Renting a Mobile Phone or Data Sim Card in Japan

A few months back I visited Australia and decided it would be a good idea to pick up a local mobile and data sim card to use in my phone while I was travelling. While transferring from Sydney to Melbourne I walked into the first cell phone store I found in the airport a picked up a sim card from my mobile. Total price was about $40 and it took maybe ten minutes.

I wish it was going to be that easy in Japan.

The mobile phone and data sim card rental situation in Japan

Four years ago when we visited Japan for a two month stay, the ability to get my hands on either a prepaid phone or a sim card that would let me use my own phone was pretty much nil. In some cases it was prohibitively expensive, in other cases it was down right impossible. During that visit I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow a prepaid phone and use that, but for our upcoming visit I won’t have that option.

So I was hoping that in four years things have changed. With the amount of people travelling these days and with how technology can make the experience so much more convenient, I was expecting a much easier time this time around.

I was wrong.

Photo Credit: Route79

Photo Credit: Route79

To be fair, it’s still difficult in some places in Canada to get a travel sim card, but I was kind of thinking that Japan would be a bit more technologically forward thinking than Canada. If you’re interested, here is my experience last time trying to rent a phone or buy a sim card in Japan.

Currently visitors to Japan have some access to data only sim cards that will allow them to use the data on their phone but not make or receive any calls. Places like B-mobile and Japan Wireless allow you to purchase data sims as well as mobile wifi routers that you can link to your phone. While these may work well for a two week trip, if you’re looking at staying longer the price can add up.

I’ve heard that Japan doesn’t really like non-residents to have a mobile phone number. Something about disposable phones and terrorism. I don’t know how true that is, but finding access to a sim card that will do both data and calls is almost impossible. Even in cases like this where you can rent a cell phone in Japan, the cost for per month is about $100 and your minimal rental time is 4 months! Not a great solution.

Rentafonejapan allows you to rent a phone or a sim card but it can get a bit expensive with a longer stay and it doesn’t include any data. Again, not an ideal solution.

So what am I going to do?

I think I’ve already spent way too much time trying to figure a way around the system to get everything I want. At this point I think I’m pretty much banging my head against a wall. So I think this is what I’ll ultimately do.

I’ll purchase a data only sim card that lasts a month or more. I’ll use this data sim card in my own mobile phone that I’ll bring with me. This will allow me to use tools like Google Maps, language apps and local websites. I won’t be able to use the phone for calls so I’m hoping I can use either Skype or email to stay in touch with people. I don’t know how this is going to work, so I’ll let you know if it was a disaster :P

I’m also planning on renting a mobile wifi unit to keep in the apartment to use as our internet access point. Granted, I could probably just skip the data sim card and carry the mobile wifi unit with me when I leave the apartment, but I’m thinking that could get to be a hassle. So I think I’ll bite the bullet and look for a place selling a So-net prepaid LTE sim. It looks like they have a vending machine in Kansai airport so I’m hoping it will be a simple process.

Photo Credit: Peter Zuco

Photo Credit: Peter Zuco

So all in all, it’s not exactly what I was dreaming of. I wish things were easier, but I’ll see if I can make something work within these limitations. If all else fails I’ll be reverting to using smoke signals :D

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