25/04/2024

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Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide

10 min read
Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide

Did you know that internet access in Japan for tourists isn’t as easy as in many other countries?

Japan is known for its enchanting landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and technological marvels.

If you visit, you may find yourself on paths winding between leafy bamboo trees or blossoming pink Sakura cherry trees, watching people carry four-story high lantern floats portraying interesting historical and mythological scenes during the Neputa festival in Aomori, eating a square watermelon, or checking in to your robot-staffed hotel.

There is so much to experience that it’s a must-go destination for any traveler.

Among all of these wonders, Japan is especially famous for its advanced and futuristic technologies. Many tourists are amazed by the warm toilet seats, super fast and on-time trains, and vending machines on every corner. But many people don’t realize that Japan is far behind many other countries regarding internet infrastructure. While in other countries, you may find WiFi everywhere, and if you’re European, you may be used to simply using roaming while traveling within Europe, in Japan, you will have to make arrangements in advance to get internet access or suffer without maps and translation tools.

In fact, according to a survey from June 2023, more than 30% of tourists struggle with WiFi access in Japan, and with more than 2 million tourists coming to Japan each month, that’s a lot of people. This is more than a 10% difference from the second most common issue, communicating with facility staff.

However, there are several options for people who want to ensure they are not part of that 30%, such as free WiFi or renting a pocket WiFi router, SIM card, or eSIM while you travel.

Internet Access in Japan - Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler's Guide

We’ve covered everything you need to know about internet access in Japan to help you stay online.

Here is an overview:

Why You Will Need the Internet in Japan

While you may enjoy being lost in Japan, you won’t enjoy it if you’re lugging your suitcases behind you, dripping with sweat on one of the infamously hot and humid summer days. Even if you’re sure your hotel is close to the station, it may be hard to find among all the other skyscrapers.

Taking a wrong turn and getting lost is the last thing you want to do. Well, you say, I’ll just ask a local to help me if I do get lost. It can’t be that hard, can it? While Japanese people spend several years studying English, very few can actually speak it, and their best efforts to help you may result in confusion, and if you’re lucky, pointing you in the right direction. This is when you will want Google Maps or at least a translation app, both of which require Internet access.

Popular tourist destinations such as the Sensouji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo and the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto may be easy enough to find, but if you want to find any hidden gems, you will find Google Maps is a requirement. Not being built on a grid is only part of the problem. Streets are often unnamed, and the few aren’t always labeled in English.

Shop signs are sometimes only in Japanese, making it hard to find if you aren’t sure exactly where to look, and if you can’t check a picture online to see if you’ve found the right place, you may spend more time than necessary wandering around trying to find your destination.

Also check out: Japanese Etiquette: How to Act Like You’re Japanese

Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide
Navigating Internet Access in Japan: A Traveler’s Guide

Is There Free WiFi in Japan?

While a great option for travelers in other countries, free WiFi can be very hard to find in Japan. Previously, visitors could find WiFi not only in restaurants and cafes, but also in train stations, on buses, and at local convenience stores. For example transportation giants Toei Bus and Tokyo Metro, and convenience store chains like 7-Eleven and Family Mart used to be a great way for travelers to get some free WiFi while on the go.

Unfortunately, in recent years all of these locations, and more, have stopped offering free WiFi. This means that now, more often than not, tourists will have to go into cafes and restaurants to find WiFi, interrupting their trip more often than they would like.

Even if you do find “free WiFi” while you’re out and about, you may be disappointed to realize that they sometimes require you to register and confirm your email address or phone number before you begin using it. However, you won’t be able to check the confirmation email or SNS they send without internet, making these hotspots completely unusable. Those that are still usable can be subject to slow speeds and security issues, making free WiFi the least convenient option for your trip.

If you’re still interested in using only free WiFi while you travel in Japan, you can expect to find it in your hotel, but for the rest of the time, we recommend you download an app that shows free WiFi spots in Japan. Compare available spots with your travel itinerary and see how inconvenient it would be before you decide if it’s worth it. Is your reason for using free WiFi to save money for other things? If you have to buy a cup of coffee at a cafe every time you want Internet access, you may find your expenses creeping up.

The Best Solution for Internet Access in Japan: Pocket WiFi Routers

Pocket, or mobile, WiFi routers are one option that is popular among tourists. While not always the cheapest option, WiFi can be shared among several devices, making it especially convenient for people who enjoy traveling with friends or family, or for those who travel with computers and tablets as well as their phones.

It’s also the easiest way to connect to the internet, usually requiring users to simply select their WiFi name, and then entering a password to connect, making it a great option for elders and technologically-challenged people.

The biggest con is that renting a pocket WiFi router means that you will have to carry said router around with you to use it. While some devices are lightweight and, as the name suggests, fit easily into your pocket, others can be somewhat heavy and large. They also usually come in a packet, including a charger, manual, mobile battery, and more, depending on which company you use.

You can leave most of the extra stuff in your hotel room while you wander the city, but don’t forget to grab everything when you leave. In addition, you will have to keep the router charged and turn off your phone’s auto-updates, which can eat up all your data even before you wake up.

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Our partner, NINJA WiFi, is offering 20% off to Travel Dudes’ readers. Pick up and return your personal WiFi router at any of Japan’s major airports, in Shinjuku Tokyo, or have your router delivered directly to your hotel.

