Pocket Wifi or Prepaid SIM Card in Japan?
It’s becoming a great desire for people to stay connected with internet as they travel. The posting of photos on Facebook, Instagram, etc. While it may not always be a need, an internet connection is more of a necessity than a want if you are travelling around Japan and don’t speak Japanese. You will find it useful to google map your directions, online translate any chicken-and-duck communication, and find the shops you want to go–because you just can’t figure out the Japanese signboards.
There are a few internet options to choose from, you can even rent an iPhone or Android device. But the huge debate for most short term visitors would be whether to get a Pocket WiFi or Prepaid SIM Card in Japan. Read through to the end to find out which option I chose.
But before that…
Free WiFi Hotspots
If you are really tight on budget and/or are okay to wander around without a continuous internet connection, make sure you keep a list of free WiFi hotspots by your side. Free WiFi is usually available at train stations, major shops (e.g. BIC Camera and drugstores) and convenience stores. Note that free WiFi Hotspots will be more readily available in major cities like Tokyo and Sapporo. Check the individual website for a detailed listing.
- [Across Japan] Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi mobile app: www.ntt-bp.net/jcfw/area/index.html
- [Across Japan] UOB JCB Platinum Card and “Travel Japan Wi-Fi” mobile app: UOB JCB Travel Privileges (Singapore)
- [Across Japan] “NAVITIME for Japan Travel” mobile app: www.navitime.co.jp/pcstorage/html/japan_travel/english
- [Tokyo] Subway stations (Metro and Toei) and other major tourist attractions and shops: www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH/TOPICS/2016/160120.htm
Pocket WiFi is a lightweight and battery powered device that “creates” a mobile WiFi hotspot for you to connect multiple mobile devices on the go. It’s similar to a WiFi router at home, except you can easily carry this pocket WiFi around with you as you travel.
- Simple to connect. Without any extra setup, your WiFi-capable device can connect to the pocket WiFi once you receive it. There is no concern about settings or mobile compatibility as you do with SIM cards.
- Fast connection and wide coverage across Japan. They connect to Japan’s LTE network, with speed up to 150MBPS. This usually has a stronger WiFi signal than SIM card for rural and remote areas.
- Limited battery life. Pocket WiFi runs on battery and hence you have to remember to charge it whenever you are back at your accommodation. Or you have to switch off whenever you are not using it to save battery life. If not, WiFi will not be available once it runs out of battery.
- Juggling multiple devices. To prevent WiFi from disappearing, you may want to carry a portable battery to recharge your pocket WiFi when its battery level runs low. But this means you have many devices to carry– mobile device, pocket WiFi and a portable battery. Not a good plan to travel light.
Prepaid SIM Card
Prepaid SIM Card is like your current SIM card, inserted directly into your mobile devices. Do note that most of the prepaid SIM cards from Japan’s local carriers do not allow voice calls to non-residents but only data usage (though you can still find this calling function with PAYG SIM by b-mobile.) But with a data SIM card, you can easily do calls with WhatsApp, LINE and Skype.
- Fast connection and wide coverage across Japan (populated/popular areas). Provides fast LTE data access. For most city centres and usual travel routes, there’s wide coverage with strong signal like a pocket WiFi.
- Affordable. A more affordable option if you are travelling solo or in a small travel party.
- Convenience. Unlike pocket WiFi, there’s no need to switch it off to save battery life when you are not using it. Hence saving you the hassle to turn the device off and on each time you want to use it.
- Stay connected always. There’s a lower chance that internet connection will unexpectedly be lost– like when a pocket WiFi runs out of battery; or in situations when you are separated from your travel group. You can still communicate via WhatsApp, Line, etc.
- Prepaid SIM cards in Japan only work with compatible devices. Your device must be compatible with the local network specifications—either 3G or 4G (LTE). Older models may not be compatible. Check your mobile device’s compatibility with the service provider before your purchase – they usually have a list on their website.
