The lowdown on SIM cards, pocket routers, and public wifi.
While Tokyo may be the neon-washed technology capital of the world in some respects, free wifi is not as widespread as you’d expect. In the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics, the situation is likely to improve, but the most reliable way to get—and stay—connected in Tokyo is a prepaid local SIM card or portable wifi router.
It’s possible to sort out your internet access upon landing at Narita or Haneda Airport (there are SIM card vending machines as well as service counters in the arrival halls), but ordering a SIM or router online in advance will save you time (sometimes money too) and give you access to more options.
There are a range of SIM cards to choose from, but the bulk are data-only, meaning you won’t be able to make calls or send SMS messages from your phone. One that does include these functions (handy in case of emergencies) is sold by a provider called Mobal for ¥7000 ($62). The price is a bit steep, but it includes 7GB of high-speed data, and you can have the SIM card shipped to your home before you leave home, or to your accommodation in Japan.
Data-only SIM options include 7- or 15-day U-mobile cards, which you can find in airport vending machines for between ¥2500-¥3500 ($22-$31). There’s also the Japan Travel SIM, 30- and 90-day versions of which go for between ¥2700-¥4100 ($24-$36) at the airports and electronic retail giants like Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera. At these stores, which are dotted around tourist hubs like Shinjuku and Shibuya, you’ll also find several other SIM card options. Some supermarkets and convenience stores stock SIMs too. Data allowances, usage periods and prices vary wildly. You can find a handy comparison of the various options on Tokyo Cheapo.
If you’re planning on using your tablet or laptop, or if you’re traveling with people, renting a wifi router is clearly the best route. A compact router that connects 5-10 devices can be had for under $10 a day; prices tend to be lower the longer you rent. With many providers, data is unlimited in theory—but speeds may be throttled if you burn through large amounts in short periods of time.
By ordering a router online a few days before you fly, you can collect it at the airport or your hotel, and drop it off on your way out of the country. Tokyo Cheapo recommends Ninja Wifi for value (about $8/day), Japan Wireless for heavy users (more expensive, but with no throttling, you’ll appreciate not having to sip your data), and Japan Mobile Rental for long-term stays, at around ¥24000 ($212) for a month-long rental.
If you only need very occasional connectivity, other options for getting online include using the free wifi offered at major train stations and tourist attractions (you’ll need to register the first time), downloading a smartphone app called Navitime (download on Android or iPhone), which gives you access to wifi hotspots across Tokyo and other parts of Japan, or pulling into cafes that advertise free wifi—where you can browse over a green tea latte.