One of the most frequently asked questions received here at Mobile in Japan is, how can I get mobile data access when I’m in Japan?

Whilst Pietro has previously covered renting mobile phones in Japan, until now we’ve not looked at data options, something that many visitors to Japan might consider to be a lot more important than voice.

The main mobile data providers – Docomo, Softbank and EMOBILE, are known for their reluctance to provide access to their 3G networks on anything other than a long-term contractual basis – and only then if you have an alien registration card, something short term visitors to Japan won’t have.

Whilst major cities are well covered by public WIFI networks, these usually require you to be a customer of that same network provider for your home / mobile Internet, whilst outside of urban areas there’s very limited coverage.

Despite this, there are a growing list of options for temporary visitors who do not have residence or an Alien Registration Card, wanting to get online with their mobile devices. Here we cover a few, broken down into four categories:

  • Renting a phone / smartphone with or without Data
  • Renting data only
  • SIM / MICROSIM Rental for use in your own mobile device
  • Connecting to public WIFI networks

Please note that the information below is subject to change, but is correct as of the time of writing.

Please also check out the comments at the bottom of the post where readers have posted further information on available options.

3g-wifi-japan

Renting a phone / smartphone with or without Data

PuPuRu

PuPuRu offer a wide range of phones and service packages. With advance booking, the phone can be ready for you to pick from any location you specify, such as your hotel. Pick up from Narita, Kansai and Chubu airports is also possible, or PuPuRu branches in Tokyo and Nagoya. Payment is by credit card. They offer 2 packages: Basic and Prepaid (see site for latest rate information).

One important difference between these two packages that’s not immediately apparent is that on the Prepaid option, you can only use the handset for voice calls and sending/receiving email (and that being through the email address assigned by the company, not your own email address).

Whilst the Basic plan does allow for web browsing etc, it doesn’t come cheap at between ¥0.1 and ¥0.42 per packet (if my iPhone data was charged at that rate my bill last month would have come in at a minimum of ¥800,000 / US$9,950)

The majority of mobile phones available through PuPuRu are on the docomo network – although they do list a couple of options for those who have an inexplicable preference for the Softbank network. When asked about the iPhone, I was told that they are ‘thinking about providing them, but probably not until next year’.

PuPuRu have very good customer service, with helpful English speaking staff.

Softbank

Softbank also offer rental and prepaid mobiles to visitors to Japan (passport and credit card required). Somewhat unusually, they seem to offer different deals depending on whether you sign up in the shop or online. For online prices see their Global Rental site.

If you rent from one of their stores, the deal is as follows: As with PuPuRu, only standard Japanese handsets are available (i.e. no smart phones, including the iPhone). The daily charge for rental is ¥525, with calls costing approximately ¥105 per minute. Service is limited to voice calls and keitai email (these cost from ¥10 – ¥15 each), so no access to the web.

Prepaid: It’s ¥2,000 to get a prepaid handset from softbank, with call charges and email costing the same as on the rental plan above.

As noted, you can’t rent an iPhone from Softbank. See below for details on renting a SIM if you have an unlocked iPhone 3G or 3GS.

Downsides to using Softbank is the relative lack of English support (although they do have a number of stores that are supposed to have English-speaking staff) and poor network coverage in rural areas.

JCR Corp

JCR Corp have a very wide range of rental handsets, including the iPhone 4, EXPERIA and HTC. They offer free delivery to any location in Japan, with variable pricing depending on the length of rental.

Their primary market is the US corporate sector (thus explaining the $ pricing), and have built up an impressive list of clients over the past 12 years. Whilst expensive, friends have reported being happy with the service. I myself found the staff to be extremely helpful and knowledgable when I called. See below for more on data options.

Whilst pricey, if you’re looking to rent a smartphone whilst in Japan, JCR Corp are the only company we know that provide them. They have a variety of plans to choose from, ranging from voice calls only to full voice and data options.

Renting data only

Docomo, Softbank, EMOBILE & bmobile do not offer short-term data packages to non-residents without an Alien Registration Card.

PuPuRu

PuPuRu offer both USB-type and WIFI-type data dongles. With the USB type only able provide a network connection for a single USB-equipped computer, there’s little advantage in choosing this type over the WIFI variety, to which you can connect up to 5 devices at any time (including laptops, iPods/iPhones/iPads etc). One advantage however is that the USB-type L-05A uses the docomo data network (map), which offers far better coverage than the emobile network (map) that the other devices use. This need only be a consideration if you’re planning to spend a lot of time outside of major cities.

