This is the first in a series of posts I'll make on traveling to Japan. I know there are a lot of these guides already on the Internet. I’ll try not to regurgitate them and instead focus on lesser-covered tips I’ve gleaned from my research and experience – with bonus thoughts on phone calls.
Everyone recommends you ensure you’re connected to the Internet somehow, whether by pocket wifi, SIM card, or an international phone plan. What's most commonly recommended is pocket WiFi, which I ended up doing.
Summary of differences I've gleaned:
- phone plan is good if you need to make and receive calls, have a larger budget, data speed isn't a big concern for you, don't want to carry another device around like a pocket wifi, and your plan has good coverage in Japan. I would assume if you have multiple devices that just need data, then you could just use hotspot with your phone. Your data needs would also depend on your specific plan.
- SIM card is good if you need to make and receive calls and you have a Japanese phone; OR you have an unlocked non-Japanese phone, just need some data, and don't want to carry another device around like a pocket wifi. Same assumption with hotspot as a phone plan.
- Pocket wifi is the most affordable for the most data and dedicated, wide coverage.
There are public wifi spots in Japan, and some lodgings provide “free pocket wifi”. You can remember to download maps and translation guides, yes. But beyond security concerns, one obvious problem with these wifi spots is they aren’t always around when you need them, say, for live public transportation timetables or looking up new things. A less obvious concern, at least to me, was the free wifi spots, especially at lodgings, often have a daily or monthly usage limit. On top of that limit, it could be shared by other tenants. I read this can often be a problem especially at night, when folks are winding down, surfing the Internet or streaming Netflix.
Okay, so I should get a pocket wifi of our own and pay attention to usage limits, right? The ones that say “unlimited” should be good, right? Wrong: for example, this popular brand, Ninja Wifi, throttles your connection after 3GB. So, sure, you’ll still be connected an unlimited amount, but your experience will be degraded after 3GB a day:
For me specifically, I will be touring around during the day and then doing some programming stuff late at night (U.S. Eastern time zone), so this limit would be disastrous for me.
(Of course, if 3GB a day unthrottled, with throttled data afterward, is plenty for you, then you wouldn’t need to be concerned about this.)
If you do decide to get a pocket wifi, I highly recommend reading through the Wapiti Travel pocket wifi guide (last updated, as I saw, in October 2022). That guide prevented me from making the mistake of ordering from Ninja Wifi, at least for my needs. The guide has some coupons for their preferred providers, particularly one that does not have a usage limit, called Japan Wireless (what I ended up getting). If you don't need unlimited, unthrottled data, check out Tokyo Cheapo's pocket wifi guide, which has steeper coupons for other popular brands, including Ninja Wifi.
SIM card or phone plan
The biggest advantage of either of these options is I don’t have to pick up, carry around, worry about not losing, and then return another item like a pocket wifi.
A SIM card was out of the question for me if I wanted to just rely on my currently-locked AT&T phone. There are also hurdles with using a SIM card on a non-Japanese (unlocked) phone, e.g., it’s data only…
A phone plan would, of course, let me use my phone number to make and receive calls. For AT&T, an international phone plan costs $10 a day ($480 for my ~48 days) on top of my current plan. Data usage for me should be unlimited, since my current plan is unlimited, so that would be good. The downside is $10 is more than twice the amount of what the pocket wifi ended up costing me.
AT&T also offers a cheaper passport plan of $70/month for 2GB data, $0.35/minute for calls, and unlimited text.
I ultimately decided against these options for my dedicated Internet connection because of the higher price for my needs. First, I am unsure of phone plan or SIM card speed and coverage quality throughout Japan and for my programming stuff at night. Second, thankfully all my lodging options have ways for me to communicate online through email or a booking app; and with my friends, they use LINE or WhatsApp online messaging apps.
For emergency purposes that LINE* can't handle, I will at least enable the AT&T international phone plan to be available while I’m in Japan for ~48 days. I will avoid using it unless absolutely necessary.
The popular messaging app LINE has both a free and paid option to make phone calls. You can make 5 free calls a day, up to 5 minutes long – each or total, I'm not sure. For more than 5 minutes, you can add LINE credits, with rates as cheap as $0.33 a minute for Japanese phone numbers. This is super useful for making quick restaurant reservations or reaching accommodations that don't have a reliable online communications option. I'm not sure if there's a way to use this feature to receive calls, though.
The advantage of LINE for making calls over other VOIP messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, etc., is LINE doesn't require the recipient to have the app installed.
Aside: traveling with multiple people
Many guides may say that a pocket wifi is the best when traveling with a group. You can connect multiple people's devices to just one pocket wifi and save money. However, one guide made a good point that, depending on the size and nature of your group, if you ever think you'll all split up at some point, this solution may not scale. My advice is to consider getting multiple Internet solutions (SIM card, phone plan, more pocket wifis) that would appropriately work for your group. Otherwise, if you can carefully plan around splitting and remeeting in areas with free public wifi, maybe you'll be fine. I just agree that that headache and lesser freedom may not be worth it, depending on the group. Maybe one device is okay if it's just parents with children, and not multiple independent adults, for example.
See other posts on my Japan 2023 trip.