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Mobile device use, WiFi, 4G and SIM cards in Japan

Posted by bcmoney on December 28, 2015 in Mobile with No Comments


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English: Photo of a SIM Card from a Japanese F...

English: Photo of a SIM Card from a Japanese FOMA cellphone sold by NTT DoCoMo in March 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post will summarize a solution I’ve settled on for using a North American smartphone or mobile device for a short period of time in another country (doesn’t have to be as a tourist but for any stays less than the 1-3 year contracts the Telcos’d inevitably try to reel you into, even if you’re only in the country they operate in on a Student Visa). Specically this time its Japan, and the real trick, trying to do it without breaking the bank. While these instructions are pretty specific about travelling from Canada with a device from one of our country’s Telcos to Japan trying to get on their infamously exclusive yet impressively fast Mobile Data Networks, they should work with little modification to go from any country to any other (just ensure the portable mobile data device you use supports the data network type of the country you’re travelling to, some are still stuck on GSM, some only support 3G, some have killed off 1G-3G now only offering 4G/LTE, some are even testing 5G, so it varies greatly and you must get a basic understanding of the network types from your origin country and the destination country in the very least). See wikia’s landing page on Pre-paid SIM cards (and supported data networks) for a rough guide by country or try the WillMyPhoneWork brand/model/country lookup tool.

 

How I did it

For my setup I’ve relied on the use of a MiFi portable hotspot which I fortunately had already gone through a contract on at home in Canada. This type of device basically sets up a WiFi network wherever you’re going, using a Pre-Paid (or Pay-As-You-Go) SIM card to piggyback a connection off of the data network. Be sure to deactivate any data/voice roaming, cellular data, or voice network functionalities on your core device. On the iPhone6/iOS9 for instance, you can do this under Settings –> Cellular –> Cellular Data Options –> [Roaming Off] and flipping Cellular Data off and also going to Carrier and turning off Automatic setting which is likely set by default.

 

Hotspot Device

Brand: Novatel
Device: MiFi 2 (5792 model) 4G LTE mobile wireless hotspot

This device is offered by Bell & Bell-Aliant in Canada, and worked quite well for me when travelling in Japan:
http://www.nvtl.com/products/mobile-broadband-solutions/mifi-intelligent-mobile-hotspots/mifi-2-global-4g-lte-touchscreen-mobile-hotspot/

MiFi

Novatel MiFi 2

 

Unlocking process

You have three options for getting your device unlocked:

Keeping in mind the actual steps will differ based on your device/telco and destination country, but here are the steps I used…

Unlocking a Novatel Wireless MiFi 2 (from a Bell network) for use with other carriers worldwide

WARNING: Make sure to enter the unlock code correctly. Your device will become permanently locked to the Bell MTS network after three to ten incorrect attempts.

  1. Connect the MiFi 2 to your Mac or PC
  2. Open your Internet browser and go to 192.168.1.1
  3. Login as admin (default password: admin)
  4. On the bottom left side of the page, click About
  5. On the right side of the page, click the Customer Care tab
  6. On the bottom of the page, click Advance
  7. Enter the unlock code provided
  8. Your device sould now be unlocked

 

Pre-paid SIM

After unlocking the device, I just needed to obtain a Japan network-compatible SIM card and I could connect my iPhone 6 from anywhere in the country while travelling, using VoIP to make calls instead of a carrier voice network… my only problem was I chose one of the cheapest SIMs available, so I only had 100MB of data per day. There was another 500MB/day option which might better suite power users but the setup only cost me ¥4500 ($45 USD) for a month’s worth (i.e. a 3GB limit spread out over 30 days), so wasnt a bad deal. I used eConnect as the SIM provider, which I believe is an NTT Docomo MVNO. Their service seemed like the best deal at the time and most seamless (in terms of sending your SIM card to any location within Japan for you to pickup, rather than requiring you to go to a specific location). Also they provided instructions in English which helps, many in Japan will not:

https://my.econnectjapan.com/set-up/

Those instructions are for placing the SIM directly into your device, but because my SIM & device was provided by my employer, I did not want to mess with that. Using my MiFi instead, I placed the SIM card inside and paired the Japanese “Pay-as-you-Go” SIM to my Canadian (unlocked) device, under:
Settings –> Mobile –> Advanced –> APN

Switch from Default mode to Custom then manually enter the EConnect APN info.

 

How about making/receiving regular Phone Calls?

For calls, you can instead rely on free/cheap VoIP-based solutions such as Google Voice, LINE, TokBox & Twilio; or even full-fledged video calling solutions such as Apple’s FaceTime, Google’s Hangouts & Microsoft’s Skype. Especially if you are just using audio to make short calls, you should not be using up too much data. It’s when you start combining browsing the web, watching videos, checking lots of emails (avoid more “meaty” work emails and deactivate images in emails from auto-loading), along with making and receiving regular daily volume phone calls. Also, if you have to make/take a lot of calls for work, consider a larger SIM card plan.

Personally, I use the BRIA VoIP app paired with VoIP real phone number provider Anveo as I described in my cutting cords post. I only use this combination because I like having a reliable actual phone number that will not change between various job changes, physical home moves, and device/Telco changes, even though Mobile Number Portability is a thing now, call it my insurance policy and its only $2.50/month.

Last but not least, if your data connection ever fails due to poor coverage (should rarely be the case in any metropolitan area in Japan anyway) or due to maxing out your daily SIM plan’s data usage (much more likely), keep in mind the available WiFi options. In Japan this handy guide (focused on Tokyo) to find WiFi access hotspots is definitely worth bookmarking during your travels:
https://www.gotokyo.org/en/tourists/info/wifi.html

For the rest of the Japan, also try:
https://japanfreewifi.com/

In general, unless you’ve gone for a premium Pre-Paid SI, then a good idea is to plan your itinerary to have a few of these stops strategically mapped out on the way or at least be aware of where the nearest ones might be relative to any stations you’re disembarking from or embarking onto trains in your commute for instance; but don’t go out of your way just to find one, even finding one doesn’t guarantee you success, sometimes the WiFi networks are swamped and slow in my experience (better to avoid if possible during primetime hours). With the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even Train stations (traditionally WiFi dead zones in Japan as surprising as that is), are starting to roll out their own WiFi services that you’ll increasingly see listed on the coverage maps above no doubt.

 


References

  • Bell – How to unlock a BlackBerry (or any other for that matter) smartphone:  http://support.bell.ca/mobility/smartphones_and_mobile_internet/how_to_unlock_your_blackberry_device?step=2#displayStep
  • Bell/MTS – Since Telcos are notorious at taking down useful information, I’m including a copy of the key steps provided in the Carrier Unlock link:https://www2.mts.ca/mts/myaccount/wireless?page=hardwareunlock
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