There’s that moment when you land in Japan for the first time, get through the baggage claim and and ride the train into the big city. Maybe you stand in Shibuya crossing delaying traffic, or pointing at a random photo on a menu, 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!
Firstly, you may have noticed that if you wander into a SoftBank or DoCoMo store with your iPhone 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 for two years with substandard 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 residential status. Take that, criminals!
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This is where MVNO SIMs save the day. MVNO, which stands for “Google it, please”, is your path to getting online in Japan. They’re not strictly their own carriers, like Verizon or Virgin Mobile, but they are using networks in Japan, like DoCoMo and Au.
For the purposes of this article, it’s not really worth pointing out individual SIM card deals as these change every day, but pointing out a few companies that might be of use. That’s in case you’re reading this in the year 3000, where Tokyo Cheapo is second only to Google on your brain-based web browser (but for some reason you still need a SIM card).
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 ok from experience, a lot of these seem to be more iOS device 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 really 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 SIM cards for Foreign Tourists
What may be for a limited time, Saitama Prefecture is offering free 3-gigabyte SIM cards to foreign tourists that are to be used within 30 days. All you have to do to get your hands on this cheapo delight is visit Saitama via a tour group or spend a night at one of the following hotels.
|HOTEL NEW SAITAMA||2-44－17 Minami-Urawa, Minami Ward, Saitama City, Saitama||
|PALACE HOTEL OMIYA||1－7－5 Sakuragicho, Omiya Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture||+81-48-647-3300||http://www.palace-omiya.co.jp/|
|RAFRE SAITAMA||3－2 Shintoshin, Chuo Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture||+81-48-601-1111||http://www.rafre.co.jp/|
|URAWA ROYAL PINES HOTEL||2－5－1 Nakacho, Urawa Ward, Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture||+81-48-827-1111||http://www.royalpines.co.jp/urawa/|
|URAWA WASHINGTON HOTEL||2-1-19 Takasago, Urawa Ward, Saitama City,Saitama Prefecture||+81-48-825-4001||http://washington-hotels.jp/urawa/?ppc=ov|
One thing to keep in mind though is the cost of traveling to Saitama (just north of Tokyo Prefecture) and staying at one of these hotels versus the price of just buying a SIM card. If you’re sticking around the Tokyo area for awhile or were planning to visit Saitama anyways, make your way there at the beginning of your trip so the free SIM is worthwhile. If you’re only in Tokyo for a few days or a week, you might be better off just paying for a SIM and not losing a day out of the city (no shade to Saitama).
If you have any inquiries, you can contact Saitama’s Tourism Division by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at +81-48-829-1365.
Short-term 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). U-Mobile, Japan Travel SIM, B-Mobile and Ninja SIM (more on the last two in a bit) have got you covered. U-Mobile has a vending machine installed at Narita Airport for those who want the authentic stereotypical “you can buy everything in vending machines here!!!” experience, which look a bit like this…
… and come in 7-day and 15-day versions. At the time of writing, they are limited to a certain amount per day of high speed data, after which it drops to 200 kbps (aka: SLOW) until midnight.
You may have also spotted these guys at the nearest convenience store once you’re in the Arrivals hall.
The Japan Travel SIM, a new service from an emerging MVNO giant, IIJmio (I’m not even going to bother with that acronym) offers a pre-paid service—the difference being it lasts for 1-3 months depending on your package. Better for the slightly longer duration traveller, but also for a short-term heavy user as the data can be up to 2GB, which might be useful for those hammering Skype every few minutes. The packaging also opens up to an idyllic Japanese scene, the likes of which you will never actually see in Japan.
For the slightly more prepared, B-Mobile has you covered. These guys will post a SIM to an airport pickup point so you can grab it straight away, or even to your hotel. It’s currently good for 14 days with 1GB data (to give you an idea, an average Instagram photo is just under 1MB) and it is rechargeable directly from the phone!
If you would prefer an extra 16 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 sites in the links above are in English, and activation and instructions are also in English. What more do you need?
Do be aware of one thing. These 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.
Oops. Just ignored everything you said and went straight into town. Sawwy.
The ones that best serve the English-speaking language market are BMobile and OCN.
Once you’re in the shop, 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 say it in English as well.
As you can tell, some of these aren’t necessarily for the traveler, which brings me to…
SIM options for longer-term stays
I’m going to be here a while, actually…
OK, now you get to play with the cool kids for real. BIC SIM, IIJmio B Mobile and DMM have this covered extremely well. If you’re going to be in Japan for a while, for example for a full holiday or working holiday visa, you should seriously consider these options, particularly if you have an unlocked phone. BIC SIM have in-store support, so I am going to focus a little more on them, but don’t let that bias you. Pretty much all of these are better than the huge monopolies that have previously financially crippled users here.
Being an MVNO, you don’t have to be locked into huge long contracts and you can cancel within the month if you’re not digging the service or coverage in your area. I’m taking an average campaign price here, but if you compare 2,500 yen for 10GB of 4G data a month, as well as a set amount of Voice and SMS, compared to, say, SoftBank’s offering of 7,000 yen a month for less data, you can see why one may be inclined to use an MVNO.
Once you get the SIM you should get a number attached to it. Simply pop it in your phone (make sure you get the right sized SIM!) and you should in most cases, be able to set up on your phone. The monthly contracts require credit cards or a bank account, so have that information at hand. You can cancel online and while the sites are in Japanese, you can use Google Translate on Chrome to translate the whole site!
If you’re playing the field and checking various MVNO’s, remember to request an MNP. This will allow you to move your number between services, for the one relative that still insists on calling you on the phone.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re going to stay in a place where you know the address beforehand (e.g. friends, family etc) you can order a lot of these directly from Amazon.co.jp and have them ready to go when you arrive. Some of these do need to be activated from a landline or a Japanese phone, but you can use a payphone in most cases. BIC SIM can be activated in store for you, which makes it even easier!
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.
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 cafes and restaurants which also offer free wifi.
OK, calmed down now. Carry on.
It is worth pointing out a few other alternative solutions.
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 wi-fi device from a rental provider like these from Japan Wireless or Japan Experience. Rates can be as little as
500 400 yen a day, which, when shared between a few people is quite cheap. 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.
AND FINALLY you may be pleased to know that a lot of mobile networks outside Japan are offering 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 to continue.
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