NINJA WiFi’s new model, launched just this year, is lightweight, easy to use, and offers high-speed 4G LTE data with limits of 3, 5, and 10 GB per day. They call it unlimited data, because even going over your daily limit results only in slower speeds, not extra fees. You can share your connection with up to 10 people, though beware of slowdowns if you try to use all those connections.

Check out NINJA WiFi here to claim your 20% discount (coupon code DUDES20)!

Pocket WiFi in Japan by Ninja WiFi.
Pocket WiFi in Japan by Ninja WiFi.

Local SIM Cards in Japan

SIM cards are another popular solution among tourists. While the WiFi routers are data-only, some SIM cards allow users to make phone calls, which is especially useful for business travelers.

But don’t assume all SIM cards allow phone calls: double-check before purchasing!

They can also be very cheap on a day-to-day basis, and create very little additional luggage, which make them a great option for people who like traveling light. You only need your phone to use it, and won’t have to worry about keeping another device charged.

There are a few drawbacks, the most major of which is that they require your phone to be either SIM-free or unlocked. Otherwise, you may waste money on a SIM card that your phone won’t acknowledge. The other main issue can be set up. Not only will you require a small pin to open your phone’s SIM card tray, but then you will have to adjust your settings, which can be confusing, especially for first-time users. When you return home, you will also have to insert your original SIM card and reset your settings, so make sure not to leave the card behind at a hotel while you travel!

Finally, SIM cards are only usable for the phone they are in, so are not a great option for groups, or those with multiple devices. While tethering can help alleviate some of this problem, the function can only connect 1 other device to the internet, and you may find it drains your battery and/or has connectivity issues.

Using eSIMs in Japan

One of the newer technologies for travelers, eSIMs are a great option to consider while traveling. They are similar to SIM cards, but are completely digital, using a chip already embedded in your phone’s hardware to connect you to the internet (the “e” stands for embedded). Therefore, they create no extra luggage, and are ideal for travelers who don’t want to carry anything more than necessary.

While you will need an internet connection for the setup, you can often complete it from the comfort of your own home, as the eSIM will activate only when it picks up a signal from your chosen destination. This guarantees you internet access as soon as you arrive, and you won’t have to waste time figuring out settings instead of checking out local attractions.

Before purchasing an eSIM, you will want to check if your phone is compatible with them. If you bought a phone from a major manufacturer (Apple, Samsung, Google, etc.) within the last 5 years, chances are it will be, but you should double check anyway. If not, you will definitely want to check, as many smaller brands have yet to include eSIM compatibility for all their phones. There’s nothing worse than spending money on an eSIM that you can’t use.

Because eSIMs don’t consist of a physical component, you may find that companies have strict no-cancellation and no-refund policies and that they are unwilling to reissue eSIMs if you have an issue. This is largely due to an inability to confirm if the eSIM has been installed or not, and is in place to prevent people from falsely claiming 2 eSIMs when they only purchased 1.

Other Important Details About Internet Access in Japan

Each internet service has its own unique pros and cons but, ultimately, the best choice is up to personal preference.

Some things are important to keep in mind, no matter which internet service you go for. Except for those of you going for free WiFi only, beware of sneaky fees in the form of taxes, add-ons, and more.

Always double check your final price before placing your order. You may also want to check the fine print for data limits. Often, places advertising “unlimited data” actually have a data cap, unexpectedly throttling data speeds when you least expect it.

In this case, you may also want to check if you can increase your data limit midway through your usage period. Not every provider offers top-up plans, so check before you book.

Here’s a comparison of the pros and cons of each option for internet access in Japan:

Pros Cons
Free WiFi – Free – Not very common
– Slow
– Insecure
Pocket WiFi Routers – The connection can be shared with others
– Is compatible with every device with internet capabilities
– You have to carry it with you
SIM Cards – Voice calls plans available
– Minimal extra luggage
– Requires a SIM free or unlocked phone
– You have to be careful no to lose your original SIM card
eSIMS – No extra luggage
– Can be set up from home
– Requires a SIM free or unlocked phone
– Usually can’t be refunded or canceled

Japanese Locals and the Internet

Many people wonder why WiFi never took off in such a technologically advanced country. This is where Japan’s technological genius comes into play, as it is likely because Japanese people have had internet access on their phones covering any necessary functions for more than two decades, a large local demand for internet access never developed.

Of course, “necessary functions” have expanded over time, initially starting only with email access, but evolving with the times to include maps, online messaging systems (Line being the most popular service in Japan to date), manga reading apps, and a full on internet browser.

Japanese phone companies also include options for lots of data, such as major carrier SoftBank’s 50GB per month plan. As long as you also use your home’s WiFi connection, this is more than enough for most people, and is aimed at people who use a lot of internet while out and about. Unfortunately, these are not an option for tourists as they require a minimum of a 2-year contract, but if your trip makes you want to move to this great country, it’s something to keep in mind.

  • Ninja Wifi

    A must have when traveling in Japan is NINJA WiFi. NINJA WiFi is a service that rents mobile WiFi routers that can connect multiple devices – smartphones, tablets, computers, etc.

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