For tourists living in Japan, the day can go by as quickly as it came. There’s always something to do, and with the level of service Japan represents one can expect to easily have most of their needs met. This is especially in regards to things such as WiFi, cellular service, utilities, and banking. However, for those who are considering living in Japan, the quest to ensure those needs are met is a bit more challenging.
“I wish I’d known this before I came” comes amongst one of the most common phrases we hear amongst the expat community in the land of the rising sun. Today we’ll go over some of the company names and “acquisition routes” you’ll need to be familiar with as well as how to get ahold of certain services you may need to live a “normal life” in Japan.
Cell Phone Service
One of the most important and probably the first things you’ll want to cover is cell phone service. Many visitors come to Japan and are able to use their existing providers even overseas, but this option can be pretty expensive with international calling fees. If you plan to stay for a while, it’s worth considering a contract with the major players in the cell phone service game.
The main providers are Softbank, AU, and NTT Docomo. These are telecommunication conglomerates that have been dominating the cell phone service industry for years. For a while they controlled the monopoly, so it users did not have much choice other than to subscribe to one of these companies. Their services are generally reliable, but more costly (although they do offer “campaigns” and deals for people under/over a certain age, as well as group plans. However, recent years has brought an influx of cheaper providers that can offer cheaper rates by piggybacking off of larger companies’ mobile networks. Rakuten Mobile, Y! Mobile, and UQ mobile are good examples of such providers.
Choosing the contract option means you’ll receive service for a monthly fee plus the cost paid in increments over the length of the contract (if you choose to not pay it all off in the beginning), which is usually very affordable, especially when using one of the cheaper providers. However, this option may not be for everyone. Although not extremely costly in the long run with great support, a contract with the major providers in Japan means some considerable upfront fees for anyone on a budget. You can expect to pay an activation fee of ¥3000-5000, sometimes a sim fee, and sometimes the first month’s phone bill. For those to whom budget isn’t an issue, come prepared to spend up to ¥20,000 to walk out of the store with the phone on the same day.
Because most contracts are a span of two years, if you’re only staying for the duration of a tourist visa or if you have a one year visa, then most cell phone service providers will refuse to enter into a contract with you. Some will, but this is a grey area and at the mercy of whichever company you chose.
So you must be wondering what other options you’re left with in the situation. Fear not! Akihabara is the answer to your prayers. If you have the budget then you can purchase a sim free cellular device along with a third party SIM card. Sometimes these services can be a bit sketchy and you also run the risk of sacrificing stable connectivity. But you can definitely find pay-as-you-go services in Akihabara with a bit of asking around. Word of caution: be sure to compare prices in Akihabara as it is possible to be taken advantage of by the many competing brands. One service provider is called Coconekuto and will give you 100 calling minutes monthly, 10 text messages, and 16 GB of data for ¥2500 monthly, They will also allow you to pay ahead of time for upcoming months and offer similar plans priced at ¥900, ¥1800, and ¥4500 monthly for their Giga-Monster plan. Our third option is BIC camera. Although technically a camera store, like many chain stores they provide cellular service from major brands, as well as their own service which comes with or without the phone included in your purchase. The good thing about cellular service in Japan is that most of these companies provide pocket WiFi routers. You can carry them around with you and they work wonderfully as home hotspots too!
Getting internet access is always fun no matter where you go. That was sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch that. In Japan you have the added excitement of everything usually being in Japanese. So when you look into getting internet service, be sure to have a Japanese speaking friend with you if you don’t understand the language. Even if you speak some Japanese, it’s always safe to have someone who can help understand the nuisances that even a native speaker may struggle with at times. Thankfully, as we mentioned before, most of the cellular service providers also provide pocket WiFi. This means that most of your internet related problems could potentially be solved in one trip to the phone store.
However, if you absolutely need to have an internet connection at home, then there are plenty of options for you to choose from. To name a few options, Softbank, AU, and NTT Docomo provide internet service at affordable rates which can usually be rolled into any existing phone bills at a lower price. Japan loves integration and if you’re the type of person who prefers things to be as simple as possible then this is an option. If you’ve just arrived in Japan, don’t have connectivity at all, and no idea how to find it, then we’ve got you covered!
Here’s a long list of places that offer free WiFi for locals and tourists: McDonald’s, Family Mart, Lawson, ¥100 Lawson, Haneda Airport, Narita Airport, Starbucks, 7/11, Don Quixote, all major train stations, and most new clubs/bars. Each city in Japan also has its own WiFi which shows up as _____ city WiFi.
