How to use your phone in Japan without breaking the bank

How to use your phone in Japan without forking over all your savings

We’ve all heard the horror stories about crippling phone bills after accidentally using a phone overseas. But if you want to be able to find that great ramen restaurant with your GPS, upload envy-inducing snaps of yourself with the giant Godzilla head, and get the email/text that your missing friend is waiting at the OTHER train station exit, you’re going to need one.

Here’s how:


Put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn on the wifi and surf the local wifi. Free wifi isn’t nearly as common as in other countries (especially outside of the big cities), but once you find some, it’ll work for downloading Google maps of the day’s destinations, posting pix, and doing email.

• Starbucks always has free wifi, and they are everywhere, so for the price of a cup of coffee, you’re good for the basics. Note: The first “join wifi” pop-up tries to sell you a paid subscription. Blow that off and choose “at_STARBUCKS_wi2” for the free version, which is plenty fast. You’ll have to refresh it every hour, but you can do it indefinitely without being charged.


Check to see if your domestic provider has a per-day international roaming plan. Double check that it works in Japan because some plans work everywhere in the world except Japan, and unless you check the fine print, you’ll be in for a shock when you arrive. Also make sure you know exactly how you’ll be charged for international use – some plans charge extra for data or text messages (like when you’re using your GPS to navigate somewhere or look for restaurants or text your friends about where to meet) and that can add up most unpleasantly.

If your phone is unlocked, get a prepaid SIM card. The number will be different than your regular phone, but if you need to be available for voice calls from back home and/or want the full spectrum of services you’re used to, this is the cheapest way to go. You’ll need to get your phone unlocked by your provider before you leave in order to do this. Here’s an overview of prepaid Japanese SIM providers.

If your phone isn’t unlocked, rent a local phone. There are lots of providers who can have a phone waiting for you at the address where you’re staying when you arrive. If you spend ten minutes googling “rental phone Japan” before you go, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the providers and costs. Note that the data plan is separate from the equipment/voice service rental cost.

Good Enough

If you want to use all of your own (locked) phone’s features and don’t mind using a voice calling app (like WhatsApp) when you need to talk to someone live, the cheapest and best way to go is to rent a pocket wifi router. The only complaint I’ve heard about this option is that some rentals have silly short battery life (some die after 4 hours YIKES), so you might have to be mindful about turning it off when you’re far from the charger and not using it. And you have to carry it with you, if you want to use it on the go. Here’s an overview of pocket wifi providers.

How to rent a cellphone/SIM card/pocket wifi at the airport

• When you exit the customs area, you will see various counters along the far wall. Walk along until you start seeing the cellphone rental counters. There are a number of companies that rent phones. (You can research them online before arriving if you want to compare prices.)

• It takes about 10 minutes to sign up for the phones. The clerks speak English and have laminated English cards that explain the various rental options. All phones come with English instructions for use. Don’t expect any nice features. These phones are VERY basic.

• Rental is by the day, and at most carriers you can choose between two plans:

• Domestic use only (you can’t call outside Japan)

• International use (more expensive per minute)

When you compare plans, you will see that the things that vary are:

• Rental cost per day (fixed)

• Cost per minute of use

• Cost per text message

• If you are renting a smartphone, you will also have choices of data plans (packet charges/internet access)

• When you return the phones before your departure, drop them off at the airport counter where you rented them. They will give you a receipt, then later you will get a charge on your credit card for the rental fee and the minutes used. They do not figure this out for you at the time of return.

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

 For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

2 thoughts on “How to use your phone in Japan without breaking the bank

    1. So glad to help! I’ll update this after everything settles down and Japan starts letting travelers in again, in case anything has changed. May the new year bring a return of fun travel again, so you can put this info to work soonest!

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