Free Wi-Fi in Japan, 5 Years Later
May 25, 2019 — by Per Christensson
I finally made it back to Japan last month, five years after my first visit. I say "finally" since I had hoped to return much sooner. Japan happens to be my favorite place in the world.
A lot can change in five years, especially with wireless technology. When I visited Japan in 2014, it was almost impossible to find free Wi-Fi. Fortunately, I purchased a 120 megabyte data plan from AT&T before leaving for my 2014 trip. This was my lifeline as traveled up north, where English signs disappeared and most people only spoke Japanese.
In April 2019, the Wi-Fi situation was completely different. I was able to find free Wi-Fi in nearly every city I visited, including Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. I even found several places with free Wi-Fi in Iwaki, located 2.5 hours north of Tokyo in the Fukushima prefecture.
Most coffee shops in Japan now have Wi-Fi. If they don't offer an open network, like Starbucks or Tully's, they typically display the Wi-Fi password prominently at the front counter. Last time, it seemed like most coffee shops tried to hide the password. Most restaurants in Japan also provide free Wi-Fi, but they often require a password, typically displayed at the reception.
Nearly every train station in Japan now has an open Wi-Fi network, which is completely different than five years ago. Onboard Wi-Fi is available on most trains, including the Shinkansen. For some reason, I was rarely able to connect successfully. I'm not sure if it had to do with my US-based iPhone or if it was simply because the trains were moving so fast.
The International Day Pass Alternative
While free Wi-Fi is now more prevalent in Japan, the irony is I didn't need it most of the time. Instead of the measly 120 MB of data I had available last trip, this time I had unlimited data. The day before I left, I signed up for AT&T's International Day Pass, which provides unlimited data and voice calling for $10/day. The Day Pass is a solid alternative to the $60 one gigabyte plan or the $120 three gigabyte plan, at least for trips that are two weeks or less. For example, if you think you might use more than one gig of data, you'll need to spend $120 for the 3 GB plan. That's the same as using unlimited data for 12 days. And if you don't need cellular data – at a hotel, for example – you can turn off data roaming and avoid the $10 charge. Below is a list of the International Day Pass charges from my trip. Notice a few days are missing, from when I turned off data roaming.
The only problem with the International Day Pass is that the $10 charges can be annoyingly inefficient. For example, if you send one standard text message or make one phone call turn on data roaming for a few seconds, you'll be charged $10 for that 24-hour period. If you want to be extra efficient, you can turn off data roaming right before the 24-hour period resets. Then, turn it back on whenever you need it, possibly saving one or two days worth of charges during your trip. But is it really worth the hassle? Probably not.
If you're planning a trip to Japan, you'll be happy to know that free Wi-Fi is easy to find. Still, I recommend signing up for an international data plan with your mobile carrier before you leave. For a small fee, you'll be able to access the Internet on your phone almost anywhere you travel. It's worth the cost both for the convenience and the peace of mind.