It doesn’t take long for visitors to Japan to realise that the Japanese love their mobile phone technology. They are on sale everywhere and just about everyone is either talking or text messaging on their tiny device.

Japanese Payphone

Coverage is astonishing, but unfortunately for many travellers the Japanese mobile phone system has traditionally been incompatible with other parts of the world. Japan used a entirely different phone system (non-GSM) to the rest of the world. Fortunately the new generation 3G and 4G-LTE phones are usable in Japan, and many of the local carriers have roaming agreements with overseas phone companies. So check with your local carrier to see if your smart phone can be used in Japan, and also check out the costs involved as roaming in another country can become expensive.

Recently the rules of ownership of a mobile phone in Japan have changed, and it is generally no longer possible to buy a phone or Pre-Paid Sim Card for voice use. unless you are a resident of Japan, this rule is to stop illegal use of phones. All purchasers must have some form of Japanese official documents, e.g. passport or Japanese Alien Registration Card. It is possible for foreigners to rent phones at the international airport, but prices are usually high. Alternatively you can buy a data only sim if you have a unlocked smart phone. There are numerous companies providing a variety of services for tourists from 7 days to 30 days or more. Prices vary but expect to pay around 3000yen for 1GB, just remember this will get you data only, so no phone calls or text, and your smart phone will need to have same frequencies as the provider you are choosing. There are several counters at most Japanese airports that specialise in selling these services and dealing with foreigners so it would be advisable to confirm if your phone will work on the network before purchase.

Some of Japan’s largest corporations are phone companies, with NTT DoCoMo, Vodaphone – Japan, SoftBank and KDDI “au” being among the largest. They are also one of Japan’s biggest advertisers with ads everywhere, on TV, radio, billboards and giant neon and LCD signs.

With all the mobile phones in use, surprisingly there are still plenty of pay phones available. Whether it be in a convenience store, a shopping mall or on the street, these coin operated phones are easily identifiable with local calls costing Y10 for the first three minutes and another Y10 for each minute thereafter which is extremely cheap.

Pink pay phones only accept Y10 coins while the grey and green ones will accept Y100 coins. Some even accept phone cards, which can be purchased from news stands, convenience stores and several other shops, with prices starting at Y1000.

Many of the pay phones have animated LCD displays with friendly little characters instructing you how to use the telephone. This doesn’t quite help the non Japanese reading user but adds to the fun.