Japan is a cool place to visit. I have found ways to help you enjoy your trip without worrying about the cost of phone calls, instant messaging (including texts), emails, and internet access while you are in Japan.
Without access to a Japanese phone or SIM card, a key concern for travelers has been roaming charges for both domestic communication within Japan and calls/text with their home country.
Here are the topics I cover in this article:
1. AT&T has improved their international calling offering for travelers. The simpler International Day Pass replaces International Passport. For just $10/day you get free talk and text with ANYWHERE and you bring your data plan with you.
2. AirBnB’s have made traveling in Japan less expensive – but almost all of them use pocket wifi’s with limited daily data.
3. Have you made friends in Japan and want to stay in touch? While traveling, you can text, call and video FREE using apps and services such as LINE, Facebook Messenger, Apple FaceTime, What’s App and WeChat. Of these, the popular choice for Japan is LINE.
4. How to dial your cell phone when you get to Japan: Hold down 0 for 2-3 seconds to get + to dial USA +1 then your number as usual; to dial local in Japan start with +81, then dial the city code for example Tokyo is +81-3-xxxx-xxxx. For Japanese mobile phones +81-90-xxxx-xxxx. Ignore the 0 they use when they give out their phone numbers eg 03 or 090. These are for local callers.
5. When you get home you can check with your wireless or cable company for special plans for calls to Japan. And you continue to use the apps and services in topic 3.
6. ALWAYS keep an eye on services you sign up for with your wireless or cable company. Check your bill monthly.
1. Wireless Carrier International Day Pass and TravelPass
For wireless carriers related costs, I am most familiar with AT&T as they have been my wireless carrier for the USA since 1981. However, you’ll be pleased to know that Verizon has a similar plan to AT&T’s International Day Pass called TravelPass. Sprint and T-Mobile now have competitive offerings. But don’t choose your wireless carrier based on their international plan. The most important factor should be coverage where you live, work and travel domestically as well as customer service.
On the AT&T International Day Pass
For just $10/day you get free talk and text with ANYWHERE and you bring your data plan with you. I checked to make sure that this went both ways and I wasn’t causing anyone I was communicating with extra costs. It does. The plan specifies that after you opt-in for it, it will only kick in on the days that you talk or text with your phone. Based on my experience, and the very nominal cost of $10/day, I didn’t think about it.
What you do need to keep an eye on is your data usage. If you go over the allocation you have on your regular domestic plan, you will be charged $15 per 1GB of overage. AT&T will start warning you with texts if you are close to going over.There is an option to allow your data to expand when needed. If that interests you, you can look into it.
If you are on the family plan, you might ask family members to be more mindful of their usage than useful while you are traveling. Don’t forget to thank them and tell them when it’s all clear.
I’ve tucked my chat with AT&T**2 and a comparative chart of international travel calls plans from the four major US wireless carriers**3 at the end of my post in our Additional Resources section. The chart is from a Sprint press release. I contacted AT&T November 30th requesting a comparative chart from their point of view. I will update this post with that when I get one from them.
Adjust the Settings on Your Phone to Minimize Cellular Data Usage
To keep your cellular data usage to a minimum, be sure to go through you settings and turn off cellular, and background app refresh for any apps you won’t be using daily. Location monitoring should always be set to “when the app is in use” for each app. You need to leave your data monitoring app of choice on for it to work properly.
Add Frequently Used Locations to Your Google Maps
Leave Google maps app cellular toggled on. You’ll want to add frequently visited locations to your maps. This will be easier to do on your laptop. By “your maps,” I mean you should be signed into Google Chrome when you search for locations on the map. Then add labels to them. The map of the city you are based in should have stars on it. You’ll find this works nicely for domestic travel as well. Because you are signed in, Google will sync across devices, including Apple devices. This will make it easier for you to navigate around.
2. Using Pocket Wifi’s at Japanese AirBnB’s
While the vast majority of AirBnB’s in America provide wireless internet and will get marked down by visitors if there are issues with such, pocket wifi is the standard in Japan. A pocket wifi is a small object that sits in the room provided by Docomo or another Japanese wireless carrier. It’s called pocket because you can literally take it with you but I don’t recommend doing that as there is a major penalty for losing or damaging it. In the context of the other solutions I have given you in this article, you shouldn’t be that desperate for wifi when you are outside of your “home”. Due to constraints with the pocket wifi provider’s service, your host may provide you with 200 or 500 MB of wifi data use a day. You will be warned to forget about YouTube or watching Netflix. There are advertisements for pocket wifi for visitors to Japan on the internet. I don’t recommend them.