Transfer speeds are up to 7.2Mbps up / 5.8Mbps down (although in reality you’re unlikely to hit these speeds), and come with unlimited data use. Rental fees range from ¥7,350 for the first ten days, to ¥10,500 for a month, plus ¥1,050 postage each end of the rental period. This is almost 3 times the price that local users on 2-year contracts pay per month.

Japan Mobile Rental

Japan Mobile Rental are another good option if you’re looking for a 3G mobile WIFI router on an unlimited data plan. Their service is very straight forward: fill in the online reservation form, pay via Paypal or credit card, pick up your router at the airport upon arrival (Narita or Kansai International) or have it delivered to your hotel. If you want to extend or cancel the rental, just drop them an email (there is no cancellation fee). You’ll be charged a 10,000 yen security deposit when you reserve the device which is returned upon return of the router.

The router provided is the D25HW on the emobile network (check coverage map), offering the standard max speeds of 7.2Mbps up / 5.8Mbps down. You can connect up to 5 devices at a time via wifi, and one via mini USB.

JCRCorp

JCRCorp offer both the Buffalo DWR-PG and HuaWei E5830 mobile WIFI routers. Transfer speeds are up to 7.2Mbps up / 5.7Mbps down, and come with unlimited data. However, with prices starting at $150 (¥12,000) per week or $270 (¥21,000) per month – significantly more that PuPuRu – it’s hard to recommend. (One explanation for some of the expense is that these are both on the better yet comparatively pricey docomo network, and unlike EMOBILE, the routers do not come free with the contract).

E-Phone

E-phone offer USB data dongles on the emobile network for ¥1,000 yen per day for unlimited data, with pick up/ drop off from Narita Airport. Of course, with it being a USB device you can only use it with a laptop computer.

JALABC

JALABC offer an almost identical service to E-Phone, but this time on the Softbank network, costing ¥1,390 yen per day for unlimited usage.

UQ WIMAX

In what seems like a bit of a desperate bid to win customers, UQ WIMAX will provide unlimited data WIFI dongles to anyone with a passport and credit card. You’ll be required to take out a 1 year contract, but with a cancellation fee of only ¥2,100 if you quit within the first month, and ¥0 (yes, zero!) if you quit after one month, that’s hardly anything to worry about. The bulky WIMAX/WIFI router (NEC PA-WM3300R) will cost you ¥9,850 up front – it’s then ¥4,280 per month for unlimited data.

So what’s the catch? Well, with WIMAX still in its infancy, the network is pretty poor (map). Don’t bother thinking of getting online outside of the major cities. In fact, based on the experience friends of mine have had I’d say don’t take it out of sight of an antenna.

If you’re still not put off, you can sign up at any major electronics store such as Yodobashi Camera or Bic Camera. You can also order one online – see the comments on this post for more info.

SIM / MICROSIM Rental for use in your own iPad / iPhone / other smartphone

First off, to use a non-Softbank iPhone in Japan, it’ll need to be unlocked. Also, it’ll need to be able to use the 2100 MHz band – in English that translates as every iPhone except for the very first (non-3G) model. If your iPhone meets these criteria, you have a couple of (expensive) options:

You can rent a SIM card from Softbank that will allow you to use data too – but it comes at the extortionate price of 0.32Yen/packet (128bytes) – unless you don’t care about the bill, you don’t want to do this.

Previously mentioned JCR Corp offer SIM and MICROSIM rental for unlocked W-CDMA iPhones and other smartphones (but apparently not iPads – contact them to check on this). These run on Docomo’s Foma Network (offering good nationwide coverage) and tethering is possible. At almost $300 (¥24,000) a month though you’ll want to make sure it’s your employer paying the bill.

PuPuRu offer the same iPhone 3G/3GS SIM rental, but again, at over ¥24,000 ($300) per month it’s not cheap, and of course you’ll need to use a non-GSM handset.

Note that regular SIMs or MICROSIMs from bmobile (see our article here) are not an option for temporary visitors – no Alien Registration Card, no SIM. If you do have an Alien Registration Card it’ll take 2~3 weeks from the time you apply to the time you receive the SIM – and then only expect download speeds of up to 300kbps, not the usual 7.2mbps you’re used to.

