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Can I use my smartphone in Japan?

checking phone while waiting on train in Japan

What perhaps most define the modern traveler is always connected Internet access. Be it updating your Facebook and Twitter feed with your latest Japan adventure or just to figure out how to transit trains at the bustling Tokyo metro, it's hard to argue against the convenience offered by today's connected world. So what is the best way to stay connected while travelling in Japan?

Until fairly recently you could only use Japanese cellphones in Japan, due to the country specific cellular networks. But since the newer 3G and LTE networks have been rolled out, most recent brought smartphone can now be used. Old feature (dumb) phones using the GMS-band still won't work though.

Roaming

Roaming let you use your own cellphone for calls and data on Japanese networks, given that your carrier have a roaming agreement with a Japanese network provider. Also note that not all cellphones are able to connect to the Japanese cellular networks due to different technologies. For example the Japanese carrier Softbank support devices capable of W-CDMA (3G) 2100 Mhz, while Docomo another Japanese carrier support both W-CDMA(2.1GHz/800MHz) and LTE(FDD)(2.1GHz(B1)/1.8GHz(B3)). Some carriers also require you to enrol in a add-on roaming plan, so make sure to contact your service provider about their specific roaming options before going to Japan.

An advantage to using roaming is that you can use your own cellphone with your own number and that it's easy to use. The disadvantage is that it can be very costly, especially when using the Internet. You often hear of horror stories were people returning from abroad travels with roaming charges of thousands of dollars.

SIM rental

SIM card vending machine

Another cheaper alternative to expensive roaming while using your own phone is to get a Japanese SIM card to your phone. This requires that your phone support Japanese networks and also is unlocked, to be able to use another SIM card. If you are unsure if your cellphone is unlocked or not, please contact your carrier to make sure.

Due to regulations foreign tourist staying with tourist visa are no longer eligible to buy or rent SIM cards with voice-call-capabilities. This means you can only get data service only SIM cards, which will only let you use Internet on your phone. If you want to make a call you can still use VoIP services such as Skype or Viber. Also depending on the network used by the SIM card there could be bad or no reception at more rural areas, so make sure the coverage is good for your planned travel destinations before renting. The same holds true for roaming and phone rental too so once again, check with the rental company/carrier beforehand.

Phone or pocket-WiFi router rental

If your cellphone is locked or it doesn't support Japanese networks there is still the option to rent a phone in Japan. For people travelling in groups or carrying multiple devices a mobile WiFi router, or pocket WiFi as it's also known as, could be the best solution. The router, usually the size of a small cellphone, lets you connect to it like a normal home WiFi router and let you use your own WiFi enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptops. It will also let you connect several devices at the same time. So for example a travelling group could all share the same mobile WiFi hotspot, splitting the rental fee often making it the cheapest option. The downside to a WiFi router is that it too needs to be kept charged just like a cellphone. But since it uses a standard mini-USB charging port, finding a charging spot or in a pinch just getting an external battery at a convenience store is no bigger trouble.

Free WiFi

The lack of free WiFi offerings in Japan is still a common complain from foreign visitors, and compared to other countries Japan may still be lagging behind. But thanks to government and business efforts the situation is improving, and free public WiFi hotspots can now be found on most larger airports, major train stations, and a growing number of fast food and convenience stores. There are also paid WiFi networks throughout the country with short term plans targeted at tourists.

While depending on free WiFi access may not yet be the most convenient way, it's obviously the cheapest way to get Internet connected. And convenience aside, a Internet break may just let you take a break from constant updates and enjoy your trip more.