So, one of the biggest useful tools when in a strange place is being able to use your cel phone. Looking up maps, bus, and train schedules saves you oodles of headaches, frustration, and lost time you could spend exploring and enjoying your trip. But using a cel phone abroad is also full of horror stories. People arriving back home with $1000 bills for roaming charges.
So, off to the forums to read about it. Turns out my current carrier AT&T offers an international 300MB plan for $60 and 600MB plan for $120. That felt a bit steep for me as a friend who went for a week said that 300MB was barely enough for 7 days. So, I started digging around on traveling forums and found a variety of companies.
Googling tends to pop up lots of different companies with many options. Some will rent you a whole phone for your trip. Some rent SIM cards that replace your current one. Others rent wireless hubs which you can tether your cel phone and/or PC and other devices. Depending on what you need and how long your trip is, there are lots of options. If you are staying a long time (month+) and want to actually get a Japanese phone plan, you usually need to show a vista that indicates you have at least 90 days of stay left before they’ll let you get one so you don’t leave the country with their phone.
The tricky part about these companies is that half of them look like scams – and others are full of fine print. Softbank comes up top on many searches for renting sim cards for your phone in Japan. Seems like a good deal, $1/day minimum, 0.31 cents/packet with a $15/day max that then covers unlimited data. Sounds pretty good. Um, but a packet is 128 bytes so you hit the $15 max in 620,000 bytes, or about the size of one jpg image. In other words, you’re probably going to pay $15/day if you even turn it on. A 10 day stay will then run you $150 – which is worse than the plan from AT&T.
Instead, I dug around on the forums and found these guys: eConnect. These guys offer 1gb of data for a flat 4100 yen (or about $40). What you are doing is renting/buying a SIM to replace the one in your phone. They also have phone/text plans, as well as separate WIFI hubs for those with bigger needs/more devices. I opted for the $40 data only SIM plan since I didn’t need to make phone calls and could send emails instead of texts. The offered SIM and micro-SIM cards. Since I had an iPhone 4S – standard SIM worked for me.
I took the gamble for $40 and bought the plan. I opted to have it mailed to my hotel and imagine my joy that upon arrival at my hotel a package was waiting for me. How cool to be handed an envelope and be told ‘A package arrived for you sir’ in front of others checking in. 🙂
But there’s a little work to do with the kit. So here’s the procedure:
- Unlock your phone. If you can’t unlock your phone, the SIM option is off the table for you. My iPhone was just out of the 2 year contract period on my AT&T account, so I chatted with their support and they sent me to a link to submit an unlock request. Wow – they use every excuse under the sun to avoid unlocking it. I sent in the unlock request, and was told it might take them 1-3 days to respond. Fortunately, it was more like 4 hours. I got an email stating it had been processed for unlocking, but that I needed to wait 24 more hours before running the procedure. I wait 24 hours, run the procedure (which requires resetting your iPhone to factory defaults for one), and then verify it is unlocked using the IMEI website (despite it’s completely scam-y appearance). Long story short, give yourself 3-5 days to get your phone unlocked to be safe. Don’t leave this till last minute in case their are difficulties.
- Get your package. The kit is just a small mailing envelope with instructions and the card. eConnect lets you either pick up the package at their airport kiosk or have it delivered to your hotel. If you opt for airport kiosk pickup, be sure that the kiosk will be open when you arrive! Many are only open 8am-8pm and so forth. Be sure to account for flight delays or you’ll find yourself going back out to the airport the next day. I opted for the hotel route and it was waiting for me when I arrived. It takes them about a week of lead-time to get it delivered via normal mail, so again, don’t do this the day you plan to leave.
- Insert the new sim – I was a little surprised to find what looked like a credit card inside the package. But you snap out the sim from the card mounting and it is in fact a normal SIM card size. Popping out an iPhone 4S SIM is fairly easy and you can find youtube videos for just about every major phone if you look, but I did need a pointy tool for mine. Turns out a paperclip works fine – but there wasn’t one to be found in my hotel room. I actually brought my own paperclip pre-bent for this purpose. I highly recommend you make sure you can get your sim in/out before you leave. The first time I tried to get my SIM card out, it was very stiff and I had to initially pop it free with a an actual tool. You don’t want to arrive there and find you need a tool you don’t have.
It’s at this point that you can convert a regular SIM card to a microSIM if you need to do the surgery. eConnect actually offers microSIM’s, but not all carriers do. I talked to one fellow on my trip who actually brought his own scissors and file and successfully managed it for his Android phone when his Australia-friendly plan only offered regular SIM’s. I didn’t have to do this part since mine used a standard SIM card.
- Set up the network password – So, I put the old SIM into the included zip-lock bag for safekeeping (you are going to need it when you get back home!), and turned the phone on. Success! But you do have one final step. You need to go to the carrier settings and set the APN username and password. The instructions included were very straightforward and easy to follow. I entered the data and waited.
It did take a little bit for the phone to register itself with the network the first time. Probably a good 5 minutes. In fact, if I turned the phone to airplane mode during the day to avoid using up data, it usually took about 1-2 solid minutes before it would pop back onto the network. But soon enough in the upper left corner I saw not my old AT&T logo but NTT DOCOMO. I never got any signal strength bars but it did work fine. Coverage was great all across the country where I traveled – even out in the remoter areas in the mountains around Takayama.
- Enjoy! I was very conservative with my phone use at the beginning. I would turn the phone to airplane mode when not using it. I also only looked up train schedules and maps. In this mode, I used only a few dozen megabytes per day – anywhere from 10-30mb. Later, as I got closer to the end of my trip, I even did a little bit of facebooking, left it on more during the day, etc. Those days I got closer to about 100mb/day. In all, 1GB for a 14 day trip was just about right. I ended up using about 700MB of my 1GB by the end.
- Shipping the SIM back (not required in my case). Some companies require you to actually ship the SIM card back to them when you’re done. eConnect didn’t and that’s one less hassle to deal with on your leaving day.
Overall, using eConnect was a great experience and I’d totally use them again. If you’re going to use over 1GB of data, they actually recommend you buy multiple SIM cards and use them back-to-back. eConnect SIM cards are only good for 30 days from first use. So, they are use-it-or-lose-it deals. Hence another good reason to just buy multiple cards and just insert more as you use them up.
Man, I really wish it were this easy and cheap in the US. Just another example of the terrible phone companies we have here when you see how amazingly easy and cheap it is in other countries.