Connecting to public WIFI networks in Japan

There are a number of WIFI hotspot networks in Japan that have pretty good coverage in the cities, mostly found at stations, in cafes and chain restaurants. In order to use these networks you’ll usually need some kind of account.

Be sure to check out the comments on this blog post for more info on WIFI availability

Wi2connect

Wi2connect is a great option if you’re going to be spending most of your time in the big cities. Giving you access to Yahoo BB, mobilepoint and Livedoor Wireless (location search). This covers branches of McDonalds (of which there are thousands!), airports, hotels, stations, airport buses and the Tokkaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Yokohama. With a maximum charge of ¥980 ($12) per month for unlimited use this is a really good deal.

To use the network you’ll need to download and install their application (on the iPhone /iPod touch you need to download and install their free app [iTunes], which will then install a profile in network settings).
(Thanks to Warren for tipping us off about this service). This should also work in 3G iPads, although I haven’t been able to test it myself.

BOINGO

Boingo is ‘the world’s largest network of WI-FI hotspots’ – and it covers Japan too. Having partnered with NTT you can get access to 7,486 wifi spots here – from as little as $7.85 a month for mobile devices. Sign up online.

NTT Hotspot

For 24-hour access you can get a 1-day pass directly from NTT for ¥500. Unfortunately the English site turns Japanese at the beginning of the checkout process.

FON

The FON network now apparently has over 2 million worldwide access spots (map) – a figure to be taken with a pinch of salt as many of these spots may be private networks no longer online. The idea behind FON is that you plug in one their wireless routers at home; this creates two WIFI networks – a private one for yourself, and an open one for the public. In return for sharing your home connection, you’re given free access to any other FON WIFI network. In Japan FON have done a deal with Softbank, leading to Softbank handing out free FON routers left right and centre, to both individuals and businesses, including restaurants, bars and cafes. An increasing number of Starbucks branches in Japan have FON networks, usually marked by the Softbank mascot, Otousan the dog.

If you are not a member of the FON network, you can pay for access at the time: an hour pass is 200 yen, a day pass 480 yen, and a pack of 5 day passes 1600 yen. (Thanks to aciara14 for updating us on that via post comments).

iPhone/ iPod / iPad users might want to download the Starbucks Search app [disclaimer – it’s made by a friend of mine …and it rocks!] from the Apple store, as in addition to showing where the stores are / opening hours, it shows what WIFI networks are available.

Your local Internet provider

You may also want to check out if your local Internet provider offers international access vouchers for use with their roaming partners abroad. For example, in the UK, BT will sell you 500 minutes for £27.99, which can be used with NTT wifi spots (of which there are thousands). Another example would be that of AT&T who have a spectacular 60 WIFI locations in Tokyo.

Private cafes etc

Whilst a little out of date now, CNNGo published a list of public wifi spots in Tokyo here.

Beware of the Sheep

A word of advice in this era of the Firesheep, if you’re going to access an open wifi network, make sure you take precautions to protect your privacy.

Summary

For the time being then, it would seem that pricing for smartphone rental, or SIM rental for smartphones / tablet devices such as the iPhone and iPad, your choice is still very limited, and where it is available it’s pretty expensive. The same applies to pocket WIFI devices, with visitors paying almost three times the price locals on long terms contracts pay. However, with the growth of telcom-sponsored WIFI networks, you can get online in Japan without having to take out a bank loan.

If all else fails, just seek out one of the mobileinjapan writers – it’s rare to find them not emitting a WIFI signal.

There are undoubtedly other options for short term visitors to Japan looking to get online, and we’d love to hear about them. Please either post in the comments below, or join the discussion in our community.

After what seems like an eternity, Softbank returns to mobile data with the C01HW PocketWifi portable internet router.

Yeah, looks kind of familiar doesn’t it?  It is in fact basically the same as the Huawei D25HW released several months ago by EMobile.

I’m quite happy to see a new offering from Softbank in the data only range, particularly as this may give hints to pricing plans of other data only devices *cough* *iPad* *cough*

Pricing also looks attractive with a minimum monthly charge of 1,000 yen and a maximum of 4,980 yen.  EMobile’s current unlimited data plan tops out at a maximum charge of 5,380 yen.

No info yet on actual device pricing, but I can hope that it is cheaper than EMobile’s extremely high price (The same device is available in Europe for about half the cost).  The C01HW Pocket Wifi will be available in late March.

Press Release: http://www.softbankmobile.co.jp/ja/news/press/2010/20100318_01/