For years Japan was the world leader in mobile phone technology. Japan’s mobile network was the first to go nationwide. Japan was also the first to have mobile internet, the first with color screens on phones and the first for a whole host of other things we now take for granted.
But while the Japanese were forging ahead and using technology unique to Japan, the rest of the world was developing standards that now define a somewhat common ground globally. Because Japan has created its own closed mobile ecosystem, termed “Galapagos syndrome” because it has made their technology perfect in-country but incompatible on a world scale, using foreign phones on the domestic Japanese networks has been always been a challenge.
With the advent of 4G LTE networks, this disparity is becoming less of a problem for foreign travellers. It may be awhile before compatibility becomes a simple issue, but in the meantime here is a Japan mobile network guide to show you how to best use your options (such as a SIM card from Sakura Mobile) to successfully use your cell phone in Japan.
The Japan Mobile Network System
The three biggest carriers in Japan are NTT Docomo, AU and SoftBank. There is no centralized Japan mobile network—rather, these carriers all operate their own networks using their own infrastructure. This means that a SIM Card from one will not work with the others, and they all use slightly different frequencies to carry data across their networks.
NTT Docomo is the largest mobile network in Japan, covering more of the country than either AU or SoftBank. As such, it is the network Sakura Mobile uses for their data services, ensuring that our customers have coverage over much of Japan.
Technology and Networks
As first-generation analog cellular networks gave way to digital, something called the GSM (or Global Standard for Mobile) was developed. If you still use the older GSM standard, sometimes known as 2G, and can only connect to 2G networks, then you cannot use your cell phone in Japan. Examples of old 2G phones include NOKIA phones, as well Moto RAZR-era flip phones. Abandoning 2G networks is a global trend that Japan has already completed. This is because the local networks opted to bypass global GSM standards in favor of their own.
Third and fourth generation (3G and 4G respectively) networks are available in Japan, so a phone that can access these networks will work here. 3G/4G capability depends on your handsets, but most current smartphones are 3G/4G capable. 4G LTE networks are much faster than the older 3G networks and are preferable wherever you can access them. Actual coverage and network speed may be affected by network bands, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Both 3G and 4G networks are divided into bands. These bands are just a collection of wireless frequencies that the data is sent over. As you’ll see below, cell phone frequencies in Japan vary according to the area where the network is being used.
Accessing 3G (Third Generation) Networks
For the 3G network, Band 1 (2100mhz) and Band 19 (800mhz) are used. The Band 1 network covers urban areas, while the Band 19 network covers rural areas. Since all 3G smart phones are compatible with the Band 1 network, you can use your smartphone if it is a 3G model. In addition, if your phone works with the Band 19 network, you can expect additional coverage across rural areas.
Accessing 4G (Fourth Generation) Networks
To access the 4G mobile network in Japan, you will need a 4G capable phone. Just like with the 3G network, most 4G phones are compatible with the 4G Band 1 network. So, in most cases, you do not have to worry about the 4G compatibility of your 4G smartphones. Similarly, if your 4G phone can access the Band 19 network, you can have the additional coverage in rural areas.
In addition to the above bands, some more 4G band frequencies are used. Band 3 (1800mhz) is used in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and Band 21 (1500mhz) is used for other cities. If your phone can use these 4G bands, you might enjoy some extra network speed.
An Important note on 3G and 4G Accessibility
Both 3G and 4G LTE Band 19 are only used in Japan. For this reason, some foreign phones may have weak signal reception in rural Japan. Fortunately, Sakura Mobile offers Mobile WiFi (Pocket WiFi) as an easy alternative to Japan travel SIM card. Pocket Wi-Fi is portable Wi-Fi spot. It’s fully compatible with Japanese cellphone network and works with any Wi-Fi enabled smartphones. Of course if you have any questions, our customer support is always available to answer questions.
Using your Cell Phone in Japan: The Checklist
So after all that, here are the things you need to check to ensure your phone will function within Japan’s mobile network.
Make sure your Phone is Unlocked
To use the mobile network in Japan, You must have an unlocked phone that can access 3G or 4G networks. Depending on where you are from, your phone might be unlocked already. If not you will need to contact your carrier to have it unlocked. Either way, be sure to verify that your phone’s status well ahead of your trip as it might take a few weeks to have the device unlocked.
Check the List of Phone Models for Compatibility
If you are unsure if your phone will work or not, we have compiled a list of popular phone models and tested them with our network. You can check your model against our list to ensure compatibility.
Confirm the Frequencies Used in your Location
Assuming you have planned where are you visiting during your stay, you can check which frequencies are used and where. This will help you make sure that your phone will work wherever you are staying.
Access to the Mobile Phone Network in Japan is Easy with Sakura Mobile
Japan has a fast and comprehensive mobile network that will help, guide and entertain you along the way, so it’s well worth confirming compatibility before you travel. If you ensure your handset is unlocked and can access 3G or 4G services on the frequencies described above you will be able to use a SIM Card from Sakura Mobile for cheap, reliable and fast internet. If your phone is listed as compatible, then you can be sure it will work.
If you are still uncertain, or your phone is unlisted or is incompatible, we also offer rental WiFi hotspots that will work with any WiFi enabled device. These hotspots take the hassle out of figuring out whether your phone is compatible or not, and can be accessed by multiple devices simultaneously. For more information, check our SIM card compatibility page.