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Stay Connected in Japan with a US Carrier

Calling internationally with US carrier

Can You Hear Me Now?Verizon Can you Hear me now

I remember hearing this from Verizon commercials and it is still stuck in my head. If you remember, it was about a guy who roamed around the US checking the quality of Verizon’s nationwide network talking to someone on his cell saying, “Can you hear me now?… Good.” This was an effective campaign, but it would not have worked if he traveled internationally. I feel that Verizon has the strongest nationwide network, but it has nothing on T-Mobile in the international arena.

Since 2013, T-Mobile has been offering unlimited international data and texting as part of its “Simple Choice Plans“. Sprint followed suit in 2015 with a similar plan it calls “International Value Roaming plan“. T-Mobile’s plan is more robust and covers over 120 countries while Sprint’s only covers 15 countries.

The good thing about either of these plan’s is that they both cover Japan. Both companies will give you 2G-like speeds, but as Japan doesn’t use 2G anymore, you will get a throttled 3G or LTE connection. I have not had the opportunity to test Sprint’s claims yet, but T-Mobile speeds in Japan fluctuate around 200 kbps which is plenty enough for basic browsing and messaging apps such as LINE or Facebook Messenger.

If purchasing a T-Mobile or Sprint cell phone is not for you, that’s covered below too.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has the largest international network among the top carriers in America, while simultaneously having one of the smallest coverage maps in America. If you live in a big city, this carrier more than likely has you covered with amazing LTE speeds, but offers little coverage in the countryside.Tmobile Coverage

There are items for considering while using a T-Mobile phone in Japan.

  • International coverage is limited to 3 months in a 12 month period.
  • Enable international data roaming or you wont be able to pick up anything.
  • Simple Choice Plan is for unlimited throttled speeds, data boost packs are for sale from T-Mobile. (You probably wont need it)

Using the Simple Choice Plan to roam in Japan, your phone must first be equipped with the UMTS-2100 band (band I). If your phone utilizes this band, you will pick up 3G or LTE through Softbank or NTT Docomo. All new phones sold directly from T-Mobile have this band, however if you are bringing your phone from another carrier you should check before traveling. Don’t get excited if you pick these signals up because T-Mobile will throttle the speeds to around 200 kbps, but actual speeds may vary.

On the Simple Choice Plan, you will be able to stay in touch with family and friends wherever they are while you are in Japan. Using the included data plan you can use messaging apps or text for free. Not only are standard texts (SMS) included, but you can also send picture and video texts (MMS). Calling while in Japan (to/from Japan or to/from America) only costs .20 cents a minute, if you are making or receiving calls over wifi with America then the calls are free.

Calls from the US or Japan are the same as if you were in America. People in America will not notice a difference and people in Japan will still be calling a long distance number. For outgoing calls to the US, you will need to dial +1-123-456-7890 (including the +).  The + enforces using the exit code so you don’t have to remember it.  If you’re phoning a number in Japan, use the same sequence you would as if you were in America.

Sprint

Sprint has only been offering free international roaming with its Unlimited Plus and Sprint Family Share Plus plans since April, 2015. As I have not yet had a chance to test a Sprint phone in Japan, I do not have firsthand knowledge of this. The following information is gathered from Sprints press releases as well as its FAQ sheet.

Similar to T-Mobile, Sprint offers unlimited 2G speeds from its international partners. In Japan, Sprint has partnered with KDDI and Softbank. To work on KDDI, your Sprint phone will require a CDMA 800 band. Similar to T-Mobile’s requirement, Softbank roaming requires a UMTS-2100 band (band I) capable phone. As stated before, Japan does not have 2G so you will be picking up throttled 3G, HSPA+, and LTE.

Sprint matches T-Mobile in other aspects of its international plan as well. Including free texting and .20 calls and wifi calls.

Sprint also offers a $5 add on to add voice and upgraded speeds to 3G as well.

T-mobile or Sprint is not for you?

T-Mobile or Sprint may not be the best network in your home town or you may be stuck in a contract with another carrier. Or you just might want to bring your current phone without making any big changes. All of these scenarios make buying a new phone from one of these carriers an inconvenient option.

Most of the following are options to provide your current phone with wifi while you are in Japan. With wifi, you can use messaging apps such as LINE, Whatsapp, or Facebook Messenger to keep in touch.

T-Mobile or Sprint Hotspot

Tmobile Hotspot Z915Both companies offer hotspots which will give unlimited access while in Japan without buying expensive data packages. However, without the international high speed data packages, you will be limited to lower speeds. If you are content with the lower speeds (most are), then I would consider getting the cheapest plan such as T-Mobile’s 1gb of high speed data plan for $20 a month. As you are not using high speed data, it doesn’t matter which plan you get as they will all work similarly during your stay.

Hotspots may need to have the APN added manually from your phone or laptop once upon arrival. Models may vary in this, but before you purchase, make sure that the hotspot has access to the UMTS-2100 band.

Free Wifi in Japan

Japan has lots of wifi options for tourists. I have had the best luck with free wifi at Tully’s, Starbucks, and Family Mart stores. These stores are easily found in most areas and will allow you to get on your phone and check messages or contact friends in an emergency.

While looking around for more wifi resources, I found an extensive list at nippon.com.

Renting a Local Data Device

Nippon.com has a few resources on SIM card rentals, but for the most up to date resources at popular sites, I would check out the official sites. Be warned that most, if not all, of the rental services in Japan will cost more than if purchased a hotspot in America.

About Jay (15 Articles)
Jason is an avid user of technology and strives to maintain a grasp on all things new and usable. He travels frequently back and forth between America and Japan and knows how to deal with the difficulties of such travel. Jason served in the US Navy and now works as an IT Specialist for the federal government. He has a Bachelor of Science in Education and Masters of Business Administration with an Information Technology focus.
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