Disconnected In Tokyo: A Cell Phone Nightmare

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These days it’s easy to be a road warrior and travel to foreign lands when you have a smartphone in hand. You can translate language on the fly with Google Translate. You always know where you’re going with Google Maps or Apple Maps. Restaurant reviews are at your fingertips for any location you discover unless you’re not connected.

If you’re planning to travel overseas, you definitely don’t want to be without a connection to the internet and smartphone as it can make travel much more challenging.

I’ll share a quick story about my first time visiting Japan. In 2012 I went to Tokyo, and while I did a fair amount of research for my trip, I didn’t put much effort into planning for my cell phone service. I foolishly assumed it wouldn’t be a problem.

By the time I had visited Japan, I had a fair amount of Asia travel under my belt. I’d blazed trails in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. In most Asian countries picking up a SIM card is as easy as stopping at an airport kiosk or cell phone store and buying a prepaid plan. And the rates are often quite affordable.

Chunghwa Telecom Prepaid Data Taiwan Cell Phone Rates
These are the rates per gig of cell phone service for Chunghwa Telecom in Taiwan as of 2019. This chart give you an idea of market rates for data in Taiwan. Eight Gigs of data costs about $33 USD.

It’s possible I simply missed it, but when I was in the airport I looked for a few phone service SIM card shops and couldn’t seem to find one that would sell my a SIM card. It’s possible there was a communication gap but I was under the impression a foreigner couldn’t buy a SIM card. Someone advised me I could rent a cell phone but I passed. I figured, I could find somewhere in town to pick up a SIM card. I spent about four days in Tokyo and was never able to find a place to get a prepaid SIM card.

Well, I’ll tell you that Tokyo, Japan isn’t beginner level travel for an American wanting to travel within Asia. Without access to Google Maps, and translate and my various travel sites like Wikitravel, I was a bit lost at times. My internet times was relegated to the free WiFi in my hotel, or what I could pick up in a local coffee shop. Incidentally, I’m at a local coffees shop now as I write this. (Shout out to Louisa coffee in Taiwan for good coffee at a decent price.)

Louisa Coffee in Taiwan. Good coffee at a decent price.

Travel by subway was challenging without internet. Tokyo has multiple subways systems operated by different companies. While they are interconnected, I found that sometimes it wasn’t clear to me which stop was the correct one for my transfer. Sometimes the stops were only posted in Japanese, and there wasn’t an indicator on the train that a subway stop was connected to the other system.

Tokyo is also one of the most expensive cities in the world. It’s not the type of place you want to be without good information of where to go and the most cost efficient way to get there. Information is money in this day and age and being cut off from good info can be costly.

I had a great time in Tokyo and loved the little noodle shops where you choose your selection at a vending machine, pay, and then get a ticket which you can redeem for noodles when your number comes up. I still feel like I might have had a better time if I had been connected.

Ichiran Ramen
A bowl of delicious Ichiran Ramen noodles in Osaka Japan

Later on, I revisited Japan. This time I went to Osaka, and I was adamant about getting a SIM card. Somehow it was easy as pie to pick one up. I just bought it from a vending machine in the airport and was online after some fidgeting with the setup process. The setup process took a bit of effort and was something I wasn’t able to get right until I got to the hotel.

Don’t Make My Mistake

So I’ve learned my lesson to make sure I have a good plan when I hit the ground in a new country so I have phone service. But one part of my plan that his been fantastic was picking up a SIM card from Google FI.

The way it works, is you can get a free SIM card from Google FI and the plan is pretty straight forward. You pay $20 US for unlimited calls and texts in the US and then you pay $10 per Gig of data. This is a decent price but Google Fi shines because when you go abroad, Google FI works in most countries and data is the same cost per gig.

Now in my opinion, $10 per Gig isn’t a bad price but it’s true you can find data cheaper in other parts of the world. But the major benefit is that if you have Google Fi, you have internet the moment your plane lands and can catch a signal. This can be useful to catch up on email and do last minute research before you go through the process of deplaning and going through immigration, customs, and get your bags. No more fighting with airports WIFI login that might require setup and passwords.

I’m also keeping my Google FI to maintain a US phone number while abroad. I’m using my Taiwan SIM for low priced data but have my Google FI SIM available if I need to make US calls. Disclaimer: This is easier if you have a dual SIM phone which is becoming more popular. If you’re looking for an affordable great dual SIM phone check out One Plus. They are also available on Amazon. These phones are great and I have no idea why they aren’t more popular.

If you’re interested in trying Google FI prepaid cell service and would like a $20 credit just for signing up, you can check it out by clicking here or any of the Google FI links on this site.

Disclaimer: This article has affiliate links for Google FI service and Amazon products. I may be paid a commission for sign-ups or purchases. If you sign up with my Google Fi link you’ll get a $20 credit from Google FI!


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8 thoughts on “Disconnected In Tokyo: A Cell Phone Nightmare”

  1. I thought you didn’t need data for Google Maps to work. You may need to download the map offline ahead of time, but it works by GPS, so it should work anywhere you have access to the satellite. Was this not the case?

    • Yes, that’s actually a good point. Generally, Google maps will work with the GPS if you have the maps downloaded for offline viewing. Thinking back, I think either I wasn’t aware of offline maps or it might not have been available at that time. I definitely needed access to Google Translate at times but had no internet.

      I still had a good a time in Tokyo, but it would have been much better with the convenience of uninterrupted internet. I revisited Osaka a few years later and had internet and it was great. Incidentally, if you ever go to Osaka, I strongly recommend a place called Ichiran Ramen..It’s a famous ramen noodle place that is so delicious.

      • Cool! Yeah, things continue to get easier and easier every year. Even Google Translate is available offline now as well if you download the language you want ahead of time. It doesn’t have *everything* that the online version has, but there’s all of the common phrases and words. Pretty great! I look upon the old guys who used to travel prior to smartphones with great reverence because it’s almost an alien experience to what we face today.

        Looking forward to following along on your journeys. Cheers!

        • Oh man, a hundred times this about the travelers back in the day. How did they do it pre-internet? But Yeah google translate is awesome. You can hold your camera at a line of Chinese symbols and watch them translate into English in real time. That’s awesome. Thanks for your comment. Feel free to holler if you have any blogging questions on your site..not that I’m really a pro. Looks great. Guest post swap maybe?

          • “You can hold your camera at a line of Chinese symbols and watch them translate into English in real time.”

            I just, and I mean just found out about that. I think it was a commercial during the Super Bowl? I’m about to try it out as I’m heading to Hong Kong on Sunday. Can’t wait!

            And sure, I could be interested in some post swapping. Not that you’d get any benefit from it yet. I only have like 30 readers. lol But I’ve only really been at it for a full month, so I’m sure that’ll change. Quality content first, right?

            I signed up for your mailing list so I’ll remember to check back in.

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