It is also unlikely you will get a TV at your AirBnB in Japan. So you may be wishing you could watch Netflix. If you will be carrying a tablet with you, I would suggest downloading some Netflix shows before you leave for Japan.**1 If you don’t mind bringing a DVD playing attachment for your laptop (or it is built in) you could bring some purchased or rented movies with you. My last time in Tokyo, I joined Golds Gym, which you can do for a day or a month and was delighted to get to watch Japanese TV while on the cardio machines.
You may wish to monitor your wifi data usage. There are apps for that both for your laptop and your mobile devices.*
*Using Your Phone as a Wifi HotSpot
My cellular plan with AT&T includes being able to tether my phone to my laptop to use cellular data as a hotspot for access to the internet for my laptop. If you don’t have this in your plan with your wireless provider, I recommend getting it if you are the type of person who wants to access your laptop in spots that don’t offer wifi. If you’ve paid for hot spot systems in the past that required adding hardware to a USB port on your laptop – the wireless carriers have come a long way since then. Hotspot service works by tethering your phone with it’s USB cord to your laptop or with local wireless that can accommodate multiple laptops.
*Apps to Monitor Your Wifi and Mobile Data Usage
For AT&T I found the most reliable resource for tracking my data usage was by signing into my ATT.com account. If you have trouble navigating that, you can get help from their online chat. For your phone here is a nice list of cellular data and wifi usage trackers from iMore for the iPhone.
It is important to note that while “My Data Manager” is the most popular app to track both wifi and cellular data, with over 11.5 million users, it has significant drawbacks. I found that it underestimates data usage. And importantly if you choose to use the app tracker, it ask you to use their VPN. They are using your data. The owner of My Data Manager, Mobidia Technology, has been bought by App Annie. As CrunchBase describes: “App Annie delivers data and insights to succeed in the app economy.”
You will find in the iMore article by Lory Gill a nice list of iOS apps to choose from. Most of these apps are available for android as well.
For monitoring wifi on your Apple laptop, there is a free app called Bandwidth+. Find it in the Apple App store. (You will find the Apple App store in your applications folder. Drag it onto your dock. Or hit “open in App store” here.
For Windows PC’s, here is a good article with network tracking apps for you from Net Admin Tools. Choose one that is for one computer, not a network.
3. The Most Popular Social Network (SNS) in Japan is LINE
The Japanese refer to the body of social media and social networking platforms as “SNS”. Facebook and Facebook Messenger are relatively new in Japan. LINE is the most popular SNS. I recommend that you sign up for LINE before you go to Japan so that you have an address.
You can text, call and video FREE using apps and services such as LINE, Facebook Messenger, Apple FaceTime, What’s App and WeChat. Using these services works if you are already friends or comfortable colleagues with someone. But if you attempting to do business, make a reservation at a restaurant, you will need to communicate by phone, text and email – thus you will need cellular data.
Once you are connected with someone on LINE, your communication will look mostly like texting. But you can also initiate a free phone call through the app. Businesses sometimes use LINE to offer discounts to customers. You need to be able to pick up their coupon through the app, somewhat similar to what Yelp offers.
YELP Is Useful to Find Restaurants in Japan
YELP is another reason you need cellular data in Japan. It helps you both choose and physically find good restaurants. Keep in mind you are getting input from other travelers here. Both YELP and Trip Advisor provide very useful information from other travelers. Don’t expect any YELP promotions. Don’t expect your waiter to know or care that their restaurant has a Yelp rating. Tabelog.com has local ratings.
I prefer services with ratings from consumers but if you’d like to try a Japanese corporate information source, try the resources on Gurunavi.
6. ALWAYS keep an eye on services you sign up for. Check your bill monthly
I had an issue with AT&T’s mobile insurance program. I got it once for an iPhone 5S because I had missed signing up for Apple Care on that device. AT&T continued the charge on that line even though I bought a new iPhone 6 that didn’t need it without checking with me to confirm I wanted the service.
Now focus on ENJOYING Japan.
Some of our recent photos by Ray Gordon.
1. How to download Netflix to your iOS device from iPhone Life.
2. AT&T has a good online chat system. This was my happy moment discovering there was a new and better plan for international travelers replacing the one I used last year.
Ashley: So we do have one more plan for you.
Ashley: Which called day pass plan.
Ashley: For International day pass plan https://www.att.com/offers/international.html
Ashley: The International day pass plan $10 it exist for 24 hours.
Ashley: You have to pay the daily fee only for the days you use it in abroad (24-hour session, not calendar day).
Ashley: In that you will get free talk and text and the data will be charge as per domestic.
Ashley: You can use your domestic data plan internationally without paying additional data roaming fees
Linda: So this is new since November 2016.
3. As a reference, here is a chart that Sprint published with a press release announcing their new offering comparing the international travel offerings for the four major wireless carriers. There is also an offering from Google.