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The Best Way to Stay Connected in Japan

When it comes to getting a SIM card for foreigners in Japan, the topic has become both simpler and more complicated over the years. On the plus side, it’s not impossible, as it was 10 years ago when I first visited Japan.

If anything, there are too many options today. Do you order one in advance, or simply pick it up when you arrive? There are even SIM card vending machines, though these have their own risks—who do you call if it doesn’t work? Then, of course, you can always go the old “pocket WiFi” route.

Spoiler alert: I personally think the most foolproof way to stay connected in Japan buy a Japan eSIM from Holafly before you even board your flight. I’ll explain over the course of the next few paragraphs why I believe this to be the case.

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The Complicated History of Japan SIM Card for Foreigners

When I was on the cusp of arriving in Japan for the first time in 2014, I was flummoxed. I’d Googled “SIM in Japan for foreigners”—and I was not happy with what I saw. Due to antiquated laws (which I’d later find out are extremely common in supposedly modern Japan), nonresident foreigners were legally prohibited from buying SIM cards. There were other ways to stay connected, but none were especially attractive.

Thankfully, as the Olympics approached and Japan’s tourism industry ballooned both in size and importance, the country’s legislature repealed most of these laws. Suddenly, you could not only buy a SIM upon landing—you were bombarded with options for doing so. This reality is part of why I’ve created the guide below. If you give me just a few minutes of your time, I’ll give you a complete run-down of all your options.

How to Get a Japanese SIM Card (or Stay Connected if You Don’t)

Buy an eSIM before you travel

If you’ve bought almost any cell phone in the past few years, it’s eSIM compatible. This means that in order to use your phone with a different calling or data plan, you simply need to download some code on it (this is essentially what’s meant by “eSIM”) and you’ll be ready to go. When you buy your eSIM, you’ll need to choose a package based both on the number of days you’ll need it, as well as how much data you expect to use.

TIP: If you use my link to buy a Japan eSIM from Holafly, you’ll get an exclusive 5% discount off your entire order!

Get a physical SIM upon arrival

Whether because your phone isn’t eSIM compatible, or just because you’re a bit old school, another SIM card in Japan for foreigners is a physical SIM card. Desks selling these operate in the Arrivals areas of all major airports in Japan; in some cases, you can even find a SIM card vending machine. Your SIM card will allow your phone to work with popular Japanese mobile networks like Softbank and docomo. 

(Or a pocket WiFi)

Pocket WiFi units were the most common way of staying connected in Japan before it was legal for foreigners to buy SIM cards. They’re still useful these days in some cases. For example, if you’re traveling with a group (especially with small children) and want a single “hub” for everyone to stay connected, without having to download multiple eSIMs or buy many physical SIM cards.

Roam using your home carrier

Is it cheaper to buy a SIM card in Japan than to use your home country’s cell phone plan? Well, that depends. Probably not, if you have a globally-focused cell provider like Google Fi. Even if you use a mainstream company (such as AT&T or Verizon in the US), you’ll need to verify whether there’s a fixed-rate “international data pass” you can avail. If not, roaming charges may be much higher (and accumulate much faster) than you expect.

Get by using WiFi and your sense of direction

If you’re just completely opposed to buying a SIM card in Japan, you aren’t without options. WiFi in Japan is extremely widespread—in hotels and on bullet trains, and even in many cafes and restaurants and on buses, subways and local trains. On the other hand, if you don’t speak at least some Japanese, this can be a risky option in more rural places where locals don’t speak any English.


What If I Forget to Buy my eSIM Before I Get to Japan?

Now, don’t be fooled: Although pre-purchasing an eSIM is the best Japanese SIM card strategy for foreigners, you aren’t S.O.L. if you arrive at Haneda or Narita airports without one:

  • If you’ve verified that your device is eSIM compatible, connect to the airport’s free WiFi network and use it to access the Holafly website. You can buy your SIM card and install it while you wait in the immigration queue!
  • If you don’t have an eSIM-compatible device, not to worry. You can visit a desk or a vending machine to purchase a physical SIM, or you can go super old-school and rent a pocket WiFi.

See? The topic of SIM card for foreigners in Japan actually isn’t all that confusing to understand, at least not in 2024 as compared to 2014.


Other FAQ About SIM Cards in Japan

Can foreigners get a SIM card in Japan?

When it comes to how to get a SIM card for Japan, it’s surprisingly easy. Foreigners can either install an eSIM before they travel to Japan, or purchase a physical SIM card upon arrival. Alternatively, groups of travelers may choose to share a pocket WiFi, rather than buying individual SIMs.

Is it worth getting a SIM card in Japan?

It is 100% worth getting a SIM card in Japan. While public WiFi is fast and widely available in Japan, there’s value to having a guaranteed connection everywhere you go. It’s especially helpful if you wish to travel off-the-beaten-path in Japan, where having access to Google Maps (and Google Translate!) is indispensable.

Do American SIM cards work in Japan?

If you still feel intimidated after learning how to buy a SIM card in Japan, you can probably just use your US cell phone plan while traveling in Japan. However, I recommend contacting your mobile provider before you travel to verify rates. You don’t want to come home and get a surprise bill for several hundreds of dollars!

The Bottom Line

When it comes to SIM cards for foreigners in Japan, the best course of action in 2024 is to order a Japan eSIM from Holafly before you travel. This way, you can be connected the moment you land; you also don’t have to worry about any extra hardware, be that a tiny SIM card or a bulky pocket WiFi unit. Of course, there are some cases where this doesn’t make sense, whether you have an old phone or you simply have an excellent home country phone plan you’re sure will work in Japan. Want your trip to be unforgettable, no matter how you stay online as you travel? Consider hiring me to plan a custom Japan itinerary!


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