Roaming In Tokyo For Free

A couple of years back, I visited Tokyo and was struck by the fact that there was a genuine dearth of "free" Wi-Fi options. I recently returned to Japan's capital city to see if things had improved.

When I was last in Tokyo there were many wonderful things to see. Tokyo remains one of my favourite cities on the planet, because it's vibrant, quirky, generally technologically advanced and remarkably friendly towards the non-Japanese speaker. I can't think of too many other public transport systems worldwide that use a lot of English over the PA for each and every announcement when English isn't the primary language.

The one thing that was lacking, however, was much in the way of public Wi-Fi, which is a painful matter in this day and age.

So on a return journey recently, I wanted to ascertain if this was still the case, because typically speaking, using roaming data is a quick way to send yourself broke. Tokyo can be an expensive place to stay without adding data cost woes to the mix.

It turns out that while matters have improved, it's still a little on either the clunky or horribly insecure side.

On the clunky side, NTT East runs a network of free hotspots for tourist use only. You have to register before using the network, which can either be done through an Android or iOS app before you actually reach Japan, or at an issuing spot where they'll give you a registration card.

I chose the former, and I'm rather glad I did, as I never quite nailed down where at Narita Airport the local registration desk was. The app itself is quite rudimentary, and won't register you if you're coming from a Japanese IP address, so sorting yourself out upfront is important. That will give you a username and password to use at a variety of hotspot locations. One nice aspect here is that the app includes a Tokyo map that shows relevant hotspots and offers a rudimentary AR app to find them. Like most AR apps, it's a bit sketchy if you're surrounded by lots of tall buildings.

The NTT East offer is good for 14 days only, and if you don't pre-register outside Japan you'll need to provide your passport to prove your tourist bona fides.

Not quite a Starbucks on every corner -- but close.

Photo: Yoshikazu TAKADA

Starbucks also offers free Wi-Fi within Japan. It's certainly a ubiquitous chain in Tokyo, but I can't say that I used the free Starbucks connection, partly because of the accreditation process, and partly because I like actual coffee.

The process of getting accreditation involves registering an email address, then verifying it before trying to use a hotspot. Doing so without Internet access is one of those mind-bending catch-22 loops that could easily send you insane.

The process of getting onto the other large competing network, Freespot, is simpler, although this is a service offered by (largely) retail outlets, so you have to keep an eye out for signage indicating it's present.

Photo: Naoya Nakazawa

I also found during a one-week stay that there are a number of "free" Wi-Fi hotspots along major train lines and at Narita airport. Caution is advised here, though. If you're in desperate need they might be OK, but I wouldn't suggest doing your online banking from one of them.

Has free public/tourist Wi-Fi improved in Tokyo since I last visited? Absolutely, although it's not without its annoyances. That having been said, while I was prepared for a Wi-Fi adventure during my week, I ended up not using public Wi-Fi hotspots to any appreciable degree anyway.

I ended up roaming on 3G/4G data instead, and effectively for no cost.

This might sound like black magic, but it isn't.

That's a particular quirk of the prepaid Telstra plan that I use that states that if I recharge within the quota period, which I do on a calendar basis just before my credit expires, then any actual cash recharge amount accumulates. It has a calls, texts and data quota that suits me just fine when I'm in Australia, but for the most part my $30/month recharge just quietly ticks up month by month.

Very rarely do I use that accumulating credit to buy a local data pack, and the calls and texts are far more than I could possibly use in a given month. The trip to Tokyo presented the opportunity to use some of that accumulated credit, which was money I'd already spent for provision of mobile services months ago anyway, to buy an international roaming pack.

Yes, Telstra's international roaming packs are a sheer rort if you're spending real money on them. But accumulated credit based on what I'd already spent? That's a no-brainer. I happily roamed around Tokyo all week without a concern, and, to Telstra's credit, a very regular little SMS warning appeared every time I went through 20MB of quota.

Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman wishes he was back in Tokyo right now, roaming or not. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


Comments

    I was in Tokyo about 4 Years ago, and loved it. We didn't bring enough warm clothes, got lost, missed a lot of the main things to see, but it was our first overseas trip and it will always have a special place in my heart.
    I think I was on a Crazyjohns Prepaid thing, which used the Vodafail(Yes it was bad then) network. I used the roaming when we were absolutely lost, due to the cost, and slowness of the network. What we ended up mostly doing was just taking pics and stuff and uploading it when we got to our hostel/Ryo-kan. Starbucks/ Maccas came in handy too :)
    Man I want to go back now.

    I think public wifi is a different concept in Asia than what we're use to here in say, Australia. I can't say for Japan since it's been a while but in Hong Kong wifi is EVERYWHERE, but in order to use it you have to have purchased a sort of prepaid thing at say a 7-Eleven, also everywhere. South Korea has a similar deal with their three big telecoms with wifi being ubiquitous wherever you are, but requires a small purchase with one of said three.

    So yes, while it isn't free it was definitely universal, and I was more than willing to shell out what I think equated to AUD$10 for near universal wifi during my three week stay in HK for very high quality internet, which is the other part of the equation. Most free wifi spots in Aus are generally of the slow or limited data kind, whereas the quality of internet in Asia is the fibre and unlimited sort.

    EDIT: Mind you, purchasing a prepaid card use wifi is only a thing if you're a tourist (HK or South Korea) if you're a citizen who is a customer, just log in.

    Last edited 29/07/14 2:09 pm

    The page below lists a lot of places that provide Wi-Fi around Japan. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2279.html

    Tokyo Metro provides free Wi-Fi at all their stations. http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/top/pdf/freewifi.pdf

    The City of Osaka also provides free Wi-Fi. http://www.osaka-info.jp/en/wifi/

    I was in japan 3 weeks ago and none of the starbucks or Maccas had wifi. The Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi app was great when you are at trainstations.

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