Money for the Train
Another important issue you’ll need to think of in Japan is paying for train fare. You have two options as to how to pay for your train fare. First, you can always simply purchase a ticket to your destination. However, you should consider that this comes with a few minor problems, such as possibly losing your ticket during your commute and ending up having to have an uncomfortable talk with the station staff. The tickets are small and made with flimsy paper, so they can be easy to lose track of. In the event you’ve lost your ticket, you’re allowed to simply pay the difference at the nearest information desk from the gate you wish to exit. You may also have to change trains halfway through your journey. Sometimes these changes might not have an information counter on your way through the next gate, so be sure to purchase a ticket worth the full amount of your trip beforehand, and keep a tight grip on that ticket! Luckily, train fare in Japan is generally extremely reasonable, so it’s not the end of the world if your ticket somehow floats out of your pocket.
Second, not all of the gates at a station accept tickets. This brings us to our next option of how to pay for your train fare: IC cards. Pasmo and Suica are the local passes for the Kanto area, and can be used in most areas around the country. In the eyes of a local, Suica, Pasmo, and commuter pass all mean the same thing. The differences are that a Pasmo is issued at a JR station and a Suica at a subway station, but are practically interchangeable.
A commuter pass comes in the form of a card that you can purchase at most stations via machine. You can then choose to turn your card into a commuter pass for up to 6 months purchased in bulk, use it as a cash card, and/or simply use it as your train fare. You insert your card into a machine located close to the gate and are able to charge it with cash in increments of ¥10-10000. Using a Pasmo/Suica card is ¥2 cheaper per purchase and that doesn’t just go for the train station! A Pasmo/Suica card can also be registered online and used on your phone together with an application. You can charge it with funds directly from your bank account. The great thing is that you can use the card at many snack machines, buses, drink machines, convenience stores, taxis, and even arcades!
There are two drawbacks to the Pasmo/Suica card though. Anyone can use your Pasmo/Suica card and there is a charging limit of ¥20,000 per card. Keeping this in mind, you can take advantage of the personalization option for Pasmo/Suica cards, where they will stamp your name on the card with some other information. This way your card can be returned to you if lost or you can have your balance returned to you if the card is destroyed. A Pasmo card costs a one time fee of ¥500.
Getting a bank account in Japan can range from very easy to extremely impossible. Try to find a foreigner friendly bank such as MUFG, YUCHO, Mizuho, Chase, or Shinsei Bank. Some of these banks such as Chase or Shinsei Bank offer English service so that you’re able to understand what’s going on with your money in your language. You’ll need a name stamp (Inkan, Hanko) in order to get your account started. You’ll also need a residence card and an address. The easiest bank to use is Shinsei Bank. The reason for this is because Americans can open an account simply using a social security number and a passport. However, some companies will not accept Shinsei as it only offers a cash card account and not a traditional savings or checking account. Be wary that ATMS are not always open. Most close before 8pm but convenience store ATMs are usually your best bet as they’re open all night. Beware that convenience store ATMS do not accept all VISA cards. For foreigners unable to withdraw from their accounts we recommend 7/11 ATMS. Although withdrawal fees aren’t the lowest, they accept all VISA cards, you’ll be able to withdraw money without speaking a lick of Japanese, and you don’t need a Japanese account.
Last but not least we would like to cover some companies which you will deal with in regards to utilities. Tokyo Gas is one company which you’ll definitely hear of if you live in the city. Most apartments offer an option between their locally sourced gas or the bigger companies. Japan uses a municipal water and electricity system so you’ll have to contact your local water and electrical companies in order to fully set up these services. You’re in luck if you’ve rented an apartment too as this means you’ve also found a foreigner friendly rental agency. Apartments in Japan work hand and hand with utility providers and there are packages galore when it comes to any kind of monthly payment. They’ll recommend which service to use which is always affordable. They’ll also usually provide you with the option to roll your water and lights into one bill which saves you money in the long run. Some even offer deals where you can pay your phone bills through their companies. One popular option for housing is LeoPalace 21 as they are a multi-language speaking company and you can roll your internet, water, gas, and lights into one bill. The most convenient thing is that most of these bills can be paid at the convenience store! That’s right; you can pay your internet, phone bills, and any other bills you have at the convenience store while grabbing a beer after a long day.
Now you’re all set to live life in Japan as the locals do! No matter your budget, with the proper knowledge, it can be quite cheap and convenient to take care of your basic life needs. We recommend you come with a moderate stockpile of funds to use for such purposes as there are sometimes hidden fees when it comes to signing contracts in Japan. However, this can be said for tons of situations around the world and is not Japan exclusive. The important thing is to arrive armed with knowledge and if possible a friend who speaks the local language at a native level. When selecting providers for things like cell phone service and internet in Japan be aware that each company provides some sort of discounted rate or service when it comes to paying for two services at one place. For instance Rakuten Mobile offers its internet and cell phone service subscribers additional discounts for shopping on their website. Another example is how Softbank lets it’s customers use its abundant hotspots all over Japan completely free! And trust us; there are a lot of Softbank hotspots in Japan.