- Make sure your phone is SIM-free or isn’t SIM-locked.
- Setup Access Point Name (APN) settings. You need to configure the APN setting before you can access a network. APN is the name for the settings your phone reads to set up a connection between the carrier’s cellular network and the public Internet.)
Pocket Wifi or Prepaid SIM Card in Japan?
One thing I like to highlight, pocket wiFi and most of Japan’s “tourist” SIM cards do not have voice call function, but only data. But you can connect Whatsapp/Skype calls with the data.
A reader did email me a good question, “If there is an earthquake, will I have difficulty in using my mobile with only data sim & no voice call function?”
I was reminded of the history of “Line” app. From Wikipedia, “Line began as a response to disaster. Japan’s devastating Tōhoku earthquake in March 2011 damaged telecommunications infrastructure nationwide, obliging employees at NHN Japan to rely on Internet-based resources to communicate.”
So sometimes, data might work better than voice during earthquakes.
Which option is better for you?
Pocket WiFi is good if…
- you have many devices you want to connect.
- you have a sizeable travel group (and thus many devices you want to connect).
Prepaid SIM Card is good if…
- you are travelling solo or in a small party group of 2 to 3. It’s more convenient and value for money. Then again, there might be discounts for group buy (find out more in my next post).
- your travel duration coincides with the SIM card length of use. For e.g., Yokoso SIM has SIM cards with fixed duration of usage validity — 8, 15 or more days. Hence if you are in Japan for 7 to 8 days, a 8-day SIM card would be good for you. But if you are there for 11 days, a “pocket WiFi” or “SIM cards with fixed data limit for a period of time” might work out cheaper as it allows more flexibility in the days of usage – do your sums. ;) See next post for more information.
In any case,
There are many providers that provide both pocket WiFi and SIM Card options. I will list down my shortlisted choices (though not the cheapest in the market):
- Yokoso SIM. In Singapore, it’s sold at JTB, their official website and Qoo10.
- Global Advanced Communications: Recommended by many for Pocket WiFi.
- Changi Recommends: Convenient for people departing from Singapore Changi Airport. There’s an ongoing promotion of S$8/day (UP $12).
You can usually buy your SIM card or pocket WiFi at the destination airport or designated stores in your home country. Otherwise, you can order online and have it sent to your hotel, accommodation or home.
It would be good to buy or reserve pocket WiFi in advance during the peak season because supply can be limited. You can then collect it at the airport or your accommodation.
What did we use in the end?
We were initially looking at Global Communications pocket WiFi, but it was stated on its website that we should get the premium version for travel in Hokkaido. Premium version = more expensive. Then, I emailed Changi Recommends about their pocket WiFi for Japan and was told that the router will experience slow connectivity in mountainous, underground and coastal areas, otherwise okay.
That didn’t sound too good, and we were not ready to fork out the money for the premium pocket WiFi. SIM card might have the same connectivity problems, but at least it is not as expensive. But..but I was quite unsure about the changing of APN settings for the SIM card. Seems like a hassle and the settings might not work for my phone.
In the end, my husband and I decided to each get a Yokoso SIM to travel around Hokkaido and Tokyo. I got a 8-day card for our 8.5 days stay in Hokkaido. And for the rest of the trip in Tokyo, I tried out the pocket WiFi provided by our Tokyo airbnb host. My husband got the 15-day SIM card for the whole Japan trip.
One major factor we chose SIM card in the end was the price. Since we only have two people with two devices in total, it was more value for money to get two SIM cards (or one SIM card and tether) than one pocket WiFi.
Read about our review and experience of Yokoso SIM and pocket wifi, and find out where to get a cheap Yokoso SIM.
Have you used a data SIM card or pocket WiFi in Japan before? Share with us your experience below or on our Facebook Page and Instagram.
Bookmark this page >> Overview Japan Itinerary: Hokkaido and Tokyo (Winter/Spring 2016) as I update it with links of useful tips and navigation around Japan.
Travelled during February & March 2016.