DoCoMo (the two big mobile provider names) store with your iPhone or Android you’ve brought with you, they’re not willing to sell you a SIM for it. The official reason is something to do with worldwide mastermind criminal networks communicating to each other exclusively through Japanese phone networks and not at all anything to do with wanting to lock you into a 24-month contract, charging you a trillion million yen for the privilege and then making your life hell with sub-standard services. Not to mention that even if you were rich and stupid enough to do this on a holiday, you wouldn’t be able to do, so as it requires Japanese resident status. Take that, criminals!
This is where MVNO SIMs save the day. MVNO, which stands for “read this article, please”, is the easiest path to getting online in Japan. MVNOs are not strictly their own carriers; they piggyback on existing networks in Japan, like DoCoMo and au, to offer some good deals. In this article, we’ll point you towards a few MVNO providers that might be of use.
Note: Before we start, I cannot stress enough that for most of these SIMs, you must have an unlocked phone. And, while Android-based phones seem to be okay from experience, a lot of these seem to be more iOS-friendly for some reason. Regardless, your phone should be SIM-FREE and unlocked for any network.
Another thing, you might want to check what format of SIM you need. This should be listed on your phone manufacturer’s page. If you can’t work it out, your local phone shop should be able to help you with that. Try to get this info before you set off.
Free data SIM cards for foreign tourists
For the supremely stingy, the following might be of interest. A local start-up called WAmazing is offering foreign visitors a SIM card valid for five days’ and 500MB’s worth of data, as part of the lead-up to 2020. While it may be a good option for those on a whirlwind visit to the capital, there are a few snags that make it less appealing for longer-term tourists.
For one thing, you need to download an app and input your info, including your credit card deets, while still in your home country, to score a QR code that gets you the SIM. For another, there are no “initial fees”, but there do seem to be some that might appear after that first 500MB of data. Lastly, everything was—at the time of writing this (March 29th, 2017)—in Chinese. If you’re fluent and willing, however, you can collect your free SIM card from one of four WAmazing vending machines at Narita Airport (not Haneda at this stage). The app includes a few extras, like a taxi-summoning service, too.
Short-term data SIM options
I’m here for a week and just need to update my status everydayyyyy.
That’s fine, you can now set yourself up the second you land at an airport (well, at least after you clear customs). Mobal, B-Mobile, Japan Travel SIM, U-Mobile and Ninja SIM have got you covered.
Mobal is a relatively new player to the travel SIM scene in Japan. For travelers, they have but two options. Either 15 days for ¥7,000 or 30 days for ¥9,000. Both include 7GB of high speed data with unlimited throttled data after that. Mobal also provides free worldwide shipping – so you can start posting to Instagram as soon as your flight touches down.
U-Mobile have vending machines installed at Narita Airport for those who want the authentic stereotypical “you can buy everything in vending machines here!!!” experience. The machines look a bit like this:
They are also available from some shops at Narita and Haneda airports. The SIM cards come in 7, 15 and 30-day versions, with prices starting from just over ¥2,000 and climbing with the package.
You get 200MB of high-speed (375Mbps) a day; once that limit is reached, speeds are throttled to 200kbps. The limit is lifted at midnight. Unlike some of the other prepaid SIMs, it’s not possible to recharge with more data.
Japan Travel SIM
You may have also spotted these guys at one of the convenience stores in the Arrivals hall shortly after touching down:
The Japan Travel SIM, a service from MVNO giant IIJmio (I’m not even going to bother with that acronym) offers a prepaid SIM service that lasts for 1-3 months depending on your package. It’s great for the slightly longer-term visitor, as well as for a short-term heavy user, as the data allowance can be up to 2GB. The packaging also opens up to an idyllic Japanese scene, the likes of which you will never actually see in Japan.
Besides the airports, you can find these SIM cards at BIC Camera stores and other major retailers across Japan. Expect to pay around ¥2,650 for a 1GB option and just over ¥4,000 yen for 2GB. You can recharge with extra data if needed, and customer support is available in English and Chinese.
For the well-prepared cheapo, B-Mobile has you covered. These guys will post a Visitor SIM to an airport pickup point so you can grab it straight away, or even to your hotel. It’s ¥3,480 and good for 21 days with 5GB data (to give you an idea, an average Instagram photo is just under 1MB), plus it’s rechargeable directly from the phone (1GB is ¥540). One word of warning—check that your phone is compatible (you can do this on the website) before ordering this SIM card.
If you would prefer an extra nine days to use your phone for a marginally higher price, another option is Ninja SIM by Biglobe. Like B-Mobile, they have both airport pick-up and hotel delivery options. The SIM cards come in 3GB (¥5,292) and 7GB (¥8,316) sizes and allegedly include ninja throwing stars.
Note: No one can call you on your cell phone
With the exception of Mobal, SIM cards for short-term travelers are usually data-only SIMs, meaning you can’t call or text or even receive phone calls. Although, if you’re still doing that, you’re probably one of those people who prints out emails and puts them in a filing cabinet. Or sends faxes. Or does both. Society’s judgment, not ours.
Buying a SIM card in town
Oops. Just ignored everything you said and went straight into town. Sawwy.
Once you’re in the shop, you can say to the staff:
Shimu ka-do wo sagishiteimasu. Watashi ni aou no wa do re desu ka?
… and that should lead you to the area above. Oh yeah, and you can probably just say it in English.
Hint: The ones that best serve the English-speaking language market are the abovementioned B-Mobile, OCN and Mobal.
Japan SIM options for longer stays (3 months+)
If you’re going to be here longer term, it might be worth your while to invest in a data SIM or voice+data SIM that is packaged for 6-24 month+ use. For more on that, give our article comparing Japan’s voice and data SIM providers a read. It has a price breakdown and everything.
Alternatives to SIM cards
Wait a minute, this is TokyoCHEAPo, not TokyoEXPENSIVEo, you want me to pay actual money for a service?
Not at all! You can be super cheap about data and use free wifi from teH eVil Corporations. First up, Starbucks, a coffee chain which I understand is quite popular with the kids, has free wifi, providing you register in advance at the link above. Then, just pop into a store and away you go!
Sign up? That’s WAY too much work.
OK, well, the richest company on Earth, Apple, happens to give out free wifi at various store locations with no login needed. And if there’s not one of those near you, the good ol’ Tokyo Metro provides free wifi too.
AND if your home internet provider is part of the FON network, you can use your own home internet login and passcode on a FON hotspot, which are practically everywhere in Tokyo.
That’s not taking into account the myriad cafes and restaurants which also offer free wifi.
OK, calmed down now. Carry on.
It is worth pointing out a few other alternative solutions, too.
First up, if you have more than one device that requires the net, or a few of you are travelling together, you may want to consider a portable wifi device from a rental provider like Japan Wireless or Japan Experience. You can pick them up and drop them off at airports for convenience and they appear, from the ones I’ve seen so far, to have unlimited or very generous data allowances. For a more in-depth guide, check out our popular article on renting a wifi router.
AND FINALLY, you may be pleased to know that a lot of mobile networks outside Japan offer cheap roaming packages. For example, data is free in Japan for T-Mobile USA customers on one of their plans. That means you don’t have to do anything at all other than bring your phone.
So what are you waiting for? Get on that plane and—
SOFTBANK DATA ALLOWANCE EXCEEDED. Please pay 8,000,000 yen to continue.
This article was updated by Carey Finn in March 2017.
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