Prepaid SIM cards will be available to buy from vending machines at Tokyo's Narita International Airport as of Friday, according to an article published by The Japan Times.

The vending machines, which will accept credit cards only, will also stock smartphones, mobile routers and smartphone accessories.

The data-only SIM cards will be available for purchase for one or two-week blocks, which will cost mobile users ¥3,450 (US$28) and ¥4,950 (US$40) respectively. The plans will allow for download speeds of 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 50 Mbps, with a daily data limit set at 100MB, beyond which point network speed is restricted.

Users will need to register register their personal details before the cards can be activated, however this will be as simple as scanning a passport page. Activation instructions will be available in Japanese, English and Chinese.

The move is likely a response to a rapidly growing number of foreign tourists visiting Japan. 1.64 million tourists visited in May 2015, a 49.6% increase on the previous year. 1,162,900 of those visitors arrived from Korea, China, Taiwan or Hong Kong—over 70% of the total figure.

Japanese prepaid phones and SIM cards have been notoriously difficult to organize in the past, and were discontinued by NTT DoCoMo in 2005, who cited a prevalence of use in criminal activity. Prepaid and rental phones are today more easily arranged, however there are strict rules that require users to provide ID.

Using mobile phones in Japan: A guide for travellers

The prepaid SIM cards to be sold in airport vending machines will be useful for travellers needing to get online quickly, but will certainly not suit everyone. There are a few different ways to get connected in Japan, and your choice will be determined by a few factors—whether your own phone will work in Japan, whether you need to make voice calls or require data only and how much you intend to use your phone.

See our basic guide below to find out what will work best for you, and if you're still unsure, contact our Guest Services team for advice.

Will my phone work in Japan?

One of the major considerations if you're planning on using a mobile phone when visiting Japan, is whether your own phone will work or not. If it's not compatible with Japanese mobile networks (3G UMTS 2100 MHz, 3G CDMA2000 800 MHz, or LTE band 1), you will need to rent a phone for your trip.

Most modern 3G or 4G phones are compatible, and can make voice calls via international roaming or by using prepaid or rental SIM cards, providing the device is unlocked. Older GSM-only phones will not work.

If you are unsure, it is best to check with your local network provider or phone manufacturer before you arrive in Japan.

Phone and SIM card rental

Renting a phone or SIM card is the simplest and usually most economical way to get connected in Japan. Travellers whose phones are not compatible with Japanese networks can opt to rent basic phones (voice calls only) or smartphones, for which data plans are available. Companies like PuPuRu offer a range of options to suit most needs, including a basic "pay as you go" and prepaid (capped) plans. Phones can usually be picked up on arrival at the airport or delivered directly to your accommodation.

Services like Softbank Global Rental and Sakura Mobile also offer SIM card rental, but you will need to first verify that your phone is SIM-unlocked and available for international roaming.

Prices for these services can vary depending on the provider, and buyers should be aware of many different add-on fees. Phone or SIM card rental will almost always include daily rental fees, an administrative fee, communication fees (voice calls, web, SMS etc), plus penalties for loss or damage of rental equipment. They can also include insurance (generally optional) or fees for phone and invoice delivery.

Prepaid SIM cards

Prepaid SIM cards are an option for those with compatible phones and can be bought from mobile service providers at Narita International Airport and, as of Friday, from vending machines in the airport's terminals 1 and 2. SIM cards vary in price depending on whether they support voice calls and/or use of data, though in all cases additional credit can be purchased at cell phone stores, convenience stores or online.

Due to past criminal use of prepaid phones, buyers now have to register personal details to activate an account. In some cases a foreign passport will be sufficient for this, however some service providers accept only resident cards or Japanese passports.

Pocket Wi-Fi

An additional option for those who do not need to make voice calls is to rent a pocket Wi-Fi device. They work all over Japan, have a battery life of 10 to 12 hours and are suitable for connecting multiple devices at once. Global Advanced Communications offers a rental service which starts at ¥3,450/day for a 21 Mbps model and goes up to ¥1750/day for the "Super Premium" 165 Mbps model.

Niseko-bound travellers should also note that there are free Wi-Fi spots in most restuarants, bars and public areas in Niseko Hirafu. Niseko Central provides complimentary Wi-Fi in all its properties.

Rupert Orchard

Posted on 21 July, 2015 by Rupert Orchard in Travel Tips.